Jewish Secularism and the Campaigns against Political Catholicism and Islam

Ari Joskowicz

The current interest in Jews and secularism appears to be driven by the feeling that secular arrangements in many countries are under pressure. Against the liberal model that treats religion as a private issue, certain religious movements within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are seeking to influence politics in a new way. As José Casanova put it, "Religions in the 1980s 'went public'"—and thus seemed to contradict some of the fundamental predictions of secularization theories. Rather than demonstrate an increasing separation of religious and political spheres, national religious groups in Israel and certain evangelical communities in the United States, among others, seem rather to be collapsing these spheres.

No phenomenon has influenced the recent interest in secularism as much as the idea of political Islam. The very notion of a common tradition of European secularism seems to be reinvented against the foil of an Islamic, non-European tradition said to lack an adequate understanding of secularity. Jewish intellectuals who research and comment upon secularism are by necessity affected by these debates. Indeed, for many American and European Jews, the question of secularism is raised less by the challenges to institutional Judaism than by controversial issues such as the construction of a mosque in the neighborhood of the destroyed World Trade Center or the referendum in Switzerland that lead to a constitutional ban on the constructions of minarets in the country. If we want to understand the competing concepts of secularism that circulate today among Jews and non-Jews alike, we would be well served to look at the way Jews speak about Islam as well as the various other foils that figure in current debates on secularism.

A focus on these constellations will also help us understand Jewish secularism in its historical context. Even though today's debates are new in many respects, understanding the continuities that emerge in the polemics against secularism's Others can serve as a useful guide to secularist politics. Since the eighteenth century, enlighteners and liberals have depicted secularism as under attack by individuals trapped within the narrow confines of tradition or unable "to dare to think for themselves" (to use Kant's famous dictum). In this sense, secularism has always been in crisis. In the view of secularists who endorsed a strong civic or national ethos as the remedy for religious divisions since the eighteenth century, Jews were a prime example of a collective unable to modernize. For most of the nineteenth century, however, the foil of liberal secularists was not Judaism but Catholicism. In political pamphlets, parliamentary speeches, and novels about Jesuit conspiracies, liberals in Europe and the Americas explained by way of a negative example their ideal of a privatized religion compatible with a neutral state.

Jews were part of these conversations about Catholicism starting with some of their earliest contributions to public debates on politics and religion in Europe. The most prominent early Jewish intellectual to participate in these discussions was Moses Mendelssohn, who opened his Jerusalem (1783) with remarks on Catholic despotism. In a number of cases, Jews not only joined these discussions but also shaped them in notable ways: some of the most important anticlerical and anti-Catholic tropes—most revolving around the Catholic and reactionary nature of Romanticism— were invented by Heinrich Heine, an author who was often attacked for his Jewish origins. Even Jewish politicians not generally known as anticlericals frequently reflected on secularism through the foil of Catholicism. The positions of important Jewish parliamentarians and liberal leaders such as Eduard Lasker in Prussia and Germany or Adolphe Crémieux in France on the issue of secularism emerge not so much in their statements on Jewish equality as in their remarks on laws affecting the Catholic Church and its clergy. I refer to these cases not in order to prove that Jews were by nature great enemies of the Church (as many Catholic anti-Semites claimed) but rather because it was difficult to avoid speaking about Catholicism in nineteenth-century Europe if one cared about issues of churchstate relations, modern forms of religiosity, or even if one simply wanted to address the central issues of political debate.

Turning again to today's debates can help put some of the difficult choices Jews made during nineteenth-century debates into perspective. In current discussions about Islam, many Jews find themselves torn between two poles: they can either embrace the idea that a Judeo-Christian West is pitted against Islamism and thus create an alliance with liberal secularists to combat purportedly antimodern forms of religious politics, or they can reject polemics against Islam as a form of discrimination uncomfortably close to their own historical experiences of anti-Semitism. Many attempt to straddle these positions, vacillating between them or believing they can find some kind of middle ground, while others retreat to a meta-level to avoid implication in a pervasive debate that offers only uncomfortable paradoxes.

West and Central European Jews who entered public debates on the Catholic Church beginning in the late eighteenth century faced similar choices. A powerful institution in countries and regions with a Catholic majority, the Catholic Church was also an outspoken enemy of Jewish citizenship and religious pluralism—especially between 1848 and the 1880s. The campaign of liberal Catholics and Protestants against an outspoken opponent of secular equality thus appeared to many Jews to offer an opportunity for a productive alliance. At the same time, it was difficult for them to ignore the fact that Jews and Catholic clergy were sometimes accused of similar sins by secularists, including fostering a form of transnational group solidarity that trumped their national loyalties. Throughout Europe's long nineteenth century, Jewish men and priests were also frequently depicted as lacking masculinity and as possessing a deviant sexual appetite. Moreover, many German Jewish intellectuals were keenly aware that the notion of a Judeo-Protestant alliance was illusionary in the face of the increasing anti- Semitism espoused by former Protestant liberals beginning in the 1870s. Jews thus oscillated between the politics of anticlerical alliance building and, less frequently, condemning anti-Catholicism in an effort to oppose secularist pressures on both Jews and Catholics.

The sometimes reluctant anticlericalism of Jewish public figures throughout the nineteenth century was one important aspect of their well-articulated ambiguity toward an ever-polemical secularism. Even Jews who militantly denounced the antimodernism of the Church in the nineteenth century were nevertheless hard pressed to forget that numerous enlighteners had previously depicted Jews as backwards in similar ways. The position of Ludwig Philippson, the editor of the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums—Germany's most venerated Jewish periodical— was typical in this regard. Responding in 1868 to the accusation that Catholics lacked loyalty to the government, he wrote "The tables have been turned, and what was an unfounded accusation against us, is an undeniable reality with the other side." Philippson—like many other liberal Jews—supported the campaigns against the Catholic Church but retained an awareness of the similarities of anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic polemics even as he dismissed these as false.

As much as current debates can refocus our sensibility toward the challenges that European Jews faced with the polemical elements of secularism in the past, Jewish anticlericalism can help illuminate some of the tensions embedded in recent campaigns against Islam. Ironically, one of the best current examples of a similarly fraught form of secularism can be found in the case of the Catholic Church in Europe. Officials of the Catholic Church in countries like France or Germany have been torn between new opportunities to promote visions of a Christian Europe and an awareness of the parallels between their own anti-Islamist rhetoric and the anticlerical battles waged against the Catholic Church during the nineteenth century. Jews who reflect critically on the way they articulate their commitment or opposition to secularism in debates on Islam will thus find many others who have similar doubts. In this sense, the complicated history of Jewish anticlericalism and secularism in the nineteenth century speaks to the paradoxes many Jews and others face today.