*** French Jews

French Jews

French Jews
Figure 1.--This unidentified Paris Jewish boy is posing in his Bar Mitsva suit in wht looks like the parlour of a well-appointed family home. The portrazit is not dated, but we would guess was taken about 1910.

Jews first reached France during the Roman era. There has been a continuing Jewish presence in France since that time. Thus France throughout its often tumultuous history, from Roman times to the present, has included a Jewish presence. Their historical experince and ultimate fate was closely linked to the various kings and subsequent leaders thar governed the country. Jews experienced times of relarive toleration, but also hardship and raplant anti-Semitism. Even so, Jewish intellectual and spiritual life flourished in France. France produced some of the most famous Jewish rabbis and thinkers, including Rashi and Rabenu Tam. With the coming of Christianity, the Jewish community went through periods of both toleration and persecution depending on the policies of both the Church and the ruling monarch. The Crusades brought on an era of persecution and expuslions. When reviewing the many drastic actions taken against Jews in France, it is difficult to understand how Jews survived in France at all. It is unclear what became of the Jews expelled from France and how many survived expullsion. There appears to have been a break after King Charles VI's expulsion (1394). Some Jews may have survived in France by feigning conversion. But basically Jewish culture was extunguished and subsequent Jewish history in France devdlops from immigrants, both Sephardic and Ashkenazim. The secularization of the French Revolution brought an era of toleration and emancipation. Even so there was a strong anti-Semetic element within France. even into the 20th century. Jews in the 19th and 20th century played a major role in French intelectual and commercial life. Jews have made major contribution to all aspects of French culture and society. They have with emancipation, excelled in finance, law, literature, medicine, science, theater, literature, and many oither areas.

Ancient Hebrews

Archeological evidence shows that many mostly small kingdoms rose and fell over time in the area between the two great centers of civilization, Mesopotamia and Egypt. While these peoples are mostly of only minor importance in the great swwp of history. One of these people, however, the Hebrews have come to play a majo shrouded in the mist of pre-history. Scholars associate it with the word "Hiberu". It first appears in writing sent to Egypt from one of the small client states which the Egyptians left after withdrawing from Canaan in the 1300s BC. These client states faced wves of nomadic tribes. The Egupian word "Hiberu" meant "outsider" and originally was probably used to describe migrants in general and not one specific people. The early Hebrews apparently were semi-nomadic heardsmen who gradually began some limited farming They did not have metal tools or a written language. Like other nomads, the ancient Hebrews lived in tents and were organized in extended families combined into kinship groups. [Smitha] Biblical scholarship has developed extensive information on the Hebrew people who for a tome were captives in both Egypt and Babylonia.

The Diaspora

Until the Babylonian Captivity, Jews lived almost entirely within Palestine or neighboring Egypt (597-538 BC). Babylon was conquered by Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great who allowed the Jews to return to Palestine. It also made possible the movement of Jew within the huge Persian Empire. The Jews were ruled by the Persians until Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire. Jews were futher scattered which the Roman supression of the Jewish Revolt (70 AD). Roman control of Western Europe allowed Jews to move freely into countries like France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.

Roman Empire

Tghe first Jews are believed to have reached what is modern France after Ceaser's conquest of Gaul (58-51 BC). At this time they were only small numbers of individuals. There is no known Jewish community from this period. Rome supressed the Jewish Revolt (70 AD) with great cruelty. Many Jews were killed or enslaved. The Romans landed boatloads of Jewish captives in Bordeaux, Arles and Lyons. These Jews were the beginning of Jewish communities in France. Archeologists have found Jewish artifacts in France confirming the presence of Jewish communities beginning in the 1st cebntury AD. Very little is known about these communities.

