The Political Contexts of the Hungarian Jewish Congress (1868-69) and Split

Principal investigator: Tamás Turán

Period: 2019-2020

Research questions and objectives:

Progressive and increasingly urbanized Jewry in Hungary adopted the political program of Hungarian liberal nationalism in the mid-third of the nineteenth century. As for the „Jewish question” they adopted the mainstream position of liberal nationalism, which conditioned progress in granting equal rights to Jews on their acculturation and neutralizing their ethnic characteristics. These plans (a deal of sorts between the political elite and progressive Jewry) were utterly unacceptable to part of conservative („ortodox”) Jewry in Hungary, and were problematic and raised questions for the rest. A real opportunity to start implementing the mentioned plan occurred first under the ministership of József Eötvös. Under his term, in accordance with his religious policies, and coordinated with representatives of progressive („Neolog”) Jewry, a Jewish Congress was convened in 1868-69, in order to find a new path for Hungarian Jewry in organizational and educational matters. The Congress concluded with mixed results, and led to a split within Hungarian Jewry: to the establishment of a Neolog, an Orthodox, and a third – much smaller, so- called „status quo” – religious movement and nationwide federation of communities. Even today, Hungarian Jewry operates within essentially the same framework structurally and organizationally.

My research aims to contribute understanding how and to what extent contemporary Hungarian politics had an impact on the preparation, the proceedings, and the results of the Congress. These imporant questions were barely touched upon by previous research. How far procedural rules and norms of the Hungarian Diet influenced the procedures and agenda of the Congress? Neolog Jewry was at ease with Hungarian politics – to what extent Orthodox politics adopted the political toolbox and rhetorics of Hungarian (and Neolog) politics? How far the religious policy goals of Eötvös were adequate and applicable to Hungarian Jewry? What Christian denominational-political models influenced Neolog and ortodox political agenda and behavior in the historical process culminating in the Congress? The split in Hungarian Jewry, and especially the intransigent separatist ideology of the orthodox camp, exerted a lasting impact on inner religious-political struggles of world Jewry – primarily in the Holy Land, in the United States, and – after World War I – in neighboring countries. It is important to understand what elements of the Neolog-Orthodox struggle were rooted in local political contexts, and what were the generic elements of the progressive-conservative struggle, transferable to other countries and historical contexts.

Research history:

Progressive Jewry (called the “Neologs”) in Hungary started to take shape in the 1830s and 1840s, partly following German and Austrian models, but under different historical circumstances. The main aims of this movement were fostering the integration and emancipation of Hungarian Jewry, and – taking into consideration the interests of these processes – a moderate modernization of Jewish religious practices and customs.

The formation of the Neolog movement and its struggle with Jewish orthodoxy was outlined primarily by Neolog rabbi-historians (Lajos Venetianer, Zsigmond Groszmann) – not entirely without bias. The same themes were researched from an orthodox point of view by Leopold Grünwald in numerous publications. In the last decades Israeli historians (of Hungarian descent: Nathaniel Katzburg, Jacob Katz, Michael K. Silber) placed the history of the Hungarian Jewish Congress (and of the Neolog-Orthodox conflict in general) in an international context – in the context of the political and religious aims and the struggles of progressive and conservative Jewry in Central Europe.

The role of József Eötvös in the emancipation of Jews and in preparing the Congress was analyzed by numerous historians, but these investigations barely added to the relatively limited sources of these issues. Research on Eötvös was able to reveal unknown sources recently which can shed some new light on the motivations and conceptions of Eötvös. (Article by Gábor Gángó, forthcoming.) Protestant political struggles for maintaining their autonomy are well researched, utilizing an impressive amount of primary source materials Friedrich Gottas, János Csohány). Similar is the case with aborted efforts to establish a Catholic ecclesiastic autonomy (László Csorba, Csaba Máté Sarnyai). The history of the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Christian autonomous organization (which is particularly interesting in the Jewish context) is less researched and known in detail. Mutual contacts between these autonomy-efforts in the 1850s to the 1870s, and their impact on Jewish autonomy-efforts in particular, were neglected in research. Is there any connection between the Christian denominational-religious environment and the reform efforts (and their fate) of progressive Jewry in a given country? Abraham Geiger, later Lajos Venetianer, more recently Michael M. Meyer were interested in this question.

