The 1860s was a period of upheaval for the Jews of Hamburg, a situation that could be traced back to the city-state’s constitution of 1860. It gave all inhabitants, regardless of their religious affiliation, completely equal status before the law. Upon the elimination of all remaining political and economic limitations, Jews were also freed from compulsory membership in a congregation. For the Jewish welfare system, civil equality had a consequence that can scarcely be overstated: the heretofore institutionally separated care for the Jewish needy was supposed to cease, effective immediately. From now on, they, like all Hamburg citizens, were supposed to turn exclusively to the city’s General Institute for the Poor Allgemeine Armenanstalt.
The new regulation posed a serious problem for Hamburg’s Jews. The existing Israelite Institution for the Poor Israelitische Armenanstalt (founded 1818), the central Jewish welfare organization, functioned quite well up to this point and was considered a success. In its structure and methods, it was modeled on the General Institute for the Poor Allgemeine Armenanstalt (founded 1788), but served Jews exclusively. The Israelite Institute for the Poor Israelitische Armenanstalt accorded Jews in need regular or temporary financial support, distributed bread and soup in several soup kitchens, organized medical treatment, and took responsibility for the boarding and feeding of Jewish orphans and foundlings. Jews without means who were sick had their hospital bills paid, when appropriate.
The Jewish organization was a private association, the costs of which were primarily defrayed by subventions from the German Israelite Congregation. Unlike the General Institute for the Poor Allgemeine Armenanstalt, it was therefore not financed by public means. Alongside this central institution of the Jewish welfare activity, there existed in the 1860s several dozen additional associations, foundations, and fraternities which Jews organized in order to support other Jews in various situations of need. Altogether, this extraordinarily effective Jewish welfare system functioned well and covered the requisites for Jews in need in an outstanding way.
Accordingly, the authors representing the “majority vote” argued against the abolition of a separate Jewish system of aid. An especially important part of its line of argument was the statement that the Jewish institutions prioritized the prevention of poverty and cultivated quite personal relationships with the needy. The city institution for the poor only stepped in with help “when those seeking aid [were] in the most dire need and their autonomy has already disappeared,” they rested on deterrence and neglected the close contact between the guardians of the poor and their wards, which in the Jewish system so successfully hindered abuses. For these reasons, it seemed appropriate to the authors of the submission that the state should meet its obligations to care – also for the Jewish poor – with subventions to the existing Jewish institutions.
After extensive negotiations between the government and supervisory board of the Congregation, an amendatory compromise was arrived at a few months later. Every needy citizen of Hamburg, no matter what religion, would have to have access to the General Institute for the Poor Allgemeine Armenanstalt. A separate Jewish welfare system, to which all Jews were previously compelled to apply, was abolished. At the same time, however, the Hamburg Senate declared that it would expressly welcome the continuance of a voluntary Jewish support system. Such a system, to be sure, could not be supported by public means. The revised statutes of the German Israelite Congregation of 1867 took this into account, stating that Jewish welfare work would assuredly be carried on as before; at the same time, however, Hamburg Jews, like all other citizens of the city, should principally avail themselves of the public support institutions. Thus, in fact, little changed.
Why was such high value placed on the continuation of a separate, privately organized, extraordinarily costly Jewish support system, even after Jewish Emancipation? Concern for the need to maintain Jewish dietary laws or the religious holidays in fitting ways was scarcely relevant. This played no role in the great majority of the institutions’ activities in this realm. A look at the Catholics, a second religious minority of the Hansa city does not help to answer the question since it shows that welfare activity was not in general strongly organized along confessional lines. The Hamburg Catholics, who in the course of the 19th century surpassed the number of Jews, disposed of only a few, mostly Church welfare organizations and, in the matter of care for the poor, were, in stark contrast to the Jewish institutions, quite overwhelmingly dependent on public means. In the search for answers, it should surely not be forgotten that the financially much better off Jews of Hamburg, as a matter of traditional and moral considerations, felt obligated to see to it that needy co-religionists be well cared for. The well-developed Jewish welfare system, already in existence for many years, seemed the best suited to achieve that end. However, three additional, essentially more important, circumstances also need to be considered.
