Benefits of Diaspora

Eric Hobsbawm

Most work in the field of Jewish history deals with the almost invariably vast impact of the outside world on the Jews, who are almost invariably a small minority of the population. My concern is with the impact of the Jews on the rest of humanity. And, in particular, with the explosive transformation of this impact in the 19th and 20th centuries: that is to say, since the emancipation and self-emancipation of the Jews began in the late 18th century.

Between their expulsion from Palestine in the first century AD and the 19th century, the Jews lived within the wider society of gentiles, whose languages they adopted as their own and whose cuisine they adapted to their ritual requirements; but only rarely and intermittently were they able and, what is equally to the point, willing, to participate in the cultural and intellectual life of these wider societies. Consequently their original contribution to this life was marginal, even in fields in which, since emancipation, their contribution has been enormous. Only as intermediaries between intellectual cultures, notably between the Islamic and Western Christian worlds in the (European) Middle Ages, did they have a significant part to play.

Consider a field of outstanding Jewish achievement: mathematics. So far as I am aware no significant developments in modern mathematics are specifically associated with Jewish names until the 19th century. Nor do we find that Jewish mathematicians made major advances which were only discovered by the wider mathematical world much later, as was the case of the Indian mathematicians whose work between the 14th and the 16th centuries, written in the Malayalam language, remained unknown until the second half of the 20th. Or take chess, the excessive practice of which was actively discouraged by religious authority in general and Maimonides in particular as a distraction from the study of the Law. No wonder the first Jewish chess player to gain a wider reputation was the Frenchman Aron Alexandre (1766-1850), whose life coincided with the emancipation.

This segregation or ghettoisation, both imposed and self-imposed, was at its most stringent between the 14th and the 18th centuries, and reinforced after 1492 by the expulsion of non-converting Jews from the Spanish dominions, including those in Italy. This reduced the occasions for social and intellectual contact with non-Jews, other than those that arose out of the professional activities that linked Jews to the gentile world. Indeed, it is difficult to think of Jews during that period who were in a position to have informal intellectual contact with educated gentiles outside the only major urban Jewish population remaining in the West, the largely Sephardi community of Amsterdam. Most Jews, after all, were either confined to ghettos or prohibited from settling in large cities until well into the 19th century.

As Jacob Katz observed in Out of the Ghetto (1973), in those days ‘the outside world did not overly occupy the Jewish mind.’ The elaborate codification of the practices of Orthodoxy that constituted the Jewish religion in the compendia of the time, notably the Shulchan Aruch, reinforced segregation; and the traditional form of Jewish intellectual activity, the homiletic exposition of Bible and Talmud and its application to the contingencies of Jewish life, left little scope for anything else. Rabbinical authority banned philosophy, science and other branches of knowledge of non-Jewish origin – even, in darkest Volhynia, foreign languages. The gap between intellectual worlds is best indicated by the fact that the rare advocates of emancipation among Eastern Jewry felt they needed to translate into Hebrew work evidently available to any educated person in the gentile print culture – Euclid, for example, or works on trigonometry, as well as on geography and ethnography.

The contrast between the situation before and after the era of emancipation is startling. After many centuries during which the intellectual and cultural history of the world, let alone its political history, could be written with little reference to the contribution of any Jews acceptable as such to the Orthodox, other than perhaps Maimonides, we almost immediately enter the modern era when Jewish names are disproportionately represented. It is as though the lid had been removed from a pressure cooker. Yet the prominence of certain names – Heine, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Ricardo, Marx, Disraeli – and the flourishing milieu of wealthy educated Jews in a few favoured cities, notably Berlin, should not mislead us. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars the great bulk of Ashkenazi Jews remained unintegrated in gentile society, in Germany as much as in Holland or the Habsburg Empire, except – a very recent development – administratively, as subjects with civil surnames. Even top families had some way to go: Marx’s mother never felt entirely at home in High German, and the first two generations of Rothschilds corresponded with one another in Judendeutsch in the Hebrew script. The Jews of the Central European hinterlands of the Habsburg Empire remained unaffected by emancipation until the 1840s at the earliest, when immigration into cities became possible, and very much later, in the case of those of Galicia and the Russian shtetls. Even in America, as Stephen Thernstrom reports in the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, ‘until well into the 20th century the majority of the immigrants could recall, or had come directly from, a traditional Jewish society.’ The bulk of the Sephardim too remained in segregated enclaves. In fact, I doubt whether we can find any places before the French Revolution, except for small refugee communities in France and the Netherlands and the ancient communities in Northern Italy and the South of France, where the totality of Jews, and not merely the elite, were integrated into the surrounding society, where, for example, they habitually spoke the local gentile vernacular among themselves.

