The Emancipation of 1796

The Emancipation of 1796 and its consequences

In January 1795 French troops invaded the Dutch Republic and disseminated the values of the French Revolution in the new Batavian Republic. Freedom, equality, and brotherhood were key principles and extended to Jews as well. On 2 September 1796, the Decreet over den Gelykstaat der Joodsche met alle andere Burgers [decree granting Jews civil rights equal to those of all other citizens] was adopted at the National Assembly. This document stipulated that Jews were citizens with equal rights. Once they were granted civil rights, the Jews in the Republic ceased to be aliens. Because the governors of the Republic refrained from taking measures to apply the emancipation in practice, however, little changed at first.

The consequences of the Emancipation in the 18th century

After 1796 Jews were fully enfranchised Dutch citizens and as such no longer restricted in their movement or occupation. They were entitled to vote or to stand in elections. In practice, however, the emancipation benefited only the upper crust of the Jewish community. The elite was the first to attain social equality. The rest of the Jews in the Netherlands did not have this status for a while.
Even though the guilds were abolished and all occupations opened to Jews, their occupational range remained very limited. Jews lacked training in new occupations and were hardly in great demand there. They also had difficulty working for non-Jews because of the requirement that Jews rest on the Sabbath. Many therefore remained merchants. Poverty continued to be widespread among Jews in the Netherlands, and integration was rare.
When Stadtholder William V returned in 1813 and was crowned King William I in 1815, he took several measures to promote Jewish integration and assimilation. He prohibited Yiddish in schools and at synagogues and required Jewish schools to teach secular subjects in addition to religious ones. King William I concluded by decreeing that ‘congregations’ were to be established for all religious denominations. The Jews ceased to be organized in independent Jewish communities.

The Jewish bourgeoisie in the second half of the nineteenth century

In the second half of the nineteenth century, when liberalism was in its heyday, the Jewish bourgeoisie became emancipated. Meanwhile, Dutch had penetrated these circles, and in 1849 the first Jewish weekly in Dutch appeared: the Nederlandsch Israëlitisch Nieuws- en Advertentieblad, the predecessor of the current Nieuw Israëlietisch Weekblad.
Over time, being Jewish ceased to prevent members of the bourgeoisie from holding social offices. Samuel Sarphati (1813-1866) exemplified the new prominence of Jews. He served on the Amsterdam city council and helped found a great many institutions and organizations that changed the image of the City of Amsterdam. [Also see the Theme Jewish phycisians.]
Jewish families, such as the Menkos and the Spanjaards, opened textile factories in the East of the Netherlands around this time. In 1870 in Amsterdam S. P. Goudsmit opened a wholesale business that later became the Bijenkorf department store, while other Jewish entrepreneurs opened large department stores as well. Members of the Kattenburg family started what was to become the thriving Hollandia Kattenburg raincoat factory.
Increasing numbers of Jews enrolled in universities. Many studied law and became lawyers, judges, or legal scholars. The first Jewish minister in the Netherlands, M.H. Godefroi, Esq., who served as minister of Justice from 1860 to 1862, was a legal scholar himself. Medicine was another very popular course of study among Jews, and soon several Jewish physicians practised in the Netherlands. There were also well-known and lesser-known Jewish journalists, authors, actors, musicians, and painters.

Jews in a compartmentalized society

The extensive Jewish support for integration and assimilation was apparent from the position of the Dutch Jews in the dispute over state support for confessional schools. Under the School Act of 1857, the state provided primary schools open to children of all religious affiliations. Confessional schools did not receive state funding. In 1878 a new act was adopted regulating the quality of these confessional schools. Because many schools were unable to meet these requirements without state funding and would therefore be forced to close, the act gave rise to a dispute that became known as the schoolstrijd. Protestants and Catholics alike opposed the act. Their protest culminated in various political lobbies for different religious denominations and made the schoolstrijd one of the driving forces behind the compartmentalization that left such a deep imprint on Dutch society.
The Jews hardly protested. Most Jewish authorities, politicians, journalists, educational experts, and – according to the information available – parents supported the state school system. Even rabbis raised few objections. The Jewish elite and the middle class welcomed the opportunity to become integrated in Dutch culture. Although by 1850 the emancipation had brought substantial improvement to the position of the Jewish elite and the Jewish middle class, most Jews were still poor, and integration with the non-Jewish population was a long way off.

Jewish workers in the second half of the nineteenth century

At the time the school act was adopted, nearly 64,000 Jews lived in the Netherlands, including about 27,000 in Amsterdam. Most were still concentrated in the Jewish neighbourhood, in homes that were declared unfit for human habitation half a century later.
Most Jews operated within a restricted geographic and social radius. They interacted primarily with their co-religionists, lived near each other, spent their leisure time together, and tended to work among and with other Jews as well. The members of the Jewish community were concentrated in a small range of occupations, particularly in trade and in the diamond industry [see the Theme Jewish market and street vendors and the Theme Jewish diamond workers].
This limited economic scope left the Jewish community extremely vulnerable. Many of these Amsterdam Jews were poor. Around 1854, 45.3 percent of the Ashkenazi Jews in Amsterdam received poor relief, compared with a general average of 26 percent. Those on poor relief had to send their children to Jewish schools for the poor, where the quality of instruction – especially in profane subjects – often left much to be desired. In addition to offering better education, the state school system would help the Jewish children living amid geographic, social, and economic isolation become more assimilated and integrated and would provide opportunities for social advancement, argued the Jewish supporters of the state school system.

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