Hep Hep Riots

“Hip, hip, hurrah” is an innocent sounding expression of excitement, approbation and joy. Many Jews, however, are reluctant to use the term due to its negative historical connotations.

The Fight against Equality

In the early 19th century, things were going well for German Jews. Despite the defeat of France, the main banner bearer of liberty, equality, and fraternity, a spirit of emancipation prevailed. Germany was in the forefront of civil rights. Following the example of France in 1791 and the Batavian Republic (Holland) in 1808, various German states were among the first places to grant equality to their Jews. The Grand Duchy  of Hesse granted them equal rights in 1808, the Kingdom of Westphalia followed in 1811, the Grand Duchy of Frankfurt and Mecklenburg-  Schwerin in 1812, the Kingdom of Prussia in 1828, and the Kingdom of Wurttemberg in 1830. By contrast, New Hampshire of the United States only granted full equality to its Jews in 1877.

But the situation was in flux; the spirit of equality was struggling with deep seated hatred for the Jew. Some places, such as Frankfurt, revoked Jewish rights already granted. In most of Germany, Jews could not hold posts in public administration and the army, nor could they teach in schools and universities.

As the 1815 pan-European Congress of Vienna convened to re-establish peace and order after the Napoleonic wars, Jewish representatives urged for full emancipation and provoked vicious opposition. Ashamed to reject the Jewish appeal outright, the Congress cunningly drafted  an open-ended resolution that pushed off Jewish rights to a nebulous future.

“The Assembly of the Federation will deliberate how to achieve the civic improvement of the members of the Jewish religion in Germany  in as generally agreed a form as possible, in particular as to how to grant and insure for them the possibility of enjoying civic rights in return  for the acceptance of all civic duties in the states of the Federation,” the proclamation declared. It omitted the slightest hint of when this “civic  improvement” would actually happen.

Much of the public regarded Jewish rights as a curtailment of their privileged status. Give the Jew a finger and he’ll take a hand, it was  claimed. Articles and publications claimed that the Jews were plotting to seize control of the economy. This was the new anti-Semitism, based  less on religious bigotry and more on beliefs that Jews were racially inferior and/or plotting to take over the world.

To make things worse, a famine in 1816 left many Germans deep in debt to Jews, and the cheap influx of English products after the Napoleonic  wars was pauperizing many craftsmen. This led to the accusation that Jews were acting as middlemen for the English, their goal to  ruin German artisans and trades people and gain supremacy over the impoverished Germans. Viciously anti-Semitic pamphlets, articles, and  plays multiplied. All this contributed towards the first modern pogrom, based less on Christian dogmatism and more on financial hardship  and racial despotism.

The Hep Hep Riots

The Hep Hep Riots broke out in Wurzburg, Bavaria, on August 2, 1819, triggered by the return of the humanistic Professor Joseph  Behr from a state convention in Munich where he had been urging the extension of Jewish rights. The targets of the mob signified what  people resented most. Crowds attacked the palatial home of the wealthy von Hirsch family that had built their home out of what was once  a Catholic monastery. Rioters ripped off the signboards from Jewish owned shops legalized to trade openly three years earlier in 1816.

German troops came in to prevent a massacre and the Jews fled to the countryside.  In Frankfurt, rioters chased Jews from a public promenade only permitted for Jewish use since 1806, and hurled Jews from the post  office that had prohibited access to Jews until 1817. Hamburg rioters ejected Jews from fashionable cafes where anti-Semites long contended  they did not belong, while rioters attacked homes in streets heretofore traditionally forbidden to Jews. The riots spread throughout  Germany, the birthplace of the Haskalah, and crossed borders into parts of Denmark, Poland, Latvia, and Bohemia.

In October, the riots rekindled in the German Rhineland after Catholic villagers accused their Jewish neighbors of ritual murder.

Symbolically, one could argue that the Hep Hep Riots had begun months earlier in May 1819, when a royal prince stopped ten-year-old  Felix Mendelssohn on a Berlin street, spat at him, and yelled out, “Hep, hep! Jew boy!” It so happens that Felix Mendelssohn, who would  become one of Germany’s most revered composers (except when his music was banned during World War II), was a grandson of Moses  Mendelsohn. The boy’s parents had converted him to the majority religion three years previously.

