This Day in Jewish History

1802: Jews Ask Holy Roman Empire to Upgrade Them to Citizens

That didn't work but the Germans did agree to rescind the discriminatory poll tax levied on Jews.

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On November 15, 1802, a delegation of German Jews from the city of Frankfurt presented themselves at a meeting of ambassadors of the Holy Roman Empire, to ask to have their personal status, and that of their co-religionists, upgraded to that of citizens.

At the time, the Holy Roman Empire was in the midst of dismantling itself, a process that was concluded in 1806, with the abdication of Emperor Francis. The empire’s legislature, the Diet, was based in Ratisbon, Bavaria, also known as Regensburg, and this is where, in 1802, a conference of eight princes convened to discuss the future of the empire's territories.

The 19th-century historian Heinrich Graetz described the Jewish delegation, which arrived in Ratisbon with a petition written “in the name of the Jews of Germany,” as being “short-sighted” in thinking that this was the proper body to be addressing with its request.

In the document, they requested the right to live where they wanted, rather than in restricted areas, and for rules that governed how they made a living to be eased. In short, writes Graetz, the Jews were asking “to be considered worthy, by the grant of civil rights, to constitute one people united with the German nation.”

The petition submitted by the delegation stated that, at the time, Jews were instead “classed with dishonorable person, outlaws and serfs.” Most galling were the poll taxes to which Jews were still subjected, which, they said, “removes the Jew from the category of rational beings, to place it among wild beasts, and forces him to pay his way when he sets foot upon one soil or another.”

And indeed, the poll tax faced by Jews in Germany was something unique in Europe of the 19th century – a fee that each individual state, no matter how small, could impose on Jews who crossed into their territory. Someone traveling over the course of a day might have to pay such a tax many times, but it was more the way they were treated at borders than the amount of money involved that hurt.

The very purpose of the tax, suggests Graetz, was to humiliate, and this became especially clear when French troops were withdrawn from German soil after the peace of Luneville went into effect.

Although the Ratisbon conference was surprisingly sympathetic to the appeal, its members had more urgent matters on their mind, and nothing came of a promise to give Jews civil rights. At this stage, however, two men, Israel Jacobson and Wolff Breidenbach, stepped up to try and convince the individual states to end the poll taxes.

Their method was to provide the states in question with alternate income to the tax, and to this end, they appealed to German and foreign Jews alike to contribute to a fund that would compensate for the tax. In this way, Breidenbach succeeded in attaining free passage for Jews through both the Rhineland and Bavaria. “Even the narrow-minded, Jew-hating most noble council of Frankfurt was moved by Breidenbach’s petition to abolish the poll tax exacted at the gates and bridges,” writes Graetz.