Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The Enlightenment was supposed to banish ignorance and superstition from the Western world. But when it came to the Jews, the old hatreds were often simply replaced with a new spin.

Usually, it is later scholars who give names to time periods in the past. But in the case of the Enlightenment, which lasted from about 1650-1850, it was Western scientists and other intellectuals from France and England who gave their own era its name. They considered themselves to be humanity’s enlightened ones, having freed themselves from the ignorance and superstition they associated with organized religion. And like other true believers before them, they sought to spread their new gospel to the rest of the world, as well as replace the old hierarchal order with a new one based upon scientific truth and reason.


Naturally, they were opposed by the two institutions that had benefited most from the old order: the monarchy and the Catholic Church, which engaged in a Counter-Enlightenment during the same period.

And as usual, the Jews were caught in the middle of this struggle for power and people’s minds.


First, The Good News

One important concept that came out of the Enlightenment and still influences the Western world today is individualism – the notion that every individual is important and a valued member of society. From there arose the belief that a state should be governed by a liberal democracy, where individual rights and freedoms are recognized and protected and the use of political power is limited by the country’s laws.

For many Jews, liberal democracy was music to their ears. Under this new system of government, Jews would have the same rights and responsibilities as any other citizen of the state. Gone were the days when Jews were at the mercy of the local ruler, who could grant privileges and take them away as he pleased.

Wilhelm Marr

Of course, things didn’t work out so smoothly. It took nearly a century for all European countries to grant their Jewish residents citizenship, with Switzerland (1874) and Spain (1918) being the last to do so. Even in France, the first European country to grant its Jews citizenship, there were strings attached. As Count Stanislas-Marie-Adélaide de Clermont-Tonnerre famously remarked in 1789, “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals.” In other words, Jews living in France must give up the idea that the Jewish people are a distinct nation with a unique destiny. “If they do not want this,” said the count, “they must inform us and we shall then be compelled to expel them.”

France didn’t expel its Jews, but the accusation of dual loyalty remains an issue even today. Another issue that arose during the Enlightenment that still reverberates is the idea of Jewish dominance in political and financial spheres. In the newly unified Germany, for instance, where Jews received citizenship in 1871, Jews were excluded from certain professions and high-ranking positions in the army and civil service, as well as at some universities. Yet, once they were freed from the ghetto’s confining walls, Jews became successful enough in business and industry, medicine, journalism, and the arts to create a backlash where some Germans felt their culture and livelihoods had been hijacked by a group that was still perceived as a foreign minority.

Germany was also the country where the word “anti-Semitism” was coined. Wilhelm Marr, a German intellectual, wanted to make a distinction between hatred of the Jews because of their religion (anti-Judaism) and hatred of the Jews because of their race (anti-Semitism). Marr introduced the term in 1879, the same year he founded the League for Anti-Semitites. It was Marr’s theory that Jews constituted a distinct racial group, which was physically and morally inferior and could never successfully assimilate into the German people. Therefore, the struggle between Germans and Jews that had arisen due to liberalism could be resolved in only one way: the death of one of the groups.

Marr was a bitter and unhappy man. He had failed in business (an early boss was Jewish) and in marriage (the first two of his four wives were Jewish, and the third was a product of a mixed marriage). Even his ideas about the Jews as a distinct race weren’t accepted by German nationals, although that would change during the early 1900s. By then, Marr, who died in 1904, had repudiated what he had written and blamed Germany’s social upheaval on the Industrial Revolution and internal conflict between Germany’s political movements. He even asked the Jews for forgiveness. But it was too late. His theory that the Jews were an inferior race locked in a deadly struggle with the German “Master Race” had taken on a life of its own.

“The Throne and the Altar” Fight Back

While the 1800s saw the rise of the nation-state and liberal democracy, the new ideas didn’t go unopposed. Conservatives joined to form a Counter-Enlightenment, which was sometimes known as Throne and Altar Conservatism. Seeking to reverse the societal changes brought about by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, adherents argued for the return of the old system: the authoritarian rule of a heredity monarch over a rigidly structured society (the throne) and the reinstitution of the Church’s power to oversee state policy in areas such as family and education (the altar).

The Counter-Enlightenment wasn’t exclusively concerned with the so-called threat of Jewish dominance. It sincerely believed that a state where the “man in the street” elected its rulers was doomed to disintegrate into bloody chaos and tyranny; as for a state that valued human reason over religious doctrine, this was clearly an attempt to rebel against God, which, they believed, would have disastrous consequences.

Some early Counter-Enlightenment essayists attributed the success of liberal ideas to a conspiracy by the Freemasons – the Catholic Church believed that Freemasonry contradicted Church doctrine – but by the late 1800s the focus had shifted to the Jews, who were charged with conspiring for world domination.

