Three centuries ago, Jews from Baghdad to Bordeaux were subject to various rules and regulations—restricting everything from what they could wear, where they could reside, and even when they could marry—imposed by the regimes under which they lived. The gradual repeal and elimination of their special legal status is a central phenomenon of the modern Jewish experience, and the subject of David Sorkin’s recent book Jewish Emancipation. In his review, Andrew N. Koss praises Sorkin’s comprehensive and thorough treatment of his subject, while contesting his central argument that emancipation is “ambiguous and interminable” and, thus, that “Jews everywhere continue to live in the age of emancipation.”
[A]re Jews anywhere in danger of being deprived of their rights? In lieu of presenting any concrete evidence that this is so, Sorkin simply tells us that emancipation will never be complete so long as Jews everywhere haven’t taken on his own political preferences.
It would be wrong to say that, in 2020, Jews in either Israel or the Diaspora are without flaws or face no risks. But, even if the nightmare of a Corbyn victory in the UK’s most recent election had come about, it’s hard to imagine Jews would have been restricted from holding office, or been confined to particular neighborhoods, or have to pay special taxes. (Tellingly, Sorkin never mentions the rise of Corbyn in Britain or other similar phenomena.) Nor could France’s National Front, in the unlikely case that it won an electoral victory, be expected to go so far. Nor have the far-right governments that have come to power in Central and Eastern Europe made any such steps.
Likewise, the physical and rhetorical assaults on American Jews, whether on college campuses or in the streets of Crown Heights and Jersey City or the synagogues of Pittsburgh and Poway, haven’t been coupled with proposals to restrict Jews’ civil rights. By comparison, the Hep-Hep riots, which swept through Germany in 1819, were a pointed response to emancipation. Today, the status of Jews as citizens seems entirely irrelevant to all but the craziest fringe of anti-Semites. This is not to say that it is preferable to be murdered in a synagogue than to have to listen to a debate about whether Jews should be allowed to purchase real estate, only that the battle over legal emancipation has ended, and the war against the Jews has taken on new forms.