The process of Jewish emancipation therefore resembles not so much a suddenly gushing fountain as a tiny stream rapidly turning into a massive river. I have grouped together the mathematicians, physicists and chemists listed in the respective articles of the Encyclopaedia Judaica by birth dates. Only one in all these three groups was born before 1800, 31 were born in the first half of the 19th century, and 162 in the second half. (The analogous curve for medicine, the intellectual field in which pre-emancipation Jews were already established in the wider world, is less dramatic.) I need hardly add that at this stage we are concerned overwhelmingly with the Ashkenazi wing of Jewry, which formed a large and growing majority of the world’s Jewish population, and in particular with its increasing urbanisation. The number of Jews in Vienna jumped from fewer than four thousand in 1848 to 175,000 on the eve of the First World War.

It’s important not to underestimate the impact of small elites of the wealthy and educated – of the 405 Jewish families in early 19th-century Berlin, say. Pre-democratic liberal societies were constructed for the benefit of such groups. Thus the Italian Jews, though they represented 0.1 per cent of the population, might, under the restrictions of Italian electoral law, amount to 10 per cent of the electorate; the election of Cavour in the Kingdom of Savoy in 1851 was ensured by the votes of the Turin Jewish community. This may help to explain the rapid emergence of Jews on the Western and Central European public scene. So far as I am aware, they hardly appear in the French Revolution or among its European sympathisers, except, as one might expect, in the bourgeois milieu of the Netherlands. But by the time of the 1830 Revolutions, the Jewish presence in French politics, especially in the Midi, was already impossible to overlook. The same was true for Germany and Northern Italy: Mazzini’s secretary as well as several of his activists and financiers were Jews. By 1848, the prominence of Jews was quite startling. Crémieux, for example, immediately became a minister in the new French revolutionary government, while Daniel Manin became the leader of revolutionary Venice. Three Jews sat prominently in the Prussian Constituent Assembly, four in the Frankfurt Parliament (it was a Jew who, after its dissolution, saved its Great Seal, which was returned to the Federal Republic a few years ago by his British descendant). In Vienna, it was Jewish university students who launched the call for the March revolution, and Jews provided eight of the 29 signatures on the Manifesto of Viennese Writers. Metternich’s list of subversives in Austrian Poland contained no obvious Jewish names, but only a few years later Jews in Poland were expressing their enthusiasm for Polish freedom and a rabbi, elected to the Imperial Reichstag, sat with the Polish faction. In pre-democratic Europe, politics, even revolutionary politics, belonged to a small squadron of the educated.

There was no doubt in the minds of emancipators that two changes were essential: a degree of secularisation and education in, as well as the habitual use of, the national language, preferably, but not necessarily, an accepted language of written culture (think of the enthusiastically magyarised Jews of Hungary). By ‘secularisation’ I don’t mean that the Jewish faith had to be abandoned, though among the emancipated there was a rush to conversion, sincere or pragmatic, but that religion was no longer the unremitting, omnipresent and all-embracing framework of life. Instead, however important, it filled only part of life. This kind of secularisation ideally allowed the intermarriage or partnership of educated Jewish women with gentiles, which was to play a major role both culturally and later in (left-wing) politics. The relationship of women’s emancipation to Jewish emancipation is a very significant subject.