Early Medieval Era

Historians have found evidence of several Jewish communities in early medieval France. These communities include Vannes (Brittany) (465 AD), Valence (524), and Orleans (533). Jewish immigration to France appears to have increased during the tumuktous era following the Fall of Rome (5th century AD). We are not sure just what forces were at play here. Vhristian clerics attempted to convert them to Christianity. A prosperous Jewish community is known to have existed in Paris (6th century). Parisian Jews built a synagogue on Ile de la Cite, this was the island in the Seine around which the city of Paris grew. This is the first known synagogue in France. It was destroyed and replaced with a church. The vicious anti-Semitism that developed later was unknown during the early medieval era. Jews were actively involved in many areas of the economy (8th century). They were not only active in commercial areas, but were respected as physcians. The Carolingian emperors exhibited no anti-Semetic tendencies and even allowed Jews to sell goods to the imperial court. Jews were involved in agriculture. They played a major role in the wine industry, even supplying wine to be used in the churches.

The Crusades

The Crusades were a turning point for Jews in France and the rest of Western Europ. Pope Urban II helped chanell rising religious fervor toward the liberation of the Holyland from Muslim control. While the effort was aimed at Muslims, the emotions involved stirred pasions against the Jews. Pope Urban's crusade, the First Crusade, was launched in 1095. Pograms of Jews in the Rhineland exterminated whole communities. The Second Crusade (1147-49) brought more persecution whith clerics often stiring pashions against Jews.

Medieval Persucution (11th-15th centuries)

Early anti-Semtism in France took many forms. It was at first persued by the Church rather than civil authorities. Clerics often preached vivious sermons attacking Jews, focusing on the roles Jews played in the death of Christ. A variety of restrictions and penalties were imposed upon Jews. Taxes were imposed on Jews which often had to be paid on Palm Sunday. Church authorites in Toulouse required representatives of the Jewish community appear weekly at the cathedral to box their ears to remind them of their responsibility. Jews were burned at the stake in Blois (1171). French monarchs varied greatly as to their toleration and treatment of Jews. Acions against Jews, however, were not always assiciated with the monarchy. Crusaders were respnsible for many apauling actions. The situation worsened for Jews during the reign of King Philip Augustus. Philip was viciously anti-Semetic. He justified his hated of the Jews on religious groiunds, but notably the actions he and many other monarchs too were largely income generating. After only 4 months on the throne, Philip imprisoned all the Jews in his territory. He demanded a loan for their release. He then annulled all loans made by Jews to Christians (1181). He ganered a percentage of the annuled loans. Next he confiscated Jewish property and expelled the Jews from Paris (1182). He decided to readmit them (1198). Jews had to pay a ransome return and a taxation system established to generate income for the Crown. the Fourth Lateran Council required Jews to wear a badge in Languedoc, Normandy, and Provence (1215). During Louis IX's reign (1226-70), anti-Jewish persecutions occurred in the western provinces. crusaders attacked the Jewish communities in Anjou and Poitou (1236). They attempted to baptize all the Jews in those communities. Jews who offered resistance were killed. The death toll may have reached 3,000 Jews. Jews were expelled from Brittany (1240). In Paris, Church officils began the infamous disputation of the Talmud. Essentially the Talmud was put on trial. Finally it was condemned and burned (1242). Despite the disputations, Jews continued to live in Paris. Most were limited to money-lending and commerce. French authorities allowed the Jews that managed to survive expulsion from Englnd to enter France. The King expelled French Jews and their property and synagogues confiscated (1254). After only a few years they were allowed to return. Phillip IV the Fair ascended to the throne (1285). He imprisoned French Jews and confiscated all their property except only the clothes that they were wearing (1305). He expelled an estimated 100,000 Jews. They were allowed to take with them only ones day�s food. Louis X, allowed the Jews to return (1315). Jewish communites in Alsace were the target of violence (1338-47). We're not sure why that was. The Bubonic Plague (Black Death) struck Europe (1347-51). Europeans had no idea what caused the Plague and massive deaths. Many all over Europe blamed Jews. There were massacres in France, especially in the wast and southeast (1348-49). The pope intervened to protect the Jewish communities in Avignon and Comtat Venaissin. Attacks on Jews occuured in Paris and Nantes (1380). King Charles VI finally issued a definitive expulsion of Jews (1394). During the medieval era despite all the persecution and expulsions, there were periods of relative calm and toleration in which Jrwish culture could develop. Il-de-France and Champagne were centers for Jewish scholarship. Other important areas of Jewish cultural development were the Loir Valley, Languedoc and Province. There were important centers of Talmdic center in the north. Jews in the south pursued grammar, linguistics, philosophy and science. Jews tended to excell in foreign languages and were involved in the translations of religious and other Arab and Latin texts into French. Perhaps the leasing medieval Jewish scholar in France was Rashi. He founded a yeshiva. He is known even today for his biblical commentary. When reviewing the many drastic actions taken against Jews in France, it is difficult to understand how Jews survived in France at all. It is unclear what became of the Jews expelled from France and how many survived expullsion. There appears to have been a break after the expulsion of 1394. Some Jews may have survived in France by feigning conversion. But basically Jewish culture was extunguished and subsequent Jewish history in France devdlops from immigrants.

