Jewish question

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The Jewish question was the name given to a wide-ranging debate in European society pertaining to the appropriate status and treatment of Jews in society. The debate involved the civil, legal and national status of Jews as a minority within society, particularly in Europe.

The debate started within societies, politicians and writers in western and central Europe influenced by the Age of Enlightenment and the ideals of the French Revolution. The issues included the legal and economic Jewish disabilities (e.g. Jewish quotas and segregation), Jewish assimilation, Jewish emancipation and Jewish Enlightenment.

The expression has been used by antisemitic movements from the 1880s onwards, culminating in the Nazi phrase "the Final Solution to the Jewish Question". Similarly, the expression was used by proponents for and opponents of the establishment of an autonomous Jewish homeland or a sovereign Jewish state.

History of "The Jewish Question"

The term "Jewish Question" was first used in Great Britain in around 1750. According to Holocaust scholar Lucy Dawidowicz, the term "Jewish Question", as introduced in western Europe, was a neutral expression for the negative attitude toward the apparent and persistent singularity of the Jews as a people against the background of the rising political nationalisms and new nation-states. Dawidowicz writes that "the histories of Jewish emancipation and of European antisemitism are replete with proffered 'solutions to the Jewish question.'"[1] The question was next discussed in France ("la question juive") after the French Revolution in 1789, before arriving in Germany via Bruno Bauer's treatise "Die Judenfrage" - The Jewish Question.

From that point hundreds of other tractates, pamphlets, newspaper articles and books were written on the subject, with many offering solutions including resettlement, deportation and assimilation of the Jewish population. Similarly, hundreds of pieces of literature were written opposing these solutions and have offered solutions such as re-integration and education. This debate however, could not decide whether the problem of the Jewish Question had more to do with the problems posed by the German Jews' opponents or vice versa: the problem posed by the existence of the German Jews to their opponents.

From around 1860 the notion took on an increasingly antisemitic tendency: Jews were described under this title as a stumbling block to the identity and cohesion of the German nation and as enemies within the Germans' own country. Antisemites such as Wilhelm Marr, Karl Eugen Dühring, Theodor Fritsch, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Paul de Lagarde and others declared it a racial problem unsolvable through integration, in order to make their demands for the "de-jewifying" of the press, education, culture, state and economy, plausible, along with their demands for the condemnation of inter-marriage between Jews and non-Jews. They also used this definition to oust the Jews out of their supposedly socially dominant positions.

By far the most infamous use of this expression was by the Nazis in the early- and mid- twentieth century, culminating in the implementation of their "Final Solution to the Jewish question" during World War II.[2][3]

Early usage

An early use of the expression "Jewish question" appeared during the Jew Bill of 1753 debates in England.[4] According to Otto Dov Kulka[5] of Hebrew University, the term became widespread in the 19th century when it was used in discussions about Jewish emancipation in Germany (Judenfrage).[4]

Bruno Bauer - The Jewish Question

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In his book The Jewish Question, published in 1843, Bauer argued that Jews can achieve political emancipation only if they relinquish their particular religious consciousness, since political emancipation requires a secular state, which he assumes does not leave any "space" for social identities such as religion. According to Bauer, such religious demands are incompatible with the idea of the "Rights of Man." True political emancipation, for Bauer, requires the abolition of religion.

Karl Marx - On the Jewish Question

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Karl Marx replied to Bauer in his 1844 essay On the Jewish Question. Marx contradicted Bauer's view that the nature of the Jewish religion prevented Judaism's assimilation. Instead he focused on the specific social and economic role of the Jewish group in Europe which, according to him, was lost when capitalism, the material basis for Judaism, assimilated the European societies as a whole.[6]

Marx uses Bauer's essay as an occasion for his own analysis of liberal rights. Marx argues that Bauer is mistaken in his assumption that in a "secular state", religion will no longer play a prominent role in social life, and, as an example refers to the pervasiveness of religion in the United States, which, unlike Prussia, had no state religion. In Marx's analysis, the "secular state" is not opposed to religion, but rather actually presupposes it. The removal of religious or property qualifications for citizens does not mean the abolition of religion or property, but only introduces a way of regarding individuals in abstraction from them.[7] On this note Marx moves beyond the question of religious freedom to his real concern with Bauer's analysis of "political emancipation." Marx concludes that while individuals can be 'spiritually' and 'politically' free in a secular state, they can still be bound to material constraints on freedom by economic inequality, an assumption that would later form the basis of his critiques of capitalism.

