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1782: Habsburg Emperor Announces Tolerance for Jews

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Portrait of Joseph II by George Decker.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On January 2, 1782, Habsburg Emperor Joseph II issued his Edict of Tolerance, which bestowed upon Jews permission to practice their faith freely in lower Austria, which included Vienna and environs. The edict followed on the heels of a similar declaration in 1781, in which Protestant Christians were offered freedom of worship and the opportunity to hold public office.

These pronouncements were part of a series of laws, covering different subjects and different regions, that the “enlightened despot” Joseph enacted, in his effort to reform and liberalize the empire.

Joseph II (1741-1790) was the son of Maria Theresa. Although he assumed the impressive title of Holy Roman Emperor in 1765, it was not until his mother’s death, in 1780, that he became ruler of all of the Habsburg lands, including Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia.

Although he was absolutist in his administration of power, he was influenced by the liberal principles of the Enlightenment, and wanted to bring his empire into the modern age.

Not ‘the best kind of people’

It was after a 1777 visit to France that Joseph became convinced of the rightness of freedom of religion, something his mother thought would prove to be a disaster for the kingdom. Joseph was, though, hardly a lover of the Jews, having once said, “I have never regarded the so numerous Jewry in my hereditary lands as the best kind of people.” But neither was he like the Jew-hating Maria Theresa; he believed they could be encouraged to become like other subjects, and thus be made “useful to the state,” in the words of the edict.

To this end, by the terms of the Edict of Tolerance, Jews were permitted to open their own schools, or to send their children to Christian schools, and to universities. Jews were permitted to live where they chose, to enter the trades and professions they wanted, open factories, or own and work the land.

Jews get new names, and the draft

With new privileges came new obligations, some of which impinged on the autonomy previously enjoyed by the Jewish community. Jews had to adopt both first and family names, with the former to be selected from a list of German-language names. And their freedom to use Yiddish and Hebrew was now limited to the religious realm.

Rabbinic courts were now to be limited in the range of their jurisdiction, and even Jewish marriage, divorce and burial practices had to conform to state law. By 1788, conscription began for the Jews of Galicia – the first time in the modern era that Jews served in an army.

The privileges of the edict and succeeding imperial orders, which were the first of their kind in Europe, did not constitute citizenship or even full equality – after many zigs and zags, full equality was granted to the Jews of both Austria and Hungary only in 1867 – but did reflect a desire to integrate the Jews into society, both economically and culturally.

Joseph II died on February 20, 1790, isolated from his court and family, and on the defensive abroad. His instructions were for his epitaph to read, “Here lies Joseph II, who failed in all he undertook.” Despite that gloomy self-assessment, history sees Joseph’s reforms in Austria-Hungary as serving as a guide for the rest of Europe – even if Europe in the first half of the 20th century turned its back on the Enlightenment. The Jews of the region were to remain emancipated until the rise of the Nazis in 1933, which began a new era of anti-Jewish legislation and action, culminating in the Holocaust.

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