In response to:
Some of My Best Friends Are Philosophes from the August 22, 1968 issue
To the Editors:
In his review of my book The French Enlightenment and the Jews Mr. Hugh Trevor-Roper [NYR, August 22] has done me the honor of praising my account of Jewish life in France during the ancien régime into the era of the Revolution. He has, however, disagreed with my interpretation of the attitude of the more doctrinaire wing of the Enlightenment, and especially of Voltaire, to the “Jewish question.”
Even here there is rather less difference between us on the facts than may appear from a surface reading of his essay. Mr. Trevor-Roper does agree with one of my two basic assertions about Voltaire’s relationship to the Jews, that his attitude was a reevocation of Greco-Roman dislike for the Jews because they were singularly different from the rest of mankind. The argument about the historical evidence reduces itself essentially to one question: Did this secular and philosophical distaste for Jews represent, in its own time and later, a new rationale for Jew-hatred? Mr. Trevor-Roper denies this, quoting as proof Voltaire’s contempt for the charge of ritual murder; his assertion that Christians were only uncircumcised Jews; and his grudging comment, at the end of a diatribe against the horrible wickedness of the Jews in all the ages, that the Inquisition should nonetheless cease burning them at the stake.
I have read all of these passages in Voltaire and they are indeed mentioned in my book. It is no disrespect to Mr. Trevor-Roper to add that these very texts have been invoked for almost two centuries by a long succession of writers who have defended Voltaire against the charge of anti-Semitism. Their arguments remain unconvincing to me for two reasons. In the first place, Voltaire usually said much more hostile things: “The Kaffirs, the Hottentots, and the Negroes of Guinea are much more reasonable and more honest people than your ancestors, the Jews. You have surpassed all nations in impertinent fables, in bad conduct, and in barbarism. You deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny.” “They 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.” I could add more examples of very nearly racist remarks by Voltaire and, indeed, I have in the text of my book, but Mr. Trevor-Roper is entitled to his opinion as to the respective weights that are to be assigned, in the mind of Voltaire himself, to his disparate assessments of the Jews.
What I find most surprising, in purely historical terms, in Mr. Trevor-Roper’s review is his shrugging off of my assertion that Voltaire was the major source of his own time and during the Revolution of both the rhetoric and the authority in the name of which left-wing, secular Jew-haters spoke. In his review Mr. Trevor-Roper concluded his essay by praising me for writing a book which is “full of interesting information about the debate concerning the Jews.” The main point of the “interesting information” which I have provided is many pages, with dozens upon dozens of citations from the whole progress of that debate, involving most of the figures who participated in it, to show the crucial role of the most anti-Semitic side of Voltaire as an influence on events. Yet two paragraphs earlier, in order to deny my charge that the doctrinaire side of the Enlightenment is a major seed bed of modern secular anti-Semitism, Mr. Trevor-Roper brushed this aside by saying that I make much too much of the occasional uses, as he would have it there, of Voltaire’s nastier quips by some anti-Jewish writers.
On all these issues of historical evidence and interpretation—and more could be mentioned—differences between the reviewer and myself are still within the bounds of normal argument. My problem with Mr. Trevor-Roper, and his with me, is more fundamental. He has found my reading of the evidence unconvincing because he asserts “that there is an objective basis for anti-Semitism in the continuing Jewish way of life.” Mr. Trevor-Roper agrees with Voltaire that the Jews were inferior to the Greeks; that the major source of bloodthirstiness in Christendom is the Bible; that Judaism is an inferior spiritual tradition; and that “tolerant cosmopolitans throughout the ages” have rightly been angered by “their [the Jews’] intolerant defense of their own singularity.” This, as Mr. Trevor Roper will have it, is “fair comment on matter of fact.” He suggests that I refuse to consider these “truths” and I am, therefore, driven to looking for the sources of modern anti-Semitism “not in objective Jewish fact but in subjective Gentile illusion.”
Mr. Trevor-Roper certainly does not need to be told that the heirs of Rome, Sparta, and even Athens, and of the Gallic and Teutonic tribes, did not have to go to Jerusalem to learn bloodthirstiness. He must at some time have read that we are enjoined in the Bible to love our neighbors, to respect the rights of the stranger, and to do justice and to love mercy. Does Mr. Trevor-Roper really believe that whatever faith there is in these values in the Western tradition owes nothing to the Bible? Voltaire was indeed sure that the medieval and contemporary Jews were a spiritual desert, but one is most surprised to find that Mr. Trevor-Roper is no more in doubt. There is no point to my invoking here a list of “Jewish contributions to civilization,” from the Talmud through Maimonides to Israel Bal Shem Tov, for the issue between us is not the evidence but in the deeper categories of moral judgment.
Mr. Trevor-Roper has erred in assuming that I disagree with him on one fundamental point. Yes, he is right, and so was Voltaire before him, that anti-Semitism is generated among Western Gentiles, be they pagans, Christians or secularists, by the fact that Jews continue to exist, in all their permutations, as a recognizably different entity. The trouble is in what Mr. Trevor-Roper has made of this observation. Styling himself as a “tolerant cosmopolitan” he has no more doubt than Voltaire before him that this Jewish singularity ought to cease existing, for assimilation into the modes of Western secular culture is the necessary entrance fee that Jews must now pay for personal equality. This is a secularized version of medieval enforced apostasy. Such a proposition is culturally arrogant and morally outrageous.
The moral premise which is the foundation of my book is the presumption that a truly cosmopolitan world must be hospitable to widely disparate traditions. For this purpose it does not matter whether a differing tradition is a “high” or “low” culture by Western standards, for who appointed the West, in the person of Roman emperors, medieval inquisitors, or even modern historians, as judge and jury over others?
Mr. Trevor-Roper’s very negations of my thesis seem to me to represent a clear proof of both its validity and its necessity. My study has evoked from him a reiteration of the most harmful of eighteenth century propositions, that a secular intellectual high priesthood is very nearly a totalitarian arbiter of culture. In all its permutations, beginning in Greco-Roman times, this has been the hubris of the West. If my book makes some contribution to raising the issue, so that the Western tradition may turn away from its historic disease (of which anti-Semitism has been the oldest manifestation), perhaps we shall all be better able to live together in a more varied, peaceful, and truly cosmopolitan century to come.
Englewood, New Jersey.