French Jewish History, 1650-1914

The Republic's liberal principles brought tolerance and opportunity.

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The French monarchy progressively expelled its venerable Jewish community during the 14th and 15th centuries, largely because of religious anti-Jewish sentiment and popular resentment fueled by money lending. France ended its ban on Jews in the 17th century when it acquired a few thousand Ashkenazic Jews by conquering the Germanic lands of Alsace, Lorraine, and Metz. At the same time Portuguese "New Christians" who had settled in Bordeaux and several other smaller communities in the 16th century were gradually dropping the pretence of being Catholic and beginning to live openly as Sephardic Jews. In the early 18th century, they, too, won official recognition.

France's New Jews

France's new Jews were organized along the lines of almost all Jewish communities in Europe at the time: they existed not as individuals but as a corporately organized, legally autonomous community with defined rights and responsibilities toward the Crown. Jewish communities, for example, paid specific taxes and duties to the king and other authorities, while being exempt from other forms of taxation. Jews also had the right and obligation to govern and police themselves. Jewish communities could compel individual Jews to pay into communal coffers, respect the authority of the Crown-recognized heads of the Jewish "nation," and abide by the legal judgments of the rabbinate.

France accepted Jews not because of religious tolerance but because of a strong sense of raison d'état (national interest), a value which increasingly trumped religious belief for policy makers. In the case of the Portuguese Jews, the government valued the community's prominent role in maritime commerce, and especially trade with France's Caribbean colonies. In the case of the eastern Jews, the government valued the group's ability to supply military garrisons with provisions and horses, the taxes these Jews paid to the Crown as protection money, and the critical role they played in the rural economy. Jewish peddlers and moneylenders were often the sole source of coin and 'the only connection to regional markets.

Although the economic activities of the Jews of eastern France were appreciated by Paris officials, they were a lightning rod for anti-Jewish sentiment in rural France well into the nineteen century. Large numbers of Jews were destitute and depended on Jewish charity.
Wandering Jewish beggars went from community to community seeking alms. Most of the community--barred from engaging in the majority of commercial and agricultural activities by medieval legal restrictions--survived by peddling dry goods and selling livestock. Many extended credit to customers at interest or lent money. Not all or even most moneylenders in the areas of Jewish settlement were Jews, but peasants commonly owed enormous sums of money to Jewish creditors.

The Emancipation Debate

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Michael Shurkin received a Ph.D. from Yale in 2000 in French and Jewish history and wrote his dissertation on state intervention in Alsatian and Algerian Jewish communities in the 19th century. He lives in Washington, DC.