I. Introduction

This article recounts the history of anti-Semitism, specifically, the Jewish experience during the Enlightenment (generally, the 17th century).  The Enlightenment was an interesting period because the Catholic Church was losing power, and logic and reason emerged ushering in much of the change that helped emancipate the Jews during the 17th century through the beginning of the 18th century.  Unfortunately, the period of mass emancipation was short-lived, slowly eroding after 1815 and Napoleon’s fall from power.   

This article is an overview, meant to familiarize you with some of the larger issues and themes effecting the Jewish people during the Age of Enlightenment.   

II. Brief History of Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism dates back earlier than the common era.  To give you an idea of how far back, the Jews left slavery in Egypt in 1280 BC; therefore, anti-Semitism pre-dates their exodus from Egypt.  Anti-Semitism is still around and a profound force in our time as evidenced by the Holocaust and rhetoric by such world leaders as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, current President of Islamic Republic of Iran.  

Much of early Jewish history is rife with persecution and movement - relocation.  As power changed hands and political winds shifted, so did a nation’s or empire’s treatment of its Jewish population.  Many persecuted the Jews, forcing them to live underground; others tolerated the Jews, but only if they stayed in their defined spaces on the periphery. 

In the modern era, the Romans laid the foundation for how Jews would be treated during the Middle Ages.  Under the Romans and the early Catholic Church, Jews were blamed for killing Jesus Christ, but they were also viewed as necessary for the second coming of Christ.  Therefore, Jews were to be tolerated and pitied according to St. Augustine (354-430).  Anti-semitism was very important to early European Catholicism. 

In 438, Roman law was codified in the Theodosian Code.  Part of the code dealt with the treatment of Jews.  The law relegated Jews to second-class citizenship.  Then, with the fall of the Roman Empire in 470 AD, the Theodosian Code served as the foundation for how the Jews were treated throughout the Middle Ages.  All of Europe was converted to Catholicism, but the Jews were a permitted minority -- the only permitted minority.

III. The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment (18th century) played a pivotal role in the history of the Jewish people.  The following five values defined the Enlightenment, the age of reason. 

  1.  Reason

The structure of the world and universe was rational; thus, one could understand the structure through reason.

  2.  Nature

The universe was a “perfectly oiled machine” and natural law ruled. 

  3.  Humanity

Emphasized a view that all humans belonged to the world; downplayed national and local associations. 

4.  Toleration 

No one should be persecuted for their beliefs, especially their religion.  Religious toleration was seen as the toughest hurdle to surpass on the journey to freeing ones’ mind. 

5.  Progress 

Move beyond the Church, which was the enemy of the Enlightenment.

A. Four Enlightenment Developments Making Jewish Emancipation Possible

First, the Enlightenment undermined the role of organized religion in European culture.  Among the Enlightened, deism flourished.  Deism is a “belief in the existence of a god on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation.”[1004]

John LockeCredit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/John_Locke

Second, prominent and influential philosophers of the time wrote about and advocated toleration.  For example, John Locke (1632-1704), a British philosopher,[1006] wrote his Letter Concerning Toleration arguing in support of religious toleration; there are proper spheres for religion and politics, and it is not the place for the state to use force to bring its citizens to true religion. 

 Voltaire (1694-1778), a French writer and philosopher,[1008] fought for ones’ right to say whatever they wanted no matter how ridiculous it might be. “Monsieur l'abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”[1009]  Further, he spent time in England during the 1720s and in 1730s, and he wrote Letters Concerning the English Nation (see Letters 5 & 6), discussing how three great religions peacefully co-existed in England because of toleration.[1010]

VoltaireCredit: http://www.lucidcafe.com/library/95nov/voltaire.html

Third, a new political ideology, liberalism (in the classical sense), emerged embracing Enlightenment values.  Liberalism originated in 17th century England.  It emerged out of the commercial revolution, the Puritan revolution (1642-49), and the Glorious revolution (1688).  John Locke, again, is an influential figure and in 1690 publishes his famous Two Treatises.  His second treatise is the bible of liberalism.  Influenced in part by the scientific revolution, Locke believed natural law governed social and political life.  “All mankind... being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”[1011]  These are natural rights sanctioned, guaranteed, and rooted in natural law.  

