Jews in Europe, a unique story in space and time



Jews enter Europe as a people that had developed – and sometimes flourished – on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean for about a thousand years. During that time, they came to believe that they had been chosen by God for a special relationship, and that their fortune depended on the observance of what they understood as Divine commands which enjoined them to adhere to a particular way of life and behaviour.

The first Jews in Europe had travelled West from the area then known as Judea in the last centuries B.C.E., and the first centuries of C.E., even as others moved eastwards throughout the Middle East and Asia. Some went voluntarily, seeking adventure and better economic prospects; others left as a result of pressure, hardship and violence, including many who were forcibly exiled after war and rebellion. This occurred after Greek and Roman conquerors occupied the Jews’ country, leading to clashes and tension, cultural and military.

70 C.E. saw the destruction of the Jews’ Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the end of the semi-autonomous Jewish state. The move away from the place that Jews would know as the Land of Israel now became a flood. To begin with, Jews moved west to Egypt, North Africa and the Southern Mediterranean, especially to Italy. Gradually they moved further afield until within a few more generations, Jews could be found in almost every area of the Roman Empire. The collapse of this empire precipitated a period of turmoil in Europe, popularly known as the Dark Ages. What we know about Jews in this early medieval period is quite limited.

By the end of the first millennium, however, many Jewish communities in Europe had become flourishing centres of scholarship and commerce, above all in the North and West, in the Franco-German lands, and in that part of the Iberian peninsula still under Muslim rule, which was known as al-Andalus. In this high medieval period, the idea of Europe was born, centred on the old Frankish lands that had been ruled by Charlemagne. Jews had a place within this society, and contributed to its evolution, but because it was Latin and Christian – although never simply synonymous with Latin Christendom – they remained outsiders as well. As yet, the Jews in this Europe were a tiny minority. Even in the twelfth century, nine out of every ten Jews lived on the Iberian Peninsula: this was Europe, and these Jews were European, but not as we tend to understand it today.

There were many differences between individual Jewish communities, but they all adhered to one model or another of what came to be called Rabbinic Judaism. At the heart of this tradition lay the Talmud: an extensive commentary on the five books of Moses (known to Jews as the Torah), which provided a detailed model of how to live a Jewish life. This model was developed for a society and a culture without a state, which was nonetheless self-governing in many key respects. It centred on the Jewish family and home, on the synagogue and study house, and on the Jewish community itself. The importance of Torah study (the study of Jewish texts) was predicated as a central value, primarily for males. Hebrew literacy was therefore something that characterized all Jewish communities to one extent or other. This culture and the way of life it mandated was so distinctive that we may fairly speak of a Jewish civilization – one that co-existed with, and within, other cultures and civilizations like those of European Christendom and Muslim Spain.

In the first thousand years of Jewish life, the direction of Jewish migration within Europe tended to be to the west and the north. From around the 13th century, the trend began to be more from west to east. This reflected the important transformations of the twelfth century. It was during this period, as Christendom evolved towards a more money-based economy, that Church doctrine in some Christian lands began to limit or prohibit the lending of money on interest by Christians. Thus money-lending was stigmatised, and many wealthy Jews – always a small minority of the Jewish population – entered the money-lending and banking business. This was the origin of the familiar stereotype of Jews as money-lenders and bankers.

This period saw a marked deterioration of the situation for Jews in Christian Europe. The onset of the Crusades led to the destruction of whole communities in the German lands, and to terrifying episodes like the massacre of at Clifford’s Tower in York in 1190. Some areas would stay relatively tranquil for generations while others would experience violence. Then the focus of violence would change. One element of this was a hardening of attitudes towards Jews within large parts of the Church, where the image of “the Jews” as Christ-killers had been strong since the early Christian era. Popular anti-Jewish feeling was also widespread. Sometimes this was led by the Church but often it was a product of the particular economic functions Jews had come to fulfil as money-lenders. Jews were accused of ritual murder, and of using the blood of Christian children to make Passover bread (the blood libel). They were accused of desecrating the communion wafer, or Host, (a form of malicious sacrilege), and of poisoning wells during the Black Death. Artists often depicted Jews with horns, as offspring of the devil. Strange ideas circulated, such as the belief in male Jewish menstruation.

