In the eighteenth century imaginative and emotional religion tended to be superseded or overshadowed by Rationalism. Jews were as ‘enlightened’ as Gentiles; and the scientific movement of the time found expression in the French Revolution. Montesquieu, the philosopher, commenced the enfranchisement of the Jew; Mirabeau, the patriot, carried it on; and Napoleon completed it. It was this that led to the eventual emancipation of the Jews of western Europe and a renaissance of Jewish literature under Mendelssohn. The Mendelssohnian school brought about a great linguistic change. The vernacular took the place of Hebrew. The Bible first, and then text-books of science and art, history and geography, poetry, and even novels, were written in German but printed in Hebrew letters, so that the Jew of the time, illiterate except as to Hebrew, should be able to read them. But the Mendelssohnians were also assimilationists, and thus introduced the only vital change into Judaism since the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans. Till their day, no Jew had doubted that the dispersion was only temporary and ‘the restoration of the national polity might be expected at any moment’; he had looked upon himself as a temporary settler in the land where he happened to live, and indeed, at any rate in Germany, he had been physically separated by the walls of his Ghetto from the society and culture of the non-Jew. Many Jews, especially in Germany, carried away by the glamour of their new citizenship, left the fold altogether. It was the age of Massentaufen (baptisms en masse). Others abandoned their tribal nationalism and went so far as to eliminate from the prayer book of ‘reform’ Judaism all references to the hope of a return to the Holy Land and to substitute for a Messiah belief in an ideal Messianic destiny of the spirit common to Israel and mankind. But the mass of Jewry has remained true to its Prayer Book and its Bible. Nevertheless, the Jews in the first half of the nineteenth century were, perhaps, less concerned with Palestine than were non-Jews. The Jewish problem of the day seemed to be in process of solution. Little or nothing was to be heard even of schemes for colonizing Jews outside Palestine. Such had formerly advocated Jewish settlements on the ‘Wild Coast’ (1654), in the West Indies (1659), and in South America (1749) the last under the sovereignty of Marshal de Saxe. The colonial scheme of Mordecai Noah of Philadelphia (1785–1851) was made memorable by the support given to it by President Adams.
Mendelssohn himself was hardly an assimilationist. In 1770, consulted as to a scheme for the resettlement of Jews in Palestine, he opposed such an idea only because the Jews were too scattered and feeble, the expense would be too great, and the Powers would never consent. Napoleon in 1799, when on his Syrian campaign, issued a proclamation to the Jews, calling upon them to join his army, and promising to give them the Holy Land. This campaign failed, but in 1807 Napoleon again proposed a solution of the Jewish question—from the opposite angle by summoning the Sanhendrin, which was to regulate Jewish custom and fit the Jews for French nationality.
Christians during this period were less lukewarm; and some there were who, believing the Biblical promises, sought to tempt the Jews back to the land of their fathers, generally with the expectation, express or implied, of their ultimate conversion to Christianity. Thus in 1806 a pamphlet addressed to the Jews, after an examination of the prophecies under both Christian and Jewish dispensations, proceeds, ‘As there is every reason to suppose that the restoration of the Jews is nigh at hand, I shall now conclude this address by congratulating them on the happy prospect before them in the beautiful language of Ezekiel’, and so forth. Bickeno’s ‘Restoration of the Jews—the Crisis of all Nations’ appeared in 1800, and Witherby’s ‘Attempt to Remove Prejudices concerning the Jewish Nation’ in 1804, the latter being a plea both for the Jews’ restoration to Palestine, and for their civil equality outside Palestine.
Once admitted to the society of the Gentile, as a citizen with all civil rights, the Jew could not help taking his place in literature and even in general politics. Cumberland’s ‘Jew’ is no longer the crafty and cruel Shylock of dramatic tradition, but a good-hearted philanthropist, benevolent though rich. Byron’s ‘Hebrew Melodies’ bewail the homelessness of Israel. The heroine of Scott’s Ivanhoe is a Jewess, a perfect heroine of romance. Disraeli reflects—perhaps also deflects—the views of his time and his own impressions of a three years’ visit to the East (1830–1) when he makes out of his aristocratic hero ‘Tancred’ a sort of prototype of Herzl, who tries to realize the Messianic ideal of and in Palestine.