Left’s Jew-hate sown in French Revolution

Nineteenth-century liberalism made possible the modernisation of Jewish life, but also led to the rise of antisemitism, writes David Aberbach

March 31, 2021 14:29

Antisemitism on the left can be traced, perhaps surprisingly, to the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution, which opposed all religion, Judaism included.

Nineteenth-century liberalism made possible the modernisation of Jewish life, with vast improvements in education, professional training, social mobility, income, and life chances; but the liberal state also led to the rise of chauvinistic nationalism and also antisemitism.

France was the first modern European state, the first to emancipate its Jews (1791), the pioneer of democracy and civil rights, of secular universalist values such as liberty and equality, promising an end to religious prejudice, intolerance and superstition.

These ideals derived from the French Enlightenment, led by thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau.

The European Jews were among the chief beneficiaries of the French Revolution. They did not at first see the liberal state as a mortal threat, a destructive force bringing “plunder, murder, and regicide”, as Tolstoy writes in the opening pages of War and Peace, but rather glowingly, as the Russian liberal aristocrat Pierre Bezukhov sees it, conferring human rights, emancipation from prejudice and equality.

Few predicted that the Enlightenment, poisoned by anti-Judaism, could lead to politically virulent secular variations on medieval bigotry.

The liberal state offered Jews citizenship protection and potential freedom from a Church which condemned them as Christ-killers, and from the ignorant masses as usurers, conspirators, plague-carriers and child-murderers.

Increasingly-secular governments accepted that medieval antisemitism and anti-Jewish laws had no place in a modern state, a view that was happily shared by the enlightened, upper-class liberal minority.

However, most Europeans were reluctant to accept Jews as equals. The prospect of emancipation was often a trigger for popular anti-Jewish riots.

Emancipation was granted not as a natural human right, on principles of pluralism and tolerance, but with general expectation that Jews would vanish through total assimilation, even baptism – a modern version of the old Christian hope of Jewish acceptance of the Christian faith.

The French revolutionary Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre declared in 1789 that civil rights should be granted to Jews not as Jews but as individual citizens: “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals.”

Of the great 18th-century French thinkers, only Montesquieu was willing to accept Jews as they were, without change or conversion to Christianity.

Other European liberal supporters of emancipation, such as Herder, Macaulay, Renan, Mommsen and Jaurès, were prone to antisemitic prejudices.

The historian Arthur Hertzberg described Voltaire, the leading figure of the Enlightenment, as a link between medieval Church-based antisemitism and modern racial antisemitism. To Voltaire, the Jews were an “ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched. Still, we ought not to burn them [il ne faut pourtant pas les brûler]”.

Similar ideas were expressed by Baron d’Holbach, who wrote of Jews as “totally and hopelessly foreign to Europe”, and Diderot, to whom Jews were dangerous enemies of the human race.

To the historian Jacob Talmon, the French Revolution gave birth to “totalitarian democracy”: blatant violations of freedom and human rights in the name of freedom and human rights; state terror and mass murder in the name of individualism.

Napoleon, who labelled the Jews as “the vilest of all nations”, tried to backtrack on emancipation with the Décret Infâme (1808): anti-Jewish restrictions abolished by the Revolution were restored for a decade. This was the first ominous sign that European states could revoke emancipation.

Still, however limited and insecure, emancipation gave the Jews the best chance since antiquity to escape the abject role thrust upon them as a hated religious minority.

In a crucial development in modern Jewish life, a small but growing minority of late-18th and early 19th-century Jews, particularly in German lands, found common ground with Enlightenment thinkers in their rejection of traditional religious education and dogma.

After the ‘Hep Hep’ anti-Jewish riots of 1819, a group of Berlin-based Jewish intellectuals, led by the historian Leopold Zunz, founded the Wissenschaft des Judentums (Science of Judaism) — the start of modern Jewish scholarship — and undertook a searching historical-critical revaluation of Judaism and Jewish society.

In a list of so-called Judenübel — “Jewish failings” — compiled in December 1819, Zunz condemned traditional Jewish schools: they belonged to an obsolete way of life dictated by rabbinic authority, teaching empty learning and superstition, not useful subjects that might improve life chances.

Jews who remained ignorant in secular studies, Zunz concluded, were able to contribute little to contemporary sciences or liberal arts.

