Reconsidering Voltaire on Jews and Judaism in Le Dictionnaire philosophique

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
Arthur Scherr University of New York, New York, NY

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Emulating Arthur Hertzberg's study, The French Enlightenment and the Jews (1968), many scholars have condemned Voltaire for anti-semitism without considering his ironical writing style, amply evident in Candide. The Philosophical Dictionary, a synopsis of his views on diverse historical, ethical, political, and religious matters, may be culled for matter pertaining to his opinion of Jews and Judaism. A careful analysis of some of Voltaire's controversial statements in the Philosophical Dictionary, often interpreted as anti-Jewish, reveals that he appreciated the Jewish people's abilities and aspirations. His most satirical and hostile comments about the “barbarity” and relative historical insignificance of the Jews—contrary to some historians, he never said that they sought to rule the world, until some former Jews catastrophically transitioned into the infâme, the Christian Church, epitome of evil—usually involved his discussion of the mythical, biblical Jews of Old Testament stories, in whose truth he occasionally pretended to believe.

Contributor Notes

Arthur Scherr teaches history at the City University of New York. He specializes in eighteenth-century political culture in the early republic US, especially Thomas Jefferson's ideas and role. He has published five books, most recently “Rightful Liberty”: Slavery, Morality, and Thomas Jefferson's World (Mercer University Press, 2021). His articles on Voltaire have appeared in Cithara, Eighteenth-Century Life, Midwest Quarterly, The Explicator, and Romance Notes. Email:

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