Friday, October 25, 2013

The French Enlightenment and Jews: origins of modern antisemitism by Arthur Hertzberg

With the age of Reason in full swing the question of Jewish Emancipation comes to the forefront of discussions in this major contribution to Modern Jewish History by Professor Arthur Hertzberg.  The men of the Enlightenment seem to fall into two categories: those that support Jewish Emancipation because Reason dictates it and those that argue against Jewish Emancipation because in their reasoning the Jews are exceptionally immoral and base and do not deserve to be counted among men, let alone to be emancipated.  Leading the charge against Jewish Emancipation is the age's seminal figure Voltaire.

In this volume one gets a clear picture of the differences between the Sephardic Jewish community essentially situated in the south that is granted emancipation first and the Ashkenazic Jewish community situated in the Alsace-Lorraine district in the north east.  The Sephardic community comes to France basically as converts to Catholicism and eventually quietly return to their original Jewish faith. Their assimilation includes giving up their autonomous Jewish court system and submitting to the authority of the State's justice system.  Their occupation is essentially international trade from which the State directly benefits.  They are not the hated moneylenders. Their dress, their language and occupation differ little from their gentile neighbors.  The lacking of the elements of obscurantism hasten the Sephardic Jewish community's emancipation.

The Ashkenazim, however, were an autonomous Yiddish speaking community with their own court and policing systems.  Their essential occupations were banking, money-lending, petty trade and commerce.  Most were poor, with the exceptional successful court Jewish purveyor.  The charges against them of obscurantism and backwardness were easy to obstruct emancipation.

Voltaire leads the attack against the Jews.  No matter how one interprets his attitude, Mr. Hertzberg shows that his contemporaries viewed him as the enemy of the Jews.  Most of the arguments in favor of Jewish Emancipation have to rebut his charges that the Jews are a morally incorrigible base element. Voltaire's charges are reminiscent of the ancient Greek and Roman charges before the advent of Christianity against the Jews being strange and separatist.

The Sephardic Jew, Isaac Pinto responds point by point to Voltaire and shows that Voltaire obviously has little experience with the Southern Sephardic Jews because they resemble nothing like those Jews in Alsace-Lorraine.  Voltaire seems not to notice.

Henri Gregorie, the Catholic priest forcefully argues that whatever faults the Jews might have, the blame lies with Christendom.  Years of persecution inure the Jews against the dominant culture. They should not be blamed for their aloof corruptness against the gentile because it is the gentile that is guilty of tormenting the Jews.  Once the Jews are to be treated as men, they will improve their moral standing. This argument is similar to the one Wilhem Von Dohm wrote at the behest of Moses Mendelssohn.  (Mendelssohn was concerned at the rhetoric because the assumption of Jewish moral corruption was so misleading that it cast aspersions against the entire Jewish people.)  Clearly, as a result of Voltaire's vitriol, the defenders of the Jews have to resort to false assumptions to show how Voltaire erred miserably.

Ironically, the Ashkenazim argue to retain their separatist ways of autonomous living.  They cannot, however, demand equality and retain their autonomy.  The forces of Reason eventually enable Jewish emancipation and the Jews join society as Frenchmen.  Nevertheless, the charge of obscurantism is permanently pressed against the fabric of Jewish culture and becomes the bedrock of any modern antisemitism.

No comments:

Post a Comment