The Church reached the zenith of its power and influence in Europe during the Middle Ages. Then science and reason became the new gods. In this supposedly more enlightened era, one might have thought there would be no place for the old hatreds. Yet as the Jews of modern France were to find out, not everyone in France thought the new slogan of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” (Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood) should apply to them.
While a few crypto-Jews from Spain and Polish and Ukrainian refugees from the Chmielnicki massacres trickled into parts of France during the 1500s and 1600s, Jews didn’t return to Paris until the 1700s. The first official synagogue in the capital city opened in 1788, just in time for the French Revolution, which broke out a year later. By then there were about 40,000 Jews living in France. They received citizenship in 1790, but even though they now had full civic rights as individuals, they lost their rights as a group. Thus, when all religious institutions were shut down during the Reign of Terror (1793-1794) the synagogues were closed as well.
After a decade-long struggle between the various revolutionary factions, Napoleon Bonaparte seized power, proclaimed himself Emperor and set out to conquer Europe. Along the way, he tore down ghetto walls and called for freedom of religion and civil liberties for Jews living under his conquered territories. While some Jews lauded Napoleon’s policies, others were suspicious, fearing that the emperor’s true goal was the assimilation of Europe’s Jews into his French Empire.
The 1815 Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated by a coalition of British and European armies headed by the Duke of Wellington, brought an end to Napoleon’s empire. As for his goal of extending full civil rights to Europe’s Jews, while many elements of his political agenda remained in place, the idea of a Jew being on equal footing with a Christian was looked upon with horror by many Christian Europeans. By the mid-1800s, a time when Jews were taking a more active role in all spheres of life—industry, the arts and sciences, and politics—an organized reaction took place. Unlike the Middle Ages, it was not the Jewish religion that came under attack. Instead, the rallying cry for this new generation of anti-Semites, many of whom were Germans feeling threatened by the century’s sweeping socio-economic changes, could be summed up in one word: race. The Jews were accused of being an inferior, degenerate race polluting the supposedly superior Germanic race and culture.
But while anti-Semitism became rampant in Germany in the decades that followed, the Jews of France could rely upon the laws of the French Republic to protect them from discrimination. Indeed, there were many members of the French elite who saw the Jews as a sort of test case: If they could turn this traditionally stubborn people into model French citizens, they could do the same with any other ethnic group.
There were many French Jews who jumped at the chance to shed their ancient identity and assimilate. The Third Republic, which lasted from 1870 until the Nazi occupation in 1940, was a time when French Jews achieved tremendous professional success. Not only did they occupy prominent positions in business, law and the arts, but they could also be found in academia—and this was at a time when Jews were not only barred from German universities but also discriminated against by universities in the United States.
Yet, their success led to a backlash, similar to the one in Germany. Frenchmen such as Edouard Drumont, author of the anti-Semitic bestseller La France Juive (Jewish France), complained that neither the Jews nor the Third Republic and its liberal ideals represented the real France, which was defined by a specific ethnic group that adhered to the Catholic religion. The hate-filled clamor raised by Drumont and others reached its crescendo in the 1890s, in an event that shook not only French Jewry, but all of France: the Dreyfus Affair.
France on Trial
On October 15, 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew from the Alsatian region of France, was accused of spying for the Germans. After a hasty military trial, he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, located off the coast of South America. Although it was later proved that the real culprit was the French officer Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterházy, Dreyfus would not be exonerated until twelve years later. By then “the Affair,” as it was called, had deeply divided France, with pro-Republic Dreyfusards vehemently pitted against those who insisted that the Jewish officer must be guilty.
One of the Affair’s observers was Theodor Herzl, who had left his native Austria, where anti-Semitism was rampant, for France, where extremist excess supposedly didn’t exist. It was while watching a French crowd scream, “Kill the Jews!” that Herzl realized that assimilation wasn’t the answer for Europe’s Jews and he turned instead to political Zionism, with the goal of creating a Jewish state.
