What an Ambitious New History Gets Right about Jewish Thinkers—and Wrong about America https://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/history-ideas/2022/10/what-an-ambitious-new-history-gets-right-about-jewish-thinkers-and-wrong-about-america/

October 13, 2022 | Allan Arkush
About the author: Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.

Reviewing Jonathan Israel’s Revolutionary Jews from Spinoza to Marx: The Fight for a Secular World of Universal and Equal RightsAllan Arkush has much praise for this history of Jews who embraced the Enlightenment and its aftermath. Besides the famous thinkers mentioned in the title, the work also delves into less-studied figures such as Moses Hess, and even obscure ones like the Polish-French defender of Jewish (and black) rights Zalkind Hourwitz. Arkush does, however, detect a blind spot when it comes to America:

Israel himself pauses to note how the American Revolution, which he sees as having been too largely a product of the moderate Enlightenment, “initially made strikingly little difference to the continuing exclusion of Jews from office, political participation and equal civil rights.” He claims that “apart from New York State, . . . all other states retained strict ‘religious tests’ for officeholders requiring avowed allegiance to Christ, thereby wholly debarring Jews from office until well into the 19th century.”

To illustrate this, Israel adduces the case of Pennsylvania, where a Jewish plea for full civil rights was rejected in 1783. He fails to mention that a similar petition met with success a few years later, and that by 1790, the Jews of Pennsylvania had what they wanted. Even more significantly, he overlooks the case of Virginia, where the passage in 1786 of the justly celebrated Act Establishing Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, endowed everyone, including Jews, with full civil rights. Moreover, by the end of the 18th century, the constitutions of South Carolina, Delaware, Georgia, and Vermont likewise permitted Jews to hold office.

Israel could argue that in the case of Virginia, at least, it was really “the Jeffersonian (radical democratic republican) tendency in the American Revolution” that made the difference—but that’s not the whole story. The “moderate” Enlightenment seems to have had an emancipatory momentum of its own.

Read more on Jewish Review of Books: https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/jewish-history/12560/radically-enlightened-jews