First, the Israelite Institution for the Poor Israelitische Armenanstalt, as well as numerous other, smaller Jewish welfare organizations and the highly differentiated associational network, were all immensely important instruments for the regulation of social relationships, including the determination of status within the Jewish Congregation. The associational life of the 19th century was of central importance in the formation and delimitation of the bourgeoisie. It cemented class membership, shaped behavioral norms, and distributed power and influence. Jews, like non-Jews, who belonged to the bourgeoisie used associations and welfare organizations to define their social position; the Jews of Hamburg, however, did this quite predominantly in their own Jewish sphere. Had the most important element of this sphere, the separate Jewish welfare system, suddenly vanished in the 1860s, the structure would have been eliminated within which the hierarchies of Hamburg Jews were defined. The argument that Jews in need of help preferred to apply to organizations led “by their own people” must be understood in this context.
Secondly, it should be noted that engagement in welfare activity was part of the communal identity of all members of the bourgeoisie; moreover, in the Jewish sphere it generated a Jewish communal identity. In the post-Emancipation period this was subsumed under a radical redefinition. Caring for needy co-religionists, together with with other Jews, strengthened Jewish group identity and created a feeling of cohesiveness in a time when even the Jewish world was becoming secularized. Here there remained standing a sphere in which one could feel “Jewish” in a socially highly regarded way. To this end, Jewish ethical principles were prominently listed in the statutes of the support organizations. Thus, it was spelled out that one was acting in a traditional Jewish field, when, in fact, predominantly modern and efficient methods for the allocation of funds were being employed. In this respect, organized welfare must be seen as an important alternative strategy for the preservation of identity among those Jews, who were or wanted to be part of the multifaceted German bourgeoisie. In the Emancipation and post-Emancipation era, elements of cohesiveness and dissolution influenced the German-Jewish bourgeoisie. More and more Jews regarded themselves as simply members of a confessional community, distinguishable from non-Jews only in the matter of religion. At the same time, interest in religious forms of behavior rapidly receded in the second half of the 19th century. In the public sphere, it was preeminently non-religious associations, most of which pursued social aims, in which the Jewishness of the majority of Jews was determined and which fostered Jewish solidarity. This included not only those actively engaged in welfare work, but extended to the congregation in general, since the mutual give and take among individuals was bound up in these associations. At the least, the quiet toleration, at most, the open acknowledgement from the non-Jewish side that the Jewish system for care of the needy functioned well strengthened this solidarity considerably.
Thirdly, it must be considered, that, in the entire process of Emancipation, the existence of a separate Jewish welfare system was very positively regarded by non-Jews. What is more, it was a significant quid pro quo in the long-drawn out process of civil equality. To some extent, the Jewish welfare system “as a return of service” for the receipt of equal status was an integral component of Emancipation ideology. Because they did not let “their own poor” become a burden on the public purse, Jews showed they were worthy of Emancipation. In Hamburg and other locales, this explains the voluntary continuation of the compulsory governance that was officially abolished in 1860. It was clear to the majority of Jews that it was better not to lay claim to the same privileges as their non-Jewish fellow-citizens, although they were now formally entitled to do so. Nevertheless, this should not be seen as simply an expression of Jewish anxiety about stirring up resentment.
The Jews of Hamburg saw themselves confronted by anti-Jewish prejudice and hostility at all levels of society. The demarcation of organized Jewish life was not, however, primarily a defensive reaction, but rather a positive manifestation of Jewishness by the self-confident Jewish bourgeoisie of the city. Welfare activity stood at the center of Jewish self-preservation, not - at least not primarily – defined as a self-defense against attacks from outside. Rather it was an attempt to build and maintain a secular Jewish identity in the present and for the future, during the rapid and all-embracing transformation of Jewish existence in the 19th century. The extremely successful Jewish welfare system contributed decisively to this effort, showing that a distinctive Jewish social sphere could be retained even after Emancipation. This was necessary in order to counterbalance the fragile social equilibrium inside the Jewish community. It occurred to only a few Jews or non-Jews that this might also hinder the integration of the minority, because the support of “their own poor” was considered appropriate and desirable for these social groups, who were generally perceived to be “separate.”
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Rainer Liedtke (Thematic Focus: Organizations and Institutions), Prof. Dr. phil., is Professor of 19th and 20th Century European History at the University of Regensburg. His research interests centre on comparative European history, urban history, Jewish history, British history and the modern history of Greece.
Rainer Liedtke, Debates concerning the Jewish Welfare System in the Era of Civil Equality (translated by Richard S. Levy), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, May 30, 2018. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-27.en.v1> [September 22, 2023].