Editor’s Note: Mr. Ehrenhalt submitted this article early last month and eagerly anticipated its publication. Sadly, he passed away on May 31 at age 83. An activist for Israel and Jewish concerns and a longtime reader of The Jewish Press who constantly passed along to the paper’s editors news and information gleaned from his prodigious reading, he leaves an immense void in the lives of his family, his friends, and the greater Jewish community.
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The change came rather quickly in terms of history’s long sweep and, from our vantage point, may seem like something of a mystery.
In 1300 France is a key center of European Jewry, a community of 100,000, comprising about one in five European Jews. Two centuries later, France is Judenrein. Its Jews become part of the momentous shift of European Jewry from West to East.
France remains Jewless for a long time. In Paris and other core areas a Jewish presence is not reestablished until after the Revolution of 1789. The Jewish population of France does not regain its 1300 level until the latter part of the 19th century.
Those are the bare bones of our mystery. What follows is a (by no means exhaustive) thumbnail sketch of the why, where and when.
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The Jewish presence in medieval France is no flash in the pan. There are well-established Jewish communities by the 6th century in Paris and Orleans. Jews are sailors, brokers, bankers. Their literacy has them in demand for government tax farming and as toll collectors. Jews keep things going after the fall of the Roman Empire. In the wake of the Arab conquests, they become the surviving link with the Orient.
Jews are key in trading goods from a distance – pearls, horses, cattle, spices, paper. They provide the incense and rich fabrics indispensable to church ritual. Jews are almost the only people making their living by commerce.
Charlemagne, crowned emperor in 800, is well disposed to Jews. He sees the Jew as an expert trader and a facilitator. Jews accumulate wealth, are well regarded in court circles, build new synagogues. They own estates and vineyards. Wholesale and foreign trade is in their hands. Henri Pirenne, the great Belgian medievalist, sees them as indispensable.
Jews are energetic, resilient, resourceful. They are creative in scholarship. This is the period of the Rishonim and Tosafists. They know how to navigate the system, how to assuage the powers that be.
Eventually, however, three forces combine in a toxic mix that first forces a narrowing of Jewry’s economic and social role and then shifts decisively against any Jewish presence in France over the centuries of the medieval age.
And it’s here that the mystery that draws us to the story of French Jewry is solved. The early good feelings and high hopes are dashed faster than one can say Church, Throne and Street.
Simply put, Jews are unable to overcome the suspicions that fall on the medieval outsider who sticks to his guns and refuses to convert. Their very existence is a challenge and a rebuke. The idea of a “Jewish question” emerges even though Jews comprise less than one percent of the population.
Jews are increasingly exploited for political and financial gain. Efforts to convert Jews largely fail, and the French monarchy begins to fashion, as William Jordan, a ranking medievalist puts it, “a new and enduring ideal of the purified Christian state, an ideal that persisted until the close of the Middle Ages and left its considerable imprint on the powerful state of the early modern period as well.”
French Jewry is driven from pillar to post, squeezed dry, discarded. Hope is renewed, then dashed. Renewed again, dashed again. The cycle is repeated until Jews are finally eliminated from French soil. By 1322, the Jewish presence in the French kingdom has just about been eradicated. In 1394 it’s official. (The Jews of Provence, a major group of communities, are incorporated into the French royal domain in 1486 and then expelled.)
There are some striking markers of the cataclysm that lies down the road. A signal indicator of the way the wind is blowing is a medieval tale that, centuries later, Shakespeare would take up for his Merchant of Venice.
The original version, in Latin, focuses on the pound-of-flesh demand of a wealthy serf. In 13th-century France he is transformed, in a vernacular version, into a Jew. Shylock thus becomes embedded in the Western mind as Jewish. The French 13th-century conversion becomes a template for later literature.
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Even under Charlemagne’s relatively benign rule, Agobard, archbishop of Lyon, gives early, passionate voice to an anti-Jewish counter-narrative. Starting in 816, he wages a zealous campaign against this stubborn group of holdouts who refuse the Christian faith, denouncing Jews as “sons of darkness.” He instructs the clergy to preach in the synagogues every Saturday (an idea that will be revived a thousand years later in the run-up to the Revolution).