This much was true, but the Wissenschaft set out to fight the antisemitic corollary that Jews were an inferior people, their religion superseded by Christianity, intellectually incapable of making any significant contribution to any branch of knowledge.

To the contrary, Zunz and his allies aimed to show in incontrovertible scholarship, that Jews, despite their antiquated educational system, had a uniquely rich cultural history with an exacting intellectual tradition. Though ignorant in secular learning, they had a much higher level of literacy and general culture than most Europeans. Why should Jews aiming for acceptance in enlightened Christian society be expected to convert to Christianity or to derogate Judaism or, at least, as some Wissenschaft scholars thought, to regard it as passé?

Heinrich Heine, Germany’s leading poet after the death of Goethe in 1831, broke with antisemitic stereotypes, as did Zunz and other Wissenschaft scholars, by portraying Judaism in his writings as a profound and beautiful civilization.

However, it was hardly the intention of liberals that emancipation should enable Jews to become leading writers, scientists, politicians, artists, and intellectuals, nor that emancipated Jews such as Heine should fight back against the prejudice and hatred they encountered. Antisemitism in Western Europe grew with Jewish assimilation and social mobility.

A vast antisemitic literature was published under the principle of free speech, and by the end of the 19th century, even liberal political parties began to adopt antisemitic platforms. In his book on the Rothschilds, Niall Ferguson points out that in France there were more antisemitic publications than anywhere else, and French antisemitism was most articulate and all-pervasive.

Liberals with genuine philosemitic sympathies, such as Byron or George Eliot, were rare in Continental Europe. Byron in particular strongly identified with the exiled Jews (perhaps as a child of the defeated Scots), pursued by an “idiot hatred”; and he recognised, sooner than most Jews did, the power of Jewish culture to achieve a national renaissance.

George Eliot had a deep personal fascination with the Jewish historic attachment to Zion. In Daniel Deronda (1876), she writes of Zionism as being far more fruitful culturally than Jewish assimilation within Europe.

Yet regularly, from the time of Voltaire to the Nazi era, Christian “Zionism” was a code for the reduction or elimination of the European Jewish population. Antisemitism became a driving force of Jewish nationalism.

By 1891, the 100th anniversary of the emancipation of the French Jews, French antisemitism was so pervasive that the Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am (‘One of the people’, pen name of Asher Ginsberg), in a lacerating Hebrew essay, ‘Slavery amid Freedom’, written in Tsarist Russia, declared his preference for Jewish life under Tsarist antisemitic autocracy over French liberalism, with its liberté, egalité et fraternité.

The founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, deeply wounded by antisemitism, particularly in France, acknowledged that European Jews had no choice but to accept that the majority saw them as an alien presence. Emancipation could not have for its purpose Jewish assimilation among people who did not want them; instead, Herzl wrote, its purpose was the Jewish rediscovery of national identity and the recreation of a Jewish homeland.

Most Jews and Jewish communal organizations strongly resisted Herzl’s conclusion, and Herzl was often regarded with suspicion and hostility, as a dangerous crank even as France and other countries became steadily more chauvinistic and xenophobic in the years prior to the First World War.

Prejudice of all kinds - at times worse than antisemitism - spread throughout Europe, with frequent language of racism and ethnic cleansing, which found violent expression in the war.

Yet, as the historian Paula Hyman noted, the French Jewish leadership behaved as though the “true” France was living up to its revolutionary ideals and deserved patriotic loyalty.

Jews were reluctant to give up the internationalist liberal ideals of the “good” state, dedicated to freedom, justice and equality.

They refused to see themselves as anything other than citizens of France, Holland, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Poland and elsewhere, and remained loyal to the state.

In the years prior to the Holocaust, even as European liberal states rescinded emancipation, German Jews accepted the legality of the German government after 1933 — most tried to adapt to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 as did Italian Jews after the racial laws of 1938 — and French Jews, too, recognized the legality of the Vichy government and its anti-Jewish laws of 1940.

Hannah Arendt, interned in a French camp in 1941, admitted after her escape to America that most of the internees were so loyal to France that they felt unable to criticize the French government order to intern them: “We declared that it was all right to be interned.”

The European Jews were rounded up in the millions and murdered, mostly blind to the murderous forces of liberal states that had emancipated them.


David Aberbach is author of ‘The European Jews, Patriotism and the Liberal State 1789-1939’

March 31, 2021 14:29

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