The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Lévi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity

By John Murray Cuddihy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 17
MARX AND THE EUPHEMISTS

The whole of the nineteenth century can be viewed as a search for the proper set of euphemisms with which to talk about the "Jewish question." The stage was set in 1781 with the publication of Christian Wilhelm von Dohm's pamphlet Uber die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden: On the Civic Betterment of the Jews. But what did this well‐ intentioned Gentile Dohm—"the outstanding advocate of Jewish emancipation in eighteenth century Prussia," according to Hannah Arendt 1 —mean by his phrase "civic betterment"? Logically, Jacob Katz points out, the "subject of the implied verb verbesseren is society, the Jews themselves, or probably both." 2 And this, indeed was Dohm's proposal: for civic improvement to occur, both society and Jewry would have to mend their ways. Dohm "accepted the prevailing evaluation of the Jews," Katz writes, "as a politically incapacitated and morally degenerate group." He had not written, Dohm replied to his critics, an apologia for the Jews as they are but—vide the title—as they will be. *3 Thus, the idea of self-improvement as a precondition for civil rights—a debate that was revived in the form of "functional prerequisites for a stable democracy" only at the end of World War II with reference to decolonization (and after 1950 with reference to civil rights for American blacks)—was being publicly debated at the end of the eighteenth century in reference to Jews.

Thus, Jews and non-Jews alike who in the decades following Dohm's work fought for the betterment of Jews' civic and social situation did so, Katz notes, "under the assumption that at the same time a civic and moral self-improvement on the part of the Jews was necessary." Thus the "objective" appraisal that the access of Jews to Western bourgeois civil society would require a goodly amount of "adjustment and self‐ adaptation," to use "value-free" terminology, was actually "couched in terms of moral judgment, stating that the Jews must become not only different but better." Not a little of this transposition of the "Jewish

____________________
*
A parallel in the I950s was the growing resentment of militant blacks in the United States toward the second A in the acronym NAACP: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The more militant leaders were more exteropunitive, blaming white American society, insisting that it must "advance."

-145-

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