The earliest contacts of the ancient Hebrews with Europe and Europeans were probably through the Greek traders who were familiar figures all over the eastern Mediterranean littoral as early as the eighth century B.C.E. It must however be borne in mind that the Hebrews were settled mainly in the uplands of Ereẓ Israel away from the coastal area, while the Greeks were at this time almost as much Asiatics as Europeans geographically. It was probably at the time of the First Exile after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. that Jews first penetrated into Europe. The Hebrew prophets, for instance Isaiah, speak more than once of the future redemption of the Jewish exiles from the "isles of the sea," by which presumably the Greek coastlands were implied, and it is likely enough that at this period Greek slave dealers purchased Jewish captives for sale on their domestic markets. Although their absorption in the Persian Empire confirmed the Asiatic nature of the Jewish people for a long period, that empire's expansionist ambitions westward to some extent opened it and its Jewish population to Western and European ideas and influences. After the return from Exile, Greek influences on the trading cities of the Palestinian littoral were becoming strong, and some later books of the Bible (e.g., Ecclesiastes) seem to show a distinct Hellenic coloring. It was, however, the conquests by *Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C.E. that definitely changed the character of this area. Hitherto, Ereẓ Israel had been part of the Near Eastern Afro-Asiatic nexus, looking to, and influenced by, Syria, Assyria, and Babylonia to the north, the Arabian tribes to the east, and Egypt to the south. Alexander the Great broke down as it were the barrier that had hitherto divided this region from Europe. Henceforth, Ereẓ Israel looked west, not east, and, with the surrounding area, was part of the European nexus and sphere of influence, more or less sharply divided from Asia and the Asiatic powers. Insofar as it continued to be affected by the neighboring land areas, it was by those (Syria, Egypt) that had largely succumbed to Greek influences and could now be regarded almost as extensions of Europe. Although great masses of Jews remained under Partho-Persian rule in *Mesopotamia, the most important settlement outside Ereẓ Israel was in Greek-speaking *Alexandria, which had constant and intimate contacts with the centers of European life. It was here in fact in the ensuing period that the Jews produced their great Hellenistic literature, reaching its climax in *Philo and constituting their first literary expression in the language of European culture. From certain points of view, the *Hasmonean revolt in the second century B.C.E. could be considered a reaction against the tendency that has been described – an attempt to stem the inroads of European culture and to reassert Asiatic values. However, its success was only temporary. The Hasmonean monarchs, while asserting political independence, ultimately succumbed to some extent to European cultural influences. The Roman conquest of 63 B.C.E. brought Ereẓ Israel and its population – still the largest and most creative part of the Jewish people – under European rule and within the European cultural orbit. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that from now on, down to the Arab conquest in 640, Ereẓ Israel and its population constituted in effect part of Europe; and the European influences on the Jewish population there – and hence on Judaism itself – became increasingly strong.
Meanwhile the actual Jewish settlement in Europe was growing. From the third century B.C.E. Jews are mentioned in inscriptions, etc., on the mainland of *Greece. The early Hasmonean rulers had entered into diplomatic relations with *Rome, necessitating the dispatch of envoys thither, and there is a somewhat obscure reference to the expulsion of Jewish religious propagandists thence in 139 B.C.E. Thereafter, the wars of the Romans in Asia Minor and their conquest of Ereẓ Israel inevitably resulted in the arrival on the Roman slave market of Jewish captives (many of whom would win their freedom or else be ransomed by their coreligionists), while the capital of the empire inevitably attracted visitors, emissaries, and merchants. Rabbinic sources, the New Testament, and *Josephus all confirm the impression of a solid Jewish community there in the first century C.E., the subsequent importance of which is attested by several series of *catacombs and hundreds of inscriptions. As early as 59 B.C.E. *Cicero, in his oration in defense of Flaccus who had raided the Jewish temple offerings in the Greek islands, could assert that the Jews were present at the trial in Rome in such numbers as to overawe the court. Jews were also present at this period in many other places throughout *Italy, especially along the trade routes leading to the ports commanding trade with the East. The existence of Jewish settlements all over the Roman Empire in its heyday is recorded in Gaul (see *France), *Spain, Pannonia, even in the Rhineland (see *Germany), and it is probable that there was no Roman province without a Jewish settlement, even if no definite evidence is preserved. The total number involved was far from insignificant. The Jewish population of Rome has been estimated (with some exaggeration) at as many as 50,000, and it has been asserted that they constituted something like one-tenth of the population of the empire as a whole. The Jews of Europe, by the time of the breakup of the Roman Empire, were probably to be reckoned at some hundreds of thousands. On the other hand, their cultural significance was slight. They made barely the slightest contribution to rabbinic or Hebrew culture in the talmudic age, nor is any work of this period extant in Latin which is certainly of Jewish authorship.
