The Jews and the French Revolution

The history of the Jews during the French Revolution is increasingly being discussed in the French public debate and publishing activity. However, this history is aimed more at evaluating the present situation of other minorities: Roma, Muslims, etc. Depending on the political position, the reference serves both to present the Jews as a model of assimilation for other minorities and, on the contrary, to urge the State to show the same supposed generosity towards today’s minorities as it did towards the Jews at that time. Behind all these debates, it is the complexity of the process of emancipation of French Jews that is erased


Detail from a French revolutionary period Goose game showing a “Jew reputed to be French by conforming to the law,” Paris, 1790 © mahJ


This text is drawn from a round-table discussion which brought together Gilles Rozier (editorial director at Editions de l’Antilope), Davide Mano (a historian specializing in the history of Italian Jews during the Revolutionary era) and Maurice Samuels (professor at Yale University and renowned expert in the history and culture of 19th C. French Jewry). The discussion is available in French.


The Revolution was a climactic period for French Jews: it marked the beginning of their political emancipation. This is true enough, but as a summary, it is somewhat reductive, and tends to do a better job obscuring the issue than shedding light on it. Above all, it prevents the French Jews’ political emancipation from being understood as a process. For what were, in 1789, France’s 40,000 Jews, the history of emancipation begins well before the Revolution—at least for some of them.

Emancipation Before the Revolution

Before the Revolution, French Judaism was actually French Judaisms: there were at least two. The first, and numerically most significant, centered on the Jewish communities of the east, in Alsace and Lorraine, where three-quarters of the 40,000 lived. They were known as ‘German Jews.’ The other major Jewish settlement was in the south—a few thousand families living in and around Bordeaux and Bayonne—and its members were known as ‘Portuguese Jews.’ There were also Jews in Paris, largely former members of the two aforementioned communities, though their numbers were no more than a few hundred. Finally, there were Jews in Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin; but these areas were under the control of the Papal States until 1791, and Jews living there were not under French jurisdiction, but under the Vatican’s. These Jews, therefore, were known as ‘the Pope’s Jews.’

After the great expulsions of the 14th C., Jews returned to France following the military conquests of ancien regime France, or after the expulsion of the French and Portuguese that followed them. On arrival, they obtained lettres-patents which made them legal inhabitants of France, though not full citizens. They formally possessed almost no civil rights. Though their position in France was uniformly one of extreme precariousness, the different Jewish communities in pre-revolutionary France were characterized by markedly different levels of freedom and integration into the surrounding society. At one end of the spectrum, the Jews of Bayonne were almost perfectly integrated into the social fabric of the local bourgeoisie. At the other, the Jews of Alsace did not even enjoy freedom of movement within the region, and were still subject to frequent harassment and general persecution. As we will see, what to do about this vast difference in circumstance and station was a vexing question for French revolutionaries, but the fact remains: among the Jews (at least in the South of France,) real social integration preceded any demand for political integration.

Political integration for French Jews had already been discussed well before the Revolution. The condition and the reformation of European Jewry often found itself at the heart of discussions during the Enlightenment, and at the heart of these discussions, often as not, was the figure of Moses Mendelssohn. A central figure in the German Enlightenment, French revolutionaries considered Mendelssohn’s life a topic of significant importance—important enough to warrant a 1787 biography, On Moses Mendelssohn and the Political Reform of the Jews, authored by Mirabeau, a revolutionary figure of some importance himself.

That same year, the Royal Society of Sciences in Metz chose the following prompt for its famous competition: “Is there a way to make the Jews more useful and happier in France?” Among the various different answers set forth in response, one of the most remarkable is that of the Abbé Grégoire, who pleaded for the physical, moral, and political regeneration of the Jews. The texts from Metz, Grégoire’s among them, circulated quickly, and before long found themselves in the hands of Malesherbes: supporter of Diderot’s Encyclopedie, friend of Enlightenment thought, and confidante of King Louis XVI. Malesherbes had just successfully directed French policy in restoring civil and political rights to France’s Protestants, who had been deprived of them for just over 100 years—since the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, at Fontainebleau, in 1685. Following this success, the King tasked Malsherbes to turn his attention to the Jews. He wasted no time in doing just that.

