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  Global Views
300 Years of Jewish History — Synopsis
Special Contribution
By Zvi November
Three hundred years ago the age of witchcraft had more or less run its course. Witches and Jews (defined as heretics) were no longer burned at the stake. However, Jews in Europe and the large Turkish Empire could only live where they were permitted to reside. For instance, Jews in Poland were forbidden to live in royal towns. Indeed, most Jews lived in crowded ghettos that could not be expanded to accommodate population increases. Local potentates would invite Jews into their domains if it suited them and expel them when they were no longer needed. The Jews of Stropkov where my grandfather was born were, over the years, expelled several times.

Back in 1710, Jews were never citizens of the princedom in which they dwelled. In fact, Jews (who had a long history of overseas trade involvement since ancient times) did not own or operate ships in this mercantile era because no king would allow Jews to fly his flag nor protect Jewish owned ships that were attacked or commandeered.

Local rulers related to Jews as a corporate body. They dealt with the Jewish community’s leader who was responsible for collecting taxes from members of the community and paying them annually to the prince. In effect, Jews were foreign nationals. A community was a nation within a nation. Jews were responsible for their own internal affairs; education, welfare and dispute resolution. Although life centered on the synagogue, Jews could not build synagogues unless given permission. When permitted, synagogues had to be unobtrusive and out of the way. Under no circumstances could a synagogue be taller than a church.

Jews, of course, were restricted to dirty or dangerous vocations. Tanning hides, butchery and long-distance trade were common Jewish activities.

During the 18th century, things began to change. A Jewish garment industry developed in London. Likewise, Jews in Germany gravitated to the big cities where many became shopkeepers and a few started banks. In 1782, enlightened Joseph II became emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after his anti-Semitic mother, Maria Theresa died. In 1787, Joseph II promulgated a 100 page tolerance law (I have a copy) that listed Jewish families by name and granted them residence rights, allowed them to engage in additional economic spheres and even send their children to public schools. Jewish children, however, were not allowed to participate in Christian religious instruction because the Austrians feared that they would subvert the Christian message. The tolerance law also mentions itinerant Jews who were denied any rights whatsoever since they were illegal aliens.

Louis XIV had expelled the Jews from France in the 17th century. However, France is a huge country (1/2 million square kilometers) and so numerous small Sephardic communities continued to exist in remote provinces under the guise of “new Christians”.

The situation in France and in Europe in general changed dramatically with the outbreak of the French revolution in 1789. Suddenly, people became citizens of a republic that eliminated the nobility and attacked the clergy. During the reign of terror the churches were closed. After some debate, it was decided to grant equal rights to French Protestants. Following this precedent, a while later, Jews were also made citizens who could be taxed individually and conscripted into the army that was spreading radical ideas of equality all over Europe.

Until the 18th century enlightenment and French revolution, Jewish names followed the biblical formula of Yoseph ben Moshe (Joseph, son of Moses). Now, in this new age, governments wanted to keep track of everyone individually. Jews were forced to take family names. The Austrian and Prussian authorities assigned names to the Jews in their territories which included Poland that had been divided between Austria, Prussia and Russia.

Most Jews today have German family names like Goldberg, Stein and Baum because the law specifically stated that family names had to be German names. Sometimes, the army officers and clerks who registered names created humorous names such as Dreyfus (three feet) to mock the Jewish recipient.

The Russians followed suit and so many Jews have Russian names (e.g. Moskowitz). Then in 1825 the Czar issued an edict which legalized the forced conscription (abduction) of Jewish boys who were sent far away to Siberia and many never returned.

During the 19th century, Jews became citizens and soldiers of their respective countries. They even fought and killed one another when their countries went to war. Even in peacetime army life for Jews could prove problematic. The anti-Semitic high command in France forged documents to accuse Alfred Dreyfus of treason in 1894. Dreyfus was stripped of his rank, humiliated and shipped off to Devil’s Island. After his exoneration in 1906 Dreyfus retired from the army but re-enlisted in 1914 when WWI broke out. What loyalty!

The 19th century was an epoch of technological progress, liberalization (the Church even disbanded the Inquisition) and nationalism. Following their emancipation, Jews were eager to be Englishmen, Frenchmen and Germans just like their neighbors. Especially in Germany, Jews exerted enormous efforts to be accepted as full-fledged Germans albeit of the ‘Mosaic’ faith. “Speak German” was their slogan. They became expert in German dress, manners and culture but ignored the increased emphasis on the ‘German volk’ concept which, in essence, made their inclusion in a German nationality impossible.

