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David Sorkin—“We should not take those rights for granted”

David Brown
Mon, Dec 9, 2019

Tracing the history of Jewish emancipation as a continuing story of rights won, lost, and regained over centuries, David Sorkin said Jews must continue to fight for their rights and the rights of other threatened minorities.

On December 8, 2019, David Sorkin, Lucy G. Moses Professor of Judaic Studies at Yale University and a Trustee of the LBI, gave the 62nd Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture at the Center for Jewish History in New York. His topic was Jewish emancipation, the subject of his latest book. Calling emancipation the “principal event of modern Jewish history,” he stressed that it was not a single event or even a linear progression, but an ongoing struggle for civil and political rights.

After a magisterial survey of the varied paths along which Jews gained the rights of citizenship in different parts of Europe–often to lose and regain them many times over—Sorkin turned to recent American Jewish history. The American Jewish exceptionalist view—that, as white men, Jews enjoyed full rights the moment they stepped on American soil—is false, he said. Rather, a structure of inequality in employment and housing, education for Jews, Catholics, African Americans and others persisted through the end of the Second World War. Sorkin discussed the ways in which Jews allied with these other oppressed groups to end de jure descrimination by the 1960s.

Sorkin also said that the struggle was not over. “The nativists and white supremacists who wish to perpetuate and deepen racial segregation, whether through voter suppression and gerrymandering, mass incarceration and violence against immigrants, are also the heirs of those who infringed Jews’ civil rights,” he said. “America is not exceptional. [...] Jews had to win their rights; they must continue to defend their rights and those of others.”

After the lecture, LBI President Ronald B. Sobel presented Sorkin with the Moses Mendelssohn Award for his significant scholarly contributions to our understanding of German-Jewish history. The 62nd Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture will be printed and mailed to LBI members in 2020.

From LBI News No. 109