Malsherbes created a commission to bring together avowed supporters of the Jews’ cause, and to hear testimony from representatives of Jewish communities in the east and in the south. For French Jews, the extension of civil and political rights was well within sight. Then, in 1788, the King convened the Estates-General, interrupting the Commission’s work—forever, it turned out. The emancipation of French Jewry would have to wait until the Revolution.

Nonetheless, these pre-revolutionary precedents are important. They demonstrate that a process of social, if not political, integration was already well underway before the Revolution set a similar political process into motion. The south’s ‘Portuguese Jews’ were even authorized to take part in the organization of the Estates-General: four of them participated in the nomination of representatives to the Assembly, and one of them was just a few votes short of being elected deputy. Think of that: Just a few more votes, and a Jew could have sat in the Assembly!

The ‘German Jews,’ on the other hand, did not take part in the Estates-General, but rather drew up their own list of grievances.

Regeneration: Miraculous, or Laborious?

In the space of just a few months, the Estates-General proclaimed itself the National Constituent Assembly, the Bastille was stormed, the aristocracy was abolished, the clergy’s property was expropriated, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man was adopted. That summer, in the general uproar surrounding such fulminant change, the ‘German Jews’ were attacked. The Assembly immediately responded by asking the King to place them under his protection, and his troops immediately complied.

At the end of that year, when the Assembly looked back on the magnitude of the work they had done—and at the paucity of time in which they had done it—it prompted a debate on the details: the filigree within the broad strokes of policy they had passed. For example, the Assembly had declared human rights apply to all—but what of the rights of a citizen? What of the men to whom rights had long been denied? What of Protestants, actors, and executioners? What of Jews?

It was in this manner that, for the first time in France, the question of citizenship for Jews was posed. It divided the chamber immediately.

Among the defenders of Jewish rights were, as previously mentioned, the Count of Clermont-Tonnerre, and of course the Abbé Grégoire. The former’s speech on the topic is a classic discourse on the subject of French Jews. A justly famous sentence sums up the Count’s position: “All must be denied to Jews as a nation; all must be given to Jews as individuals.”

His logic is simple: The Jews had to abandon completely their own laws for the laws of France. Their religious freedom would be guaranteed within the limits of national law. In exchange, they would be granted the full rights of a French citizen.

On the other side of this debate, the Jews’ various opponents spoke in voices temporarily united in cause, if not content.

They will not renounce their own laws! Even if they declare their intent to do so, their morals will not allow them to be true Frenchmen!

They should be protected from violence, of course, as any foreigner should be. But that doesn’t mean we’d have to consider them citizens. One can be a man without being a citizen.

Their laws and morals have kept them away from the rest of the population for too long. Even if they agree to submit to our laws, and agree in good faith, an adaptation period is required. How else to regenerate their morals—to abandon usury, for example?

For every miraculous conception of regeneration, there was a laborious conception of it, too.

Contrary to what one might think, despite the strength of Clermont-Tonnerre’s argument, the partisans of Jewish emancipation failed to achieve their goals. On December 24th, at the close of the debates on Jewish rights, the Assembly decreed that “…the non-Catholics will be able to be electors, and will be eligible, to the degree that they are able, for all civil and military employment, as any citizen is . . . all the above applies without prejudging anything regarding the Jews, on whose status the National Assembly reserves the right to pronounce itself [at any time.]”

Everything remained to be done.

Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre © Wikipédia Commons

It was a profound disappointment to the ‘Portuguese Jews.’ They had participated in the election of an Assembly which had deprived them of their rights. What was for others a revolution was, for them, a regression. That this constituted a paradox was not lost on the revolutionaries. When, a few weeks after the vote of December 24th, the ‘Portuguese Jews’ came before the Assembly to file a petition, the revolutionaries took it as an opportunity: In January of 1790, they were granted citizenship.

As for the ‘German Jews?’ It took nearly two years of debate and cunctation before, in September of 1791, just a few days before its dissolution, the National Assembly recognized citizenship for all French Jews. But there was an implicit quid pro quo in the deal: In order to secure citizenship, ‘German Jews’ had to forgive any debts owed to them by French Catholics. Why? To prove their regeneration—which, for them, was not exactly miraculous.

