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  • Is American Jewry Exceptional? Comparing Jewish Emancipation in Europe and America*
  • David Sorkin (bio)

Is American Jewry singular and exceptional? Does its experience fundamentally diverge from the experience of Jews in other countries? These questions have become a staple of the scholarly discourse about American Jewry and American Jewry’s own self-understanding. They go to the heart of what it means to be an American Jew. And they are, of course, the Jewish version of the larger issue of American exceptionalism, which goes to the heart of what it means to be an American and of America’s place in the world.1

The key issue on which the affirmation of American Jewish exceptionalism usually turns is emancipation. American Jews are said to have had a substantially different history than their modern European counterparts, not to mention the Jews of the Maghreb and the Levant, since they are thought to have gained equality without either emancipation or an emancipation process. There are two versions of this argument. The first version might be called the “clean break.” Its proponents posit that from the Republic’s inception Jews were vouchsafed full equality. From the start—or at least from the writing of the federal Constitution in 1789—America enacted and realized the principle of equality before the law (at least for all white males). Jews did not need to prove themselves worthy or deserving to win it. The clean break version is predicated upon the assumption that American history is fully different from Europe’s: it had no medieval past of legally defined corporations [End Page 175] and estates that had to be abrogated and dismantled in order to create equality. The constitution represented a fresh start. The proponents of the clean break look primarily, if not exclusively, at federal law as it emerged from the U.S. Constitution.2

The second version might be called the “rough edge.” Its proponents recognize that in addition to federal law there were state laws, and that many states infringed upon or limited the Jews’ equality in substantial ways well into the nineteenth century.3 Nevertheless, they vehemently reject the notion that these state laws resulted in an emancipation process. They argue that these laws were not as severe as those in European [End Page 176] countries and that the efforts to remove them, by Jews and by others, were not commensurate with any of the European processes of emancipation. Or they combine the “clean break” and the “rough edge” arguments.4 The rough edge is predicated upon the assumption that religious discrimination in America was a vestige of its European past, a transitory phenomenon belonging to the colonial era that America’s burgeoning freedom and equality progressively effaced.5

I would like to propose an alternative to American Jewish exceptionalism, whether in its “clean break” or “rough edge” versions, by taking a fresh look at emancipation in the United States and Europe. In so doing we should look neither to Europe in general, nor even to the major continental countries. Some historians of American Jewry have invoked revolutionary France and the Parisian Sanhedrin as a standard by which to judge events in the United States.6 Others have emphasized the nature of emancipation in the countries from which Jews emigrated to the United States, thus focusing for the nineteenth century on the [End Page 177] German states, Posen, Alsace, and, to a lesser extent, the Habsburg empire.7 Clearly, there was no one pattern of emancipation in Europe, no single standard by which to assess it. For that very reason we need to be precise in selecting a set of circumstances most comparable to those in the United States.8

Port Jews

A relevant case that has not been considered in comparison to early American Jewry is that of the so-called “port Jews” of Western Europe. Port Jews were those who, as a result of the terms of their settlement in new communities, already enjoyed such extensive privileges—namely, freedom of residence, occupation, property ownership, and worship (sometimes private or domestic)—that they possessed the virtual equivalent of civic rights. The extensive privileges could take the form either of legally granted privileges...


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pp. 175-200
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