Monday, June 3, 2013

Q&A with author Michael Goldfarb

Michael Goldfarb
Michael Goldfarb, a former London bureau chief for NPR, is the author of Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance. He also wrote Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq, which was based on a documentary he made for the public radio program Inside Out. He works as London correspondent for, and also contributes to the BBC.

Q: You write that there were various factors that inspired you to write about the emancipation of European Jews. What were some of the most important?

A: The first factor was a memory: at Hebrew school when I was probably 10 or 11, a teacher showed an old woodcut or lithograph called "Locking Up Time in the Ghetto" or something like that.  It was an image of a chain being locked and a curving dark street beyond with Jews, bowed over, heading into the darkness. 

That image stayed with me and I have always been curious to know more about ghetto life - and also when and how it ended.  I sort of knew that it ended with Napoleon but wasn't sure how and wanted to find out more.

Second, I take a huge interest in history and I long wanted to answer this question: why for a thousand years could you write the history of Western Civilization without mentioning a single Jewish name, then from the time of Napoleon, Jews are mentioned out of all proportion to their numbers in the population: In a single century, Marx, Freud, Einstein changed the very framework in which humanity viewed politics, the workings of our minds and the physical universe which we inhabit. 

Mahler and Schoenberg, Proust and Kafka, and more artists too numerous to mention shifted the boundaries of literature and music in particular. Without bragging it really was a second renaissance. Answering why this happened was my starting point.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned in the course of your research?

A: There were so many surprises. I didn't realize how many extraordinary Jews in Western Europe had been forgotten. I felt like I became a ghost hunter, tracking down these spirits. For example: I didn't know - most people don't - that 30 years before Theodore Herzl, an elderly radical named Moses Hess wrote the first truly Zionist tract, called Rome and Jerusalem. 

Twenty years earlier he had introduced his young colleague, Karl Marx, to the term "communism." Why didn't I know his name already? But one of the things I'm proudest of in the book is that I spend a lot of time telling his story and recovering the stories of other important people: Zalkind Hourwitz and Gabriel Riesser to name two.

Q: What was Napoleon's role in emancipating the Jews of Europe?

A: In the first phase of his career, as the Liberator of Europe's masses, Napoleon was crucial in throwing open the ghetto gates. In the second part of his career - as the vainglorious Emperor - he pulled back.  He felt Jews weren't assimilating fast enough, giving up their identity as Jews to become Frenchmen first. 

He imposed some fairly onerous laws on the community to hasten the process of assimilation. From changing the way Jews were named, e.g. changing Mordechai ben Avraham (my Hebrew name) into the standard first name/last name format; to compelling rabbis to be licensed; to forbidding Jews from practicing one of their traditional occupations: money lending.

The community was consulted on these changes and agreed to them.

That said, in exile on St. Helena, according to his physician, Napoleon wanted to attract all of Europe's Jews to France to make use of their talents.  He had great admiration for the community.

Q: You write of the emancipated Jews, "They were immigrants in their own country." How did their experience compare with that of Jews who emigrated to another country?

A: Well, they were looked on as outsiders and recent arrivals - even though they might have been living in the region for centuries - and were treated by some with great disdain. I made that comparison because over and over the stories of Jewish families allowed out of the ghetto - and the many little hamlets where most of them were forced to live - mirrored the immigrant experience in America.  

The first generation struggling to find an economic foothold, the second generation going into the family business or a profession to consolidate the economic gains, the third generation going into the academy or becoming journalists and artists.  

It was my family story - and many other family stories in America, but it was happening in Europe, where a family might move no more than twenty miles down the road into a mid-size city with a good gymnasium (high school), yet that previously unattainable type of education supercharged the family's assimilation and success in what was genuinely a new world.

Q: What impact did emancipation have on antisemitism?

A: It changed the character of Jew hatred. Emancipation coincided with the urbanization of Western Europe. Anti-Semitism is a kind of industrial-age form of Jew hatred - the term wasn't coined until around 1860.

It was a lucky break of history that the skills Jews had to develop to survive in the 500 years of ghettoization, when they were forbidden to work the land in many parts of Western Europe, when they were the only people allowed to lend money, and had wide circles of contacts because they were forced to travel and peddle over vast distances when others were tied to one place, all were skills the new economy needed.  

 Jewish ability with numbers, their skill in capital formation across political boundaries, and the wide circles of contact meant that very quickly they were able to take advantage of the 19th century's new form of industrial capitalism. 
The growth of cities was a positive thing for the Jewish community. For those who were displaced from the land and forced into these new very unpleasant environments it was galling to see the Jews doing so well in this new era.

So anti-Semitism deepened. It is also worth noting that - as in America - some wealthy young Jews like Marx, Hess, and Ferdinand LaSalle became involved in left-wing politics (actually they defined what left-wing politics is). 

Those urban working-class types inclined to hate Jews, resisted socialism. They embraced what we call today right-wing nationalism, which led to the Holocaust. The remnant of this dynamic is still playing out in Hungary where the Jobbik party excoriates "Jew Communists" and still sees Hungary's economy being manipulated by the World Jewish Conspiracy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Keeping my head above water.  I've gone back to radio journalism and started my own production company making documentaries for BBC Radio.  Some of these programs occasionally air around the public radio system.  I wrote a five-part series of "talks," 15-minute lectures, on the idea of being a ghost hunter for these lost Jews.  People can listen at my website

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Midway through the research, the journalist in me got incredibly excited: I realized I had a story no one else had, a real scoop.  No one, no academic, no other historian had pulled together the Emancipation era in a single story arc. It was such a great story I couldn't understand why. 

After puzzling it out, I realized that the Holocaust is an iron curtain that comes down across Jewish history. It is as if we went from the destruction of the Second Temple and Diaspora to Hitler with nothing in between - except Maimonides and the expulsion from Spain. Almost all Jewish studies programs are focused on the Holocaust and Yiddish culture. The extraordinary achievements of the 150-year-long era of Emancipation in Europe are not commonly known. 

I fear that part of the reason is that to contemporary Jewry in the U.S. and Israel, Europe is seen as the graveyard of the Jewish people and there is no great desire to know what happened there. The attitude is, They hated us and they killed us, what else do we need to know?

(Interestingly, the book sold better in Australia than the U.S. where non-Jews were very interested to read about this little-known aspect of Jewish history because it explained to outsiders so much about how the modern Jewish community came to be.)

In any case it seems to me to be wrong to ignore the history of the Jews in 19th century Europe. We owe it to those who achieved so much to learn about them and remember their lives. The Nazis wanted to erase Jewish achievement of this era from historical memory; we shouldn't let them succeed by ignoring the story of the people who lived Emancipation.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


  1. Michael. If you are going to persist in this hang dog look, could you get an ear ring at least?