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The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment
The thinkers of the Protestant Reformation were not alone in pondering Jews and their place in society. There were other influential Western European movements that took interest in the Jewish people and their religion. One such movement was the Enlightenment - an intellectual and philosophical movement which dominated the world of ideas in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Enlightenment sought to bring reason to center stage. Reason and rationality were perceived as the guiding forces of human actions and the primary source of authority and legitimacy. Scientists like Isaac Newton and philosophers like Rene Descartes are considered to be the early proponents of these new trends.
Reason became the basis for new ideas affecting all aspects of life from political theory to the quest for scientific progress and the status of religion in civil society. Emerging political theories inspired a debate over ideas like secularism, constitutional and republican government, and civil and human rights. All of these would serve as factors in shaping the revolutionary ideas and events in the 18th and 19th centuries, affecting the very way we think today. During the Enlightenment era, Jews and Judaism became a kind of prism through which larger and more general matters were considered, such as the role of tradition in religion, human nature, national identity and the nature of citizenship.
In fact, for the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, the study of the “Jewish Question” became a “case study” through which they rationalized and tried to implement their own ideals. At times, this led to positive attitudes and outcomes for the European Jews. However, as we will now see in some cases the ideals of the Enlightenment brought with them extremely hostile perceptions of the Jews, perceptions that would hold an important place in the development of antisemitism. Thus, a range of both positive and negative attitudes towards the Jews arose, based on the worldview of the same school of thought.
There are many Enlightenments and we have to distinguish between, let’s say, the French Enlightenment and the English Enlightenment, the ones which appeared in societies like England, the United States, Holland or even Italy. And in France a very strange Enlightenment appeared which was based on the idea of reason. Reason has to be the base of a kind of uniformization of society. Everyone is to conform to only one Reason. So the French Enlightenment is a kind of monism in ‘one man’- ‘one new man’. And it was extremely reluctant to accept any idea of pluralism. There is a contradiction in France between the 18th century Enlightenment ideas and the acceptance of pluralism.
In England, in the United States, in Holland, Enlightenment would be seen as compatible with the kind of plural society in which actors could keep their ideologies, values, reason, memories and so on. So, for instance, if you compare John Toland in England with Voltaire in France, for instance, you’ve got two different kinds of ideas. For John Toland in England Jews could enter within society without abandoning their own ideas, their Talmud, their ritual, their Mitzvot and whatever. In France, the Enlightenment is based on a reason which is against any idea of religion. Voltaire, for instance, and the Encyclopedists were almost atheists, between deism and atheism. And they were really against any idea of God. They were fighting Catholicism, the Church.
The Church was the enemy. The fact that the Church was at the… that Judaism was at the origins of Catholicism, implied for Voltaire and Diderot and all the others that not only Catholicism had to disappear but also Judaism. And the worst for them was that Jews were seen as the most “obstinate.” That’s the crucial word, “obstinate.” One of my colleagues in the United States, Ronald Schechter, wrote a book on obstinate Hebrews. In fact, from Montesquieu to Diderot, from Voltaire to D’Holbac, they all agreed that Jews were obstinate to remain Jews whatever happened to them. They could be destroyed. They could be killed. They could be convinced. They could convert. Whatever happened, they will remain Jews.
They are obstinate to keep their Jewish past, and Jewish memory, and Jewish ritual. So, in fact, Jews are seen as the greatest enemy - if you want - of the Enlightenment. If the Enlightenment were able to destroy this obstinacy, then the Enlightenment would conquer the world and enlightened ideas would spread everywhere. So Jews had a very peculiar position in the 18th century and, in a way, even if the French Enlightenment thinkers were not as such antisemitic - they were not antisemitic - but, in fact, they were using words which in a way carried all the prejudices of antisemitism against those obstinate Jews. They are not antisemites in themselves. They wanted to destroy Jewishness as they wanted to destroy Catholicism.
And they are even more hostile to Jews because Jews are willing to remain Jews whatever happened to them.

Prof. Pierre Birnbaum

Many of the radical changes and developments taking place during this time period came about as a result of the ideas and perceptions of the Enlightenment.

What were the ideals and goals of this movement and how did they relate to the way its leading thinkers perceived Jews and Judaism?

Given the fact that the Enlightenment is usually associated in the West with such positive developments as advancement of liberty, tolerance and constitutional government, do you find it surprising that antisemitism persisted in Europe after the Enlightenment?


  • Birnbaum, Pierre and Ira Katznelson, eds., Paths of Emancipation: Jews, States and Citizenship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

  • Bödeker, Hans Erich, Clorinda Donato and Peter Reill, eds., Discourses of Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Enlightenment (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).

  • Hertzberg, Arthur, The French Enlightenment and the Jews: The Origins of Modern Anti-Semitism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).‏

  • Schechter, Ronald, Obstinate Hebrews: Representations of Jews in France, 1715-1815 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

  • Sutcliffe, Adam, Judaism and Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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