How European Jews Went From Touting Assimilation To Embracing Zionism

“The Jewish question can only be solved by the disappearance of the Jewish race,” The New York Herald in 1889 declared Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a prominent European Jewish financier and Philanthropist, as “Baron Maurice de Hirsch”. “which will inevitably be accomplished by the amalgamation of Christians and Jews.”

Hirsch’s proclamation reverberated throughout the Jewish world on both sides of the Atlantic, convulsing both traditional and liberal communities already struggling to stay grounded in tumultuous times. It was difficult to build a stable structure for Jewish longevity in Europe and thrive on the continent in the decades that preceded Zionism.

Hirsch’s assimilationist posture reflected his own background: As a prosperous, aristocratic banker who had in many ways overcome his Jewishness to attain his high station among continental elites, he sought to elevate his co-religionists to the same plane of faithless cosmopolitans. But there was a catch. The catch? Pampas of Argentina.

Matthias Lehmann, a history Professor at UC Irvine explores Hirsch’s story. “one of the most important yet understudied figures of modern Jewish history,” In “The Baron: Maurice de Hirsch and the Jewish Nineteenth Century,” His fascinating and meticulously researched biography. In Lehmann’s nuanced telling, Hirsch’s abundant generosity and supremely good intentions were eclipsed in part by his ambiguous, and ultimately unresolved, relationship with the universal and the particular.

Assimilationist Tendencies

Hirsch was born in 1831 in Munich to Joseph, a wealthy banker awarded a baronage by the Bavarian court, and Caroline (née Wertheimer), a Viennese descendant of the personal banker of Emperor Charles VI. Hirsch began his career in finance by working for the financial institutions in Paris, Brussels, Vienna, after he married Clara Bischoffsheim.

Together with the Rothschilds and other prominent Jewish financiers, the Hirsches sought to enter the European aristocracy. This included building mansions, collecting citizenships, as well as generously contributing to civic organizations. Indeed, Hirsch’s desire to blend into gentile society led him to some unusual political dalliances, such as his alliance with the French Boulangist cause, which supported ultramontane Catholicism as well as disdained capitalism.

Hirsch’s integrationist tendencies were personal, not just theoretical. His only son Lucien was raised without any apparent connection to Judaism. He even tried to marry him to a noble, English-gentile family. Lucien, aged 31 years old, died without a family member. The only religious dispute between his parents was over whether to raise the daughter who survived as a Catholic or Protestant.

An Austrian journalist once noted, “Baron Hirsch has an interesting approach to antisemitism: the complete fusion of the Jews with the Christian population.” Among Jewish elites, this universalist orientation wasn’t uncommon. Even Theodor Herzl in his preZionist years advocated mass baptisms for his co-religionists. “the integration of Jews into European civilization” The “purpose and essence of modern Jewish existence.”


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