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Post-Emancipation Jewry and the Betrayal of Bildung

Amy Loewenhaar-Blauweiss

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The Enlightenment ushered in a problem with regard to the placement of the Jews within civil society. Not only was Judaism itself measured unfavorably against the framework of reason, but the very success of the Enlightenment’s proclaimed humanistic values were put to the test by its handling of the Jewish Question—a test which was ultimately a failure. The Jewish community, already splintering under the stresses of modernity, attempted to solve a communal religious problem via individual acculturation and assimilation, further conflating the civil with the religious and the nationalistic with the philosophical. By the time the Enlightenment’s liberal idea of tolerance was largely jettisoned from German political thought in the closing decades of the 19th century, the Jews were no longer able to refer to their own community in the way that they had done prior to their emancipation. Uniquely isolated and fractured among the many outsider cultures and groups that suffered under the rise of reactionary politics, the Jews fell victim to the very administrative apparatus of modernity that had been used by the modernizing states to put Enlightenment values into action. Unable to form a basis of common cause with either the marginalized ethnicities that had terrestrial nationhood and heredity, or with the established states that required the relinquishment of the Jewish religion as a prerequisite for inclusion within the polity, the Jews could be absorbed as neither individuals nor as a group in either the secular or the religious sense. The supranational Jews, perceived by the surrounding world as dangerous to both nationalistic and broadly humanistic causes, nonetheless identified so completely with the individual host nations in which they resided by the decade, and with the myriad “isms” with which they had tried to solve their lack of inclusion within the modern nation-state, that they were too atomized to perceive the threat of total annihilation as the Holocaust drew near.

Keywords: Bildung – emancipation – Enlightenment – Gemeinschaft – Gesellschaft – modernity