Easter becomes a prime occasion for Jewish degradation. In Toulouse, a Jew has to appear at the cathedral on Good Friday for a blow on the face to avenge what had been done to Jesus. One year the victim is hit so hard “his brains and eyes spilled to the earth.” It is only in the 12th century that Jews succeed in having this degradation converted to an annual cash payment.
Passion plays, enormously popular, depict Jews as Christ-killers. A typical character, Stephaton, is shown as a misshapen, bloated Jew, who gives Jesus vinegar to drink just before his death, the last tormentor of the Christian savior.
Blood libels point to the precariousness of the Jewish condition. A notorious case occurs in 1171, when Jews are accused of the murder by crucifixion of a youth in Blois. In response, 32 of the 40 adult Jews in Blois are executed.
In April 1182, King Philip Augustus issues an order of expulsion and three months later the Jews are forced out of his royal domains, only to be called back by the same Philip Augustus in 1198.
In Troyes, hometown of Rashi, thirteen Jews accused of killing a Christian are burned at the stake in 1288. In the medieval Christian mind, the Jew as he exists is supplanted by a distorted creature of vile imagination.
Anti-Jewish hostility rises at times of popular excitement, such as the Crusades. The promotion of a new crusade in 1236 leads to attacks on Jews in Anjou, Poitou and Brittany, with some 3,000 Jews killed and five hundred forced to submit to baptism. In 1240, Duke John of Brittany banishes all Jews from his domain.
A dramatic sign of French Jewry’s increasingly troubled situation is a Church ban on Jewish texts initiated by the “holy offices” in the late 12th century. Among the first to come under the ban is Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed.
Pope Gregory IX orders an investigation into the Talmud. After three years he decides to suppress it. A papal letter to Christian authorities in France, England, Spain and Portugal orders all Jewish books in synagogues to be seized. The papal instruction is ignored, except by the bishops of France, and particularly of Paris, with the full backing of the reigning monarch, Louis IX, who hates Jews from way back.
The Talmud is put on trial and condemned. In June 1242, some 12,000 volumes are seized and burned. The burning is repeated in later years. Louis IX bans the Talmud by royal ordinance, a telling example of top-down anti-Semitism.
The burnings are mainly limited to France. In other lands, Jews generally manage to avert confiscation of the Talmud with payments in cash.
Philip IV (the Fair) succeeds to the throne in 1285. He views France as a holy land and himself as the scion of a holy dynasty. Philip is increasingly frustrated as the vast majority of Jews hold firm to their faith.
He engages in an inconclusive war with Gascony. The financial costs are huge. Taxes imposed on Jews are more than ten times the usual. French Jewry is close to financial ruin.
Philip considers how to get out of his bind. He’s got major money problems. He’s desperate. What about expulsion of the Jews? England did it in 1290. The number of Jews in France is larger by a factor of 20. It’s a complicated deal – but a great way to bolster the royal coffers.
An inspired triple play: Expel the Jews, seizing their real estate, money and loans to Christians, and you’re way ahead of the game. Such a move also enhances your reputation for piety and as a promoter of Christianity.
Philip goes for it. It’s a vast undertaking. It means detailed planning for mass arrests, identifying and inventorying property and goods, as well as debts owed to Jews. It takes years to get done, but eventually the Jews of the French realm are gone.
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The return of a substantial Jewish presence in France is long in coming. By the time of the French Revolution the Jewish population is up to 40,000 – compared with 100,000 five centuries earlier.
Religious anti-Semitism continues to hold sway up to the time of the French Revolution. Pascal, a major French theologian of the 17th century, sees the misery of the Jews as a religious necessity: “The Jews should be miserable, because they have crucified Him.”
Voltaire, an 18th century intellectual force whose ideas are taken up by key thinkers and movers of the French Revolution, really has it in for the Jews. To fit into the new world, Voltaire argues, man has to be remade. But Jews are not of the stuff that can easily be remade. The Jew is the odd man out.
After the Revolution there is a growing perception that Jews need to be emancipated and made full citizens. In a modern economy you can’t maintain exclusions that apply only to Jews.
The law, finally passed in 1791, is debated for two years. Two years to deal with little more than one tenth of one percent of the French population – 40,000 Jews in a population of 28 million.
