France became the first nation in the modern era to grant its Jews emancipation under the law—full equality of citizenship rights and the removal of all traditional encumbrances that had been historically placed on the community—on September 28, 1791 by Emperor Napoleon I. The edict was in line with the liberating thought of the Enlightenment, and the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which guaranteed freedom of religion and free exercise of worship. The new edict when further both in its specificity and in provisions that recognized the freedom of the Jewish community, as well as individuals including lifting what ghetto restraints remained in France.
But France was not absolutely the first nation to do so. More than 500 years earlier the 1264, the Polish Prince Boleslaus the Pious issued the Statute of Kalisz—The General Charter of Jewish Liberties in Poland, an unprecedented document in medieval history that allowed Jews personal freedom, legal autonomy, and separate tribunal for criminal matters as well as safeguards against forced baptism and blood libel. The Charter is ratified again by subsequent Polish Kings including Casimir the Great in 1334, Casimir IV in 1453, and Sigismund I the Old in 1539.Polish King Casimir the Great renewed the unprecedented Medieval Statute of Kalisz giving freedom of religion and rights to Jews. It stood for more than three centuries until Jesuits gained control of the Polish kingdom and eradicated religious tolerance.
Poland was then on the cultural fringes of Europe, and most importantly, only tenuously connected to the power of the Catholic Church. General religious tolerance flourished along with Lutherans, Reform (Calvinist), and the paleo-unitarian Polish Brethren. Poland was also under-populated and needed both Jewish peasants and artisans. Meanwhile elsewhere in Europe Jews were being blamed for the Black Plague which resulted in waves of pogroms; draconian strictures on residence, occupation, and worship; and eventually the persecution of the Inquisition. Jews had flocked to Poland and soon it had the largest communities in Europe in which a rich shtetl culture emerged. However, the Jesuits eventually re-asserted Catholic supremacy in Poland, wiping out Protestant dissent and introducing rising anti-Semitism into the population. Now Poland, like much of Europe was a dangerous place for its many Jews.Under King Edward I in 1290 England became the first European nation to expel its Jewish population more than 200 years before Spain and Portugal did the same.
The Middle Ages and Renaissance were tough on Jews across Europe. They were expelled from England, Spain, Portugal, and the Low Countries. Everywhere they were confined to ghettos and prohibited from most professions—except money lending since The Church forbad usury by Christians. That made them essential to urban Bürgermeisters, nobles, and royalty but also despised for charging interest. In most countries Jews could not go abroad on the streets without a Judenhut—a kind of identifying conical hat—or yellow badges, either of which could invite street assault.
The dawning of the Enlightenment in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, gave Jews a glimmer of hope because it not only challenged the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church, but of Protestant ones as well. Increasing religious diversity among the most literate and creative members of society inevitably led to demands for religious liberty and eventually for what we would call separation of church and state or either the disestablishment of state religion or the allowance of free worship outside them. Originally Jews were excluded from this calculation. But ideas like this are hard to keep in a bottle. By the later part of the 1700’s and under the influence of the American and French Revolutions, most advanced thinkers were including Jews in their vision of religious liberty.
Among the Jews of Western Europe, a small minority had prospered and began to mix more with Gentile society. They were exposed to the scientific and philosophical currents of the wider society and hoped to adapt insular Jewish life to it. Some, like Spinoza and Salomon Maimon gained respect as philosophers. Out of this grew the so-called Jewish Enlightenment or Haskalah which advocated adopting enlightenment values, pressing for better integration into European society, and increasing education in secular studies, Hebrew language, and Jewish history outside of the scriptures. It was at odds with the closed communities of the ghetto and shtetl, with Jewish mysticism, and traditional Orthodox scholarship.
The interests of the Haskalah and Napoleon coincided. The Emperor hoped that emancipation would eventually lead to assimilation, intermarriage, voluntary conversion or at least abandonment of Judaism as a faith, and eventually virtual disappearance as an identifiable minority.
In later decrees, Napoleon extended emancipation to all the territories he conquered. Greece, upon winning its independence from the Ottomans followed suit in 1830.
By the 1840’s the numbers of educated and westernized Jews were ballooning rapidly. Many were becoming politically active in their countries and were often leading voices in the reform and revolutionary movements that swept Europe. After the revolutionary year of 1848 emancipation spread rapidly over Europe including German states, Austria-Hungary, Scandinavia, and the United Kingdom. Although de facto discrimination, especially in education and positions in public service continued to be wide-spread, legal encumbrances were fast fading.
But it was not until after the turn of the 20th Century that those cradles of the Inquisition Spain and Portugal declared emancipation. Russia, the home of millions of Jews, did not act until the Revolution in 1917.
Americans have been known to boast that the United States never had to emancipate its Jews because it never discriminated against them. While this is true of the government under the Constitution, it was not true of the states. Most of the founding colonies had some legal restrictions on Jews. The outstanding exception was Rhode Island which became home to the country’s first Synagogue at Newport. Quaker Pennsylvania had few restrictions and individual Jews like the Financier of the Revolution Robert Morris prospered there. Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statue of Religious Liberty annulled the citizenship barriers that previously existed.
But each state had to act on its own. The US Constitutional ban against the establishment of religion was not then considered binding on the individual states, several of which had established churches—the New England Standing Order and Anglicanism/Episcopalians in most of the Middle and Southern States—and many had restrictions on Jews voting, holding office, or even testifying in court.
One by one the states did abolish these restrictions. The last to do so was New Hampshire in 1877.In the late 19th and and 20th Centuries the backlash against Jews was in full swing fueled by the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elder of Zion and scapegoating Jews for economic woes.
The rise of European Jewry was accompanied by a rise in a new kind of anti-Semitism. The famous forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion first surfaced in Russia in 1903 and theories of various Jewish conspiracies to rule the world spread.
The assimilated Jews of Western Europe largely felt secure in their emancipation by the early 20th Century. They were wrong. Adolph Hitler and the Nazis voided a century and a half of progress and unleashed unimaginable horrors.
But that is another story.