Rise of Christianity and Islam
Under the Roman Empire, to the fourth century, the position of the Jews was on the whole good. Although looked down upon, both because of the "superstitions" to which they adhered and their lowly economic status, their religion was tolerated, and from 212 they enjoyed Roman citizenship with all its advantages and responsibilities along with the other free inhabitants of the empire. With the Christianization of the empire, however, their position deteriorated, though at first socially more than juridically, the ground being prepared for their systematic degradation which was to become the rule in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. The Barbarian invasions probably affected the Jews, as a mainly urban element, more than the rest of the population, so that it seems their numbers were drastically reduced in this period. Moreover, the new rulers, once they adopted Christianity – especially in its Catholic form – were unable to preserve the delicate balance between sufferance and intolerance that had been achieved under the earlier Christian emperors – all the more so since this period witnessed the periodical triumph of religious fanaticism in the *Byzantine Empire, setting a baneful example to the rest of the Western world. Restrictions were imposed by the Church at an early date; from 305 successive *Church Councils repeatedly reissued discriminatory legislation. Hence the period between the fifth and eighth centuries was punctuated all over Europe by religious riots, coercion, compulsory baptisms, and widespread expulsions, culminating in the great disaster to the Jewish community of Spain under the Visigoths, about which we are particularly well informed. The Jewish population of Western Europe was now, it seems, reduced to relative unimportance, except perhaps in some parts of Italy.
Conditions changed for the better in the eighth century. The Arab conquests opened up Spain to new colonization which seems to have attained significant proportions – at first, it is true, in a quasi-Asiatic cultural setting – but this was destined to be temporary, waning with the Reconquest and the expansion of the Christian kingdoms. Simultaneously, and apparently with the sedulous encouragement of the Carolingian rulers in France, Italy, and Germany, Jewish merchants and traders (typified in the *Radanites who had their base in the Rhone delta) became active in Western, then in Central Europe, establishing a fresh nexus of Jewish communities or reinforcing the old. In Eastern Europe – an outlet for their exports of the manufactured products of the West, a source of their purchases of raw materials and slaves – they presumably joined up with older Jewish settlements that had spread northward from the Black Sea and Crimea or along the Danube valley. This period moreover coincided with that of the near-extinction of the old settlement in Ereẓ Israel and the drastic dwindling of that of Mesopotamia and the neighboring lands, due in part to political and in part to economic causes. The result was that in this period, approximately between 800 and 1050, there took place either a mass transference of the Jewish population from East to West, or else a phenomenal expansion of the one and dwindling of the other which had much the same effect. From the 11th century, in any case, the center of Jewry and of Jewish intellectual life was transferred to Europe, where it was to remain for nearly 1,000 years. The new settlers were moreover of a different type in many respects from the old. They (especially those of Northern Europe) might be termed "Talmud Jews" who guided their lives in every respect according to the detailed prescriptions that had become evolved recently in Ereẓ Israel and especially Mesopotamia, and considered that the study of the Talmud was the greatest of religious duties and of personal pleasures. Hence, when the great talmudic academies of Mesopotamia decayed in the 11th century, those of Northern Europe – especially France and the Rhineland – were ready to take their place; and the former rabbinic traditions were perpetuated there for centuries. In the south of Europe, particularly in Spain, a somewhat different intellectual tradition prevailed, literature, belles lettres, philosophy, and poetry attaining new heights. At the same time, the position of the Jews, straddling the Latin-Christian and the Arab-Islamic cultures, qualified them in a unique degree to perform the function of middlemen in intellectual as well as economic activities; and while on the one hand they participated in the scientific and philosophical activities of the Islamic world, on the other they were to a great extent responsible for the transference of the superb fruits of these activities to the 12th-century Christian world, and so helped to bring about the Latin renaissance and the revival of learning in Europe.