These myths persisted in Europe for centuries, alongside more positive encounters and experiences. Living, as they did, in other cultures and societies, Jews often developed a hybrid language or creole: a kind of Jewish version of the local language, incorporating elements of Hebrew and Jewish culture. The result was a whole rich tapestry of Jewish languages, of which the most important in and around Europe are Yiddish (based on different Germanic or Slavic dialects from diverse geographical areas in the Ashkenazic lands) and Ladino (based on the medieval Castilian language among the Sephardim in Spain).

Jews were a relatively literate people, who often saw themselves as culturally superior to the illiterate peasants and townspeople of the societies in which they lived. In certain contexts, however, such as Muslim Spain, or the city states of Renaissance Italy, Jews began to open up culturally to the way of life and values of the societies in which they lived. In al-Andalus, many Jews began to speak and write in Arabic and some took an interest in unfamiliar cultural fields such as philosophy, poetry and language and grammatical studies. This, in turn, contributed greatly to new developments in Jewish literature and scholarship. The pre-eminent medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote in both Hebrew and Arabic, and even spent time studying in a Moroccan madrasa.

Spain remained the centre of the Jewish world throughout this period. At the end of the Christian conquest, there were still 100,000 Jews living on the Iberian peninsula – four times as many as the 25,000 Jews then living in Poland and Lithuania. The map of the Jewish world was then remade between 1450 and 1570, when a sequence of expulsions extinguished Jewish life from Spain, Portugal, southern Italy, the Netherlands, of Provence, every major secular territory in the Holy Roman Empire and all but one Imperial City. The Ashkenazim, that is the Jews who had lived in Northern France and Germany during the medieval era, headed mostly for Poland and Lithuania. The Sephardim scattered right the way across the globe, to the newly-discovered Americas, and even to India. They settled particularly in the Ottoman lands of the eastern Mediterranean, in Morocco, and in the port cities of western Europe and the Atlantic seaboard. Meanwhile, Jews living in different parts of Italy were confined by the Catholic Church to ghettos, of which the Ghetto in Venice is the earliest and most famous example.

Before this period, Ashkenaz and Sepharad had been just two of the many lands in which Jews lived. Now, Ashkenazi and Sephardi emigrants clung to the cultures of their former homes, and continued to speak Yiddish and Ladino among themselves. This promoted the emergence of diasporic Sephardi and Ashkenazi identities, isolating Jews from the rest of society, most of whom spoke neither of these languages. Until today, Jews who trace their families back to Europe, wherever they live in the world, tend to define themselves in terms of this relationship, as Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews. At the same time, the constant interaction between these two groups made for an unprecedented level of cohesion.

Some Jews led geographically limited lives and others were highly mobile. Communities remained highly localised, but they were also interconnected. Importantly, the responsibility for maintaining Torah had no limits. Legal controversies reflected the interaction between communities tied together by the common legal framework of the Talmud but lacking a binding organisational structure. When the Amsterdam Sephardim were rocked by serious dispute in 1618-19, they looked to Salonika for leadership. When the Amsterdam Ashkenazim were similarly riven, they turned to the Council of Four Lands in Poland-Lithuania.

During this entire period, the economic and scholarly elites shared power in a generally stable way. Only occasionally would this traditional leadership group be troubled by the appearance of rival claimants. The most usual form was the occasional appearance of individuals who claimed that they had been sent by God as prophets or Messianic figures to lead the Jews back to their former homeland in the Land of Israel.  Most of these figures proclaimed themselves and their mission following social and political crises. In Europe we see their increasing frequency in the generations after the Expulsion from Spain in the late 15th century. Some managed to form movements of enthusiasts who challenged both the leadership and the norms of the communities. The two most famous such movements were the 17th century movement of Shabbetai Zevi from Turkey (which spread from the Near East and the Balkans through Venice and Amsterdam to Germany, the Habsburg lands and Poland Lithuania), and the 18th movement of Jacob Frank from the area of the Ukraine.