Primary education, necessarily in the vernacular, did not become universal until the last third of the 19th century, although near universal literacy could be assumed in large parts of Germany by mid-century. After 1811 it would have been technically difficult for a Jewish boy in Germany to avoid the public education system, and it was no longer virtually compulsory to learn the Hebrew letters in a religious establishment as it still was in the East. West of the borders of Russian and Austrian Poland, the cheder was no longer a competitor to the secular school. Secondary education, however, remained highly restricted throughout, ranging from a mid-century minimum of less than 0.1 per cent in Italy to a maximum in Prussia of less than 2 per cent of the relevant age-group; university education was even more restricted. As it happens, this maximised the chances of the children of disproportionately prosperous small communities such as the Jews, especially given the high status that learning enjoyed among them. That is why the Jewish share in Prussian higher education was at its maximum in the 1870s. It declined thereafter, as higher education began its general expansion.

To speak, read and write the same language as educated non-Jews was the precondition of joining modern civilisation, and the most immediate means of desegregation. However, the passion of emancipated Jews for the national language and culture of the gentile countries in which they lived was all the more intense, because in so many cases they were not joining, as it were, long-established clubs but clubs of which they could see themselves almost as founder members. They were emancipated at the time when a classic literature was coming into being for German, Hungarian and Polish, alongside the various national schools of music. What could be closer to the cutting edge of German literature than the milieu of Rahel Varnhagen in early 19th-century Berlin? As Theodor Fontane said of one impassioned Jewish emancipator, ‘only in the region he inhabits do we find a genuine interest in German literature.’ In much the same way, two or three generations later, emancipated Russian Jewish intellectuals fell, in Jabotinsky’s words, ‘madly, shamefully in love with Russian culture’. Only in the multilingual Levant did the absence of national linguistic cultures make language change less crucial. There, thanks to the Alliance Israélite Universelle of 1860, modernising Jews received their education in French, while continuing to speak, but no longer to write, in Judeo-Spanish, Arabic or Turkish.

Of all the emancipatory languages, German was by far the most crucial, for two reasons. Throughout half of Europe – from Berlin deep into Great Russia, from Scandinavia to the Adriatic, and into the far Balkans – the road from backwardness to progress, from provincialism to the wider world, was paved with German letters. We tend to forget that this was once so. German was the gateway to modernity. Karl-Emil Franzos’s story ‘Schiller in Barnow’, written on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of Schiller, the classical voice of moral and political freedom for common readers of German in the 19th century, illustrates this wonderfully well. In the story a small, badly printed volume of Schiller’s poems becomes the medium through which a Dominican monk, a young Ruthenian village schoolmaster and a poor Jewish boy from a shtetl in what the author bitterly calls ‘Demi-Asia’ (‘Halb-Asien’) find the liberation that the 19th-century version of education and modern culture had to offer. The story culminates in a reading of the ‘Ode to Joy’. In the darkest East, Schiller was even translated into Hebrew. The emancipatory role of German explains why the city fathers of the most Jewish centre in Galicia, the town of Brody (76 per cent of its population was Jewish), insisted on German as the language of instruction in their schools. In 1880 they even fought – and won – their case in the imperial court in Vienna on the grounds, patently implausible, that this was a language of common use in Galicia.

It was not. Almost all eastern Jews spoke Yiddish, a German dialect, relic of a past bond with the wider society, now – like Sephardic Spanish after 1492 – a badge of linguistic separation. A priori one might have expected Yiddish to coexist as an oral medium with the written national language, as other German dialects did and as Schwyzerdütsch still does but, unlike these, it was a barrier to joining the modern world that had to be removed linguistically and ideologically, as the language of the most obscurantist communities. Speaking Polish or German, and wearing a ‘German jacket’, were ways used by the pioneers of emancipation in Warsaw to distinguish themselves. In any case, the children of Yiddish-speaking immigrants in German schools found themselves handicapped by their grammatical usages, correct enough in Yiddish but not in written German. Wealthier Jews, parvenus in an established society, were even more likely to abandon visible and audible marks of their origins. Characteristically, in Arthur Schnitzler’s novel Der Weg ins Freie, that wonderfully perceptive account of the nuances of Jewish assimilation in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, Ehrenberg, the rich businessman, renounces the old German liberal hope of Viennese Jews in his wife’s salon with a deliberate relapse, in the presence of gentile ‘society’, into semi-Yiddish: ‘vor die Jours im Haus Ehrenberg is mir mieß.’