The proceedings and the protocols of the Jewish Congress (a folio volume of more than 700 pages) were scrutinized by historians mainly from the viewpoint of the Neolog-Orthodox religious antagonism resulting in the split, without analyzing its general political content and contexts.

Research methods:

These are historical inquiries, based on written sources. These sources can be classified into two groups: (1) well-known, but often hardly accessible, barely or little-utilized printed sources: the Protocols and other documents of the Congress, contemporary Jewish (and non-Jewish) press, pamphlets; (2) previously unknown archival materials (primarily in the Hungarian National Archives, and in historical archives in Israel).

Research results in 2019:

The results of my research at this stage can be summarized as follows. The general political environment as well as the Christian religious and political environment were important factors in shaping the political discourse on Jewish reform initiatives and their fate in Hungary in the middle third of the nineteenth century, culminating in the Jewish Congress. Religious-philosophical similarities and common interests led to tacit or explicit ideological and political alliances between Orthodox Jewry and Catholicism (and to some extent, conservative Protestantism), and between progressive Jewry and Protestantism (Calvinism in particular) in the nineteenth century. A tactical alliance between Orthodox Judaism and Catholicism in Austria-Hungary was built on their shared perceptions of a common enemy: the Enlightenment and its “destructive” (rationalistic-deistic) implications for religion. Alliances between the Neologs and Protestants, on the other hand, were predicated upon some affinities, social as well as religious, beyond common foes such as authoritarian religious oppression and coercion. Politically, the Calvinist resistance against Habsburg attempts to curb their organizational autonomy inspired the renewed Jewish struggle for emancipation and autonomy in the 1860s. Calvinists as well as Neologs were called the “Magyar party” at that time, as opposed to their religious-political rivals, perceived by a good part of the Hungarian public as serving Habsburg political and Germanizing cultural interests. Calvinist denominational affairs remained an important model and a point of reference for Neologs until World War I at least. The political-organizational split within Hungarian Jewry in a way reflected the ecclesiastical-organizational conditions of three major (Christian) religious denominations (Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox), insofar as each of them were present in Hungary in two separate sub-denominations. These duplications in the Christian denominations also had ethno-cultural and geo-demographic components. On another level, it may be argued that culturally and religiously, Hungarian Jewry was rather composed of three distinct blocks, sharing some features with the surrounding Christian cultures: the Orthodox with Catholics, Hasidism with the Eastern Orthodox, and the Neologs with the Protestants.

Controversial religious or quasi-religious issues were responsible for the split within Hungarian Jewry. Non-religious, ‘political’ controversies at the Congress draw maps of divisions among delegates that are only loosely correlated with those maps defined by the religious issues, as a rule. We corroborated this thesis by taking a closer look at three items of the political agenda of the Congress: (1) electoral issues, (2) centralization, and (3) ecclesiastical analogies. In all these issues the profound impact that Hungarian contemporary political discourse exerted on Congress delegates in both camps strikes the eye. In these political issues as well as in others, the Congress delegates represented a whole ideological spectrum. It was not the incompatibility of two political cultures that decided the fate of the Congress. In assessing the role and contribution of individual delegates of the Congress, their performances at the Congress in their totality should be taken into account, including their standpoints in seemingly marginal, ‘political’ issues.

Previous research results:

Delineating the history of the internal and external names given to the two main Hungarian Jewish religious-political camps, in a previous study („Orthodox, Neolog: On the History of the Appellations of the Hungarian Jewish Religious Parties” [in Hungarian], Regio 24 [2016], No. 3. pp. 5-37) – a sort of preparatory investigation to the studies outlined above – I mapped the Central European Christian religious and general political realm which defined their aims and space of activities.

Publications, databases:

Turan, Tamas, „ ’As the Christians Go, so Go the Jews’: Hungarian Judaism in Its Denominational Matrix in the Mid-Nineteenth Century”,  Dubnow Institute Yearbook 2017 (Göttingen : Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2019), pp. 61-93

Turan, Tamas, „Truth and/or Peace: The Political Toolbox of the Hungarian Jewish Congress (1868-69) (Jewish Culture and History, to appear)