Voltaire Is Still Worth Listening to—Even by Jews

Voltaire has fallen into disrepute of late: for some, because of skepticism about the Enlightenment project he represents; for others, because of his crude anti-Semitism. However, argues Paul Berman, many of his ideas—especially about tolerance, freedom of speech, and the dangers of religious fundamentalism—are particularly germane today. Even when it comes to Jews, writes Berman, Voltaire’s attitude can’t be reduced to a few nasty comments:

Less-than-friendly discussions of Jewish themes do pop up in those fat compendia [of Voltaire’s writings] and keep on doing so. . . . You could argue that, in harping on these points, Voltaire turned his defense of tolerance into an offense against it. . . . Still another argument gets made: if even the great Voltaire displayed, in regard to the Jews, a dreadful prejudice, shouldn’t we hesitate a moment before endorsing his call for universal tolerance? Shouldn’t we harbor a suspicion that even the most inspiring of calls for tolerance are likely to contain a hidden bigotry, if not for the Jews, then for the Muslims? Isn’t [the argument for tolerance] a fake? This last argument has become a fashion. . . .

Voltaire glares in Jewish directions. . . . Sometimes this is because he thinks modern Jewish bankers are swindlers, but mostly it is because, by painting the Old Testament Hebrews in barbarous colors, he hopes to show that New Testament Christianity stands on shaky foundations. Ultimately the Christian religion is his target. . . . About the Jews he says, “One finds in all the history of this people no trait of generosity, of magnanimity, of beneficence”—and yet, “the rays of universal tolerance always emerge.” It should be remembered that, for Voltaire, tolerance is the highest of virtues. . . . There is more than a touch of admiration for the Jews in this one not-very-affectionate remark.

Get unlimited access to Mosaic: Subscribe now

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories FREE.

Register Now

Get unlimited access to Mosaic: Subscribe now

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories FREE.

Register Now

Read more at Tablet

More about: Anti-Semitism, Enlightenment, Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech, History & Ideas, Tolerance

As World Leaders Gather to Remember the Holocaust, They Should Ask How Anti-Semitism Differs from Ordinary Hatreds

Jan. 22 2020

Today, an international conference titled “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Anti-Semitism” opens in Jerusalem, attended by representatives from some 40 governments, including the presidents of France, Russia, and Italy and the vice-president of the United States. While ample attention will no doubt be paid to the anti-Semitism of the extreme right, Fiamma Nirenstein fears that less will be paid to that of the left, and still less to the Islamic variety. She also fears that those in attendance will give in to a related, and dangerous, temptation to subsume anti-Semitism into an amorphous “hatred”:

Sign up to read more.

You've read all your free articles for this month. Sign up now for unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture and politics.

Register Now

Sign up to read more.

You've read all your free articles for this month. Sign up now for unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture and politics.

Register Now

Read more at Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

More about: Anti-Semitism, Holocaust, Intersectionality, Radical Islam