The division between non-assimilated Yiddish-speaking Ostjuden and assimilated Westjuden thus became and remained fundamental until both perished in the same Holocaust. Though no doubt familiar in educated conversation, it seems first to have been formally made in the Bukowina in the 1870s, where a proud and extraordinarily distinguished educated middle class encountered the first attempts (by the doubters of Germanisation) to give Jews a national status through their own national language – i.e. Yiddish. For emancipated Jews in Mitteleuropa, ‘Ostjuden’ defined what they were not, and did not want to be: people so visibly different as almost to constitute a different species. After listening to the adults’ conversation as a young boy in Vienna I remember asking an older relative, ‘What sort of names do these Ostjuden have?’ – to her obvious embarrassment, since she knew that our family, the Grüns and Koritschoners, had come straight to Vienna from Austrian Poland, as such distinguished figures in German Jewry as Rudolf Mosse, Heinrich Graetz, Emmanuel Lasker and Arthur Ruppin had come directly from Prussian Poland.

And yet it was the mass movement of the Ostjuden from the late 19th century which played the greatest part in transforming the impact of the Jews in the modern world. While there is obvious continuity, the Jewish influence or effect on the gentile world in the 20th century is of a different order from its effect in the 19th. The liberal-bourgeois century turned into what Yuri Slezkine in his book of that title calls ‘the Jewish Century’.[1] The American Jewish community became the largest by far in the Western diaspora. Unlike any other diaspora in the developed countries, it was overwhelmingly composed of poor Ostjuden, and far too large to fit into what there was of an existing acculturated German-Jewish framework in the US. It also remained culturally rather marginalised, except perhaps in jurisprudence, until after the Second World War.[2] The modernising effect on the Jewish population in Poland and Russia of a massive awakening of political consciousness, reinforced by the Russian Revolution, transformed the nature of Jewish emancipation, even in its Zionist version. So, too, did both the enormous expansion of jobs in higher education, notably in the second half of the last century, the rise of Fascism, the foundation of Israel and the dramatic decline of Western anti-semitic discrimination since 1945. The sheer scale of the Jewish cultural presence would have been inconceivable before the First or even the Second World War. So, obviously, would the size of the identity-conscious, book-buying Jewish public, which clearly affected the shape of the literary mass market, first in the Weimar Republic, later elsewhere. A distinction between the two periods must therefore be made.

From the start, the contribution of emancipated Jews to their host societies had been disproportionately large; but, by the nature of emancipation, it was culturally unspecific: they wanted to be simply un-hyphenated French, Italian, German and English. Conversely, and even allowing for widespread anti-semitic feeling, in their liberal phase these societies also welcomed a prosperous and educated minority which reinforced their political, cultural and national values. Consider pre-Second World War show business, in which Jews really were dominant: operetta and musicals in both Europe and the US, theatre and later the movies, or for that matter popular song on both sides of the Atlantic. In the 19th century Offenbach was French, Strauss was Austrian. Even in the 20th century Irving Berlin was American, and in Jewish-controlled Hollywood of the great period you will search in vain for anything other than what Zukor and Loew and Mayer considered 100 per cent white American values, or even for stars whose names hinted at immigrant origin. In the public life of united Italy the 0.1 per cent of Jews played a far larger role than in any other state: 17 of them sat in the Senate; they provided prime ministers and ministers, even generals. Yet they were so hard to distinguish from other Italians that it wasn’t until after the war that we find historians drawing attention to their extraordinary over-representation.

It was the same in the high arts. Jewish composers produced German and French music, while the takeover of concert halls and orchestra pits by Jewish musicians and virtuoso performers was the first sign of emancipation in the benighted East. But the great 20th-century Jewish violinists and pianists reinforced the repertoire of Western classical music, unlike the modest Gypsy fiddlers, the black jazz and Latin American musicians who extended its reach. A handful of London Irish writers (Wilde, Shaw, Yeats) left a larger recognisably ‘Irish’ mark on English literature than Jewish writers left on any 19th-century European literature. In the Modernist period, on the other hand, the Jewish contribution became much more identifiable as well as influential both in literature and the visual arts, perhaps because Modernist innovation in these fields made them more attractive to a group uncertain of its situation in the world, and perhaps, too, because the crisis of 19th-century society moved gentile perceptions closer to the unfixed situation of Jewry. It was the 20th century that imbued Western culture with ideas derived from the very consciously Jewish father of psychoanalysis. A Jew becomes central in Ulysses, Thomas Mann becomes preoccupied with these themes; and Kafka makes his enormous posthumous impact on the century. Conversely, moved by the general American – perhaps global – meanings of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, we barely notice, as David Mamet has reminded us, how recognisably Jewish is the experience on which it is based.