Thus, the century that had begun with so much hope and promise ended with Europe’s Jews maligned on two fronts: by the traditional leaders of European society who felt their dominant role in formulating policy and social norms had been usurped, and by the workers and professionals who blamed the tearing down of the ghetto’s walls for their worsening economic and social condition.

As Rabbi Berel Wein points out, without their realizing it, the Jews had traded in the traditional religion-based anti-Semitism of the Church for something new and more dangerous: a secular anti-Semitism based upon race, genetics, and economics. Yet, even though this new anti-Semitism had its roots in the secular world, this was one new idea that the Church embraced during its fight against secularism and modernization.


A Convenient Hatred

The Church always had a problem when it came to the Jews. As was mentioned in Part II of this series, Christianity couldn’t deny its Jewish origins. In order for there to be a New Testament, there had to be an “Old” one; if the Church claimed the “Old” one wasn’t true, what could it say to critics of the “New”? But if the “Old” one was true, how could they justify breaking away from the Jewish people and starting a new religion?

The Church got around this conundrum by claiming that the promises of blessing mentioned in the Torah had been transferred to Christians, who were the “new” Israel. As for how to behave toward the Jews themselves, the early Church leader Augustine advocated separating and oppressing Jews, who were supposed to roam about the world as a stateless and despised people until the end of time. But Augustine was against killing Jews because they were witnesses to the truth of the prophecies supposedly mentioned in the Torah about the Christian savior. Therefore, the Church could advocate putting Jews into ghettos, making them wear distinctive clothing, and barring them from certain professions, but it didn’t attempt to exterminate the Jews.

The Church also didn’t agree with the “purity of race” theory that became popular in Spain during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. For one thing, Jesus was a Jew, and it was therefore impossible to say the Jews were an inferior race. Also, because converting others to what they called the “true faith” was an integral part of Church doctrine – and according to that doctrine, anyone who did convert would achieve salvation – they couldn’t then turn around and say that salvation only applied to a small percentage of the world’s population, while the converts who weren’t of pure lineage were doomed to be second-class citizens for eternity.

Therefore, when the Church was first confronted with the forces of modernity, it reacted as it had done in the past. After Napoleon’s occupation of Rome ended in 1814, the liberty Italian Jews had enjoyed under French rule ended too. Pope Pious VII reinstated the decree that forced Rome’s Jews to live in a ghetto, as well as all the other old restrictions, including limitations on the occupations the Jews could work in and the requirement to wear distinctive dress.

But as David I. Kertzer argues in his book The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism, the Church also took up the banner of modern anti-Semitism and helped spread it in publications such as the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano. He lists the following ideas that had the support of the Church:

“There is a secret Jewish conspiracy; the Jews seek to conquer the world; Jews are an evil sect who seek to do Christians harm; Jews are by nature immoral; Jews care only for money and will do anything to get it; Jews control the press; Jews control banks and are responsible for the economic ruination of untold numbers of Christian families; Jews are responsible for Communism, Judaism commands its adherents to murder defenseless Christian children and drink their blood; Jews seek to destroy the Christian religion; Jews are unpatriotic, ever ready to sell their country out to the enemy; for the larger society to be properly protected, Jews must be segregated and their rights limited.”

Apologists for the Church argue that Kertzer has made no distinction between the popes and the Jesuits, who were much more anti-Semitic than the Vatican. For instance, it was the Jesuit biweekly La Civilt Cattolica that revived the blood libel by repeatedly claiming that Jews used Christian blood to make matzos – and Church supporters point out that the popes didn’t control what the Jesuits wrote and published. But in the past the popes had publically dismissed blood libel accounts as being untrue. Why were the popes now silent? The apologists have no good explanation.

Even the Jesuits never went so far as to claim that the Jews were an inferior race and they never openly advocated violence. But by the dawn of the twentieth century the Church’s insistence that Jews were the cause of much of the modern world’s ills was closely aligned with secular anti-Semitism, and together they were creating a toxic brew. The role that the Church played when secular anti-Semitism violently erupted after the Nazi party came to power in the 1930s will be examined in Part VII of this series: The Church and the Holocaust.



“Classical and Christian Anti-Semitism,”

“History Crash Course #53: The Enlightenment,” Rabbi Ken Spiro,

“Reform and the Enlightenment,” Rabbi Berel Wein, Jewish

Socialism of Fools: Capitalism and Modern Anti-Semitism, Michele Battini, translated by Noor Mazhar and Isabella Vergnano, Columbia University Press, 2016.

The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern AntiSemitism, David I. Kertzer, Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

“Where Anti-Capitalism and Anti-Semitism Intersect,” Ian Buruma, Times Literary Supplement, July 6, 2016.

Wilhelm Marr: The Patriarch of Anti-Semitism, Moshe Zimmermann, Oxford University Press, 1986.


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