The Reformation Era (16th-18th centuries)

After expelling the Jews (1492), the Spanish Inquisition began to target Marranos--baptised Jews who attempted to secretly practice their faith. The samne occurred in Portugal. Some of these Marranos emigrated to France where the Inquisition was not active (mid-1500s). Over time in France many of these Marranos assimilated into Christian society. It was, however, the first time since the 1394 expulsion that Jews were tolerated in France. Pogroms in the Ukraine and Poland, especially the Chmeilnicki massacres (1648) drove Jews west. Some settled in Alsace and Lorraine. This was the beginning of an important Jewish community in the north. The Duke of Savoy declared Nice and Villefranche de-Conflent free ports. This brought Jewish immigrants to southern France. Jewish communities expanded during a period of increasing toleration. Two successful communities were Avignon and Comtat Venaissin (17th century). Jews participated in expanding commercial activity. They were allowed to participate in fairs and markets. The Jewish community of Alsace continued to grow and prosoer. Small numbers of Jews began appearing in Paris (early 18th century). Both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews began arriving in Paris. The Sephardim came from southern France (Bordeaux, Avignon and Comtat Venaissin ). The Ashkenazim came from northern France (Alsace and Lorraine). The Sephardic Jews tended to be the most prosperous and took up residence along the Left Bank. The Ashkenazim clustered along the Right Bank. A kosher inn opened (1721). A synagogue was opened (1788). Even before the Revolution, the Royal Government began to revise the medieval laws concerning Jews. The "body tax" was repeaed.

The French Revolution (1789)

France at the time of the Revolution had the largest population in Europe outside of Russia--about 26 million people. Among them were a very small Jewish comminity. One estimate suggests that by the 1780s there were 500 Jews in Paris and perhaps 40,000 in all of France. By this time in France, Jews were free to practice their religion discretely, but they were not considered French citizens. The National Constituent Assembly adopted one of the great documents of Western Civilization--The Declaration of the Rights of Man abd of the Citizen (1789). The Declaration stated that 'all men are free and equal in their rights.' The deputies t the time wre thiunking primarily of ending aristocrativ privlige. There would be, however, consequences both for Jews in France and blacks in the colonies--especailly Haiti, France's most valuable colony. The sucessor lehislative body, the French National Assembly, after 2 years considered the question of Jewish citizenship. The conservtive Catholic Church backed by the Vatican strongly opposed emancipation. The Assesmbly voted to grant Jews full civil rights (September 27, 1791). A factor here was the increasingly anti-clerical turn of the Revolution. The Assembly extended citizenship 'to all men who take th oath of citizenship and undertake to fulfill all the duties imposed by the Constitutiin." Jews joined twith mass oath-searing ceremonies. Many French people opposed emancipation by the National Assembly and confirmed by Napoleon. There were deadly riots, murders, and scattered arson. Resistance was especially string in Alsace and continued until 1830.

