The status of Jews in the dominant culture or territories they resided in has been a critical issue for most of Jewish history since the fall of the Second Temple. The failed Jewish War against Rome, which lasted from 66-73CE, resulted in tragedy.. But the place of Jews in a polytheistic culture had been a problem for centuries.

In its modern context, the "Jewish Question" generally revolves around the issues and attempted resolutions of unequal civil, legal, and national status of Ashkenazi Jews in Europe. The most infamous use of the phrase was by the Nazis in the twentieth century, culminating in executing the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" during the Second World War.[1]

The Nature of Jewish Life

Reviewing the critical elements pertinent to the structure of Jewish communal life and identity in the medieval period is essential in understanding how Jews responded to changing political situations and formulated a response to the "Jewish question" in modernity. External factors in ghettos, distinctive clothing, or limited occupational opportunities had served to isolate Jewish communities in the medieval period and in through much of Europe well into the 19th century.[2] While the hostile elements were evident, these restrictions had served to reinforce and maintain Jewish religious identity.

The ghetto society of the Middle Ages reinforced communal authority and autonomy within boundaries. The fact that Jews were separated from the rest of society only served to strengthen a self-supporting community. The most basic of the communal institutions in existence was the Kehila. The Kehila united all the residents within the given locale. Its existence articulated the religious and cultural connections that linked all individuals within the community. Most important for our concerns is that the Kehila was derived from Talmudic Law and implied the acceptance of rabbinical thought as key in defining this structure's legitimacy and overall Jewish life.[3] The Kehila's powers rested on the sanctity of established religious tradition. In the community's minds, the interconnectedness of the people, tradition, and the Torah were inseparable. The bearers of the tradition thus naturally became the heads of the community.[4]

The decline of the Middle Ages and the rise of the modern nation-state contributed significantly to rabbinical authority's alteration in Jewish communities. During the medieval period, court Jews served as the de-facto representatives of the community. However, they were tied to the monarchs. As a consequence of the narrowed communication between the Jewish court representative and the government, Jewish communities found themselves decreasingly capable of reflecting the community's interests at large. Quite surprisingly, the advent of the nation-state initially contributed to the prominence of the court Jew. Governments now turned even more to court Jews as the official representative of Jewish interests. In the end, government intervention began to usurp responsibilities once carried out by rabbinical authorities. Communal authority became increasingly voluntary rather that compulsory. Consequently, the crisis affecting traditional society seemed to lie primarily in the diminished influence of the rabbinate.[5]

The Beginnings of the Jewish Question

Modernity brought about a series of political events and intellectual transformations, questioning medieval approaches to Jewish existence in Europe. The Age of Enlightenment initiated extensive discussions in western and central Europe that had far-reaching effects on the status of Jews. These discussions often included Jewish legal status as well as matters related to economics and emancipation. Regions adopted different policies towards Jews. In 1744, for example, Frederick II of Prussia introduced limiting the Jewish population to a small number of the wealthiest families referred to as protected Jews.[6] The first-born sons in these families inherited this privilege. At the same time, other children were given the alternative to abstain from marriage or leave."[7] A somewhat similar pattern was followed in Imperial Russia. After establishing the Pale of Settlement, only certain Jews were allowed to live outside the designated areas. These were generally wealthy first-guild merchants who had received higher education, cantonists, and others who had served their full term in the army.[8]

Nevertheless, the "Jewish Question" remained an issue of complicated proportions. Howard Sachar comments on the ghetto of Frankfurt-am-Main as an example of the Jewish dilemma.

"This was the Jews' indeterminate status as non-Europeans. It is fair to speculate then, whether the Jews were foreigners or interlopers. Were they voluntary immigrants newly arrived from other lands or continents? Or had they been transported to Europe as captives, as African slaves had been imported to the New World? None of these descriptions would have been apt."[9]

As early as the 1750s, the expression "Jewish question" appeared in the "Jew Bill" of 1753, which argued for the naturalization of Jews in England.[10] Amid discussions on the status of Jews, assimilation as a resolution to the former was also a common discussion point. While changes in the political landscape following the Napoleonic period and the various European independence movements were quite extensive, the religious and social changes in the Jewish community, whether as a reaction to or as a reflection of volatile environments, are also evident.

The Creation of Jewish Identity

Lucy Dawidowicz comments that initially, the term "Jewish Question," as introduced in Western Europe, did not reflect a specifically negative bias but was instead reflective of the continuing nature of the Jewish people as a distinct people in the midst of changing political environments leading the rise of modern Europe. Consequently, the status and relationship of Jews to the emerging state were a matter of importance. Dawidowicz writes the following:

"The histories of Jewish emancipation and of European anti-Semitism are replete with proffered 'solutions to the Jewish question.'"[11]

The nature of Jewish identity concerning national identity was discussed in France after 1789. On September 28, 1791, France became the first European country to emancipate its Jewish population. In 1796 and again in 1834, Holland granted Jews equal rights. While Napoleon freed Jews in areas he conquered from the constraints of the ghettos, it would not be until the revolutions of the mid-19th century that Jewish political movements would successfully persuade governments like that of Great Britain and in Central and Eastern Europe to grant equal rights to Jews.

