Scholarship on Jews and the Jewish Question in the eighteenth century has traditionally been dominated—not altogether inappropriately—by the question of the origins of modern anti-Semitism. In this context, the Enlightenment has often become an overdetermined symbolic battleground for modern scholarship, an intellectual field that has been appropriated both as an emancipatory movement that marks the very antithesis of anti-Semitism and as an essential moment in the rise of those forms of anti-Semitism that led to the Nazi Holocaust. The argument made by Arthur Hertzberg in his classic 1968 study of The French Enlightenment and the Jews clearly embodies this problem even as it attempts to surpass it. “Modern, secular anti-Semitism,” Hertzberg contended, “was fashioned not as a reaction to the Enlightenment and the Revolution, but within the Enlightenment and Revolution themselves.” 1
The contributions that follow in this forum on Jewish Questions all attempt to offer alternatives to these often teleological reflections on the origins of anti-Semitism. The question these essays try to pose is not that of the role of the Enlightenment in the rise of modern anti-Semitism but that of the position and function of Jewish questions in formulating the various discourses we often group together under the rubric of Enlightenment. Rather than reading eighteenth-century texts by or about Jews as part of a genealogy of modern anti-Semitism, these contributions seek to study Jewish questions on a more synchronic level, focusing on the functions they assume in Enlightenment discourses. In this context, all three essays deliberately position eighteenth-century texts on Jews alongside other discourses, whether discussions of the moral regeneration of citizens in revolutionary France (Ronald Schechter), Prussian fantasies of colonial expansion (Jonathan M. Hess), or medical discussions of hemorrhoids and scholarly disease as they intersect with visions of a manly public sphere (Susan Kassouf).
Challenging Hertzberg’s influential thesis, Ronald Schechter argues in his piece that the widespread debates on the conditions of Jewish emancipation in late eighteenth-century France reflect less a concern with actual Jews—a minuscule and relatively powerless segment of the population—than a sort of thought experiment about the viability of revolutionary concepts of universal citizenship. Schechter deals explicitly with the common eighteenth-century prejudices about the degenerate, corrupt, and opaque character of the Jewish nation. Rather than reading these prejudices as an index of an anti-Semitic Enlightenment, however, Schechter attempts to [End Page 83] take on the question why the philosophes were interested in the Jews in the first place. Precisely because these particular anti-Jewish prejudices were commonly accepted, he proposes, the Jew could conveniently become the symbolic figure of the anti-citizen and, as such, the perfect test case for revolutionary principles of the regeneration and moral transformation of both individuals and the French nation as a whole. Dealing with analogous discourses on the civic improvement of the Jews in late eighteenth-century Germany, Jonathan Hess traces the intersections between programs for Jewish emancipation and Prussian colonial politics, understood here both in the sense of Prussia’s internal colonization and in terms of fantasies of colonial expansion abroad. Although visions of colonial deportation were common among opponents of Jewish emancipation, what interests Hess is the way in which, for many German thinkers, setting up Jewish colonies was seen as an ideal means of regenerating the Jews and making them useful citizens. His essay looks at both proposals for Jewish colonies within Prussia and fictional accounts of Jewish colonies abroad. In this way, Hess stresses the role of fantasies of colonial expansion in the formulation of the Jewish question, elaborating the strategic attempt of some proponents of civic improvement to cast the project of Jewish emancipation as a symbolic substitute for a Prussian colony abroad. Susan Kassouf, in her piece on the relationship between Jewish and scholarly diseases in eighteenth-century medical discourse, traces the difficulties of an emergent public sphere in preserving a fiction of its healthy and manly exclusivity. What matters for Kassouf is not simply that women and Jews were excluded as other, but the ways in which this emergent public culture dealt with the question of its uncomfortable similarity...