It must be admitted that shocking as these riots were, especially for Jews at the threshold of equality, they were less bloodthirsty than  most medieval pogroms. In many instances, local police and military protected the persecuted Jews.  A famous engraving of the riots by the German artist, Johann Michael Voltz, depicts a typical scene. Peasant women and respectable  looking citizens assault Jews in the streets with pitchforks, brooms, and sticks, while trampling over looted Jewish property lying in the  streets. Just in time, a cavalry contingent arrives. Pushing into the mass, the riders whistle sabers through the air to frighten off the rabble.

In Karlsruhe, the military brought cannon into the streets to terrify the rioters, and the grand duke of Baden moved into the home of a  prominent Jew to show his solidarity with the persecuted Jews. There were towns where police did little or nothing. When police in Heidelberg  delayed doing anything, professors and students of the town’s world famous university sallied out and stopped the pogroms with  their own hands, even taking citizens under arrest. In other towns, students and professors were among the instigators of the trouble.

A converted Jew, Ludwig Robert, gave an eyewitness account of the rioting, writing that he was disappointed in the callousness of the  populace in the face of human tragedy, and intimating that he was disappointed that the religious ministers of his new religion were not  quite as loving as he had imagined:

“… I walked all the way to the Waldhorngasse,” he wrote. “There I caught sight of the commandant of the city, General Bruckner, on  horseback, and as there was still sporadic shouting, he told his patrol: ‘Let the… shout away if they insist, but the minute they do something  dumb, let them have it!’ Everyone in town was standing at their open windows, and I went back slowly, close to the buildings, so  that I could hear what was being said and assess the mood.

“Children were playing in front of the doorsteps, laughing and giggling; they told about the day’s events with childish interest. But  none of the men or women admonished them or even engaged them in serious conversation. And there was even less chance of seeing a  priest, even though in my opinion this was truly where they ought to have been, as teachers of the religion that holds love in such esteem.  How corrupt people really are and how inadequate their sense of law and justice not to mention their love of humanity – is clear from  the fact that there was no indignation expressed at these incidents, not even in the official papers… The townspeople are said to have been  angry with Bruckner for closing the taverns right away. They threatened to tear him off his horse.”

Many modern Jews imagined that by ignoring the problem it might go away. Haskalah and reform circles minimized the importance  of the riots. As some people claimed a century later when the Nazi party was in its infancy, now too it was claimed that only boors and  ruffians had participated in the riots and that they did not indicate the view of the more educated populace. Jewish journals like Sulamith  and Jedidja never said a word on the subject, perhaps afraid to weaken the developing rapprochement between the Jew and his neighbor.

The hep hep pogroms continued sporadically until the 1830s. Similar riots erupted in later decades and the cry of Hep, hep, Jud verrek  (hep, hep, Jews die) was heard in German streets for many years until superceded by slogans even coarser and more virulent.

The Etymology of Hep Hep

The Hep Hep Riots were named after the slogan rioters yelled during their rampages at the time. The etymology of the word is unclear.  Student rioters, more knowledgeable of defunct tongues, claimed that the letters of Hep were the initials letters of Hierusylema Est Perdita,  Jerusalem is destroyed. It has been claimed that for this reason, the initials H.E.P. were emblazed on the banners of Medieval Crusaders as  they set out to capture Yerushalayim. Others claim that the term goes back to the ancient Romans who, after the Churban, toasted one another  at feasts with one person yelling out, Hierusylema Est Perdita, to which the drunk crowd would respond, hurrah!

Alternatively, it is claimed that Hep is short for Hebrews. Others theorize that it started out as a simple herdsman’s cry. Elaborating on this  last theory, the anti-Semitic Brothers Grimm (authors of the grimmest children’s tales ever devised) suggested that this cry, also used to drive  goats, was especially pertinent to Jews due to their beards. Whatever the exact origin of “hep hep” or “hip, hip, hooray,” Jews find the latter  repugnant due to its negative historical associations.

To end on a positive note, it has been pointed out that a very similar variation of “hurrah” exists in Tehillim (137:7) where the verse says  of Bavel at the time of its future destruction, Aru, aru (raze it, raze it) until her foundations. At that time, the hurrah of our enemies will turn  into the aru of their despair.   

(Wikipedia. Elon, Amos. The Pity of It All: A History of the Jews in Germany, 1743-1933. Metropolitan Books, 2002. Christhard Hoffman, Helmut Walser  Smith, Exclusionary Violence: Antisemitic Riots in Modern German History, University of Michigan Press, 2002. Ohr Sameach website for Tehillim comment.) 


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