From anti-Judaism to antisemitism: The Enlightenment

“The Jews, such as they are today, are our work, the work of our 1,800 years of idiotic persecution.”

Emile Zola, 1897


Introduction: We recently discussed the origins of anti-Judaism within the canon of universal Christianity, beginning with the Pauline epistles and the gospels. We then reviewed anti-Judaism’s theological development in the Church Fathers, and especially Augustine in the 4th century, then Luther eleven hundred years later. We concluded this area of our discussion by describing a subliminal engine perpetuating anti-Judaism>antisemitism: Christian insecurity.


Paul’s epistles provided the agenda; the gospels shaped that agenda into an anti-Jewish polemic which inspired centuries of theology and provided the basis for traditional anti-Judaism and anti-Jewish persecution. Matthew’s deicide charge appears, as example, justifies eternal punishment for the Jewish “deicides in Augustine’s City of God, while Luther openly refers to Matthew 27:25 as justification for persecution and murder.

In the weeks and months ahead we will observe how “reason” can transform scripture-based medieval stereotypes from a religion-based threat to Christian identity into a “scientifically” explicable and mortal threat to Mankind entire: how in its “secular” form social/political antisemitism would shoehorn the Jewish people into a “scientific” paradigm, “prove” Jews a separate race, eventually a non-human pathogen.


In its most “scientific” form the goal of antisemitism would provide with logical clarity a solution to the West’s centuries-long Jewish Problem, a final solution: the extermination of the Jewish people.


In the mid-eighteenth century “the Jews” represented a “question” for Western philosophers; a “problem” for the national groupings emerging as culturally distinct nation-states. In France the population was almost entirely Francophone and Christian, its population generally shared a common history and culture. This pattern applied throughout Europe. So what to make of the Jews who generally shared language and history, but were scattered among most of the emerging states. How did this “nation apart” fit in?


Antisemitism, fed by theologically-inspired mediaeval stereotypes, was absorbed almost without awareness into emergent Christian-secular culture. Over time Western philosophy and “science” sought a response, sought to “classify” Jewry. Proto-anthropology and linguistics concluded that the Jews were a Semitic people. By the late 19thcentury, American eugenicists married Darwinian evolution with Mendelian genetics to arrive at a more definitive classification of Jews: they were now a “race,” alongside Orientals and Southern Europeans. At the top of the racial pyramid were “Aryan” northern Europeans, American Eugenics goal for the United States. Under National Socialism Germany followed the American model of racial purity through selective breeding and took eugenics to the next level. If the Aryan was at the top, the Master Race, then the Jew was at the bottom and, as eugenics achieved an epiphany, Jews are classified outside genus homo sapiens.


When precisely German eugenicists, under the tutelage and encouragement of their enthusiastic (not an exaggeration) American teachers (see Stefan Kühl, The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism), concluded that the Jews were a non-human pathogen, parasites, may not be known precisely. What is certain is that eugenics combined with 20th century technology (IBM data processing; the Ford assembly line) to transform an already lethal form of traditional antisemitism into a well-designed engine of industrial mass murder and disposal capable of finally achieving the solution to the West’s Jewish Problem, once and for all.


At the time of the Reformation the Church imagined “the Jews” allied with the 15th century Protestant apostasy. In Catholic countries they were forced to live in walled ghettos and to wear identifying clothing and symbols. If the Reformation resulted in the return of the Jews to Mediaeval persecution, the Enlightenment and secularism held out the promise of liberation. But if the Age of Reason liberated most of the West from feudal slavery “the Jews” continued, for the most part, outsiders and unwelcome.




Title page of volume one of the Encyclopédie (Wikipedia)


The Philosophes: Diderot, principal contributor and editor of the famous Encyclopédie (1765) wrote that Jews are “an ignorant and superstitious nation,” while Voltaire, in his Treatise on Toleration (sic), 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 his 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 are from a 30 September, 1990 letter by Arthur Hertzberg that appeared in the New York Times.




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, in turn, was referring directly to the Matthew gospel.


Some modern philosophers would rescue Voltaire-as-antisemite by pointing out that his attack on the Jews was part of a more general assault on Christianity. And perhaps, had he limited his critique to Judaism-as-religion the argument might be somewhat credible. But Voltaire singled out “the Jews,” the “nation.” Nor are such antisemitic attacks limited to Voltaire. The Jews appear with regularity in the writings of the Philosophes, and Jews and Judaism occupy more than twenty-five percent of Voltaire’s Dictionary. Voltaire and Diderot and most of the Philosophes, Europe’s intellectual avant-garde dedicated to liberating the continent from superstition and prejudice, from intolerance and what they perceived as the darkness of religion; how could they have unreflectively imported 1700 years of 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 modify in response to present our environment based on past experience. The Enlightenment represented a rebellion against the previous hierarchical social structure, the authoritarianism of religion-based feudal society. But the rebellion was itself product and inheritor of Christendom’s history, including its deeply embedded biases expressed in its stereotypes of “the Jews.”


Stereotypes can serve as convenient short-hand and social lubricant. More often they serve as short-hand for bigotry. Stereotypy may be transcended, but that requires effort and continuous self-monitoring. Regarding many areas of European society, culture and history the Philosophes were relentless liberal critics. But when it came to the Jews…


As this discussion develops, motive and mechanism of antisemitism will grow 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 new world order which is our “enlightened” West.