To be a real German, some Jews simply converted to Christianity. Heinrich Heine and Karl Marx’s father are two well-known examples. Karl Marx’s father converted to get ahead in the bureaucracy where he worked. His famous son went a step further and became an anti-Semite accusing Jews of being economic parasites. Marx himself lived off of his mother and was later dependent on Engel.

In 1871 the numerous principalities of Germany and Italy achieved national unification. Jews were overwhelmingly supportive of national unity. New liberal laws let them become entrepreneurs, teachers, doctors and lawyers. Actually they had little choice because covert anti-Semitism kept them out of banking, large corporations and government. In France, a popular weekly newspaper was called “The Anti-Semite”.

In the late 19th century, European nations moved toward the complete separation of church and state which, obviously, made life easier for Jews. The 1905 Laicity law in France was the most radical piece of legislation to keep religion out of the schools and peoples’ lives in general. It is in this era that many countries, including Italy and Germany, enacted laws to allow civil marriage. Jews and gentiles could now intermarry freely. Not a few Jews took advantage of this new freedom to more fully integrate into the dominant milieu.

Jews in Germany, early on, realized that leading a traditional Jewish lifestyle was inconsistent with being a fully assimilated German. Since not everyone was prepared to convert to Christianity or suffer rejection by a gentile spouse’s family, some other solution to their ‘Jewish problem’ was needed. The reform branch of Judaism was, consequently, invented in Germany as a way to be both Jewish and German simultaneously. The Reform temple liturgy and rituals imitated Protestant observance.

Being enthusiastic German nationalists, the Jews of Germany did not support Zionism. Neither did they pay much attention to growing working-class anti-Semitism.

Zionism took root in Eastern Europe thanks, in part, to the Russian and Ukrainian pogroms. As a little girl in Kishinev in 1903, Golda Meir witnessed the murder of fellow Jews. These atrocities were brought to the attention of the US Senate which passed a resolution condemning the Kishinev massacre.

Equally cruel Arabs launched similar pogroms in Palestine in 1929 and between 1936 and 1939 (euphemistically referred to as “disturbances” by the British) even though there was no Israel or “occupied territories” at that time.

The rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel was a consequence of many forces that exerted themselves on and within the Jewish people during the past three hundred years. A contributory factor was the failure to become completely integrated Frenchmen and Germans despite tremendous efforts to be equal. The new anti-Semitism (‘Jews want to take over the world’) that replaced or supplemented the old anti-Semitism (‘Jews killed Christ’) led Jewish thinkers and activists to conclude that the solution to the Jewish problem requires the creation of a sovereign state in the ancient Jewish homeland.

Now, after sixty-two years of independence ninety percent of Israel’s leaders are afflicted by the same Diaspora mentality of identifying with the other. No one lectures the world about the legitimate rights of the Jewish people or the intractable nature of Arab hate and aggression. On the contrary, Israeli officials attend conferences and negotiate accords that are based on the Arab narrative. They make concessions that invariably diminish Israel’s ability to protect itself. Instead of explaining Zionism, Israeli negotiators talk about ‘Palestinian suffering’, ‘occupation’ and ‘two-state solution as if they were Palestinians. In the previous government, Yuli Tamir, Minister of Education even introduced the study of the self-imposed Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) into the Israeli curriculum.

Not one single Israeli principle is sacred. Every round of appeasement talks brings on more demands while Arab/Palestinian terror attacks continue as before. And ironically, it is Israel that gets blamed for intransigence. Amazingly, the current Netanyahu government, which is trying hard to accommodate the “quartet” (US, UN, EU and Russia) is constantly pressured by the Israeli media and left-wing academics to yield more and more to the Arabs whose aggression (e.g. the 2000-2005 Intifada war) is completely forgotten.

Israeli society is presently led by politicians who, like their Jewish counterparts in the West, just want to be accepted. Powerful media pundits and defeatist intellectuals urge outright conversion. Not only do they insist on creating another (in addition to Jordan and Gaza) Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria, some even call for Israel’s outright dissolution.

No other nation in the world has such a great capacity for creativity on the one hand and a suicidal disposition to self-destruction on the other.

Zvi November
Sept. 12, 2010






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