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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medieval France in 1394 and again explicitly excluded from it, as unbelievers, in 1615; and these edicts had never been repealed.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 to a judicious gift of 110,000 livres, paid in honor of “the joyous event of his Majesty’s coronation,” their privileges were confirmed in spite of their religion, of which nothing was said. By 1776 they had gained the commercial freedom of France. They deserved well of their city, lending vast sums, without interest, in time of famine. They served the central government too: the greatest family among them, the Gradis family, protected by the Duc de Choiseul, supplied Canada and the French Antilles throughout the Seven Years’ War with England. And like the English Sephardim they became thoroughly conservative. A privileged and valued minority saw no need to upset a satisfactory status quo by demanding definitions which might be less satisfactory, or legal “emancipation.”

Secondly, there were the “Avignonnais.” The Jews had always been protected by the Pope, and Avignon was still, in the eighteenth century, papal property. But Avignon was small, and the Jews inevitably spilled out of it. They infiltrated into Nîmes, Montpellier, Toulouse—and were duly driven out again. Finally, after 1700, a group of rich Avignonnais converged on their co-religionists in Bordeaux, who were not at all pleased to see them. After a struggle, the Bordeaux Sephardim had to admit the Avignonnais to share their commercial rights, but they contrived to prevent them from forming a distinct community or disturbing the Sephardic monopoly of power. In this the Sephardim were helped by having an excellent agent in Paris, Jacob Péreire, who advised them, at an opportune moment, to “lend” 6,000 livres to an unnamed lady “who by herself and by her connexions might be useful to the nation.”

Thirdly, there were the Jews of Alsace-Lorraine, and particularly of Metz. Alsace and Lorraine came late to France, in the seventeenth century, and the Jews were already established in Alsace: a legacy from German rule. They were Ashkenazim, German Jews, numerous and poor. Lorraine had fewer Jews, but the city of Metz (which had come to France separately in 1552) contained by far the largest Jewish community in France. On its annexation, it had been without Jews, but the French military governor had formally allowed them to settle there in order to provide much-needed credit both to the town and to the garrison. Louis XIV had confirmed and extended their privileges in this essential frontier town, and by the eighteenth century a Jew of Metz was the only Jew in France whose right to be there, as a Jew and not as a “new Christian,” was legally incontrovertible.

THESE THREE GROUPS of Jews in France formed three distinct societies, each with its own culture. The rich, conservative Sephardic businessmen in Bordeaux, though theoretically illegal, were an indispensable mercantile artistocracy, dominant and secure. They felt at home in Bordeaux, and indeed in France. They were cultivated and liberal, even, at times, heretical. The “Avignonnais” were more precarious, and their culture was more provincial. In fact it was Provençal: they had even developed, as a literary language, their own Jewish version of the Provençal dialect. The Jews of Alsace-Lorraine, though they too had their grandees—Samuel Lévy of Metz, the Berr family of Nancy—and although, in Metz, their legal position was impregnable, were socially the most precarious of all. Excluded from agriculture and manufacture, unable to force their way into the guilds, they were largely engaged in despised forms of commerce. They were peddlers, usurers, horse-traders, old-clothes-dealers. The peasantry was heavily indebted to them; so were the garrison officers. They were also, in their religion, orthodox and devout. In consequence, anti-Semitism was endemic in the area. In 1777 it was fanned to a blaze by the affair of the “false receipts”—forged quittances which an anti-Semitic ring manufactured in thousands and distributed to Christian debtors, to “free” them from Jewish usury. In 1789, all the deputies of Alsace, from the extreme right to the extreme left, opposed the emancipation of the Jews, largely on economic grounds, “and in this,” says Mr. Hertzberg, “they faithfully reflected public opinion.”

Thus eighteenth-century France was, in this respect, a microcosm of Europe. It had its rich, free-thinking Sephardic Jews in the West, its poor, devout Ashkenazim, and its “Jewish problem,” in the East. Economically and intellectually, these two groups were widely different. They differed in internal structure too. The defensive, devout Ashkenazim were highly organized, with their own civil jurisdiction, and were firmly controlled by their syndics or parnassim, while the easygoing, ex-Christian Sephardim never acquired this protective structure: they used the French courts, and thus became more like French subjects of the Crown. Thanks to such social divergence, the Sephardic writer Isaac de Pinto could write in 1762, that “a Portuguese Jew from Bordeaux and a German Jew from Metz appear to be two entirely different beings.” And Paris, which had colonies of all three groups—from Bordeaux, from Avignon, from Alsace-Lorraine—was a microcosm of France itself.

