The Life of the Synagogue

The Life of the Synagogue

8. Patriotism

Section 8. Patriotism

The synagogue was often the site of public displays of Jewish patriotism. While Jewish communities all over the world have demonstrated loyalty and love toward their home countries, the topic of Jewish patriotism is complex. It is often hard to judge whether these demonstrations were inspired by true feelings of security and contentment or whether they were an attempt to deflect rising or endemic anti-Jewish feeling. The pace of Jewish emancipation varied in Europe, as did the depth of national feeling and identity among majority non-Jewish populations in many countries. England and France, for example, had long national histories and thus sported many patriotic traditions, while such things were unknown in countries like Italy and Germany, which unified into modern nation-states only in the late 19th century. Not surprisingly, then, French and English Jews readily and frequently expressed patriotic sympathies. Yet in Italy and Germany, too, Jews who had often lacked secure local or regional identities were among the first and most patriotic citizens of the new countries.

Factors such as a desire for emancipation, struggles for equal treatment, and even biblical commandments played a role in patriotic expression. Such influences on a Jewish community were highly specific to the history and experience within their given country. Under Queen Victoria, for instance, British Jews displayed an outpouring of patriotism during her Diamond Jubilee; this truly reflected gratitude and adoration for the many titles and rights she bestowed upon the Jewish community during her reign. But it also reflected a general sense (or at least the possibility) of Britishness widely held by Jews, whether they had lived for long time in the United Kingdom or were recent immigrants. Those countries with the most extensive empires (Holland, Britain, and France) were most tolerant of Jews, since they were more familiar with ethic, linguistic, and religious diversity. Jews were exceptionally patriotic in these lands.

Traditionally, Judaism encouraged patriotism, regardless of particular circumstances. Many Jews knew the Bible commandment to “seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto the Lord for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace” (Jeremiah 29:7). For a people living in diaspora, this advice made good political sense.

Thus it was regular practice from at least the 16th century on, for Jewish religious services to include prayers for the ruler of the country in which the congregation was located. These prayers reflected the biblical commandment, but also a desire to inspire the government’s benevolence toward Jewish residents and citizens.

One of the most common ways patriotism is depicted in visual culture is by portraying Jews in the military. Images of Jewish soldiers praying in makeshift synagogues on battlefields, or attending synagogue services in uniform, promote an idealized conception of their ability to fulfill their patriotic role as a soldier, while maintaining their Jewish identity through religious observance. In this section, selections of texts and images portray Jewish expressions of patriotism in Britain, the Ottoman Empire, the United States, and in both France and Germany, combatants of the Franco-Prussian War.