This week marks the centennial of the passing of a towering figure, a man still hailed as one of the great emancipators in modern European Jewish history: Emperor Franz Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And while his policies were characterized by remarkable benevolence toward the Jews, the Habsburg sovereign’s reign and its aftermath also serve as a cautionary tale for Diaspora Jewry, especially our brethren in America.
Taking the throne in December 1848, Franz Joseph was in power for nearly 68 years, making him one of the longest-ruling monarchs in Europe’s history. Almost from the start, he implemented bold changes that had a transformative effect on the Jews of his realm, adopting a constitution in March 1849 which stated that “civic and political rights” were “not dependent on religion.”
Three years later, Franz Joseph granted Viennese Jewry the right to form an official and organized community, which grew steadily when imperial restrictions on freedom of movement were later lifted.
Dozens of synagogues were built throughout Vienna, and heartfelt Hebrew prayers were written in Franz Joseph’s honor.
On January 12, 1860, the emperor issued an edict which permitted Jews to own land and engage in any profession they chose, and by 1867, he had lifted all remaining curbs on full Jewish participation in public life.
The subsequent decades came to be known as the “Golden Age” of Viennese Jewry, when Jews went on to scale the heights of literature, art and culture, making an indelible imprint on Austria and Europe as a whole.
They produced men such as Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and Gustav Mahler, the famed composer.
In his masterful 696 page tome, The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph, historian Robert S. Wistrich notes that the result was the creation of a secular Jewish intelligentsia which “changed the face of Vienna and, indeed, of the modern world. They helped transform a city which had not been in the forefront of European intellectual or artistic activity (except in music) into an experimental laboratory for the creative triumphs and traumas of the modern world.”
In 1869, Franz Joseph paid a visit to Jerusalem, and went out of his way to meet with local Jews and their leaders. A well-known story relates that during his stay, he saw that the large and imposing Tiferet Israel Synagogue stood without a roof. When he asked his interlocutors why that was the case, Rabbi Nisan Bak, a student of Hassidic master Rabbi Israel of Rizhin, who was overseeing the project, wryly replied, “Your majesty, the synagogue has doffed its hat to you.” Franz Joseph knew a good fundraising plea when he heard one, so he graciously replied, “How much will it cost me to have the synagogue replace its hat?” before donating the funds needed to complete the structure.
It is no wonder that many Jews in the empire referred to him affectionately by the Yiddish name “Ephraim Yossele.”
On a number of occasions, Franz Joseph denounced antisemitism, which was widespread in Austria. In 1882, the emperor told the ministers in his cabinet that “I will tolerate no Jew-baiting in my empire.”
Synagogues are said to have held annual services on his birthday, and one legend even claimed that Elijah the Prophet had blessed him to have a long life.
But with all that freedom at their fingertips, many Austrian Jews could not resist the pull of assimilation and intermarriage. The writer Stefan Zweig, a fierce critic of Theodor Herzl, typified this sentiment when he wrote, “Why should we go to Palestine? Our language is German, not Hebrew, and beautiful Austria is our homeland. Are we not well off under the good emperor Franz Joseph?” Indeed, the Jews were well off, but as history has repeatedly shown, Jewish existence in the Diaspora is fragile and ephemeral.
And so, when the emperor left this world on November 21, 1916, Austrian Jewry found itself at a crossroads.
For decades, Jews had put their faith in the institution of the emperor to protect them from the popular hatred that enveloped them on a societal level. They had become, or so they thought, part and parcel of Austria.
They had every reason to believe that they had become so thoroughly ingrained in every strata of Austrian life that no ill could possibly befall them.
And yet, barely two decades later, Austria’s thriving Jewish presence would prove to be little more than a castle built on sand, one that would tragically topple once the winds of hatred shifted violently in the Jews’ direction.
Many of Austria’s Jews idealized the Diaspora, holding it up as the model for Jewish progress and survival, confident that discrimination was largely a thing of the past.
Like many American Jews today, they believed that they had entered a new phase in Jewish history, one where Jews could at last find long-term peace and prosperity while living at the mercy of others.
And like Jews in the US, they made enormous social, political and economic progress, but at the price of religious and spiritual retreat.
Of course, it would be rash and perhaps even reckless to take the analogy any further. But on the 100th anniversary of the death of Emperor Franz Joseph, and as Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, it is nonetheless worth remembering that however strong and powerful American Jewry might be, Jewish life in the Diaspora has always been precarious. And it is never permanent.