It spread to Germany via the work of Bruno Bauer "Die Judenfrage" - The Jewish Question. The French Revolution had abolished people's treatment based on the criteria of religion, which had existed under the monarchy. It was a simple continuation of the status quo that had existed since the medieval period. Q1 The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen secured freedom of religion and free exercise of worship. There were caveats, however. Religion could not undermine public order. Most other European nations applied policies restricting the rights of those practicing minority religions. The conquests of Napoleon Bonaparte spread the modernist ideas of revolutionary France: equality of citizens and the rule of Law.

The French Revolution created an environment that engendered emancipation in stages for the entire Jewish community. But this revolutionary process was not complete. Napoleon's rise to power and subsequent conquest of Western Europe placed the Jewish community in a difficult position. Napoleon's concern with the Jewish community dealt with the issue of Jewish loyalty and Jewish identity.

In 1806, Napoleon convened several notables representing French Jewry and posed twelve questions aimed at the separatist nature of Judaism. In the end, Napoleon's questions centered on the whether Jews could ever be faithful and loyal Frenchmen or if Jews were and would continue to be foreigners, citizens of another country. The Jewish notables' responses to Napoleon initiated a new stage in Jewish self-definition. They defined themselves as loyal Frenchmen but of a different faith. Moreover, they relegated rabbinical authority to the past and argued that the rabbis of the day maintained only moral persuasiveness. With this statement, the power of excommunication was virtually eliminated. Judaism in France now became for all practical purposes voluntaristic. As a result, individuals from all strands of Judaism were acceptable as adherents. One of Napoleon's longest-lasting impacts on the Jewish community was his institution of the Consistoire for French Jewry. Under this system, the rabbis became civil servants and rabbinical seminaries that would instill French loyalty created. Membership in the Consistoire became mandatory. No unauthorized sects or groups were tolerated. While this preserved the Orthodox monopoly, it removed the rabbinate's prerogative and finality in deciding fundamental Jewish identity issues.[12] Napoleon's motivations were indeed not altruistic- but the impact was nevertheless far-reaching.[13]

The gains experienced under Napoleonic rule were short-lived in many areas of French conquest. In the aftermath of Napoleon's fall, many member states of the German Confederation followed decisions of the Congress of Vienna, which in effect returned the civil status of Jews to the discretion of the individual German states undermining the civil equality achieved by Jews.[14] Once again, the issue of equality was dealt with partially after the Revolutions of 1848, which extended and guaranteed the fundamental rights of Jews per the Frankfurt Parliament. Nevertheless, the measures were only adopted by some German states. They would not be fully rectified until the creation of the united Germany in 1870. In Prussia, Württemberg, Electoral Hesse, and Hanover had emancipated their Jews and granted them rights as citizens.

The Jewish Question and Anti-Semitism

From the year 1860, the "Jewish Question" took on an increasingly anti-Semitic tone as Jews were described as a hindrance to the identity and cohesion of the emerging German nation and as enemies within the Germany's borders. Individuals such as Wilhelm Marr, Karl Eugen Dühring, Theodor Fritsch, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and Paul de Lagarde, among others, viewed the "Jewish Question" as an inherently racial problem. As such, it was not solvable through assimilation. This provided them with a basis for their demands that access to the press, educational centers, and economic activity be curtailed for Jews. Condemnation for inter-marriage was a key component of their arguments. The German philosopher and historian Bruno Bauer, a student of Hegel, famous for his radical rationalism in philosophy, politics, and Biblical criticism, authored - The Jewish Question in 1843. Bauer argued that Jews could achieve political emancipation only if they abandoned their specific religious identity. This view was predicated on the view that political freedom presupposed the existence of a secular state. For Bauer, a secular state did not leave any room for social identities such as religion. Bauer regarded religious rights are incompatible with the idea of the "Rights of Man." As far as Bauer was concerned, achieving real political emancipation required the abolition of religion.

Karl Marx rejected Bauer's extreme views in his 1844 essay "On the Jewish Question." Marx rejected Bauer's view Jewish religion prevent Jewish assimilation and emancipation. Bauer focused on the social and economic roles of the Jews in Europe. These elements Marx argued were lost when capitalism, the material basis for Judaism, assimilated the European societies.[15] Marx argued that Bauer was mistaken in assuming that it precluded religious observance in a "secular state." Rejecting the view that religion would no longer play a prominent role in the social life of a "secular state, Marx pointed to religion's pervasiveness in the United States, which in contrast to Prussia, did not have a state religion. The removal of religious requisites for citizens did not mean the abolition of religion, Marx argued, but introduced a means of concerning individuals in generalization from them.[16]

The Jewish Question and Nazi Germany

In Germany, the Question of Judenfrage, the Jewish Question, ultimately reached its height under the Nazi regime. Early Nazi approaches to the Jewish problem included those of Johann von Leers and Achim Gercke. They both proposed resettling Jews in Madagascar or elsewhere in Africa or South America could answer the unresolved Jewish Question. Surprisingly, both academicians discussed the possibilities of supporting Zionism. However, Von Leers argued that a Jewish homeland in Palestine would create extensive humanitarian and political problems for the region.[17]