In the visual arts, one or two distinguished figures who happened to be Jews (Liebermann, Pissarro) gave way to a cosmopolitan 20th-century diaspora in which Jews were more numerous – something like 20 per cent of the artists in the catalogue of the great Berlin/Moscow 1900-50 exhibition appear to be Jewish – as well as more prominent (Modigliani, Pascin, Marcoussis, Chagall, Soutine, Epstein, Lipchitz, Lissitzky, Zadkine) and sometimes, as in Chagall’s case, more recognisably Jewish. More recently, Yiddish locutions have been introduced into journalists’ English thanks to the Americanised culture of the mass media. Today, most anglophone gentiles understand the word chutzpah: forty years ago hardly anyone who wasn’t Jewish used or even understood it.

As for the natural sciences, the contribution of Jews increased dramatically after 1914, as the record of the relevant Nobel Prizes demonstrates. However, they offer very little scope for national and cultural coloration, and only the ideologies of the radical right could link the two as ‘Jewish science’. For obvious reasons the social and human sciences have been a very different matter, and issues to do with the nature, structure and possible transformations of society in an era of radical historical change both in practice and in theory have attracted emancipated Jews disproportionately almost from the beginning, starting with the Saint Simonians and Marx. This fits in with that understandable Jewish proclivity to support movements for global revolutionary transformation, which is so striking in the epoch of the Marx-inspired socialist and Communist movements. Indeed, one might say that Western Jews of the earlier 19th century were emancipated thanks to an ideology not associated with them, while the Eastern Ashkenazim largely emancipated themselves through a universalist revolutionary ideology with which they were closely associated. This is even true of the original Zionism, deeply penetrated by Marxist thinking, that actually built the state of Israel.

Correspondingly, in the 20th century new fields opened up or evolved, such as, in certain regions of Europe, sociology, and especially psychoanalysis, which again could seem as disproportionately populated by Jews as, say, the international club of violin virtuosos. But what characterised these sciences, like all the others to which Jews contributed so signally, was not genetic association, but lack of fixity, leading to innovation. Daniel Snowman has pointed out in The Hitler Emigrés (2002) that in Britain ‘the greatest impact of the exiles’ from Central Europe ‘was probably in the newer, more cross-disciplinary fields (art history, psychology, sociology, criminology, nuclear physics, biochemistry), and the most rapidly changing professions (film, photography, architecture, broadcasting) rather than in those long established’. Einstein has become the best-known face of 20th-century science not because he was a Jew, but because he became the icon of a science in revolution in a century of constant intellectual upheaval.

Why, one might ask, has the Jewish contribution to the wider world of Western culture and knowledge been so much more marked in some regions than in others? Take the Nobel Prizes in the serious sciences. Of the 74 British prizes, 11 were won by Jews, but, with one possible exception, none of them was born in Britain. Of the 11 Russian prizes won since 1917, six or seven went to Jews, presumably all natives of the region. Until 2004, no Nobel Prizes in science had been won by Israeli researchers in any country, although Israel has one of the highest outputs per capita of scientific papers: 2004, however, produced two, one native-born and one born in Hungary. On the other hand, two or perhaps three have been won since Israel became independent by members of the modest Lithuanian-Jewish population of South Africa (c.150,000), though all outside that continent. How are we to explain such striking differences?

Here we can only speculate. In the sciences clearly the enormous increase in the research professions is crucial. The total number of university teachers in Prussia in 1913 was less than two thousand; the number of public secondary teachers in Germany was little more than 4200. It’s very unlikely that the exiguous number of academic posts in the field has no bearing on the surprising absence of Jews from the list of eminent conventional academic economic theorists before the Second World War (with the notable exception of Ricardo). Conversely, the fact that it was in chemistry that Jews chiefly won Nobel Prizes before 1918 is surely connected with the fact that this was the field in which academically trained specialists were first employed in substantial numbers – the three big German chemical companies alone employed about a thousand. The only one of my seven paternal uncles who had a professional career before 1914 was a chemist.