Both movements were ultimately put down and delegitimized by the traditional leadership.  But the situation of Europe’s Jews was changing. By the late 18th century, the Jewish civilization that had developed in Europe and its leadership would find themselves facing a new set of challenges. At this point, roughly 1,500,000 of the 2,500,000 Jews in the world lived in Europe. Around a million of these lived in East Central and Eastern Europe. They were Ashkenazim, and most lived in areas that had belonged to Poland before it was divided by Austria, Prussia and Russia in the last decades of that century. In 1800, the lion’s share of Europe’s Jews lived under Russian rule.



The eighteenth century was, for many different reasons, a watershed moment in European history marked by the onset of the economic changes we associate with the industrial revolution, the cultural changes we associate with the Enlightenment, and the political changes unleashed by the French revolution. This was the moment historians sometimes call “the Great Divergence”, in which the pace of economic change in Europe decisively overtook that in other parts of the world, paving the way for a new age of globalisation and colonial empires.

These changes also transformed the Jewish world. Western and Eastern Sephardim shared common origins, but the former now wore European costume, the latter looked like ‘Orientals’. Western Sephardim read books in Spanish and Portuguese, often French, Italian, Dutch or English; Eastern Sephardim usually knew only Hebrew, Arabic, Ottoman Turkish or Ladino. The cultural boundary between Jews in Eastern and Western Europe also became more clearly defined, although Polish Jewry continued to send its Rabbis and economic migrants westwards. The rise of Chassidism in Poland and the Ukraine, and of the Jewish enlightenment or Haskalah in Germany helped cement the gulf between these two worlds.

Some admired the changes and others were repelled by them; the very idea of change and progress was controversial in a world in which even the most radical change tended to be justified with reference to the past.

In a sense, this was the moment when Jewish history became properly European. Before the late 18th century Jews were not conceived of as Europeans by others: they were, almost by definition, “Orientals”. Now, the decline of the old feudal order made it possible for Jews gradually to enter the social and political mainstream through a legal and political process known as emancipation. Now the histories of these two societies began to merge. Jews were active participants in this process, which transformed both Jewish and European culture and society in fundamental ways. Here, we will focus on the Jews.


Some of these changes were religious. In eastern Europe, the traditional leadership remained in control, although they had recently been challenged by the charismatic leaders of a new kind of traditionalist Judaism called Chassidism. In some places, like the Lithuanian town of Vilnius, the established Jewish leadership were able to resist Chassidism effectively. In other places, Chassidic rabbinic dynasties created an alternative power structure that did not depend on existing Jewish institutions and consequently proved better able to resist the claims of the modern state. The strength of Chassidism and of traditional Judaism in eastern Europe reflected the relatively high concentration of Jews in the former Polish lands.

In western and central Europe, things were different. Sephardic Jews in places like Amsterdam, Livorno and London had long lived relatively integrated lives, but this was less true of the Ashkenazim, who tended to live in the countryside and in small towns. In Berlin, however, a new movement for cultural and religious change emerged. The German-Jewish enlightenment provided a framework in which Jews, who thought of themselves as modern Europeans, began to seek religious change and to demand a more “modern” and “rational” form of religious life. These divided into those who wanted large-scale change and those who wanted change, but on a smaller scale.

Out of the ideological storm new kinds of Jews emerged, modern Jews who joined the new emerging 19th century streams of Judaism, which we now call Liberal Judaism, Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism and Neo [New modern] Orthodoxy. In some places in Central and Eastern Europe, a rigid religious reaction against any modernization emerged, the ancestors of what we call today Haredi or Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. The Jewish religious map in Europe was thus totally transformed.


Other changes were political. The transformations wrought by the French revolution and the end of the old regime in Europe heralded the dawn of a new era of sovereign states, in which social and religious corporations were disbanded and everyone became equal before the law. As Jews in western Europe became citizens with civil and political rights, most sooner or later stopped seeing themselves as part of a particular (and separate) “Jewish People”. They understood Judaism as a faith community, and acquired new national identities that reflected the emerging nation states of the time. Some rejected Judaism altogether and embraced secularism. Others converted. In this context, the divide between Sephardim and Ashkenazim seemed less meaningful. Instead, Jews defined themselves as Jewish by religion, but French, German, British, Dutch or Italian by nationality. Important political figures in these countries were sometimes Jewish. Johann Jacoby was a German democrat, Benjamin Disraeli a British conservative, Luigi Luzzatti an Italian liberal and Léon Blum a French socialist, so it is clear that Jews could embrace many different kinds of politics. Women had fewer options, but Jewish feminists like Aletta Jacobs, Rosa Manus and Bertha Pappenheim were important figures in the women’s movement.

