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Jewish Social Studies 10.1 (2003) 69-77

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Auto-Emancipation and Antisemitism (Homage to Bernard-Lazare)

Mitchell Cohen

Is there a simple logic to emancipation? Yes: it takes you from one status to another, at least in principle. But a great deal depends on the world you leave and the world you enter—and the overlaps between them. Nowadays it is difficult to imagine an emancipated society that is not democratic. Yet historically speaking, emancipation did not necessarily mean democracy. Jews were sometimes emancipated by enlightened, absolutist monarchs. You can be granted civil rights and be judged by the same laws as everyone else without having the right to vote (perhaps because nobody has it). You can also have both civil rights and the franchise, yet find it necessary to muffle your public voice because of the chills of political or social or cultural or religious prejudice.

If much depends on the worlds you leave and enter, a great deal depends also on who "you" are, before and after. Emancipation implies that you were part of a group with civil disabilities; the disabilities are then lifted. Once the group is emancipated, once its past legal status is gone, do its members enter the new world as individuals, or as a new version of the group, or as a combination of both?

Finally, much depends on what I will call "readjustment." Prejudice cannot be remedied solely by supplying rights and juridical guarantees to its victims, however important these rights and guarantees. Emancipation, successful emancipation, also means a larger social, cultural, and political readjustment—not just by the emancipated person but also by those around him or her. Simone de Beauvoir made this point in a radical way when she wrote in The Second Sex that "Just as in America [End Page 69] there is no Negro problem, but rather a white problem; just as 'anti- semitism is not a [J]ewish problem: it is our problem'; so the woman problem has always been a man's problem." 1 Emancipation implies a novel propinquity among people who have previously been separate (or, a redefinition of intimacy in the case of men and women). In a democracy, it means that people who have previously been outsiders and powerless will have a share in determining society's fate.

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In sum: emancipation is more multifaceted than its logic. Insert it into history—it cannot be elsewhere—and its reality becomes messy, and not simply a matter of...logic. Consider what may be called the two logics of Jewish emancipation. The first emerged roughly between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, parallel to the development of modern European states. The idea—the hope—was simply that Jews could leave behind old restrictions and be admitted into the Enlightening societies around them. It did imply a readjustment by Jews, an uneasy trade-off captured later in the phrase "Be a Jew at home, a man outside." With this privatization of pluralism, reason, a universal human quality, would dissolve all prejudices. The idea of a universalizing solvent was central also to liberalism, republicanism, and later Marxism, taking form, respectively, as individualism, citizenship, and the proletariat.

The second logic emerged out of despair about the first's prospects, and it can be called the logic of "auto-emancipation," after the title of the proto-Zionist pamphlet published in 1882 by Leo Pinsker, a Jewish physician in Odessa. In the previous year, pogroms had violently ravaged Jewish life in some 200 towns in the tsarist empire. They were applauded by some of the regime's radical populist foes and by some prominent government figures. Pinsker had once been an advocate of "enlightenment," of combining cultural "modernization" of Jews with liberalization of the tsar's empire; this was a model of emancipation similar to that in Western Europe.

But now he wrote in anguish that no matter what the Jew did, he was construed as a problem, always blameworthy: "for the living the Jew is a dead-man, for the natives an alien and a vagrant, for property holders a beggar, for all...


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