This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Ethnic Vote: Duisburg 1910*

News Item:

October 1995--Following a very narrow defeat of his referendum calling for separation of Quebec from the Canadian confederation, separatist Premier Jacques Parizeau immediately placed the blame on "the ethnics and the money." Jews and other non-French minorities felt very offended and threatened.

The recent Quebec referendum campaign and its inconclusive results have left Canadians with an unpleasant aftertaste. Jews in particular felt alarmed at Premier Parizeau's accusations of betrayal by "les ethniques."

We should recall that there have been similar situations in Jewish communal politics, where the interests of the "established" citizenry were not identical to those of the more recent immigrants. In such instances, Jewish communities have not invariably been altruistic in choosing the highest good.

A case in point: The cultured "native" Jews of Germany in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were notoriously contemptuous of the uncouth "Ostjuden" cousins who had migrated recently from Eastern Europe, bringing with them the traditional religious outlooks and mannerisms of Polish and Russian Jewry. The clash became even more acerbic when agitated by the emotions of nationalism. The modern German Jews had long defined themselves as a purely religious grouping whose undivided political allegiance was to their European fatherland; whereas the Eastern Jews cultivated deep commitments to Jewish national solidarity.

The spread of Zionism to Germany at the turn of this century challenged many of the ideological assumptions of the liberal Jewish establishment who aspired to complete acceptance and assimilation into the host society. Predictably, the philosophic dispute carried over into the arena of Jewish communal politics, which in Germany were kept under the vigilant watch and enforcement of the state.

In several communities, the Zionist activists came to the realization that the only hope they had of obtaining political power in the "Gemeinden" was by forming alliances with other disenfranchised groups. This resulted in electoral cooperation between secularist Zionists and Orthodox traditionalists„in a dynamic not unlike the coalition politics common in Israel, where socialist politicians don yarmulkehs and seek to pass themselves off as defenders of religious traditionalism. The hybrid came to be viewed as a "conservative" party.

In several communities the strategy proved effective, and the conservative lists took over the local community councils. The established Jewish leadership became desperate to hold on to their power base.

The initial reaction was a familiar one: The liberals complained that the balance of power was unfairly held by the Jewish "ethniques," the recent arrivals from the East who did not share the interests and loyalties of "real" German Jews. They appealed to the government to disenfranchise all Jews who did not hold full German citizenship. The local Zionists were quick to assail the insensitivity of their liberal opponents.

A confrontation of this kind in the tiny Jewish community of Duisburg, Prussia, exploded in 1909-10 to became a model for similar struggles throughout central Europe. Reacting to the unexpected electoral successes of the Orthodox-Zionist allies, the liberals petitioned the government to have the results overturned on a technicality, arguing that the chief Zionist representative did not satisfy the residency requirements. The governor's decision to disqualify the one candidate without cancelling the whole election frustrated both parties. The veteran residents were barely dissuaded from seceding fro the Jewish community council by the local Rabbi, a liberal himself, who valued communal solidarity above partisan interests.

By the time of the next round of elections in Duisberg in 1912, the "conservative" faction captured all eight vacant seats on the assembly. The defeated liberals again sought vainly to have the civil authorities overturn the results. They accused the Orthodox (falsely, it was eventually shown) of buying votes. But more importantly, they argued that their opponents "mostly immigrated in recent years and stand apart from their native coreligionists." It would be unthinkable to allow those foreigners "whose hearts cannot beat in unison for Germany" to decide the future of a loyal German Gemeinde. Furthermore, they claimed that the naive immigrants had been stirred into a panic by exaggerated charges of the radical reforms that would be introduced into traditional religious life if the liberals were to control the council.

Most significantly, the liberals pointed out that the margin of victory had been paper-thin, less than twenty votes. Clearly, if only the "true" German Jews had participated the results would have been different!

The Zionists for their part were quick to capitalize on their rivals' utterances, accusing them of being more despicable and depraved than the gentile antisemites. More moderate and responsible Jewish liberal organizations were discredited by the rash behaviour of their comrades in Duisburg, as the factions throughout Germany became increasingly polarized.

There might be some reassurance in knowing that the "ethnics" were ultimately vindicated: The Prussian Interior Minister declared on May 4 1914 that full membership in the Jewish community organizations must be extended to all resident Jews, whatever their citizenship.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

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