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.