Such was the social pattern of French Jewry in the eighteenth century. It is a subject which Mr. Hertzberg has studied and illuminated in detail, and his study of it is, to me, the most solid and interesting part of his book. But, valuable though it is, it is only the substructure. On this basis he has built a superstructure which is equally interesting but far more controversial. This is his interpretation of the attitude of the philosophers of the Englightenment toward the Jewish problem in France.

Throughout the eighteenth century, the attitude of the governing classes toward the Jews was generally tolerant. Ever since the time of Colbert there had been a tradition of benevolence, at least toward the Sephardim of Bordeaux who, though outside the Catholic establishment, seemed so eager to conform to its habits and to serve it with their wealth and enterprise. Moreover, the religious angularities of Jews and Catholics alike were, by now, being rubbed off. A Sephardic Jew of Bordeaux, whose family had surrendered to the surrounding Catholicism in the sixteenth century and merely reverted to its own ancestral tradition in the seventeenth, was no stickler for superstitious observances. Having had his faith in the Old Testament refined by Spinoza, he could converse easily with a cultivated Frenchman whose faith in the New Testament had been equally refined by Richard Simon or the libertins érudits. The physiocrats, indeed, regarded Jewish economic activities as harmful, but responsible statesmen recognized that Jewish enterprise, like Protestant enterprise, filled a void in the French economy, and responsible thinkers allowed that even the peddlers and bigots of Alsace-Lorraine had been driven by social pressure into their obstinate postures of non-conformity. If they were treated more fairly—if they were admitted to the guilds and allowed a share in general commerce—they would discard the habits of the ghetto: they would rise to the level already attained by the Sephardim of the West and, like them, although retaining some traditional observances, agree with Frenchmen on the basis of a shared modern “philosophy” of vague deism. Such was the opinion of Isaac de Pinto, the literary champion of the Sephardim; and it was hailed and echoed by Moses Mendelssohn, the enlightened Jew of Berlin, whose words were heard and repeated by the Ashkenazim of Metz.

But if there was general agreement that the Jews should be treated better, there were differing opinions about the means to that end. Few yet believed in the complete emancipation of the Jews. The best friends of the Jews wanted to secure for them only a wider toleration. Some saw this as the preliminary to conversion—whether to Christianity or to “philosophy.” And even on the Jewish side there were differences. Emancipation and toleration—as the émigré Huguenots had discovered—have their temptations and their dangers. Individual Jews might respond to the temptations, seeking to assimilate themselves to the gentile world around them. Rabbis and parnassim might be more conscious of the dangers, and seek to prevent them by increasing their own disciplinary power. It is in the context of these divergences of opinion that Mr. Hertzberg examines the ideas of the great French philosophers of the Enlightenment; and it is at this point, when he steps up from the world of Jewish social fact into the world of French ideas, that he seems to me to lose his sureness of touch and sacrifice exactitude of scholarship to an exaggerated antithesis between the two greatest figures of the French Enlightenment, Montesquieu and Voltaire.

ACCORDING TO MR. HERTZBERG, Montesquieu—perhaps because he lived near Bordeaux—was liberal to the Jews while Voltaire, though he lived in Ferney, “on the edge of Alsace,” was a positive and deliberate anti-Semite, even “racist,” whose works, in his own time, “were a major obstacle to the freedom of the Jews” and, for the next century, “provided the fundamentals of the rhetoric of anti-Semitism.” Each, of course, had his followers. Montesquieu was followed by the Marquis d’Argens and by Mirabeau; Voltaire by d’Holbach and Diderot. These latter writers are thus presented as the ancestors of the twentieth-century, secular, racial anti-Semitism which “was fashioned not as a reaction to the Enlightenment and the Revolution, but within the Enlightenment and the Revolution themselves.”

