During the Age of Enlightenment, philosophers began to debate “The Jewish Question”. Hannah Arendt suggests that German Enlightenment thinker Gotthold Ephraim Lessing should be credited with advocating the adoption of values such as tolerance. Lessing, she says, argued that the ability to reason was something all humans had in common. Furthermore, he argued that the idea of tolerance resonated with truth – and that truth could show the value of human life. Although Arendt suggests that the Enlightenment was highly suspicious of belief and of the bible, it prized this notion of reason.
Thinkers like Lessing, says Arendt, argued that reason did not show that religion was true because it was taught by evangelists, but rather, they taught religion to people because it was true. Another great Enlightenment figure, Felix Mendelssohn, saw truth as unifying. It was, says Arendt, one thing Christians and Jews had in common.
Another enlightenment thinker, Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, argued for the emancipation of Jews on the grounds of humanity and justice. Although pre-Enlightenment prejudices toward Jews had been very unflattering, Dohm argued under the principle of natural rights that Jews were born with the same rights as others. Therefore, he said, more jobs ought to be open to them. On the other hand, Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire argued that Jews had a distinctly different nature than other people and that it would be rare for any of them to change.
The French Revolution was, in some ways, more problematic for Jews. Drawing on Enlightenment ideas like Voltaire’s, many figures disliked Jews due to perceived differences in their nature or actions. Still other figures of the revolution disliked biblical religion because of the tyranny monarchs who justified their rule through religious sanctions had imposed over France. Therefore, they fought against both the practice and establishment of religion in France. Hertzberg writes, however, that thinkers like he Marquis de *Mirabeau (the younger) and the Abbé *Grégoire, believed that the problems Jews had had been caused by those who had persecuted them and denied them the benefit of good society. If society would stop forcing them to live n debased conditions, they said, “the Jews would improve.”
Nevertheless, Hertzberg notes that the Jews were excluded from provisions for equal rights in France. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, he says, “was interpreted as not including the Jews in the new equality.” Even after two years of debates, the Jews had not emancipated in Revolutionary France. Yet, in 1791, they were finally emancipated. Hertzberg writes that the act granting them full emancipation passed because, “it was impossible to have a society in which all men of whatever condition were given equal rights and status, except a relative handful of Jews.”
Although the Enlightenment’s focus on justice, reason and natural rights helped lead many in France to believe that Jews were entitled to the same rights as other men, Jews would continue to be denied even the most basic rights and would be kept from realizing true equality even after the end of the French Revolution. Enlightenment and revolutionary thinkers alike saw them as lesser human beings, people with different natures and inherently unequal to secular Christian and secular Europeans.
- Arendt, Hannah. 2007. The Jewish Writings. New York: Schocken Books.
- Deutsch, Gotthardt, and A.M Friedenberg. 1906. “DOHM, CHRISTIAN WILHELM VON.” Jewish Encyclopedia. Accessed December 15, 2017. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5256-dohm-christian-wilhelm-von.
- GHDI. 2009. “Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, Concerning the Amelioration of the Civil Status of the Jews (1781) .” Germa History Documents. Accessed December 15, 2017.
- Hertzberg, Arthur. 2008. “Position of the Jews before the Revolution.” Jewish Virtual Library. Accessed December 15, 2017. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/french-revolution.