These may be superficial criteria, but they are not negligible. Patently, without both the opening of US academia to the Jews after 1948 and its vast expansion, the enormous wave of home-grown US Nobels after 1970 would have been impossible.[3] A more important factor, I believe, is segregation, whether of the pre-emancipation kind or by territorial/genetic nationalism. This may explain the relatively disappointing contribution of Israel, considering the relative size of its Jewish population. It would seem that living among gentiles and addressing a gentile audience is as much a stimulus for physicists as it is for film-makers. In this respect it is still much better to come from Brooklyn than from Tel Aviv.

On the other hand, given equal rights, at least in theory, a certain degree of unease in relations between Jews and gentiles has proved historically useful. This was clearly the case in Germany and the Habsburg Empire, as well as in the US until well after World War Two, in the first half of the 20th century in Russia/the USSR,[4] and in both South Africa and Argentina. The substantial support given by Jews to other groups suffering official discrimination, as in South Africa and the US, is surely a symptom of this unease, though it isn’t found in all Jewish communities. Even in the countries of the fullest toleration – France in the Third Republic, western Austria under Franz Joseph, the Hungary of mass Magyar assimilation – the times of maximum stimulus for Jewish talent may have been those when the Jews became conscious of the limits of assimilation: the Fin-de-Siècle moment of Proust, who came to maturity in the Dreyfus decade, the era of Schoenberg, Mahler, Freud, Schnitzler and Karl Kraus. Is it possible for diaspora Jews to be so integrated as to lose that stimulus? It has been argued that this was the situation of the established Anglo-Jews of the 19th century; and certainly British Jews were less than prominent in the leadership of the socialist and social-revolutionary movements, or even among the groups’ intellectuals – one has only to compare them with their counterparts east of the Rhine and north of the Alps. I am unqualified to come to a conclusion one way or the other. Whatever may have been the case up to the time of Hitler and the Holocaust, it is no longer so.

The paradox of the era since 1945 is that the greatest tragedy in Jewish history has had two utterly different consequences. On the one hand, it has concentrated a substantial minority of the global Jewish population in one nation-state: Israel, which was itself once upon a time a product of Jewish emancipation and of the passion to enter the same world as the rest of humanity. It has shrunk the diaspora, dramatically so in the Islamic regions. On the other hand, in most parts of the world it has been followed by an era of almost unlimited public acceptance of Jews, by the virtual disappearance of the anti-semitism and discrimination of my youth, and by unparalleled and unprecedented Jewish achievement in the fields of culture, intellect and public affairs. There is no historic precedent for the triumph of the Aufklärung in the post-Holocaust diaspora. Nevertheless, there are those who wish to withdraw from it into the old segregation of religious ultra-Orthodoxy and the new segregation of a separate ethnic-genetic state-community. If they were to succeed I do not think it will be good either for the Jews or for the world.

[1] Reviewed in the LRB by Sheila Fitzpatrick (17 March).

[2] A list of 300 eminent Americans drawn up in 1953 (Richard Morris’s Encyclopedia of American History) contains 12 Jews (4 per cent), all but three of whom (Cohn, Rabi and Gershwin) belong to the pre-1880s immigration. They include four scientists (Boas, Cohn, Michelson, Rabi), two jurists (Brandeis, Cardozo), two newspaper editors (Ochs, Pulitzer), one ‘educator’ (Flexner), one labour leader (Gompers), one business tycoon (Guggenheim) and one composer (Gershwin). Would such a list, fifty years later, have omitted Jews from the list of politicians, state servants, writers and artists?

[3] Before then there were only seven in physics and chemistry, as against something like 25 or 30 in the next 30 years.

[4] Educational discrimination was abandoned in practice after the 1905 Revolution, but even before then 13.4 per cent of students at Kiev University and 14.5 per cent at Odessa University were Jewish.