Finally, under social contract theory, man being born into the state of nature, leaves the state of nature and establishes a civil government to protect his natural rights.  Thus, social contract theory requires toleration, and it is beyond the scope of governments' powers to use force to make citizens believe or worship what the government says to.  

B. Effects of the Enlightenment on the European Jews

The Roman Catholic Church was seen as the embodiment of organized religion, therefore it became the enemy of the Enlightenment.  So, the enlightened focused their energies against the Church, thus, undermining the fight against the Jews.  Anti-Christian sentiment was particularly strong in France during this time.  

Further, the Jews stood to benefit mightily if liberalism caught on because it meant their emancipation.  While Eastern European Jews (orthodox Jews) felt threatened by Enlightenment thinking, Western European Jews (assimilated Jews) embraced it and they responded to it.  

The catalyst for the Jews, bridging traditional Jewish life with new Enlightenment values, was Moses Mendelsohn (1729-86).  Mendelsohn was a Prussian Jew and the son of a Torah scribe. While physically challenged, Mendelsohn was charming and intelligent, eventually he was referred to as the Jewish Socrates.  As a young man, he studied in Berlin and learned English and French (as well as already knowing German and Hebrew).  He studied Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers, and wanted to fuse Judaism with German culture to emancipate the Jews.  He translated the first five books of the Torah into German, this was his crowning achievement.  He did not advocate that Jews down play their religion, instead he believed, as well as being Jewish, Jews needed to be a part of the developing German national culture.  He believed Jews should enjoy all the rights non-Jews enjoyed; Jews are entitled to natural rights.  And he believed in the separation of church and state.  Once a secular state is established then, and only then, will Jews be able to enjoy their natural rights. 

C. Jewish Emancipation

The Enlightenment set the stage for Jewish emancipation as shown in the following examples.  

The Netherlands

Spain freed the Netherlands in 1648, and the Calvinists (in the Netherlands) advocated religious tolerance.  They felt their economy would benefit from Jewish participation; therefore, while no formal edict of emancipation was ever given, the Jews were welcomed and treated equally.


England freed its Jewish population in 1656 because the Jews were seen as important to the second coming of Jesus Christ, and the Jews were important to the English economy.  Jews, in England, were free to travel and settle wherever they pleased.  Further, Jews born in England were granted citizenship.  A formal emancipation was not given though until the 19th century.

The United States

In 1654 many Jews emigrated to the New York from Brazil.  Prior to 1654, the Dutch controlled northeastern Brazil and the Jews enjoyed prosperity under the Dutch.  But, after a Portuguese uprising in 1654, the Dutch were defeated.  The Portuguese returned to power and with them came the return of the Inquisition.  Thus, life for the Jews quickly deteriorated, so they dispersed and many came to New York.[1012]

New York at this time was under control of the Dutch.  Jews also settled in Providence, Rhode Island and Charleston, South Carolina.  The Jews assimilated well into the mercantile colonial economy.  After the American Revolution, the Jews continued to enjoy freedom in the United States as the Declaration of Independence was based on natural rights theory, and the United States was founded on the principle of religious toleration. 


The French Jews, under a new constitution, were formally emancipated during the French Revolution on September 3, 1791.  But, they were required to take a civil oath.

After Napoleon came to power in the mid-1790s, Jewish freedom continued. Napoleon had very secular views, he did not attach a lot of significance to religion.  In 1801, upon the advice of his advisors, Napoleon met with Jewish leaders and formed a Jewish council.  The council tells Napoleon that they want to be Frenchmen, but keep their Jewish identity as well.   

The Napoleonic Code and the Civil Code codified French law in the early 1800s and cemented religious toleration into French law.  Then, as France, under Napoleon, conquered much of Europe, the Napoleonic Code was implemented in conquered lands emancipating the Jews in much of Europe for the first time.  

Napoleon's 19th Century EuropeCredit: http://euroheritage.net/napoleonicempire.jpg

But, this widespread emancipation, the height of Jewish emancipation up till this time, was short-lived.  With Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 many anti-Jewish laws were reinstated across Europe.  Jewish emancipation was not completely eradicated, however, it slowly deteriorated.


The rise of the Enlighenment challenged and weakened religious anti-Semitism; the period after the Englightenment gave rise to a new anti-Semitism -- political anti-Semitism.