One night in April 1743 a young Jew named Moses was walking towards Berlin from the city of Dessau. It was a difficult journey of more than 150km. Kosher food was hard to find; in addition, Jews were not allowed to stay in any other town along the road without paying a special tax, and Moses, the son of Mendel, was penniless.
When he arrived at the Rosenthaler Gate he was interviewed by a fellow Jew to assess his suitability to enter the city. At that time 1,945 Jews lived in Berlin, and the number was strictly controlled. In many German cities they were confined to a so-called ghetto, whose gates would be closed at night.
After his interview the 14-year-old Moses was admitted, along with six oxen and seven pigs. And so began one of the great transformations of European culture, whose consequences are still with us.
Within a few years the young Talmud scholar had taught himself German, Greek, Latin and French – and, unusually for someone of his background, had started to make friends outside the ghetto, with German writers and intellectuals. He would become Moses Mendelssohn, German philosopher and critic, and a founder of what Jews call the Haskalah, or the Enlightenment, an attempt, inspired by the ideas of Spinoza, Kant and Voltaire, to reform Judaism and make it more integrated into European society.
From our vantage point it is almost impossible to imagine what a leap this was. Before this time European Jews largely lived in self-regulating and completely separate communities, and most employment was barred to them. But Moses Mendelssohn encouraged his coreligionists to abandon the more exotic aspects of ritual and behaviour and assimilate into the society around them – something that often involved a nominal conversion to Christianity.
He may sometimes have seemed a strange creature to both his fellow Jews and to his fellow Germans, but history was on his side. By the end of the century the ideas he subscribed to would become dominant, in the form of the French Revolution.
From the moment the National Assembly first met in Paris in 1789 to draft a Declaration of the Rights of Man, the emancipation of the Jews was high on the agenda. They were a test case: Jewish emancipation cut to the core of what a modern society meant. If a society is made up of citizens, all born equal, then all have equal rights; but they all have equal duties to the state and cannot claim any religious or other exemption. Their primary allegiance must be to their republic, not their faith.
Zhou Enlai said it was too early to judge if the French Revolution was a success, and it is easy to see that these issues, first hotly debated in the Tennis Court in 1789, are still being teased out on the streets of European cities. But the decree of the National Assembly that made Jews equal citizens for the first time in European history would have huge consequences. Initially, emancipation was enforced by Napoleon’s army. As he progressed triumphantly through Germany and Italy, he tore down the gates of the ghettoes.
After Napoleon's defeat some states tried to undo emancipation, but it was already too late. The psychological barrier had been broken, and young ambitious Jews started to move out of the ghetto and into the mainstream of society. Closed professions like the army, the law and the civil service gradually opened up. Business acumen honed by the struggle to survive on the margins was given free rein, and soon some assimilated Jews had become wealthy members of the bourgeoisie, following the example of the Rothschilds and Montefiores.
Their children, men like Heinrich Heine, would move into the arts, journalism and science, and become vital shapers of our modern consciousness. The speed and depth of the advance and transformation still astonish. Where did this energy come from? Some ascribe it to the tradition of Talmudic study, of lernen. After all, the Talmud is a comprehensive theory of everything, and it is easy to see this systematising energy displaced into Marx and Freud. Marx in particular came from a 1,000-year-old rabbinical elite, and his historical arrogance and intellectual self-confidence were bred in the bone. But Mahler, Freud and Einstein were the grandchildren of semiliterate, impoverished peddlers, with little learning, Jewish or otherwise. Freud’s mother barely spoke German.
Another possible explanation could be the one used by Jorge Luis Borges writing about the disproportionate achievement of the Irish in English literature. He ascribed this to the enormous imaginative freedom the artist has when he is simultaneously inside and outside a culture.
Whatever the explanation, throughout the 19th century Jews gained a cultural prominence wildly disproportionate to their numbers, and nowhere more so than in Vienna, which by 1900 had become, in the prophetic worlds of Karl Kraus, "an experimental laboratory for the end of the world", the city of Freud, Schnitzler, Mahler, Schoenberg and Wittgenstein.
We know how the experiment ended. Despite, or perhaps because of, their achievements, anti-Semitism was growing as a political force. The mayor of Vienna during this momentous age was an anti-Semitic demagogue named Karl Lueger, who would be a role model for Adolf Hitler. And the Dreyfus case showed that anti-Semitism could override justice, even in France.
In one of the coincidences that history, like a bad screenwriter, does not blush at producing, a neighbour and nodding acquaintance of Sigmund Freud on the Berggasse was a free-thinking, secular journalist called Theodor Herzl. The Dreyfus case convinced Herzl that assimilation would not work and that anti-Semitism would never end. What to do? His answer was Zionism.
Now that this has become such a loaded word, it behoves us to ponder its historical origins. Herzl was not a messianic zealot. For him, settling Jews in the Ottoman province of Palestine was the rational, pragmatic solution to the problem of European anti-Semitism.
Goldfarb tells this great story with brio and a journalist’s eye for the telling detail, but unfortunately he misses the bigger picture. He concentrates on France, Germany and Austria, but the vast majority of European Jews lived in the east, in regions of Poland and Russia, the so-called Pale of Settlement. There, to the dismay of their enlightened coreligionists, they clung to their identity and “Oriental” ways.
One of the problems of emancipation was that it did not cover the entire population and was never more than partial. In the 1920s Arthur Koestler argued that European Jews like himself faced a choice: assimilate completely or emigrate to Palestine. Most of them rejected both alternatives.
In 1783 a Polish commentator wrote, “One would say to the descendants of Abraham: be French, German or Polish, cease finally to be Arabs.” Did Moses Ben Mendel Dessau, as he started to liberate his coreligionists from the ghetto, ever imagine that many of their surviving descendants would ultimately abandon Europe and end up living at the heart of the Arab world?