When modernity became a challenge in Eastern Europe in the late 19th century, things went differently, with many Jews rejecting religion – including belief in God – even as they continued to see themselves as members of a Jewish secular nation. This was possible for those who lived in Russia and the Habsburg lands, because these were multinational empires in which a variety of different nationalities coexisted under a single monarch. Over time, however, these different nationalities began to acquire political aspirations and the same was true of the Jews. This led to the emergence of what would come to be called Zionism: the idea that Jews as a nation were entitled to have their own land, like other national groups and that that land must be the historic Jewish homeland of the Land of Israel. There were also different forms of Diaspora nationalism, which promoted the idea that Jews were a national group entitled to cultural and language rights. One important Jewish socialist movement, the Bund, developed in Poland and Russia, fighting for Jewish cultural and social equality in a post-Revolutionary world which they hoped would emerge as a new reality. Many young Jewish socialists rejected the cultural demands of the Bund and became part of the general revolutionary movement which would give birth ultimately to the Bolshevik/Communist movement. Some socialist Jews would join socialist streams within the Zionist movement right at the end of the 19th century.

Many Jews, of course, would reject all these forms of politics and retreat into their steadfast Orthodoxy. Here, we should note the emergence of an Orthodox political party in Poland in 1912. Agudat Israel would play a part in the Polish political arena, fighting for rights for Orthodox Jews here, and in other countries through its offshoots elsewhere.


These ideological and political changes were accompanied by important lifestyle changes throughout Jewish Europe, most obviously in the fields of language and dress. In western and central Europe especially, Jews adopted the language of the countries where they lived as part of their integration and identification with the wider society. In Eastern Europe, increasing numbers of Jews spoke languages like Russian and Polish. Yiddish remained very strong both among the traditionalists and among those socialists or believers in the importance of Jewish culture in the wider world. Many Jews abandoned traditional dress codes, with the result that those who opposed modernity came to see Jewish dress as an expression of that opposition.



Modernity transformed Jewish life and Jewish history in many positive ways. Jews became part of the modern world, integrated in one form or other and on the whole benefiting economically and socially. But because the status of Jews within society and culture had changed, so the religious anti-Judaism that had always coloured their condition in Europe changed as well. New forms of Jew-hatred emerged, drawing on the one hand on the anti-Jewish anti-capitalism that was current in Catholic and some socialist circles, and on the other hand on the secular ideology of race. Opposition to the integration of Jews in general society was fundamental to both. New accusations against Jews begin to proliferate; the Jews are the enemy inside, the fifth column, seeking (and gaining) influence and ultimate control over the host nation through economic and social power while disguising themselves as patriots.

Jewish emancipation represented an existential threat to the old order in Europe, and from the beginning of the 19th century anti-Jewish riots were often a by-product of political change: from the Hep-Hep riots of 1819 in Germany, through the revolutions of 1848, to the pogroms that became a feature of political life in Russia after 1881-2. With hindsight, we see the culmination of this aggression in the wholesale murder of millions of Jews in the Shoah, the Holocaust.

The Shoah destroyed Jewish life in Europe, murdered the overwhelming majority of European Jews and sent many others to seek a safer and better life overseas, continuing and accentuating a trend which had been developing since the later decades of the 19th century. Europe, for so long the centre of Diaspora Jewish life, gave way to other centres, particularly the United States, and what was then Mandate Palestine, which in its new Zionist incarnation became the State of Israel in 1948.

Seventy years later, however, we can see that this episode of devastation was not the end of the road. Some countries, like Britain and Hungary, retained a significant Jewish population despite the Shoah. Other countries, like France and Germany, have seen significant renewal due to the immigration of Jews from other parts of the world. Everywhere, however, it is clear that Jews and the Jewish past represent a vital element of the European story. Jews were and are Europeans, whose presence – and absence – helps to make Europe what it is today.


Written by Steve Israel – a Jewish educator, born in England but living with his family in Jerusalem, who has worked for many years with European Jewish communities on issues of history, culture and education.

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