But even when Jews are given equality, it’s on the assumption they will change – radically. French emancipation makes room for Jews, not the Jewish people.
The Damascus Affair of 1840 is a blood libel accusation, a throwback to the 12th century, brought against the Damascus Jewish community. The French consul in Damascus, Ratti Menton, intervenes strongly to press the case against Jewish leaders and others put on trial. He publishes the libel in detail. The synagogue in nearby Jobar is pillaged, Torahs destroyed. There are large demonstrations of protest in the United States. Finally, the accused Jews still alive are fully exonerated.
In the Chamber of Deputies, the French premier justifies the actions of the consul. There are anti-Jewish riots throughout the Middle East and North Africa and a backlash against Jews in Europe.
The Enlightenment and Jewish assimilation do not inhibit the rise of Edouard Drumont, founder of the Antisemitic League of France in 1889, who finds a receptive audience for his book La France Juive, which argues for the exclusion of Jews from society. He goes on to be elected to the Chamber of Deputies His newspaper La Libre Parole proclaims: “Down with the Jews.”
The Dreyfus case roils France for more than a decade. Again, the Enlightenment and Jewish assimilation are no help. The Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus is finally exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French army in 1906.
(A telling postscript: In 1985, French President Mitterrand commissions a statue of Dreyfus to be installed at the Ecole Militaire. The minister of defense refuses to display it, upholding the military’s anti-Dreyfus tradition.)
Louis-Ferdinand Celine is a much admired figure on the French literary scene in the 1930s. He is a passionate anti-Semite. To him France was a glorious civilization that had been undermined by a plot of the Jews, who now rule France.
In 1937 Celine publishes Bagatelles Pour un Massacre, his first anti-Semitic work. (Saul Friedlander, the great historian of the Shoah and the years preceding it, has judged it to be “possibly the most vicious anti-Jewish tirade in modern Western literature” outside Nazidom.)
How is it received in France? Andre Gide, a leading intellectual light and subsequent Nobel Prize winner, reviews Celine’s work favorably in Nouvelle Revue Francaise.
When Leon Blum becomes French premier in 1936, Xavier Vallat, later to head the Vichy government’s office for Jewish affairs, addresses the Chamber of Deputies with his feeling that “it would be preferable to put at the head of this country a man whose roots belong to its soil rather than a subtle Talmudist.”
The slogan of France’s far right becomes “Better Hitler than Blum.”
In 1938, outrage against Kristallnacht is expressed by countries as varied as Italy, Britain, the Netherlands, Hungary, Brazil, Lithuania, the USSR, Guatemala, Latvia, Finland, Poland and the United States. Not a peep of protest from France, however.
The French novelist, essayist and playwright Hippolyte Jean Giraudoux publishes a highly anti-Semitic political essay in 1939, “Pleins Pouvoirs.” He sees Jews as a threat to national stability, a corrupting influence, with Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe forcing real Frenchmen out of their jobs. He is France’s minister of information in the last year of the Third Republic.
After the French defeat in 1940, Petain’s Vichy government disowns the Jews. Xavier Vallat, commissioner of Jewish affairs, declares Jews “a foreign people.” By the end of 1944, almost 75,000 Jews – a quarter of French Jewry – have been deported to killing centers in Poland. Only 2,600 of them survive.
After the war, Helmut Knochen, head of the German security police in France, testifies: “In conclusion, we found no difficulty with the Vichy government in implementing Jewish policy.”
Medieval ways of thinking maintain a tenacious hold in France. Charles de Gaulle, president of the French Republic, describes Jews as “this elite people, sure of themselves, domineering.” It’s 1967, not 1267, but never mind: the statement makes anti-Semitism, just 22 years after the Holocaust, respectable again in France.
It seems that in the matter of France and the Jews, the 15th century has never really ended.
Samuel M. Ehrenhalt was a longtime official at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and served as the bureau’s New York regional commissioner from 1980-1995. In an obituary published June 3, The New York Times noted that he “was routinely consulted by the news media on an array of subjects…. Mr. Ehrenhalt by all accounts brought to his work an articulate wit and, when needed, a keen dramatic flair. To him, statistics did not exist in lifeless isolation; instead, they reflected the web of contingencies that forms the narrative of everyday life.”