It is possible to exaggerate the well-being of the Jews in Europe in the Dark Ages, but there can be no question as to the great and tragic difference that resulted from the *Crusades. Hitherto, attacks on the Jews had been sporadic and occasional, but from the onslaught on the Jewish communities in France and the Rhineland in 1096 they became commonplace during any period of religious excitement or incitement; not only when the Christian forces marched against the infidels or heretics, but when such preposterous charges as that of the *blood libel (from 1141) or of the desecration of the *Host (after 1215) were brought up against the Jews. The stimulus given to European trade by the Crusades and the expansion of the Italian trading republics undermined the position of the Jewish international merchants. As a result of this, combined with the fact that at this period the Church's attack on the practice of usury reached its climax, the Jews of Northern Europe especially were now driven into the profession of *moneylending – encouraged and protected by their rulers, whose systematic and rapacious system of taxation converted this into a primary source of revenue for themselves. On the other hand, the profession of moneylending, besides affording ample leisure for the talmudic study that had become the all-pervading passion of Northern European Jewry, endowed them temporarily, in the intervals of spoliation, with a remarkable degree of economic well-being, so that the Jews of France, Germany, and *England in the Middle Ages constituted one of
Most of the refugees from these countries probably found their way ultimately to Germany, where political fragmentation prevented any similar wholesale measure, although the outbreaks of massacre, particularly at the time of the *Black Death of 1348–49, far outdid in scale and horror anything else of the sort known in medieval Jewish history. Hence it was only a feeble remnant that maintained the Jewish connection here unbroken. On the other hand, the greater security, and opportunities for profitable activity in an economically undeveloped area, drew Jews (as well as non-Jews) at this time to *Poland, now struggling for revival after the devastation wrought by Tatar invasions of the 13th century. With the close of the Middle Ages this country became the essential bulwark of Jewish life in Europe, perpetuating the intellectual traditions of France and the Rhineland, still maintaining the colloquial German of their ancestors as their *Yiddish vernacular, and developing in the *Council of the [Four] Lands and the sister-bodies autonomous institutions hardly paralleled elsewhere in Diaspora history. Poland therefore became the center of "*Ashkenazi" Jewry, i.e., those of (Franco-) German origin.
Meanwhile, the condition of the Jews of Spain too, after reaching unprecedented heights of culture as well as of political influence even under the Christian kings, began to deteriorate owing to the constant propaganda of the friars. A wave of massacres in 1391 initiated the problem of the *Conversos or *Marranos or *New Christians, which inexorably led in due course to the establishment of the *Inquisition in 1484, and the Expulsion from Spain in 1492 and from *Portugal (leaving behind however a compact body of Marranos) in 1497. The refugees made their way in great numbers eastward, where they revived the flagging communities that had survived from Byzantine times. Turkey-in-Europe (see *Ottoman Empire; apart from Turkey-in-Asia, where the same occurred) thus became the great center of *Sephardi (or Spanish and Portuguese) Jewry, as Poland was of Ashkenazi Jewry, and the communities in *Constantinople, *Salonika, and other places preserved the ancient traditions of Spanish-speaking Jewry in islands of western Mediterranean culture transplanted to Eastern Europe.
Renaissance and Counter-Reformation
In the first half of the 16th century, the Italian mainland (the Jews had been expelled from *Sicily and *Sardinia, with the rest of the Aragonese dominions, in 1492) had witnessed a remarkable development in Jewish cultural life and activity, in the spirit of the Renaissance. But this was changed by the Counter-Reformation. The Jews were expelled from the Kingdom of *Naples by its Spanish rulers in 1542; the old anti-Jewish code with new extensions was rigidly enforced in northern Italy (especially the papal dominions) from 1555 onward, accompanied by the institution of the *ghetto and heartless enforcement of the ghetto system henceforth invariable in Catholic Europe. Although Jewish communities continued to exist in the famous ghettos of *Rome, *Venice, *Mantua, etc., which, though not numerically large, played a great part in Jewish cultural life, a considerable proportion of Italian Jewry (especially from the center and south of the peninsula) was now absorbed in the Sephardi communities of the Near East. It is important, however, to note that these newly reestablished centers, under Muslim rule, whether or not in the geographical bounds of Europe, were henceforth basically European in culture, outlook, and language: segments as it were of medieval Europe embedded fossilwise in Asiatic or African soil.
