Thursday, December 25, 2008

Chapter 4, Secular Antisemitism: From Enlightenment to Dreyfus

“Jack sold his egg to a rogue of a Jew,
Who cheated him out of half his due.”
A 19th century Mother Goose verse, from Grosser and Halperin, 1978, p. 209

The Enlightenment, perhaps better described by its alternate name, the Age of Reason, was an intellectual and social revolution which swept Europe beginning around 1700. It marked the transition from theological- to secular-based governance, the rise of the modern nation-state. Along with questioning religion as the basis for identity and behavior it promoted such values as Humanism and free will. The Jews, in particular, had reason to believe that their long history of persecution by Christianity and church might finally be at an end. But the Enlightenment represented a two-edged sword for the Jewish people. While it questioned religion-based discriminatory laws, and by reason dismissed Christian theological bias against the Jews, yet did it still, unconsciously, absorb seventeen hundred years of social and cultural history based on that religious bias. Reframing Jewish uniqueness in secular and “scientific” terms did not eliminate the bias, it made it worse. Under church-inspired religious persecution Jews were still redeemable upon conversion; reason and “science” opened a new and even more deadly threat to Jewish survival in a secular-Christian Diaspora. “for a time, during the first half of the century, it seemed that anti-Semitism would disappear as nations became more secular and the last vestiges of feudalism and privilege fell to political liberalism and scientific and economic progress. This optimism was mistaken. Hating the Jew was too much an integral art of western culture and tradition and was not to be exorcised,” (Grosser and Halperin, 1978, p. 207).

Voltaire, most famous of the circle of French thinkers known as the “Philosophes,” was a social reformer and inspiration to both the French and American Revolutions. A Catholic anti-Catholic his social conscience is typical of the reformist movement’s ambivalence towards the Jews. In his Dictionnaire philosophique (1764), Voltaire describes the Jews as, “the most imbecile people on the face of the earth, enemies of mankind, most obtuse, cruel absurd...” In a nod towards the medieval Blood Libel charge he wrote, “your priests have always sacrificed human victims with their sacred hands.” “In short,” he ends the Dictionary, “we find in them only 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.”

American Jewish historian Arthur Hertzberg, in a letter to the New York Times dated September 30, 1990 commented regarding Voltaire’s antisemitism, “in his Letter of Memmius to Cicero (1771), Voltaire wrote: ''They (the Jews) are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with blond hair. I would not be in the least bit surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race…” The following year Voltaire wrote, again quoted in Hertzberg’s letter, ''You have surpassed all nations in impertinent fables, in bad conduct and in barbarism. You deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny.''

In particular, the French revolution represented a decisive break with the church, promoted equality and citizenship for all. And the victorious Napoleonic army spread the revolutionary ideals throughout Europe. All equal, all citizens, but at a price. But Napoleon, himself inheritor of Christian history and culture was not a philosemite, and his offer of equality carried within it the condition that Jews stop being Jews. “I do not intend to rescue that race, which seems to have been the only one excluded from redemption, from the curse with which it is smitten, but I would like to put it in a position where it is unable to propagate the evil,” (Poliakov, Leon, the History of Anti-Semitism, volume III, U of PA, 2003, p.226). The age of “scientific anthropology” had not yet dawned, and Napoleon, as did the church, saw “conversion,” admittedly a secular version, as a passport to social inclusion. Still, compared to their treatment by the church, conditions for the Jews were improved. Napoleon heralded the process called Emancipation, promoted laws governing the inclusion of Jews as relative equals and citizens. But freeing the Jews from centuries of serfdom was not without its opponents, and reversals. Even revolutionary France considered a radical solution to the problem of the Jews. According to Katz, “The possible expulsion of Jews from France had been mentioned the National Assembly debate… as the unreasonable and unthinkable alternative to the obvious solution, the radical integration of the Jews into the newly created body politic,” (Katz, Jacob, 1980, From Prejudice to Destruction, Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933, p. 109, Harvard University Press).

”Jewish success following their emancipation caused resentment on the part of many Christians… The scientific age and mindset gave anti-Semitism a new respectability. As religion lost ground to science, anti-Semitism became in part scientific. No longer based solely on religious belief, this new version of [Jew hatred] became respectable and acceptable to the modernist,” (Grosser and Halperin, 1978, pps. 208-9). The term “anti-Semitism,” first appeared in the 1870’s. It was coined by German journalist Wilhelm Marr to describe Jews based on “scientific” theories of race and history.

Two incidents of the 19th century are symbolic of past and future. The kidnapping of a Jewish child ordered by Pope Pius IX, the Mortara Affair, grew into an international incident which set the Vatican on a path of decreasing authority in its relations with Italy and other secular governments. Edgardo Mortara, 1851-1940, was an Italian Jewish child secretly baptized by a Catholic domestic servant. Learning of the baptism Pius IX ordered the boy taken from his parents and brought to the Vatican. The kidnapping was condemned worldwide, but the Vatican refused to return the boy. Raised Catholic, Edgardo would eventually join the priesthood.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an assimilated Jew, was accused of selling secrets to the Germans. Convicted of treason in 1894, Dreyfus was sentenced to life in prison on Devil’s Island. Two years after his conviction new evidence was found pointing to an officer in military intelligence as the source of the treason. But the evidence was ignored and a military court acquitted the real traitor. It later came to light that military counter-intelligence had even fabricated evidence exonerating the traitor and supportive of the conviction of Dreyfus.

The Affair, clearly antisemitic in motive, was strongly supported and defended by the church. Pro- and anti-Dreyfussards clashed in the press and on the street, set church and other social conservatives against liberal secularists. The case was re-opened in 1898 due in large part to the efforts of Emile Zola and his open letter, j’Accuse, in which he charged the court with serious judicial errors and lack of evidence. The letter, and efforts by Bernard Lazare and others, resulted in having the case reopened in 1899. During that trial the original charges were found to be baseless and Dreyfus was acquitted. Although it took seven years for the army to relent, Dreyfus was reinstated in the army in 1906. For his efforts Zola was prosecuted and found guilty of libel.

The Dreyfus Affair was, in some respects, the opening shot by nationalist and political antisemitism opening a new chapter in Jewish existence in the Christian Diaspora. It represents the slowly opening door on the road towards lethal antisemitism, the radical solution to Christendom’s 2000 year long Jewish Problem.

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