Now that there is a profound difference between the philosophy of Montesquieu and the philosophy of Voltaire no one would deny; and it is equally undeniable that Montesquieu was the more liberal of the two. Montesquieu was a relativist: he believed that societies were formed by a plurality of forces, and that they differed from one another, and differed legitimately, in accordance with the differences of those forces. His attitude to minorities was logically the result of his general philosophy, and there is therefore no necessary reason (just as there is no evidence) to suppose that his “liberal” attitude to the Jews was the result of contact with the Sephardim of Bordeaux. On the other hand Voltaire, a far less subtle or consistent thinker, believed in the linear progress of mankind toward a unitary truth of “philosophy” and tended to judge men by their willingness to move in his direction. He had little of Montesquieu’s respect for the non-intellectual pressures of tradition, custom, or social force. It was for this reason that Gibbon, a disciple of Montesquieu, ended by repudiating Voltaire as being, in some respects, “a bigot, an intolerant bigot.” But when one has said this, and admitted that Voltaire’s language about the habits and the Scriptures of the ancient Hebrews are brusque and contemptuous, the fact remains that the views of Montesquieu and Voltaire are not fundamentally opposed, and it is only (as it seems to me) by special pleading that Mr. Hertzberg contrives to oppose them.

Thus Mr. Hertzberg quotes Montesquieu’s famous denunciation of the Portuguese Inquisition for burning a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl and dismisses, as unrepresentative, his critical remarks about the Jews: their greed for money, their gross superstitions, their low tastes and character, the total lack of genius among their rabbis. But when he comes to Voltaire he reverses the emphasis: he quotes one of Voltaire’s denunciations of Christian persecution of the Jews, only to dismiss it as “not the dominant note” in his writings, and he emphasizes, in his writings, the same critical observations which, when made by Montesquieu, he had dismissed as unrepresentative. A more cautious reader might conclude that both Montesquieu and Voltaire disliked certain aspects of Jewish life, and that both detested religious persecution, although differences of philosophy, temper, style, and perhaps experience gave a different emphasis to their expression.

WHY was Voltaire, in Mr. Hertzberg’s phrase, an “anti-Semite”? If we read, without preconception, all Voltaire’s remarks about the Jews, the answer seems clear enough. Voltaire hated Christian superstition and Christian intolerance, and he could not fail to notice that both of these hateful traditions rested ultimately on the Hebrew Scriptures. In the religious crusades of the Middle Ages, and the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was by appeal to Old Testament authority that fanatics had justified massacre and persecution. On the other hand the progress of modern, secular knowledge, toward the “Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century, owed nothing to the Jews, whether ancient or modern. The most enlightened Jews had merely borrowed the language of their Gentile neighbors. It was impertinence for the Jews to claim—as certain Hellenistic Jews had done—that they had taught the Greeks, the real fathers of modern knowledge. If there were some ideas which, in Roman times, Greeks and Jews seemed to share, the explanation was easy. The Jews had settled among the Greeks in Alexandria, the capital of Greek learning, but there is no evidence that the Greeks ever went to sell old clothes in Jerusalem. Finally, there was that characteristic of the Jews which has been noticed with distaste by tolerant cosmopolitans throughout the ages, and which has been the real cause of their inassimilability: their “unsociable” character, their obstinate, intolerant defense of their own singularity: what Roman writers called their “hatred of the human race.” All these qualities made the Jews disagreeable to Voltaire, and he said so, with perhaps excessive relish, because to devalue the Jews of the Old Testament was to strike a blow at the pedigree of the Church. But all this did not, to Voltaire, justify persecution: “il ne faut pourtant pas les brûler.” Nor did it justify false charges: the charge of ritual murder, still repeated by anti-Semites in his time, was dismissed by Voltaire as “ces accusations ridicules.” Nor did Voltaire suggest, as Mr. Hertzberg complains, that Jews were radically different from Christians: “nous ne sommes au fond,” he wrote, “que des Juifs avec un prépuce.”

