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  • The Jewish Question in Eighteenth-Century France
  • Ronald Schechter* (bio)

For more than a century historians have discussed the relationship between the Enlightenment and the Jews. They have recorded, cataloged and analyzed the opinions of philosophes, social commentators and revolutionaries vis-à-vis the Jews. They have considered whether enlightened thinkers were favorably or unfavorably disposed toward them. Insofar as the Enlightenment is supposed to have led to “Emancipation,” or the elimination of legal discrimination as well as the abolition of communal autonomy, historians have assessed the impact of both phenomena on Jews and Judaism, some celebrating them as a liberation, others denouncing them as a prelude to assimilation and the consequent loss of Jewish identity. 1 Yet these retrospective judgments have largely been variations on a justifiably parodied question: was it good or bad for the Jews? In their eagerness to cast ballots for or against, historians have tended to treat the Jewish question in eighteenth-century Europe as a given rather than a historical problem and have consequently overlooked the more interesting question of why philosophes, reformers, and revolutionaries were interested in the Jews in the first place. [End Page 84]

Before answering this question, it is necessary to establish that contemporaries were indeed interested in the Jews. With respect to France at the time of the Revolution, Eugen Weber has claimed that “the Jewish question was a Jewish question,” of little or no interest to French Gentiles, who “thought about Jews hardly at all.” 2 Ironically, even Arthur Hertzberg, who has written the only important book in the last three decades on the Jews in eighteenth-century France, diminished the significance of his subject by claiming that “the question of the Jews was never, not even in the 1770s and 1780s, of dominant importance in France.” 3 Citing this statement, one reviewer wrote that there “was no ‘Jewish problem’ in eighteenth-century France,” and that Hertzberg had “create[d] one.” 4 To be sure, as Weber points out, only 40,000 Jews lived in France at the time of the Revolution and constituted a minuscule 0.16 percent of the total population. 5 They were almost uniformly poor, many indeed destitute, and confined for the most part to those parts of the Alsatian countryside where lords had found it profitable to protect them. 6 Under these circumstances, one might be forgiven for supposing that the French “thought about Jews hardly at all.” Yet this supposition, which depends on the assumption that only practical significance produces interest or concern, is nevertheless mistaken.

The ARTFL database of French literature suggests that the French of the eighteenth-century were extraordinarily interested in the Jews. A search of ARTFL’s 473 volumes from the eighteenth century yields 2,346 instances of “juif[s]” and “juive[s].” By contrast, the same corpus yields only 1,755 references to “anglais” and “anglaise[s],” despite the fact that the English constituted the most obvious threat to French power in the century and were objectively far more important. To find a group of comparable size and importance to the Jews one would have to turn to the Basques, though even this small minority was more than twice as populous as the Jews. Yet the ARTFL corpus contains only 34 instances of “basque[s],” suggesting that eighteenth-century French authors were nearly 70 times more likely to mention Jews than Basques.

Although interest cannot be precisely quantified, the ARTFL statistics are nevertheless suggestive. Combined with a closer look at individual authors and works, they reveal an unusual interest by French writers—and presumably their readership—in the Jews. Voltaire wrote voluminously on the subject, sometimes denouncing persecution of the Jews, sometimes lambasting the Jewish religion itself. 7 Montesquieu made the Jews a prominent subject in De l’esprit des loix and Les lettres persanes. The Marquis d’Argens wrote a multi-volume epistolary novel, modeled after Montesquieu’s, in which the principal characters were Jews. 8 Baron d’Holbach wrote a spirited criticism of the Jewish religion in L’esprit du judaïsme. 9 Rousseau and d’Alembert wrote relatively little about the Jews, but the publishing team of d’Alembert and Diderot referred to them in...

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pp. 84-91
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