In his newest book, Emancipation: How Liberating the Jews Led to Revolution & Renaissance, he explores the identity issue experienced by Jews in Europe after Napoleon conquered Europe and effectively toppled Jewish ghettos that had existed for nearly 500 years.
“There was no Jewish identity question in the ghetto. You were Jewish. Everybody worshipped the same way, everyone was educated the same way more or less, and then suddenly there was this amazing choice you could make,” said Goldfarb. “You could stop being Jewish as your primary identity and be a German or a Frenchman or an American, whatever.”
Goldfarb’s research indicated that as a result, Jews went on to become leaders in society, whether as artists, financiers, political figures scientist.
Prior to liberation, Jews lived in squalid conditions in all-Jewish neighborhoods. In Frankfurt, Germany, for example, they had to be home by sundown and were locked in their houses all weekend. Up to 3,000 people were forced to live on a 30-yard long, ten-foot wide Judegasse--“Jews’ Street.”
Goldfarb pointed out that even though Jews also lived in ghettos in America, it was a conscious decision. They were free to move out at any time.
“Whoever you hang with, it should be your choice and it shouldn’t be a question of the law saying you need to be together,” said Goldfarb.
He began contemplating the power of identity when he met young Muslims living in Britain, Goldfarb’s home for the past 25 years, torn between old and new ideals.
These young and confused people resorted to Muslim extremism, and while Goldfarb said it was no excuse, he acknowledged that if one feels like an outsider, it often causes one to act like an outsider.
“I got a sense of the power of identity questions on people. I’m not religious, but I identity myself as being a Jewish-American,” he said. “My Jewishness is a central part of who I am.”
Originally from New York, Goldfarb admitted to feeling a bit out of place in Europe, where there are virtually no Jews.
According to Goldfarb, France has the largest Jewish-European population left: about 550,000 people out of a population of 60 million.
Napoleon has been portrayed throughout history as a ruthless tyrant, but interestingly, the Jews saw him as their liberator.
“A lot of the political Jew-hatred, political anti-Semitism, came because Jews were identified with Napoleon, and in Germany in particular, where Napoleon was a real hate figure, that was a problem. The rest of Europe really hated Napoleon, and it was one more charge against the Jews, that somehow they had been the only ones to benefit from Napoleonic wars,” said Goldfarb.
Although Emancipation focuses on the Jews’ plight in Europe, Goldfarb hopes that all immigrants and minorities who read his book will find embrace the larger message regardless of ethnic backgrounds.
“I think it ends on a big question, essentially, which is after having done all that they did and achieved all that they could, almost all the Jews were killed or forced to leave, and I’m not big on telling the reader what to think, frankly, so I just leave it there for people to think for themselves. Was it worth it? Was it worth all of this effort so that you could, in the end, still suffer genocide? I don’t think there’s any doubt that it was better to come out of the ghetto, but on the other hand, the lingering question is, how do you deal with persistent hatred?” said Goldfarb.
“And I think that’s a question that any immigrant group, any minority group, faces.”
Goldfarb will be at Central Queens YM & YWHA, 67-09 108th St. in Forest Hills, to give a lecture on important points from Emancipation.
For more information, call 718-268-5011 x151, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.