The Renaissance and the accompanying movements established for centuries the predominance of Europe in the world politically, culturally, and scientifically. It hence confirmed the predominance of European Jewry over its coreligionists in other continents, most paradoxically, precisely at the time when most of Europe rejected, ejected, and excluded the Jews. Though European Jewry had led in every aspect of Jewish creativity since the beginning of the millennium, there had been solid collaboration hitherto from elements in other continents; from now on, the lead of Europe was overwhelmingly great, and so far as Jewish life in the other continents was concerned it was on the whole as protractions of European Jewish life. The development of *printing confirmed and accentuated this cultural hegemony. For four and a half centuries at least, almost all Hebrew printing was done in Europe – with the inevitable result that the European Hebrew texts in particular were accepted as classical, and new works by European Jewish scholars became universally accepted while others of perhaps equal merit might remain in manuscript and almost unknown in wider circles.
The culmination of the age of degradation was accompanied, however, by the glimmer of a new dawn. Marranos mainly from Portugal rather than Spain, settling at this period in Northern Europe for the sake of business more than freedom of conscience, ventured little by little to throw off the disguise of Christianity. By the end of the 16th century, a number of new Jewish communities, hovering as yet on the borders of
In Eastern Europe, by this time, the Jews had become involved in the hatreds that had been engendered between the Roman Catholic Poles and their persecuted Greek Catholic subjects in the *Ukraine. In consequence, when the latter rose in revolt under the Cossack hetman *Chmielnicki in 1648–49, Jews as well as Poles suffered, the Jews even more than the Poles, the ensuing wave of massacres ending the days of tranquility that had hitherto been the rule there. Henceforth, the tide of emigration set in the reverse direction, from east to west, the communities of Germany, and thereafter of Western Europe, being considerably reinforced. This was intensified as generations passed and the condition of Polish Jewry constantly deteriorated. Conversely, at this period the emergence in Germany after the Peace of Westphalia (1648) of competing states and would-be resplendent courts gave opportunities such as had never existed before for lucrative activities for Jewish factors and *Court Jews, new Jewish communities often developing around them. Thus here too a new type of socially assimilated Jew began to emerge in the 17th century, culminating in the 18th in the remarkable figure of Moses *Mendelssohn, almost the first Jew to play a role of real importance in European cultural life.
Thus by the end of the 18th century a new type of Jew had emerged in Western Europe. After the outbreak of the French Revolution it was hence inevitable that the new doctrine of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity should be applied, at first reluctantly, to the Jews as well – that is, that they should be given the same rights, receive the same treatment, and have the same duties as other men. Or, to put it another way, they were now formally recognized as Europeans, differentiated from other Europeans by adherence to another faith. These new doctrines were moreover imposed by or imitated from the French almost all over the continent of Europe where Jews were to be found. A reaction followed the fall of Napoleon in 1815; but henceforth Jewish political equality was part of the liberal creed, and it was accepted almost everywhere by the
third quarter of the 19th century (the crucial year may be fixed at 1870), Jewish *emancipation being henceforth the rule. Jews now began to play a role of increasing importance in European cultural, literary, scientific, social, and even political activity. At the same time, Jewish *assimilation became accelerated, both in the extreme form of conversion to the dominant faith, and in the more loyal form of the representation of Judaism simply as a divergent European religion – that is, *Reform Judaism, in all its branches and aspects (including *neo-Orthodoxy). The development of a Hebrew secular literature along European models (*Haskalah) and of vernacular literature on Hebrew scholarly themes (Wissenschaft des Judentums) were other aspects of this same tendency.