After Marx

Werner Sombart praised Jews for their capitalism and presented the 17–18th century court Jews as integrated and a model for integration.[8] By the turn of the 20th century, the debate was still widely discussed and raised to prominence by the Dreyfus Affair in France. Within the religious and political elite, some continued to favor assimilation and political engagement in Europe[citation needed] while others, such as Theodore Herzl, proposed the advancement of a separate Jewish state and the Zionist cause.[9] Between 1880 and 1920, millions of other Jews sought their own solution for the pogroms of eastern Europe by emigration to other places, such as the United States and western Europe.

The Final Solution

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In Nazi Germany, the term Jewish Question (in German: Judenfrage) referred to the sense that the existence of Jews in Germany posed a problem for the state. In 1933 two Nazi theorists, Johann von Leers and Achim Gercke, both proposed that the Jewish Question could be solved most humanely by resettling Jews in Madagascar or elsewhere in Africa or South America. Both intellectuals discussed the pros and cons of supporting the German Zionists as well, but von Leers asserted that establishing a Jewish homeland in British Palestine would create humanitarian and political problems for the region.[10] Upon achieving power in 1933, Hitler and the Nazi state began to implement increasingly severe measures aimed at segregating and ultimately removing the Jewish people from Germany and (eventually) all of Europe.[11] The next stage was persecution of Jews and the stripping of Jews of their citizenship through the Nuremberg Laws.[12][13] Later, during World War II, it became state-sponsored internment in concentration camps[14] and finally, the systematic extermination of the Jewish people (The Holocaust),[15] which took place as the so-called Final Solution to the Jewish Question.[2][16][17]


Nazi propaganda was produced to manipulate the public, most notably based on writings from people such as Eugen Fischer, Fritz Lenz and Erwin Baur in the book Foundations of Human Heredity Teaching and Racial Hygiene. And in the book Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens ("Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Living") by Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche or in pseudo scholarship created by Gerhard Kittel.

See also

Further reading

Lucien Wolf, Notes on the Diplomatic History of the Jewish Question, Jewish Historical Society of England (1919)

Elisabeth Roudinesco, Returning to the Jewish Question, London, Polity Press, December 2013, p. 280


  1. Lucy Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945 (New York, 1975), pp. xxi-xxiii.
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  3. Furet, François. Unanswered Questions: Nazi Germany and the Genocide of the Jews. Schocken Books (1989), p. 182; ISBN 0-8052-4051-9
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  5. As of 2008 Otto Dov Kulka's works are out of print, but the following may be useful and is available on microfilm: Reminiscences of Otto Dov Kulka (Glen Rock, NJ: Microfilming Corp. of America, 1975), ISBN 0-88455-598-4 and 9780884555988, OCLC 5326379.
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  7. Marx 1844:

    [T]he political annulment of private property not only fails to abolish private property but even presupposes it. The state abolishes, in its own way, distinctions of birth, social rank, education, occupation, when it declares that birth, social rank, education, occupation, are non-political distinctions, when it proclaims, without regard to these distinctions, that every member of the nation is an equal participant in national sovereignty, when it treats all elements of the real life of the nation from the standpoint of the state. Nevertheless, the state allows private property, education, occupation, to act in their way – i.e., as private property, as education, as occupation, and to exert the influence of their special nature. Far from abolishing these real distinctions, the state only exists on the presupposition of their existence; it feels itself to be a political state and asserts its universality only in opposition to these elements of its being.

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  11. David M. Crowe. The Holocaust: Roots, History, and Aftermath. Westview Press, 2008.
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  15. Niewyk, Donald L. The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust, Columbia University Press, 2000, p.45: "The Holocaust is commonly defined as the murder of more than 5,000,000 Jews by the Germans in World War II." Also see "The Holocaust," Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007: "the systematic state-sponsored killing of six million Jewish men, women and children, and millions of others, by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II. The Germans called this "the final solution to the Jewish question."
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  17. For some extra depth, the interested reader might read Wannsee Conference as well.

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