In 1933, Germany gradually began to practice more sweeping measures to segregate and eventually remove Jews from Germany and eventually all of Europe. The Haavara Agreement was signed in 1933, allowing 60,000 German Jews to immigrate to Palestine by 1939. The agreement was signed on the 25th of August after three months of discussions by the Zionist Federation of Germany, the Anglo-Palestine Bank, and the economic authorities of the Nazi Germany. While allowing Jews to emigrate, it also forced them to give up most of Germany's possessions before departing.[18]

The next stage in the Nazi approach to the Jewish Question was the adoption of the Nuremberg Laws.[19] The Laws for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor included several prohibitions. including forbidding intermarriage and Intercourse prohibitions hiring female citizens under 45, of German or kindred blood, as domestic workers; the ban on Jews displaying a national flag or the national colors. Other laws such as the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service and the Nuremberg laws would eventually prohibit Jews from serving as teachers, professors, judges, or other government positions. A comparable law was passed concerning lawyers, doctors, tax consultants, and notaries. As the World War II progressed, state-sponsored internment camps and, finally, the systematic extermination of Jews would reveal itself as the German Final Solution to the Jewish Question.[20]



[1] Stig Hornshoj-Moller. "Hitler's speech to the Reichstag of January 30, 1939". The Holocaust History Project. http://www.holocaust-history.org/der-ewige-jude/hitler-19390130.shtml. François Furet, Unanswered Questions: Nazi Germany and the Genocide of the Jews, (Schocken Books: New York, 1989), 182.

[2] See the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215.

[3] Jacob Katz, Tradition and Crisis (Schocken: New York, 1993), 65-67.

[4] ibid. 74.

[5] Steven Bayne, Understanding Jewish History (KTAV: New York, 1997), p.261. Bayne argues that the key question from the state's perspective was whether semi-private corporate entities, in this case, the rabbinate, could exist without substantial mediation from the government.

[6] Certificate Confirming Payment of Protection Money (Schutzgeld) for a Jewish Resident (1833)

[7] Howard M. Sachar, A History of the Jews in the Modern World, (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2005), 7.

[8] Steven G. Marks, Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism

(Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2004), 142. See also Russia at Institute for Jewish Policy Research, http://www.axt.org.uk/antisem/archive/archive4/russia/russia.htm.

[9] Howard M. Sachar, A History of the Jews in the Modern World, (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2005), 3.

[10] "Essay based on the introduction to The 'Jewish Question' in German-Speaking Countries, 1848–1914, A Bibliography, in The Felix Posen Bibliographic Project on Antisemitism (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1994);. http://sicsa.huji.ac.il/bibkulka.html.

[11] Lucy Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945 (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston: New York, 1975). xxi-xxiii.

[12] Steven Bayne, Understanding Jewish History (KTAV: New York, 1997), 276.

[13] "It was as a Catholic that I won the war in the Vendee…as a Moslem that I established myself in Egypt, and as an Ultramontane that I won the confidence of the Italians. If I were governing Jews, I should rebuild the temple of Solomon." Howard M. Sachar, A History of the Jews in the Modern World, (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2005), 40.

[14] In the closing revision of the Congress on the rights of the Jews, the representative of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen, Johann Smidt though unauthorized by other parties - altered the original reading of a proclamation text from "The confessors of the Jewish faith are preserved the rights already conceded to them in the confederal states", by replacing a single word, which entailed serious consequences, into: "The confessors of the Jewish faith are preserved the rights already conceded to them by the confederal states. Heinrich Graetz, Geschichte der Juden von den ältesten Zeiten bis auf die Gegenwart: 11 vols., Leipzig: Leiner, 1900, vol. 11: 'Geschichte der Juden vom Beginn der Mendelssohnschen Zeit (1750) bis in die neueste Zeit (1848)', p. 317. Reprint of the edition revised by the author: Berlin: Arani, 1998,

[15] Karl Marx ,On the Jewish Question”. Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/index.htm.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Dr. Achim Gercke. "Solving the Jewish Question" http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/gercke.htm

[18] August 25: Ha'avara Agreement, Chronology of the Holocaust (from Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority).

[19] Adolf Hitler, Wilhelm Frick, Franz Gurtner, and Rudolf Hess: "Nuremberg Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor." Adolf Hitler; Wilhelm Frick. "Reich Citizenship Law." http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/documents/citizen.htm.

[20] Stig Hornshoj-Moller. "Hitler's speech to the Reichstag of January 30, 1939". The Holocaust History Project. http://www.holocaust-history.org/der-ewige-jude/hitler-19390130.shtml. Gord McFee "When did Hitler decide on the Final Solution?". The Holocaust History Project. http://www.holocaust- history.org/hitler-final-solution/.


Posted by Rabbi Dr. Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez the director of Yeshivat Meor Enaim. He is the author of The Creation of Jewish Identity: From the Biblical Era to the Second Temple Period and 19 additional books on various Jewish topics. If you purchase through our link, Yeshivat Meor Enaim gets a commission to help continue our mission.