In Western Europe, Jews began their efforts to gain equal rights, i.e., to enjoy the same civil rights as the rest of society, in the eighteenth century, along with the bourgeoisie and peasants. They were included in the Enlightenment-inspired reforms, which were implemented in the wake of the French Revolution. 

The Jews' emancipation was not enacted immediately following the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, but rather required a separate edict of the French National Constituent Assembly on September 27, 1791. This was later undermined several times, including during the Napoleonic period. It was only in Calvinist Holland that the Jews, particularly Sephardic Jews, enjoyed almost total freedom as early as the seventeenth century. The United States was the first country to stipulate equal rights for all citizens, regardless of their religion, which was included in the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776.

In Poland, there were attempts to reform Jews' legal status during the Four-Year Sejm (1788-92); these were greeted with strong opposition from the conservative representatives. The Polish Freemasons played a large role in the preparations leading up to the reform, taking their inspiration from the French Revolution.

The Third of May Constitution of 1791 gave Jews and the bourgeoisie the same rights, but did not eliminate the system of estates, nor the numerous restrictions on the lower estates. As a result of the partitions that soon followed, the new laws embodied in the Constitution could not be implemented. After the partitions, the laws of each partitioning power regulated the Jews' position. The absolutist governments stipulated that Jews be given equal rights only on the condition that they "civilize themselves", which in practice meant forced assimilation, in addition to various restrictions.

Jews were granted full equal rights in the Austrian Empire in 1867, in Prussia in 1869, and in Italy in 1848-1866; in the Papal States, on the other hand, they received them only in 1870. In these countries, it was a gradual process, beginning with the toleration patent of Joseph II and Napoleonic-era legislation, which was later rescinded by the Holy Alliance, followed by the revolutionary achievements of the Spring of Nations. Equal rights were eventually formally guaranteed in laws and by the state, and questioned only by anti-Semitic political groups.
In Russia, restrictions remained in force limiting Jews' choice of profession, education, religion, freedom of movement and place of residence. The May laws (1882) meant additional restrictions for Jews, which in effect left them outside the law. It was only the February Revolution of 1917 that accorded Jews equal rights.

Despite the principle of equal rights that was formally acknowledged in the Soviet Union, during the Stalinist period various restrictions were imposed on Jews. Jewish artists and those active in Jewish cultural life were persecuted: arrests took place in the 1930's and Jewish institutions were liquidated 1948. The members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Front were executed in 1952, which was followed by the doctors' trial in 1953. Moreover, they were limited in their choice of university studies and profession, a restriction that was only lifted after perestroika in the early 1990's.

Jews' rights in other countries of the Soviet bloc were also limited, both for individuals or groups: their ability to cultivate their ethnic identity and religious life was hindered and they had only limited opportunities for advancement. There were also periods of persecution in various countries, such as the show trials against L. Rajk in Hungary in 1949 and R. Slansky in Czechoslovakia in 1952, and the purges in Poland that took place in 1949, 1956 and 1968. Forced emigration also took place. 

The idea that Jews are fellow citizens deserving of the same legal protection from the state as any other citizen came relatively late, as did the notion that Jews should be guaranteed the same rights in their private and professional lives. These were concepts that European societies accepted only with difficulty. 

Alina Cała

The text comes from the Diapozytyw Portal, formerly owned by the Instytutu Adama Mickiewicza.
The following text comes from the book entitled "Historia i kultura Żydów polskich. Słownik", by Alina Cała, Hanna Węgrzynek and Gabriela Zalewska, published by WSiP
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