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Jewish question

Jewish question
Jewish question. Cartoon poster depicting sinister Jew.

The phrase Jewish question originally referred to the question of the ability of Jews to integrate within Western Europe. Now, it usually refers to questions about the essential nature of Jews, often in reference to the nature of their relationship to non-Jews.


The first use of the phrase Jewish question appeared during the Jew Bill of 1753 debates in England. According to Otto D. Kulka of Hebrew University, the term became widespread in the 19th century, it was used in discussions about Jewish emancipation in Germany (Judenfrage). Jacob Katz claims that the term was transferred from debates about the "Irish Question" in England.

Later in the 19th century, the term was used by many writers and theorists, Jewish and non-Jewish, to reflect on the state of the European Jews as a half-assimilated entity that lacked a consensus regarding the future. Simply put, some Jews wanted to assimilate while others did not.

A famous negative reply to the issue was penned by Karl Marx, The Jewish Question, (Braunschweig, 1843). He asks the question "The German Jews desire emancipation. What kind of emancipation do they desire? Civic, political emancipation." And answers: "The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism." Karl Marx responded to Bruno Bauer's two studies on the Jewish Question focusing on religious differences by seeing a corrupt capitalist nature to be essential to Judaism, and thus preventing its assimilation.

Werner Sombart turned Marx on its head and praised Jews for their capitalism and presented the 17-18th century court Jews as integrated and a model for integration.

By the turn of the 20th century, the debate was still at large. Some favored political engagement in Europe while others, such as Theodore Herzl, proposed the advancement of the Zionist cause. Although the Jews had been expelled from Europe during various points in history, "answering the question" was largely in Jewish hands until it was conceivably too late.

In retrospect, the half-amalgamated position of the Jews put them in a prime position to be seen as peripheral and disloyal as well as internally cohesive and conspiratory. Amidst rising anti-Semitism and the threat to the established Old Order, the Jews became a scapegoat - it did not help that a number of radicals of Jewish background were associated with these causes. Nevertheless, for reasons as complicated as this and as "simple" as historic prejudice, such conditions helped to transform the Jewish Question into what was ultimately a questioning of Jewish loyalties and a mulling over what to do with them.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion played a key role, as did interpretations of events such as World War I, the Great Depression and the rise of Communism. All helped to raise suspicions and advance conspiracy theories.

With the rebirth of ethnic nationalism and the formation of the ethnic state, the Jews were clearly no longer wanted by the governments of such states. Nazi Germany adopted the term Jewish Question (in German: Judenfrage) to refer to the question (or issue) of what to do with the Jews. At first, the "answer" was visible in the form of persecution and reduction to second-class citizenship, promoting their extradition out of the country. Later, during World War II, it became internment in concentration camps until finally, the Genocide of the European Jews took place as the so-called Final Solution to the Jewish Question (in German: die Endlösung der Judenfrage), or just the "Final Solution" (German: die Endlösung).

Philosophy and historical analysis

Sartre's book, "Anti-Semite and Jew", placed the burden on the anti-semite - the anti-semite needing the Jew for his own identification.

The historian Jacob Katz devoted much of his research to showing the exclusion of Jews from European society. According to him, the ideas of enlightenment still excluded Jews throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. He also presented the tensions of acculturation and Zionism as a response. Katz rejected Sombart's thesis because he believed that Jews do not have an economic essence.

Hannah Arendt saw the Jews' reliance on absolute monarchs in the 18th century lead to a lack of preparation for the political antisemitism that arose in the nineteenth century. She advocated political responsibility instead of statelessness and totalitarian domination. She broke with Zionism and sought the integration of Jewish individuals within their host societies. (See also: Diaspora)

Contemporary issues

There is a debate about the continuous usefulness of the category in America and the Former Soviet Union. However, current debates in Israeli politics are still influenced by perceived precariousness of the Jewish/Israeli position in the West.

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