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  • Visionen der gerechten Gesellschaft: Der Diskurs der deutsch-jüdischen Publizistik im 19. Jahrhundert
  • David Sorkin
Visionen der gerechten Gesellschaft: Der Diskurs der deutsch-jüdischen Publizistik im 19. Jahrhundert, by Michael Brocke, Margarete Jäger, Siegfried Jäger, Jobst Paul, and Iris Tonks. Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2009. 200 pp. €24.90.

Sometimes good intentions go awry. The authors of this book set out to exhume and rehabilitate German Jewish thought about the "just society" in the period 1848-1871. They accepted Gershom Scholem's assertion that there was no "German Jewish dialogue," namely, that Germans did not listen to, or take account of, German Jews' voices or versions of social truth. The authors argue that re-engaging with those neglected voices and truths will have a salutary effect in the present by reinvigorating the Enlightenment heritage and aiding Germans in addressing issues of toleration and freedom of conscience.

The good intentions go awry in the choice of method. The authors apply a "discourse analysis" inspired by Foucault to German Jewish "Publizistik" (journalism, sermons, polemics, scholarship). What would appear to be a sophisticated method turns out to be a blunt instrument. The authors chose over 200 publications that dealt with the questions of "state, nation and society." They identified recurring themes and then analyzed how the authors handled them. The results are remarkably flat. Discourse analysis is entirely [End Page 169] internal, ahistorical, and devoid of context. There may well have been a "German Jewish" cultural-political discourse, yet to make that case one cannot simply posit its existence and then proceed to internal analysis. One has to define its boundaries precisely and then explore its differences and similarities with the larger culture. We are told what these "German Jews" thought: we are not told whether their thoughts were new or original [largely not]; whether they recapitulated ideas of an earlier period [most of the ideas seem characteristic of the ideology of emancipation in circulation from early in the century]; or whether they merely reiterate the larger society's, and especially liberalism's, staple positions [which they do with few exceptions].

Second, the authors treat "German Jews" virtually as a homogeneous group; they by and large do not distinguish between liberals and conservatives, reformers and orthodox, rabbis and politicians. The exceptions prove the rule: in regard to the nature of state the authors identify a range of positions (pp. 63-66) and in the case of ethics based on the dictum of "love of one's neighbor," they identify Holdheim's position (pp. 76-77) as "extreme." Finally, the two texts the authors chose as "typical" and subject to sustained analysis were written by rabbis! The authors assume, rather than prove, that rabbis or their publications were "typical" in the 1850s and 1860s. Here again the analysis is entirely internal, dealing with structures, symbols, rhetoric, and patterns of thought without regard to context. The text of Lazarus Adler, for example, is in part a response to the Mortara affair. The authors do not point out the complex political situation behind the case: that the kidnapping occurred, and could only have occurred, in the Papal states where Jews were not emancipated and the Church exercised civil jurisdiction, that emancipated Jews elsewhere in Italy (Piedmont) tried to intercede, and that Jews in most German states were themselves not fully emancipated at the time (1858).

The good intentions also go awry in the book's very premise. The authors accept Scholem's assertion that there was no dialogue between Germans and Jews. They corroborate it with three quotations (p. 9). Yet Scholem's assertion was never more than that; his argument rested on his authority as an intellectual luminary rather than solid empirical research. Numerous historians have taken issue with him over the past five decades. Instead of accepting Scholem's premise, the authors should have tested it. Using the same body of works they could have tried to ascertain the degree to which a dialogue did or did not take place by scouring German publications, memoirs, and correspondence for evidence. Determining the degree and ways in which a "German Jewish dialogue" [End Page 170] did or did not exist...


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