Some of My Best Friends Are Philosophes

The “emancipation” of the Jews began with the French Revolution. By two enactments of 1790 and 1791 the revolutionary assembly granted to the Jews of France those full rights of citizenship which the Jews of Great Britain would not acquire for another half-century. Napoleon, as heir to the Revolution, carried emancipation to continental Europe; and the revolutions of the nineteenth century apparently secured it. In our own days it has been painfully reversed, and its reversal has been generally regarded as part of a reactionary movement, the reversal of all those liberal ideas which were launched in 1789 and which had been matured, before 1789, by the French philosophers of the Enlightenment.

This easy general formula has recently been challenged at its base. Mr. J. L. Talmon, in his book, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, has drawn attention to the darker side of the Enlightenment. He has argued that the philosophers and the revolutionaries were less liberal and more “totalitarian” than they once seemed, and that the totalitarian democracy of today is, in some ways, the realization, not the denial, of their ideals. The Zionists also may well have doubts about “emancipation.” It was because emancipation was failing that Zionism was first advocated by Pinsker and Herzl; and this failure may not have been due solely to the strength of “reaction” against the liberalism of the Revolution: it may equally have been due to the inherent limits of that liberalism. In these circumstances it is useful to re-examine the whole question of the French Enlightenment and the Jews; and this is what Mr. Hertzberg has done in this learned and provocative book.

Mr. Hertzberg’s great merit is his respect for social facts. Before he comes to ideas, the ideas of the philosophers who wrote so generally of “les Juifs,” he describes, in exact, concrete detail, the structure of Jewish life in France. Who were the Jews whom Bossuet and Montesquieu and Voltaire may actually have met, as distinct from those ancient Hebrews whose Scriptures they were obliged to know, as the inescapable substructure of Christianity?

In fact there were very few Jews in eighteenth-century France. The Jews had been expelled from medieval France in 1394 and again explicitly excluded from it, as unbelievers, in 1615; and these edicts had never been repealed. But medieval France was not co-terminous with modern France and not all Jews were “unbelievers.” There were therefore loopholes in the system of exclusion, and through these loopholes the Jews had gradually crept back. They were now concentrated, by historical accident, in certain areas.

First, there were the Sephardic conversos of Spain and Portugal who had fled from the Inquisition to Bordeaux and were welcomed there as “new Christians.” Like their brothers in Amsterdam and Hamburg, they were great entrepreneurs in Atlantic trade; they grew rich and became respectable; and by the end of the seventeenth century, under the blind eye of the government which recognized their economic value, they quietly resumed their old Judaism. In 1723, thanks…

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