chapter  7
34 Pages

Jewish identity and the Jewish question: the power of ancestral voices in a post-Enlightenment age

The movement towards emancipation and assimilation did not end on a

happy note and, contrary to expectations, the arrow did not point in one direction. Arguing rightly for a qualitative distinction between Voltaire’s

hostility towards Jews and the diverse currents of anti-Semitism that ended

in their near extermination almost two centuries later, Roland Mortier

nevertheless leaves the question suspended in mid-air. He puts the sage of

Ferney’s ‘‘wish’’ for emancipation on the same plane as his struggle to hasten

the liberation of French minds from the oppressive power of Catholicism.

Voltaire was confident that freedom, when it came, would be the prelude to

Jewish emancipation, that the one would follow from the other, that Judaism was, in its exclusiveness, suspect, and an obstacle to a superior universalism.1

Yet, by not probing deeper into the concept of universalism, which Mortier

asserts was Voltaire’s ideal, and, indeed, the goal of others in our con-

temporary world, he, like Voltaire, cannot deal with assimilationism, which

Voltaire saw as the first and vital step that would be the desirable end to the

‘‘Jewish Question.’’ By its very nature, universalism, which is hard to define

and lacks a solid base for purposeful action, blithely ignores differences, as if

they were something you leave behind once you enter the hallowed halls of a common humanity. Thus, while he approvingly cites Jacob Katz, who writes

that ‘‘it was inherent in Jewish existence that emancipation was an important

step in their history . . . [which] has not in the least reached its end,’’ Mortier might also have resisted the temptation to leave these questions to the

infallibility of history and instead tried to suggest how Jews and non-Jews

might recognize that the kind of emancipation, which heralds universalism

as its goal, will not mean the erasure of the passions that inform and com-

plicate their lives.2 In the aftermath of the first steps taken towards emancipation, ethnic nationalists in the nineteenth century created new markers of

identity to challenge the universal ideals of the Enlightenment, and, at the

same time, to protect and extend a national and exclusivist solidarity. As

targets, they chose Jews whom they saw as incorporating the double stain of

a lifeless universalism and of a peculiar, mysterious, and dangerous particu-