Such is the “anti-Semitism” of Voltaire. It is clear, trenchant, and limited. What is its connection with the Christian anti-Semitism of the past or the secular anti-Semitism of the future? Intellectually, the answer must be, none at all. What Voltaire says of the Jews, though unsympathetic in tone, is fair comment on matter of fact. Unless Mr. Hertzberg is determined to argue that the Old Testament does not record bestial and barbarous practices, or that the Jews were not unsociable and intolerant, or that they did teach science to the Greeks, it is difficult to see how he can reject Voltaire’s expressions. Voltaire criticized the Jews on the same limited grounds on which they were criticized by Montesquieu and indeed by what Mr. Hertzberg calls “the main stream of pro-Jewish opinion.” Even the most liberal emancipationists, like the abbé Grégoire, held, as Mr. Hertzberg puts it, “violently negative views of the inherited Jewish religion.” To say that Voltaire’s attitude was a secularized survival of the Christian attack on the “Christ-killers” is meaningless. To say that it led naturally to “the rhetoric of secular anti-Semitism”—i.e., to racism and the mythology of the Elders of Zion—is grotesque.

The trouble is that Mr. Hertzberg is himself too rhetorical. Once he strays from the solid ground of Jewish social life in Bordeaux or Metz, where he is at home, his terms become confused and his argument loose. It may be true that anti-Semitic writers occasionally quoted Voltaire’s quips against the Jews, but to say that a few instances of such borrowing “prove beyond any shadow of a doubt” that Voltaire was the patron of anti-Semitism and that his writings were “the great arsenal of anti-Jewish arguments for those enemies of the Jews who wanted to sound contemporary,” is, to say the least, petitio principii. If we wish to study the descent of ideas, we must look at ideas more critically than this. It is impermissible to draw large deductions from a mere tone of voice.

AND WHAT are the historic arguments of anti-Semitism? In the Middle Ages they had been religious. The Jews, it was then said, had deviated from the Truth, had killed Christ, and were therefore divinely punished by centuries of Dispersion. This was the argument still repeated by Pascal and Bossuet in the seventeenth century, and used to send victims to the stake in eighteenth-century Portugal. In the nineteenth century the arguments are different. Christ has fallen out; science has come in. The Jews, it is now said, are a biologically inferior race of beings, and they are engaged in a conspiracy to capture control of the world. This is the argument repeated by French and Russian anti-Semites and used to send victims to the gas-chambers in Hitler’s Europe. Between these two arguments, which have nothing in common, what link can we find? One link is the Jews. They are the constant element, far more constant than the Christians: for anti-Semitism precedes Christianity, and overflows it. We must therefore face the possibility that there is an objective basis for anti-Semitism in the continuing Jewish way of life. But this is a possibility which Mr. Hertzberg will not consider. To him, anti-Semitism is a mere baseless prejudice nourished by erroneous ideas. Therefore its continuity must be sought not in objective Jewish fact but in subjective Gentile illusion. Some thinker must show the way from the old illusion to the new; and thanks to their impatience of an obstinate tradition, Voltaire, Diderot, d’Holbach are said to have “provided a new rationale for post-Christian anti-Semites.” In fact, they did nothing of the sort.

I have dwelt on Mr. Hertzberg’s thesis concerning Montesquieu and Voltaire because it is the most provocative part of his book, and because he himself clearly regards it as central. But it would be unfair to judge the book on this questionable argument. Quite apart from his detailed description of Jewish society in eighteenth-century France, which I found fascinating, the book is full of interesting information about the debate concerning the Jews: a debate which culminates in the offer, in 1785, by the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences in Metz, of a prize for an essay on the question, “Are there means of making the Jews happy and more useful in France?” The prize was ultimately divided among three contestants: a Catholic abbé, a Protestant, and a Jew. The Catholic abbé was Henri Grégoire; and it is interesting to note that Grégoire, the leader of the emanicipationists, was a disciple not of Voltaire nor of Montesquieu but of the radical millenarian Jansenists who, like the radical English puritans of the previous century, preached philo-Semitism as the preliminary to religious conversion. Similar views were held by Malesherbes, the author of the edict of 1787 for the toleration of Protestants. Thus on all sides the liberals, the emancipators, were determined to destroy the separate communal structure of Jewish life, while the Jewish syndics, the parnassim, sought at every turn to delay “emancipation” and to fortify that structure, and their own authority within it. The Jews, no less than the philosophers, were divided among themselves, and the struggle between the Dispersed and the Zionists can be discerned even before the Emancipation which laid open its battleground.

Letters

The Chosen People October 24, 1968

The Chosen People October 24, 1968

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