Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 303-304
[Access article in PDF]
The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste:
Absolutist Politics and Enlightenment Culture
The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste: Absolutist Politics and Enlightenment Culture. By Lois C. Dubin (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1999) 335pp. $49.50
Any historian interested in patterns shared by the majority of societies that did not experience revolution in the 1790s will find much value in this suggestive study of negotiated transitions. Trieste's rapidly developing trading economy created an exceptional venue of governance in which an internally diverse Jewish community, led by international traders, co-existed with other mercantile communities. The revenue from this merchantry was so important to the Habsburg monarchy that imperial councils were prepared to offer unusual inducements to them through the mediation of such notable state servants as Karl von Zinzendorf.
Dubin's story is complex; she traces shifts in the cultures of several milieux, as well as their interaction through half a century. A close inspection of four densely documented themes forms the microhistorical [End Page 303] core of the book: the developing legal status (and its rationale) of the Jewish community, both before and after Joseph II's Toleration Patents; officially sanctioned schools for Jewish youth; the participation of rabbis in Europe-wide debates accompanying the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment; and controversial marriage cases that challenged the bases of the community's identity. The trend, she proposes, was toward a Jewish identity and civic status best described by the concept of "civic inclusion," a "transitional, anomalous status" involving a state of parity with other individuals and communities in Trieste, based on advanced economic, civil, and political rights (223).
Much more than individual community privileges but short of equality, "civic inclusion" bridges a gap in two related historiographies. According to Dubin, the Jewish history of a transition from the mercantile period--when Jewish admission to certain occupations was permitted (for a price) on the grounds of economic function--to the period of assimilation into a civil polity based on humanitarian equal rights requires an intermediate moment. In that juncture, Jewish identity was founded on Jewish culture, the status of merchants in the free port, and their role as Habsburg subjects. Equally significant, Dubin proposes that "civil inclusion" was a step between absolutist governance through awards of privilege and modern and direct rule of citizens on the basis of general human rights.
Dubin's judicious sensitivity to each of many colliding cultures in the free port, and to divisions and adaptations within those cultures, enables her vision of Trieste as a kind of laboratory of late enlightened absolutism. Her solution to larger issues invites further corroborative studies. "Civil inclusion" is a concept well worth serious evaluation.