“The Jews, such as they are today, are our work, the work of our 1,800 years of idiotic persecution.”
“…how could they [the Philosophes] unreflectively import 1700 years anti-Jewish prejudice into their “rational” and secular model for society?”
Introduction: In past writings I established the origins of anti-Judaism within the canon of universal Christianity. I began with the Pauline epistles and the gospels, reviewed anti-Judaism’s theological development from Augustine in the 4th century to Martin Luther eleven hundred years later. While the epistles of Paul provide the inspiration for anti-Judaism, two gospels in particular, Matthew and John written decades later are, through direct quote and paraphrase, the basis of anti-Judaism for the centuries that followed. Matthew graphically represents the Jews as collectively guilty for murdering Jesus, while John repeatedly refers to the Jews as “children of Satan” who conspire with their “father” to harm Christians. John’s description led to the myth and continuing stereotype of the sinister Jew with supernatural powers, while Matthew’s deicide charge appears in, for example, Augustine and Luther as justifying eternal punishment. Martin Luther openly uses the texts to justify their murder.
What follows in the weeks and months ahead is the story of how this characterization of the Jews is being played out in modern Diaspora history (+/- 1700 to present). Following a description of the transformation of Christian anti-Judaism into “secular” antisemitism, a not very mysterious process, I will turn to the evolution of Western antisemitism up to and including its most modern and annihilative variant, a final solution to the West’s Jewish Problem.
In the mid-eighteenth century the Jews represented a “question” for its philosophers and a “problem” for the national groupings transforming into nation-states. In France the population was almost entirely Francophone and Christian with a generally shared history and culture. This pattern applied throughout Europe. So what to make of the Jews who also shared a language and history, the nation apart?
Antisemitism, fed by theologically-based stereotypes, was absorbed almost without awareness into the emerging secular culture. Over time “science” developed ever more elaborate theories to describe the Jews and their place in the West and, by the late 19th century, American eugenicists married Darwinian evolution with Mendelian genetics to arrive at a ranking of the “races” of Man. The white North European Aryan ideal, not surprisingly, represented the highest level of human evolution. Under German eugenics “the Jew” was not just defined at the bottom of the human scale but outside the homo sapiens.
When precisely German eugenicists, under the tutelage and encouragement of their enthusiastic American teachers (see Stefan Kühl, The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism), concluded that the Jews were parasites, a non-human pathogen, may not be known precisely. What is certain is that eugenics combined 20th century “science” and technology and transformed an already lethal form of antisemitism into one capable of achieving the solution to the West’s Jewish Problem once and for all.
At the time of the Reformation the Church viewed the Jewsas allied with the 15th century Protestant apostasy. In Catholic countries Jews were forced to live in walled ghettos and to wear identifying clothing and symbols. If the Reformation saw the return of the Jews to Mediaeval persecution, the Enlightenment and secularism held out the promise of liberation. The Age of Reason liberated most of the West from the feudal slavery, but the Jews continued, for the most part, unwelcome.
Title page of volume one of the Encyclopédie (Wikipedia)
The Philosophes: Diderot, principal contributor and editor of the famous Encyclopédie (1765) wrote that the Jews are “an ignorant and superstitious nation,” while Voltaire, in his Treatise on Toleration (1763) wrote that the Jews are, “the most detestable [nation] ever to have sullied the earth...” And again, in his Dictionary he wrote that the Jews are, “the most imbecile people on the face of the earth, enemies of mankind, most obtuse, cruel absurd... In short, we find in them only an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched.”
In his Letter of Memmius to Cicero, (1771) Voltaire wrote, ‘''They (the Jews) are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with blond hair. I would not be in the least bit surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race…” The year after writing the Memius Letter Voltaire wrote, ''''You [Jews] have surpassed all nations in impertinent fables, in bad conduct and in barbarism. You deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny.'''' Both quotes appear in Arthur Hertzberg’s letter to the New York Times dated September 30).
Voltaire at age 70 (Wikipedia)
One hundred and sixty years before Germany elected Adolph Hitler chancellor, Voltaire had already concluded that the Jews are, “deadly to the human race.” His conclusion that the Jews, “deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny” is taken nearly verbatim from Augustine, who learned it from the Matthew gospel.
Such comments regarding the Jews appear regularly in the writings of the Philosophes, and Voltaire never tired of vilifying them. But how explain that both he and Diderot and most of the Philosophes, the avant-garde liberating Europe from superstition and prejudice, from intolerance and what they perceived as the darkness of religion; how could they have unreflectively imported 1700 years anti-Jewish prejudice into their “rational” and secular model for modern society?
The short answer is that we are, individually and collectively, the product of our time. Our worldview is influenced by our surroundings, our thinking and behavior modified to present circumstance, but based on past experience. The Enlightenment represented a rebellion against the previous hierarchical social structure, the authoritarianism of a religion-based feudal society. But the rebellion itself the product, inheritor of that society’s pre-history, including its biases.
Stereotypes are a convenient, often necessary short-hand that serves as lubricant of social intercourse. Based on experience or inherited bias stereotypy may be transcended, but that requires effort, and continuing self-criticism. For many areas of society and history the Philosophes were relentless critics. When it came to the Jews…
As this discussion will continue in coming months the motive and mechanism of antisemitism will come clearer. For the present we will have to be satisfied with the fact that religious anti-Judaism in its new “rational” secular guise as antisemitism passed seamlessly into that brave, new world which is the “enlightened” West.
Most recent writings in the series: