French Jewish History, 1650-1914

The Republic's liberal principles brought tolerance and opportunity.

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The universally negative attitudes towards Jews in France did not begin to change until the 1780s, when a public debate began over whether the negative attributes of Jews--which no one disputed--were innate or the result of discrimination. In 1785, the Metz Royal Academy of Sciences sponsored an essay contest on "the means of making Jews happy and more useful in France." One of the submissions, the Abbot Henri Grégoire's "Essay on the Physical, Moral, and Political Regeneration of the Jews," became the principle text of the emancipation debate."

Grégoire, focusing on Alsace (which hosted the largest Jewish community--roughly 20,000 at the time), argued that Jews had a degenerating influence on rural Alsatian society. Jews were parasitical, prone to illness, and indoctrinated by their religion to hate gentiles. Their rabbis, he claimed, had perverted biblical morality. However, Grégoire was confident that persecution was the root of Jewish degeneracy, and that granting the Jews more right would "regenerate" them. "Let us make Jews into citizens," Grégoire declared, "regenerated both physically and morally, they will acquire a healthier and more robust temperament, enlightenment, probity: their hearts corrected by virtue, their hands hardened by labor, they will come to profit all society."

Soon after Grégoire published his essay the Revolution broke out and forced the issue. In late July and August 1789, Alsatian peasants who saw the Revolution as an opportunity to rid themselves of debts sacked Jewish homes and injured an estimated 3,000 Jews, which placed pressure on the government to take action to protect them. Moreover, on August 4, 1789, the National Assembly ended feudalism by ordering dissolved the corporate and provincial privileges that characterized Old Regime France, making Jewish communal autonomy untenable.

Grégoire quickly introduced the question of Jewish emancipation to the National Assembly. He was followed by a Jewish delegation that presented a petition requesting civil and economic liberties as well as the preservation of Jewish autonomy. On December 31, 1789, the Assembly granted emancipation to the Sephardic Jews, who had not asked for continued autonomy. However, Christian delegates from Alsace and Lorraine held up emancipation for the eastern Jews over the autonomy issue. The Assembly finally granted them full liberty--at the price of their autonomy--on September 27, 1791.

Emancipation changed daily life very little, though it initiated a trend that eventually had enormous consequences on Jewish life: migration to cities that had not previously had Jewish communities, above all Strasbourg and Paris. By 1871, when Germany annexed Alsace and Lorraine following the Franco-Prussian War, Paris had become France's largest and most important Jewish community. Otherwise communal life went on unchanged. The usury problem also continued, and even got worse. The rush by peasants to buy land confiscated from the Church, and sold off by the state, greatly increased peasant indebtedness to Jews.  The resulting political pressures prompted Napoleon to intervene.

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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.