Montesquieu

Usbek to Ibben in Smyrna


You ask me whe­ther there are Jews in France ?1 Be sure that whe­re­ver there is money, there are Jews. You ask me what they do here ? Precisely what they do in Persia ; nothing is more like an Asian Jew than a European Jew.

They evince among the Christians as among us an invin­ci­ble obs­ti­nacy for their reli­gion that goes as far as mad­ness.

The Jewish reli­gion is an old trunk which has pro­du­ced two bran­ches which have cove­red the entire earth : I refer to Muhammadanism and Christianity ; or rather it is a mother who has engen­de­red two daugh­ters who have afflic­ted on her a thou­sand wounds : for when it comes to reli­gions, the clo­sest ones are the grea­test ene­mies. But wha­te­ver ill treat­ment she has recei­ved from them, she never­the­less takes pride in having begot­ten them ; she uses both of them to embrace the whole earth, while in ano­ther way her vene­ra­ble age embra­ces all eras.

For this rea­son the Jews consi­der them­sel­ves as the source of all that is sacred and the ori­gin of all reli­gion. They regard us on the contrary as here­tics who have chan­ged the Law, or rather as rebel Jews.

Si the change had come about gra­dually, they believe they could easily have been sedu­ced ; but inas­much as it came about all at once, and in a vio­lent man­ner, as they can mark the day and the hour of each of these births,2 they are dee­ply sho­cked to find that we have ages, and hold firm to a reli­gion that the earth itself did not pre­cede.

They have never known in Europe a calm com­pa­ra­ble to the one they are enjoying.3 Christians are begin­ning to shed that spi­rit of into­le­rance4 that ani­ma­ted agi­ta­ted them ; the Spanish found them­sel­ves worse off for having expel­led them,5 and the French for having har­ras­sed Christians whose faith dif­fe­red somew­hat from that of the prince.6 They have rea­li­zed that zeal for the advan­ce­ment of the reli­gion is dif­fe­rent from the attach­ment one should have to it, and that it is not neces­sary, in order to love and observe it, to hate and per­se­cute those who do not observe it.

It would be desi­ra­ble for our Muslims to think as sen­si­bly on this mat­ter as the Christians, that we could once and for all make peace bet­ween Ali and Abu Bakr,7 and leave it to God to decide on the merits of these holy pro­phets. I would like us to honor them through acts of vene­ra­tion and res­pect, and not by vain pre­fe­ren­ces, and seek to merit their favor, wha­te­ver place God may have reser­ved for them, either at his right hand, or else under the foots­tool of his throne.8

Paris this 18th day of the moon of Saphar 1714

The question could be asked because many Jews probably feared being identified as such and practiced their faith clandestinely.

One of the Jewish objections to Jesus was that his origin was known (John 7:27) ; Catholics similarly often argued the recent origins of Protestantism.

Since the edict of expulsion in 1394, renewed in 1615, Jews had in principle no right to live in the kingdom, but Jewish communities in Bordeaux and Bayonne possessed privileges that were not contested. Whereas the royal declaration of 8 March 1715 had decided that there would be no more Protestants in France, the Jewish presence, with restrictions, was tolerated in many places.

In the seventeenth century the word toleration generally had a negative meaning : “Sufferance or indulgence that one has for what one cannot prevent” (Académie, 1694). Basnage de Beauval adds, in the third edition of Furetière (1703), “The word toleration contains within it a tacit condemnation of the thing tolerated”. Little by little the word acquired a positive value ; already in 1718 the Académie gives the definition : “Condescension, indulgence for what one cannot prevent, or what one believes one should not prevent”. Cf. The Spirit of Law, XXV, 10 : “On tolerance in matters of religion”.

The Jews had been expelled from Spain in 1492 by Isabelle de Castille.

Another allusion to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (see letters 57 and 83).

Reference to the schism between the Shiite followers of Ali and the Sunni followers of Abu Bakr

The right hand of God is an image common to the Old and New Testaments, e.g. : “The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool” (Psalms 110:1) ; to Christians this place was reserved for Jesus.