When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, a debate began about whether Jews could be French citizens. It took two years, but the revolutionaries came down on the side of the Jews, and Jewish emancipation was proclaimed in 1791.
There were all of 40,000 Jews in France at the time and they were concentrated mainly in two areas. In the southwest was the Sephardic community, who spoke French and were well integrated. The Ashkenazic lived in Alsace-Lorraine (a tiny group also lived in Paris) and were poorly regarded and badly treated because they were less well integrated.
Abbé Grégoire, an opponent of slavery, took on the Jewish cause, writing a pamphlet on the subject and speaking in the French parliament in favour of Jewish emancipation. He demanded a date for parliament to decide the issue, given the precariousness of the Jews’ security after a pogrom in Alsace.
Count Clermont-Tonnerre addressed the assembly on Dec. 22, 1789, condemning those who refused to recognize Jewish rights. However, he proclaimed that France must deny everything to the Jews “comme nation” (as an ethnic group, or a nation within the nation), but grant them everything as individuals, including citizenship. In other words, in a nation that would become secular, religious affiliation would have no place.
Even this conditional emancipation was vigorously opposed by members of parliament from Alsace and some members of the clergy. A priest argued that the Jews followed their own laws, so, just as the English and Danish could not become French without renouncing their English or Danish citizenship, Jews could not become French without renouncing their Judaism. “Let them be protected,” the priest said, “as individuals, but not as French.”
In January 1791, there was a fierce political battle as to whether or not full French citizenship should be extended to all Jews (the Sephardic Jews were granted citizenship in 1790). One side contended that the Ashkenazic Jews were deserving of the same rights as other Jews, while the other contended that several wealthy and powerful Jews were behind the initiative. Those Jews had gained their wealth at the expense of the state and were spending a fortune, they said, to influence politicians, in order to gain citizenship.
In June 1791, a motion was introduced in parliament that all Jews in France be accorded French citizenship. The motion was adopted on Nov. 13 of that year. A leader of the Jewish community, Beer Isaac Beer, wrote to the Jews of France that “the veil of humiliation that covered us has been torn and our rights, which have been denied us for 18 centuries, have been granted to us.” After many centuries and a prolonged struggle, French Jews were finally accorded full rights as citizens.
Post-emancipation, French Jews had a complicated relationship with their fellow Frenchmen, with the worst periods being the infamous Dreyfus Affair and the deportations of the Second World War. But Jews did thrive there for long periods and became the largest Jewish community in western Europe.
In the 1980s, I spoke at a conference in Strasbourg, where I met a French Jew who had hidden in the forests during the Second World War. I asked him why he
decided to stay in France. “Mais, Monsieur, c’est toujours la France!” (“Why, sir, it’s still France!”) he said. (Indeed, there is a Yiddish expression for ultimate satisfaction: “Azoy freilich vi Got in Freinkreich,” which translates to, “As happy as God in France.”)
Today in France, the remaining 400,000 Jews – there were 500,000 until recently – need to have their 200 synagogues, community centres and schools guarded day and night by armed soldiers. Jews wearing a kippah or Star of David have been attacked. A study, conducted by Fondapol, showed that 25 per cent of the French population bears anti-Semitic sentiments, and among practising Muslims, the proportion is 42 per cent.
If only France, which was once so idealized and was at the forefront of the Enlightenment and the emancipation movement, found a way to reassert its bygone values, perhaps it could once again reclaim its former glory as a centre of freedom for Jews and a model for other nations.