“Hating the Jew was too much an integral part of western culture and tradition and was not to be exorcised.”
My last contribution to this series discussed the transformation of religious anti-Judaism into secular antisemitism. The fathers of secularism, Diderot, Voltaire and others identified with the mid-eighteenth century Philosophes, ruthlessly critical of all areas of thought and tradition, never applied their much-vaunted “reason” to the “problem” Jews had for centuries represented to Christianity. Instead these famous philosophers seemed to take pleasure in abandoning “critical thinking” when it came to the West’s traditional scapegoat. With Napoleon came the understanding that the ideals of the French revolution had to apply to all, even to the Jews.
Introduction: The Enlightenment aggressively set out to replace the traditional religion-based social system with one based on reason and liberal secularism. The Jews felt liberation was finally at hand. The Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment, “sought to exploit the new possibilities of economic, social, and cultural integration… that appeared to become available to Jews in the late eighteenth century with the removal of legal discrimination.” The mere promise of emancipation achieved what a thousand years of threat and coercion failed to do: as Hugo Valentin wrote in his book Anti-Semitism, “more German Jews were baptized between 1800 and 1818, than in the previous 1800 years put together.”
Whatever prejudices the Philosophes carried forward in their writings, their application of reason to society brought about a revolution that birthed the secular nation-state. But nation-states were each home to a specific national group, a people identifiable by a common language, culture and history. Where did the Jews fit?
According to Voltaire, et al, the Jews also were a “nation,” but their dispersion among the other nations identified them as “a nation apart.” For 1800 years despised, persecuted based on religion; in the brave new world of secularism Jewish exclusion found a new justification, “science.” And the threat to the Jews, previously dire, would become even more dangerous, the survival of the Jews far less likely.
An 1806 French print depicts Napoleon Bonaparte emancipating the Jews. (Wikipedia)
Leon Poliakov quotes Napoleon, “I do not intend to rescue that race, which seems to have been the only one excluded from redemption, from the curse with which it is smitten, but I would like to put it in a position where it is unable to propagate the evil,” (The History of Anti-Semitism, volume III, p.226). But his commitment to the French revolutionary ideal of liberté, égalité, fraternité meant extending the same to the Jews. But the price of entry, the “Napoleonic Bargain,” was little different from that of Martin Luther three hundred years earlier. While Luther would “accept” the Jews upon conversion to his reformed and “tolerant” Christianity, Napoleon would demanded they abandon their communal identity as the price of inclusion. In effect both demanded assimilation, that they abandon Judaism: "Napoleon''s outward tolerance and fairness toward Jews was actually based upon his grand plan to have them disappear entirely by means of total assimilation, intermarriage, and conversion."
Napoleon heralded the process eventually to be called Emancipation, promoted laws governing the inclusion of Jews as relative equals and citizens. But freeing the Jews from centuries of serfdom faced many opponents, and traditional cultural resistance. Even within revolutionary France there were those who preferred an “exclusionary solution” to the problem of the Jews. According to Jacob Katz, “The possible expulsion of Jews from France had been mentioned in the National Assembly debate… as the unreasonable and unthinkable alternative to the obvious solution, the radical integration of the Jews into the newly created body politic,” (From Prejudice to Destruction, Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933, p. 109).
The Napoleonic conquests extended Jewish emancipation across a generally reluctant Europe. And following his defeat in 1814 emancipation was withdrawn as quickly as it had been imposed. Napoleon’s defeat also saw a return by many Jews to “‘son of’ names like Mendelsohn, Jacobson, Levinson, etc.” And perhaps this reversion to tradition throws another light on the comfort we unreflectively carry forward from the past. Where some philosophes would surrender a measure of “reason” for the “familiar,” so also some Jews preferred the familiar past over the alienating demands of “emancipation.”
Emancipation suffered a reversal after Napoleon but eventually, if haltingly, revived. In the 1830’s Greece, Canada and Sweden freed their Jews; Denmark in 1849, the United Kingdom in 1858 and Germany in 1871; the United States in 1877.
Felix Mendelssohn monument, Leipzig Gewandhaus, photographed in 1900 (removed in 1936), Wikipedia
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy exemplifies German Jewry’s desire to assimilate into German culture. A convert to Lutheranism his grandfather, philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, is credited as the father of Haskalah, and that the effort to adapt Judaism to modern society, the Reform movement.
In his antisemitic diatribe “Das Judentum,” or Jewishness in Music, Richard Wagner ignored Mendelssohn’s conversion, described him a Jew, and attacked him as an alien influence on real German music.
“Jewish success following their emancipation caused resentment on the part of many Christians… The scientific age and mindset gave anti-Semitism a new respectability. As religion lost ground to science, anti-Semitism became in part scientific. No longer based solely on religious belief, this new version of [Jew hatred] became respectable and acceptable to the modernist,” (Grosser and Halperin, 1978, The Causes and Effects of anti-Semitism, pps. 208-9). The term “anti-Semitism” first appeared in the 1870’s. Coined by the journalist Wilhelm Marr it provided a scientific respectability, defined Jews outside the Christian community, classified Jewry according to rational theories of race and history.
“[F]or a time, during the first half of the century, it seemed that anti-Semitism would disappear as nations became more secular and the last vestiges of feudalism and privilege fell to political liberalism and scientific and economic progress. This optimism was mistaken. Hating the Jew was too much an integral part of western culture and tradition and was not to be exorcised,” (Grosser and Halperin, 1978, p. 207).
Very soon Jewish emancipation would inspire the rise of organized antisemitic movements, the emergence of political parties based on antisemitism.
Other writings in this Series: