In Western Europe, Jews began their efforts to
gain equal rights, i.e., to enjoy the same civil rights as the rest of
society, in the eighteenth century, along with the bourgeoisie and
peasants. They were included in the Enlightenment-inspired reforms,
which were implemented in the wake of the French Revolution.
The Jews' emancipation was not enacted immediately following the
Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, but rather required a separate
edict of the French National Constituent Assembly on September 27,
1791. This was later undermined several times, including during the
Napoleonic period. It was only in Calvinist Holland that the Jews,
particularly Sephardic Jews, enjoyed almost total freedom as early as
the seventeenth century. The United States was the first country to
stipulate equal rights for all citizens, regardless of their religion,
which was included in the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776.
In Poland, there were attempts to reform Jews' legal status during
the Four-Year Sejm (1788-92); these were greeted with strong opposition
from the conservative representatives. The Polish Freemasons played a
large role in the preparations leading up to the reform, taking their
inspiration from the French Revolution.
The Third of May Constitution of 1791 gave Jews
and the bourgeoisie the same rights, but did not eliminate the system
of estates, nor the numerous restrictions on the lower estates. As a
result of the partitions that soon followed, the new laws embodied in
the Constitution could not be implemented. After the partitions, the
laws of each partitioning power regulated the Jews' position. The
absolutist governments stipulated that Jews be given equal rights only
on the condition that they "civilize themselves", which in practice
meant forced assimilation, in addition to various restrictions.
Jews were granted full equal rights in the Austrian Empire in 1867,
in Prussia in 1869, and in Italy in 1848-1866; in the Papal States, on
the other hand, they received them only in 1870. In these countries, it
was a gradual process, beginning with the toleration patent of Joseph II
and Napoleonic-era legislation, which was later rescinded by the Holy
Alliance, followed by the revolutionary achievements of the Spring of
Nations. Equal rights were eventually formally guaranteed in laws and by
the state, and questioned only by anti-Semitic political groups.
In Russia, restrictions remained in force limiting Jews' choice of
profession, education, religion, freedom of movement and place of
residence. The May laws (1882) meant additional restrictions for Jews,
which in effect left them outside the law. It was only the February
Revolution of 1917 that accorded Jews equal rights.
Despite the principle of equal rights that was
formally acknowledged in the Soviet Union, during the Stalinist period
various restrictions were imposed on Jews. Jewish artists and those
active in Jewish cultural life were persecuted: arrests took place in
the 1930's and Jewish institutions were liquidated 1948. The members of
the Jewish Anti-Fascist Front were executed in 1952, which was followed
by the doctors' trial in 1953. Moreover, they were limited in their
choice of university studies and profession, a restriction that was only
lifted after perestroika in the early 1990's.
Jews' rights in other countries of the Soviet bloc were also
limited, both for individuals or groups: their ability to cultivate
their ethnic identity and religious life was hindered and they had only
limited opportunities for advancement. There were also periods of
persecution in various countries, such as the show trials against L.
Rajk in Hungary in 1949 and R. Slansky in Czechoslovakia in 1952, and
the purges in Poland that took place in 1949, 1956 and 1968. Forced
emigration also took place.
The idea that Jews are fellow citizens deserving of the same legal
protection from the state as any other citizen came relatively late, as
did the notion that Jews should be guaranteed the same rights in their
private and professional lives. These were concepts that European
societies accepted only with difficulty.