Léon Blum, on the other hand, the Jewish-French socialist who became France’s Prime Minister in 1936, felt that the eventual vindication of Dreyfus marked the true moment of emancipation for France’s Jews. In his view, citizenship had trumped Catholic ethnic prejudice; the rights of man had triumphed over the violent frenzy of the masses.
But while the Dreyfus Affair didn’t lead to the expulsion of the Jews, the central question it raised was never expelled either: Was France a “nation” or a “republic”? Was it a repository of a shared religion, culture and ethnicity that should be closed to outsiders, or a storehouse of abstract, liberal ideals that could be shared by anyone who was a citizen?
Back to the Future?
The Third Republic came to an end with the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. About 300,000 Jews were living in France at the time, including those who had emigrated from both Eastern European countries and the Ottoman Empire during the early years of the twentieth century. The country was divided into an occupied zone and a supposedly “free” zone in Vichy. In actuality, the Vichy regime collaborated with the Nazis and by the war’s end, about 25 percent of France’s Jews had perished in concentration camps.
According to David A. Bell, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University and the author of the article “Trapped by History: France and Its Jews” (World Affairs, Summer 2009), the Vichy regime put a new twist on French anti-Semitism, which still has an impact today. Whereas in previous decades anti-Semites like Drumont and his cohorts railed against the French-Jewish elite that had successfully assimilated, while ignoring the Yiddish-speaking traditional Jews who had recently immigrated, during World War II, when the Vichy regime was faced with the question of which Jews to deport, it first rounded up the new immigrants and Jewish refugees. Thus, says Bell, by the 1940s the concept of a French citizen’s rights had spread even to those who considered themselves to be enemies of the Republic—although if the Nazis hadn’t been defeated, all of French Jewry would have met the same fate, regardless of their claims to French citizenship.
After the war, France became a haven for some of Europe’s Jewish refugees. During the 1950s, when the French Empire was on the decline, many North African Jews also moved to France. However, the Jews weren’t the only ethnic group to relocate. The country opened its doors to immigrants from many different countries, with the proviso that the new citizens become French; not Jewish-French or Chinese-French or Italian-French. Just French.
During the last fifty years, though, France’s “republican model” has shown signs of fraying. After Israel’s Six-Day War, France’s political and academic elite became increasingly anti-Israel—a move that ironically made at least some of France’s approximately 500,000 Jews begin to question if assimilation was really the best path. At the same time, France hasn’t been able to successfully assimilate immigrants from Muslim countries, which today number about 6 million people, or ten percent of France’s total population.
While some sociologists say that the high unemployment and crime rates in predominately Muslim neighborhoods is a normal pattern for new immigrants, one which will be smoothed out with the passing of time as Arabs exchange their primarily Muslim identity for that of the liberal French citizen, others look at the numbers—by 2025 France’s Muslims may comprise 25 percent of the population—and aren’t so optimistic. The Muslim population’s increased political influence, coupled with the rise of a radical Islam that offers French Muslims an alternative identity, say the pessimists, will only leave French Jews increasingly marginalized and at the mercy of the anti-Israel mob.
This past summer seems to have been a turning point for France’s Jews, and it’s estimated that about 5,000 French Jews will make Aliyah in 2014. The increase in violence leveled against the community, which included a terrifying attack on Paris’s Don Isaac Abravanel Synagogue as well as attacks on individual Jews and Jewish-owned businesses, is one reason. Although the French community agrees that the government isn’t behind the attacks, the fact that French Jews, who represent less than one percent of the French population, were the target of 40 percent of racist attacks in 2013 shows that the government can’t prevent the violence.
Another reason why some French Jews are leaving is the prolonged economic downturn. It’s estimated that the unemployment rate in France for those younger than 25 runs as high as 24.8 percent.
Yet, the vast majority of French Jews are staying put, at least for now. They are gambling that the French Republic, with its promise of security for all its citizens, will prove stronger than the forces of radical Islam and the xenophobia of France’s far right. It’s a gamble that France’s medieval Jews, who were also dependent upon the protection of the local ruler, were very familiar with—and only time will tell if the gamble will pay off, or if the twenty-first century will mirror the fourteenth century and become known as the century when the Jews once again said goodbye to France.