Email Email   


The first Jews to reach France probably traveled in the wake of conquering Roman legions. Historical records show that, in the 7th century, Jewish farmers, artisans, and merchants had settled in most French provinces. During the reign of Charlemagne from 768-814, Jews controlled the country’s import-export trade and enjoyed considerable civil and religious freedom. A century later, when Charlemagne’s empire began to break up, harsh restrictions were imposed. Then the Crusades, beginning in 1096, brought persecution and often death. Entire communities were martyred for their faith. The Church brought every possible charge against them. Beginning in 1171, when all the Jews of Blois were burnt at the stake, the community was beset with blood accusations and repeated charges that Jews desecrated Catholic forms of worship. Four years later, the French king ordered 24 wagon loads of the Talmud burnt publicly in Paris after a “disputation” on the merits of the Jewish faith. Nonetheless, two great centers of learning flourished in medieval France: one in the northeast, mainly in Champagne, the other in the south, in Provence and Languedoc. Rashi, the “Prince of Bible commentators,” was perhaps the greatest French Jewish scholar.

Persecution by both church and state culminated in the decree of 1394, expelling the entire community from France. Nevertheless, scattered settlements remained, especially in the south. These grew during the following centuries, as ever greater numbers of Spanish and Portuguese refugees from the Inquisition sought haven in France. A further addition came in 1648, when Alsace, with its ancient Jewish community, was annexed by France. By the time of the Revolution of 1789, France was home to 40,000 Jews, most of whom were forced to live in ghettos where they were deprived of all legal rights.

The revolution wrought a radical change in this respect. A decree promulgated in 1791 declared Jews to be full citizens of France. Napoleon, however, soon curbed this freedom. Calling a Sanhedrin of Jewish notables, he gained approval for a program that placed Jews directly under his control. He then proceeded to restrict their economic and political activities.

These restrictions remained in force after the emperor’s downfall; it was not, in fact, until 1846 that the last of the disabilities was removed. Yet even then the battle against antisemitism had not ended: as Jews began to take a prominent place in the social, cultural, and political life of France, reactionary elements in the Church and army began a campaign to undermine the Jewish position. The strength of these elements was shown in the 1890’s, when the conviction on falsified charges of treason of a Jewish army officer named Dreyfus set off a conflict between the liberal and reactionary forces in the country. It took almost a decade, and the efforts of such men as Emile Zola, to free Dreyfus, despite clear evidence of innocence. His exoneration, however, marked the defeat of Church and army, and the beginning of a new era in the history of France, as well as French Jewry.

The subjugation of France by Germany in 1940 brought about a revival of antisemitism on a scale never before known to the country: the entire Nazi program of racism became law. Yet with the help of the French population, more Jews survived the war in France than in any other West European country. Since the war, the life of the Jewish community has returned to pre-war normalcy. Again, Jews such as Pierre Mendes France, who served as premier in 1955, have risen to eminence. In 1998, there were about 525,000 Jews in France, many of them refugees of World War II. This figure includes those who came to France since 1961 from North Africa: 100,000 from Algeria, 30,000 from Tunisia and Morocco. Jewish life is organized in consistories, boards of one rabbi and four laymen, concerned with Jewish affairs in each of the seven districts into which the community is divided. A central consistory, made up of the chief rabbi and a representative of each consistory, coordinates activities on a national level, and serves as a link between the Jewish community and the ministry of public worship. Since 1860, the Alliance Isra

Print Friendly, PDF & Email