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Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, Concerning the Amelioration of the Civil Status of the Jews (1781)

Christian Wilhelm von Dohm (1751-1820), who distinguished himself in Prussian diplomatic and other administrative service, achieved European fame with this essay, which greatly influenced the emergent political process of “Jewish emancipation,” both in Germany and elsewhere. Arguing from the Enlightenment premises of universal Natural Rights and religious toleration, Dohm sought to counter then-current anti-Jewish prejudices by highlighting the negative environmental conditions under which Jews had long been forced to live. Opening agriculture and, especially, the artisan trades to the Jews would, Dohm held, counteract the effects of their overconcentration in the spheres of commerce and finance. Not wishing to inspire defensive reactions among Christian officials, Dohm cautioned against immediately opening up public-sector positions to Jewish applicants. Though he anticipated Jewish assimilation into Christian society, he did not suppose that the Jewish religion would wither away.

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Concerning the Amelioration of the Civil Status of the Jews

Christian Wilhelm von Dohm

The great and noble business of the Government is to mitigate the mutually exclusive principles of all these varied groups so that they will not harm the greater union which comprises all of them, so that the separateness will incite only greater activity and competition, not antipathy and withdrawal, so that all the single notes are dissolved in the great harmony of the state. The Government should allow each of the special groups its pride, and even its harmful prejudices, but should endeavor to instill in each member a greater love of the state. This great goal is achieved, if the nobleman, the peasant, the scholar, the artisan, the Christian and the Jew consider their separateness as secondary, and their role as citizen, primary. Thus the citizens of the great states of antiquity were not divided because of divergent beliefs in various gods. They were patriots first. And so today, on the other side of the ocean, Catholics, Episcopalians and Puritans are fighting together for the new state which is to unite all of them, and for freedom and justice to be enjoyed by all of them. And so we, too, in some European countries already see the citizens united in harmony for the pursuit of happiness in this life, even though they seek the happiness of a future life on different paths. So, even if actually in the faith of today's Jews there should be some principles which would restrict them too strongly to their special group and exclude them from the other groups of the great civil society; this would still not justify their persecution – which can only serve to confirm them in their opinions – so long as their laws are not contrary to the general principles of morality and do not permit anti-social vices. The only business of the government in this case would be (1) to have an exact knowledge of those principles, or indeed only the conclusions drawn from religious principles, and the actual influence of these on their actions, and (2) endeavor to weaken the influence of these principles, by general enlightenment of the nation, by furthering and advancing its morals independently of religion, and, in general, further the refinement of their sentiments.

More than anything else a life of normal civil happiness in a well ordered state, enjoying the long withheld freedom, would tend to do away with clannish religious opinions. The Jew is even more man than Jew, and how would it be possible for him not to love a state where he could freely acquire property and freely enjoy it, where his taxes would be not heavier than those of the other citizens, where he could reach positions of honor and enjoy general esteem? Why should he hate people who are no longer distinguished from him by offensive prerogatives, who share with him equal rights and duties? The novelty of this happiness, and unfortunately, the probability that this will not in the near future happen in all states, would make it even more precious to the Jew, and gratitude alone would make him the most patriotic citizen. He would look at his country with the eyes of a long misjudged, and finally after long banishment, re-instated son. These human emotions would talk louder in his heart than the sophistic sayings of his rabbis.

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