There was however one area where this new attitude did not apply, and the exception was numerically more important, and in its way more significant, than the rule. In *Russia (where there was no important Jewish settlement until the annexation of those areas of the old Polish kingdom which had the largest Jewish population) these were years not of progress but (with rare intervals) of reaction, and in 1881 a wave of massacres (*pogroms) began on a scale and of a type which recalled the Middle Ages, to be followed by economic and social restrictions of unprecedented scope (the *"May Laws"). A wave of emigration (see *migration) followed on a vast scale. This entirely changed the face of European Jewry within very few years. It greatly reinforced the Jewish communities of Western Europe, in particular that of England, and even changed their character. But far more important than this was the transatlantic migration. Emigration largely from Germany in the first three-quarters of the 19th century had relieved the pressure of population in that country and at the same time greatly developed the Jewish community in the *United States of America. Now, within a few years, as a result of immigration from Eastern Europe, it was to be reinforced in fantastic proportions. The results were all-important. For eight centuries after approximately the year 1000, the essential center of Jewish life and creativity had been in Europe. Outside the European area there had been only relatively unimportant offshoots, and this applied in particular to Ashkenazi Jewry. After the 1880s the United States was to be the second, and in due course the first, center of Jewish life in the world, from the point of view of population, and the relative role of European Jewry correspondingly diminished. From the early Victorian era the Western European Jewish communities
During this period, the ancient Sephardi communities of the Mediterranean area had been affected by quasi-lethargy. Although under the rule of Turkey and the Balkan successor states their material and political condition was on the whole not adverse, the spirit of creativity that had been so marked in Spain had now passed from them almost entirely.
World War I
World War I marked the beginning of a cataclysm in European Jewish life. The revolutions of 1917 brought the Russian Jews emancipation, but at the same time ushered in the Bolshevik regime which in the long run severed the mass of Russian Jews from their coreligionists abroad, and indeed from Judaism. On the other hand, the removal of the traditional residence restrictions, which had hitherto confined the Jews to the *Pale of Settlement, implied that henceforth they were spread more evenly throughout the vast Russian territories, in Asia as well as Europe. Although the rights of the Jews in the Succession States, which were severed mainly from Russia (especially Poland with a very large Jewish population), were nominally guaranteed by the Versailles treaties, the actuality fell short of this. The ensuing period was hence one of strain and perplexity, and emigration continued – though on a smaller scale than hitherto. Owing to restrictions in North America it was now largely directed to South America, and in part to Ereẓ Israel, as a result of the *Balfour Declaration which was specifically intended to help solve the problems of European Jewry.
Rise of Antisemitism and Nazism
In Germany, the dazzling progress of persons of Jewish extraction after Emancipation had given rise at the close of the 19th century to the new racial *antisemitism. For a long while this had remained an annoyance rather than a menace, although in France the *Dreyfus case from 1894 to 1896 had caused a major political convulsion and convinced Theodor *Herzl that
the solution to the Jewish problem must be sought outside the setting of European life. The German defeat in World War I and the physical as well as moral distress that ensued gave the antisemitic movement in that country an enormous impetus, and it became a cardinal principle of the Nazi Party (see *National Socialism) which attained power in 1933. The persecution that ensued drove very large numbers of Jews from Germany and *Austria into exile, to other parts of Europe, to Ereẓ Israel, and to other continents. This, however, proved to be only a beginning. During World War II, in the course of which the German armies overran almost all those parts of continental Europe in which Jewish communities existed, a systematic campaign of extermination was carried out. By the conclusion of hostilities in 1945, some 6,000,000 had perished in the *Holocaust out of the 9,000,000 who had lived in Europe in 1933, apart from the hundreds of thousands who had gone into exile; most of the greatest Jewish communities of the Continent – *Vienna, *Berlin, *Warsaw, *Lodz – had been annihilated. Many lands – including *Poland, *Yugoslavia, *Czechoslovakia, and even *Holland, as well as Germany and Austria – had become almost empty of Jews, most of the handful of survivors preferring to leave the blood-soaked soil. The great talmudic academies of Eastern Europe had been destroyed, as well as the center of Sephardi culture in the Balkans. Moreover, the Russian Jewish remnant seemed to be cut off from Jewish life even more completely than before, henceforth having no creative role to play.
The proportion of European Jewry in the world Jewish population declined in the course of half a century from 87.2% in 1880 to 58.05% in 1939, and then to 30% in 1968 and 12% in 2003. After approximately a thousand years, the European dominance in Jewish life has ended. It has on the one hand reverted to the ancestral soil in Asia; on the other, been transferred to the New World beyond the Atlantic Ocean.
For the history of the Jewish community in individual European countries see:
Europe Virtual Jewish History Tour
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.