Jews during the French Revolution (F. Malino)

On the eve of the Revolution, there were four principal centres of Jewish population: the Sephardic communities of Bordeaux, Saint-Esprit-les-Bayonne, Dax and Peyrehorade ; the Ashkenazi communities of Alsace, of Trois-Évêchés and of Lorraine ; the communities of Avignon, Carpentras, Cavaillon and L'Isle-sur-Sorgue in the possessions of the pope, in Avignon and in the Comtat Venaissin ; and a mixed community of Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Avignonnais and Jews from the Comtat Venaissin in Paris. Small Jewish communities also existed in Marseille, Nîmes, Montpellier, Lyon, Fontainebleau and Versailles. Out of around 40,000 Jews, the majority (20,000) lived in the province of Alsace.

Although endowed with a strong organisation and strong discipline, the communities lacked unity and uniformity. Their diversity reflected the particular circumstances in which the communities had received their own privileges, composition and economic orientation, and the particular links which the territories where the Jews lived maintained with the crown. In one case – the one of the Sephardic Jews – the diversity reflected a distinct heritage in terms of socio-economic, cultural and religious matters, as well as a greater independence concerning discriminatory financial charges, and a higher degree of cultural integration.

Once the National Assembly had temporarily adopted the Declaration of the rights of Man and of the Citizen, the status of the Jews, linked in an inextricable manner to the hated privileges of the Ancien Régime, could no longer be left in the shadow. The Jews themselves furthermore resolved to present petitions to the National Assembly. Internal divisions harmed the unity of these efforts. Preferring to be included in all political, economic and social changes, the Sephardim advised the Abbé Gregoire to refrain from exceptional measures concerning the emancipation of the Jews. The Ashkenazim, in their address of 31 August 1789, demanded the rights of citizenship and renewed their previous demands for liberty of abode and of work. They also wanted to obtain the upholding of the juridical autonomy of the communities ; this demand was rejected by the Jews of Paris, in their address of 26 August 1789. Having a very clear conscience regarding the important price which the Jews would have to pay in order to benefit from the numerous profound changes taking place in France, they demanded to be submitted to the same administrations and to the same tribunals as the rest of the French ; in return, while conserving the right to remain loyal to their religion, they explicitly renounced the privileges that were bestowed on them by the existence in a constituent body.

The Jewish question was firstly raised during the debates of December 1789. The adversaries and partisans of the emancipation of the Jews saw a contradiction between the Jewish specificity and the French citizenship. Those who were hostile regarded this contradiction as permanent and irremediable, whereas those who defended it believed that the Jews could and would like to become Frenchmen. Robespierre, who opposed himself to Reubell, the only ultra-revolutionary speaking out against the emancipation of the Jews, and the Abbé Maury defended the Jews with eloquence. With a logic which had to be employed often in support of emancipation, he accused the Frenchmen of having created and of having exaggerated the faults of the Jews. Unable to decide for or against the emancipation of the Jews, the National Assembly separated their case from the one of the Protestants and reserved its right of judgement. All Jews of France, the Sephardim as much as the Ashkenazim, had to await the legislation to come.

Not wanting to see themselves this limited, the Sephardic Jews of Bordeaux and those of Bayonne prepared petitions to the National Assembly and sent deputies in order to « faire les couloirs » in their name. They experienced success when on 28 January 1790, while it only assembled two-thirds of the deputies, the Assembly decreed, by 374 votes against 224, that the Portuguese, Spanish and Avignonnais Jews could enjoy the rights of active citizens. Nonetheless, Le Chapelier clearly expressed that there is no link between the status of the Jews from Bordeaux and the ones from Alsace. Resolutions from nearly all urban districts of Paris, a memorandum that was adopted on 24 February by the assembly of the Commune and a deputation to the National Assembly could only obtain that the Assembly revisited its decision to indefinitely adjourn the question of the civil rights of the Ashkenazim.

Just before the Assembly would dissolve without having decided anything concerning the Jews, Adrien Duport rose and proclaimed that the freedom of religion did not tolerate any discrimination between the political rights of citizens based on their confessions. On 27 September 1791, the Assembly promulgated a law in terms of which all measures of exception against the Jews had to be repealed and the Ashkenazi Jews had to be accepted in the oath of citizenship. This law equally applied to the Jews living in Avignon and in the Comtat Venaissin. These Jews had already been emancipated by the provinces themselves and thus enjoyed civil rights even before being recognized as citizens.

Legally, Jews were henceforth French citizens. No city could any longer refuse the liberty of abode to them ; they theoretically could work the land and the access to diverse professions solely depended on their capacities. But one could predict that neither Christians nor Jews could or wanted to change their existence as fast and radically as they had changed the laws.

Also, although there were Ashkenazim wanting to join clubs and the army and to participate in the elections, the majority of them remained in their communities and continued to exercise their traditional economic activities. The activities of these Jews – emphasized and often exaggerated – were the target of their traditional enemies, although often expressed under the cover of revolutionary language. Contrary to the Ashkenazim, however, the Sephardim became closer to the non-Jewish population, joined the ranks of the army and participated in the National Guard. Some of them were elected city counsellors, thereby playing an influential role in the first years of the Revolution.

The Jews suffered, like the rest of the population, due to the anti-religious attitudes and activities of the Jacobins. The synagogues were closed and the observance of Shabbat was forbidden. Some Jews in Paris, Bordeaux and chiefly Bayonne supported the Jacobin cause. The Société montagnarde et régénérée des Amis de la Constitution de 1793 of Saint-Esprit-les-Bayonne, one of the strongholds of Jacobinism in the department of Landes, was almost exclusively composed of Jews.

The only question which involved the Jewish communities during the Revolution was the one of the nationalisation of the goods of the Jewish communities and of the collective debts. Whereas it was a matter of conserving the immobile goods of the community for the Sephardim, for the Ashkenazim it was the occasion to liberate themselves from the burden of community obligations. Although three commissions supported the nationalisation of the goods and Jewish debts, the Council of Five Hundred decided differently (6 December 1797). The failure of the nationalisation of the debts forced the Ashkenazim to maintain their community organisation (despite their official dissolution), in order to raise the necessary contributions. In the payment of their debts to their Christian creditors, the Jews of the Northeast of France suffered from sensitive economic losses.

Under the influence of the liberal revolutionaries of his Conseil d'État and of the social pragmatics of the post-revolutionary consolidation, Napoleon assembled an Assembly of notable Jews (1806), later the Grand Sanhédrin (1807) ; the acts of these foundations united all Jews of France in the consistories and assured to the French that the Jews regarded France as their country and the French as their brothers. The decrees of Napoleon (which were promulgated on 30 May 1806 and 17 March 1808) equally liberated the Alsaciens from the majority of their debt towards  Jewish moneylenders and temporarily deprived the Jews from North-eastern France of their economical liberty.

The emancipation was based on a profound transformation of the traditional life taking place in terms cultural, linguistic and theological matters. This transformation, as well as important economic and social changes, followed the Napoleonic era and accompanied the industrialisation and urbanisation of France. But modern Jewish history truly begins with the civic and political equality of the years of the Revolution.

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