Meanwhile, Across the Alps…

The revolutionary emancipation of the Jews is the French version of a debate that took many forms in countries across Europe. There was Germany, of course—that almost goes without saying—and France, too, but also Italy. The texts of Christian von Dohm, a friend of Moses Mendelssohn’s, were available there in translation, as were those of the Abbé Grégoire, but nonetheless, this was a distinctly Italian debate. Animated by Catholics and Jews alike, its main figures were Giovanni Battista d’Arco on one side, and Benedetto Frizzi on the other. Rather than the question of political integration, the debate over Italian Jewry was concerned with social and economic integration. Given Italy’s political fragmentation at the time, this debate was appropriately diffuse. As early as 1778, Leopold II made provisions for the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and these provisions allowed Jews to participate in local political life there. In Mantua and Trieste, the Habsburgs and their 1782 Edicts of Tolerance, allowed Jews to practice manual trades and access universities. Meanwhile, in the Duchy of Savoy, the Republic of Venice, and the Papal States, anti-Enlightenment positions influenced a restrictive policy toward Jews marked by the stiffening of anti-Jewish legislation, and the reinforcement of ghettoization.

The Napoleonic Campaign of 1796 was to change everything for Italian Jews.

Following it, the ghettos were opened, and a period of unprecedented Christian-Jewish fraternization commenced. But the jubilation of Italian Jews was short-lived. From 1799 onward, counter-revolutionary violence manifested a distinct anti-Semitic streak, marked by horrific massacres, most notably in Siena. The debate on emancipation came to an abrupt halt. It wouldn’t resume until 1807, with Napoleon’s summoning of the Jews to the Grand Sanhedrin.

Estampe française, 1806 @ Wikipedia commons

The Grand Sanhedrin was convened by Napoleon, and brought together representatives of rabbis and other Jewish notables from across his empire. This gave the decisions made there a European dimension and, for the Jews of Germany and Italy, gave Napoleon a heroic dimension. He was glorified as ‘the new Moses,’ who had brought equality to his conquered lands. In France, however Napoleon’s desire to organize Judaism also led to important legal regressions. In 1808, the Jews of Alsace were subjected to an unusually onerous decree—nicknamed, aptly enough, “the infamous decree”—which required them to obtain a special government dispensation in order to practice commerce, and forbade them, and them alone, from the possibility of avoiding conscription in the army. It also canceled a large part of debts owed to them by Christians. Many small Jewish moneylenders were reduced to penury with a pen stroke.

The Revolution’s Long Memory

Oddly enough, it was the Restoration monarchy that decided not to renew this ‘infamous decree’ in 1818. The last vestiges of discrimination against French Jews disappeared under the July Monarchy, when the government of Louis-Philippe decided to take responsibility for the salaries of rabbis, as it had for other religions. It marked the beginning of what historians regard as the Golden Age of French Judaism.

The end of this Golden Age came with the anti-Semitic rumblings of the late 19th C, a time during which the memory of the revolution loomed large in the minds of both the Jews and their rivals. It was then Drumont’s La France juive was published—a book which begins, famously, with the assertion, “The only group the Revolution has protected is the Jews.” Meanwhile, for a majority of French ‘Israelites,’ as they were known, the response to this anti-Semitism was to glorify the heritage of the Revolution that had conferred them their rights. This was the case, for example, in the Jewish response to the Dreyfus Affair, when Jews hoped Revolutionary Ideals would prevail, and put an end to Dreyfus’ exile in a penal colony. For many Jewish intellectuals—and for community leaders as well, Chief Rabbi Zadoc Kahn among them—the official recognition of Dreyfus’ innocence was proof of the endurance and ultimate durability of revolutionary emancipation.

This belief in the power of revolutionary emancipation would later be criticized by a number of European intellectuals from outside France, including Simon Doubnov and Ahad Ha’Am, who reproached French Jews for having lost their soul to emancipation. This criticism would be redoubled after the Vichy Regime and the Holocaust, in the texts of Hannah Arendt, Isiah Berlin, and Michael Marrus, this time on the grounds of ‘naïveté’—in the credulity of the Jewish belief revolutionary promises would, or indeed could be kept.

In the midst of these criticisms, which are more or less justified and certainly well formed, one immutable fact stands out: French Judaism—that is, Jewish life in France—is no longer remotely attractive to the world’s Jews. The idea of the centrality of French Judaism, recognized, for example, by Italian Jews until the Second World War, has disappeared. Today, Italian Jews look to Israel: The model of French Jewish citizenship appears outdated for Jews outside France, and even for many Jews within.

Milo Lévy-Bruhl

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