The Haskalah: a cultural response to anti-semitism in Eastern Europe 1840-1920

Priest, Annie (2000) The Haskalah: a cultural response to anti-semitism in Eastern Europe 1840-1920. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


This thesis examines the inter-relationship between the Haskalah and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe in the period 1840-1920, a focus which it will be argued has been ignored or understated in recent literature. This dynamic inter-relationship produced a cultural response which ushered in a new sense of Jewish identity. This cultural response assumed two dimensions, the analysis of which constitutes the core of this thesis. The first dimension will be explored in the political, the linguistic and the literary domains of the Haskalah. Using close textual analysis of selected Haskalah writers and adopting an inter-disciplinary focus consistent with the methodology of the history of ideas, within all three cultural domains a response to anti-Semitism can be detected in firstly the political domain in which the growth of Jewish nationalism developed into Zionism; secondly, in the linguistic domain resulting in the revival and rebirth of Hebrew and Yiddish; and thirdly, in the literary domain in which new forms of literature and poetry helped to transform attitudes towards modem Jewish identity. The second dimension represents the shift from invisibility to visibility, from assimilation to uniqueness which occurred within the Haskalah movement. The Haskalah in Eastern Europe thus went through two stages and both were a direct response to anti-Semitism. The Haskalah and anti-Semitism acted upon each other in a dialectical process to bring about these two stages. The first can be seen as negative, adopting many of the anti-Semitic stereotypes of the time in which the Jews were persuaded to become invisible, to disappear by total assimilation into the surrounding culture. The second stage was positive in that there was a rejection of anti-Semitic perceptions of the Jew, and a firm declaration of the intrinsic value and worth of Jewish experience and culture. Jewish identity then assumed a unique visibility of its own. This thesis will explore both of these stages and the tension between invisibility and visibility, between assimilation and uniqueness. Using the heuristic device of the two dimensional nature of the Haskalah, an analysis and interpretation of the Haskalah and its contribution to the emergence of a modem Jewish identity will be provided.

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