The 19th Century

France during the Revolution had become the first European country to emancipate Jews. The country during the 19th century experienced trememndous politicial upheavals, from Repunlic to Empire to Monarchy to Repubublic, Empire again, and finally back to Republic. Through all these political upheavals, Jews from Eastern Europe gravitated to France. There were periodic resurgences of anti-Semitism in France, but Jews there had been emancipated by French law. France thus developed a substantial Jewish population. We have seen diffrent numbers, ranging from 85,000-150,000, by the turn-of-the 20th century. While a small fraction in a country of some 40 million, the country's Jewsish community was notable for the degree vto which individuals had reached the peak of Frebch society. There weremembers of the Institut de France, Jews were elected as deputies and senators. There were professors of the Sorbonne and other laeding French universities. The progress of French Jews was nothing hort of breathtaking. The speed of assismilation and the entrance of Jews into a wide range of previously forbidden areas of the econmy was spectacular. We see Jews in academmua, the arts (including literature), civil service, finance, law, medicine, politics, science, teaching, and many other reas. Some Jews even entered the Army, a preserve of tradition and nationalism, including a strong core of antisemitism. The Army had 300 Jewish officers on ative duty, including 5 Jewish generals.

Third Republic (1870)

The Third Republic which arise with the defeat of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War promulgated the d�cret Cr�mieux which graned citizenship to Algerian Jews, but not Muslim Algerians (1870). Algeria until after World War II and Algerian indepebdence was considered legally part of metroplitan France. This caused hysterial complaints among the French population in Algeria.

Anti-Semitism and the French Right

As France's Jewish population grew, so did anti-Semitism. France was a divided country with stroing anti-Republican forces. And many anti-Reoublican groups were seedbeds of anti-Semitism. One of these groups was Action Francaise, which had important afherents in key sectors of French society: the Catholic Church, the army, civil service, and the judiciary. Some of these people were convinced that Jews could never integrate into Christian France and were potential traitors. The Third Republic with string sicialist leanings gave rise to a new extreme right (180s). The right with monarchist and bonapartist yearnings as well as natavist nationalism and conservative catholocism took on the Third Republic ideplogically. They rejected a range of liberal amd rationalist docttines. These included faith in human progress, human perfectabiliy, and the optimistic view og historical progress. For the emerging new right, Jews became the symbol of all that was wrong with the France of the Third Reoublic. Jews were stigmatized as the promoters of the progessive ideas that they felt were destroying France: centralization and industrilization and associated evuls like coruption and greed. And as commonly occyrred, Jews were blamed for virtuslly every calamity, including the failure of the Union G�n�rale, a bank that went bankrupt (1882). Actually the Bank had ties to the Catholic Church, but Alphonse de Rothschild was accused of responsibility. Jewish banker Jacques de Reinach, was implicated in the failure of Delesseps' Panama Canal Project (1881-88). He was, however, only one of several bankers. KInterestingly , Reinach was the father-in-law and cousin of Joseph Reinach who would dedent Cpt. Alfred Dreyfus.

Dreyfus Affair (1905)

Alfred Dreyfus came from an ardently French Jewish family that had left its native Alsace for Paris when Germany annexed the province after the Franco Prussian War (1871). Alfred decided on a career in the French Army and reached the level of captain in the artillery service. Documents discovered in a wastebasket in the office of a German military attach� suggested that a French military officer was forwarding secrets to the German government (1894). Cpt. Dreyfus came under suspicion, almost certainly because of the officers having access to the type of information, he was the only Jew. Army investigators determined that Dreyfus� handwriting was similar to that on the incriminating papers. Cpt. Drefus insisted that he was innocent. He was found guilty of treason in a military court-martial conducted in secret using forged documents and perjured testimony. The Army denied him the right to examine the evidence against him. After he was founf guilty, the Army stripped him of his rank in a humiliating ceremony and sentenced him to life inprisonment. French authorities transported Dreyfus to the French penal colony on Devil�s Island. Anti-Semites and the political right sited the Drefus Affair as evidence that Jews could not become loyal French citizens. France had, however, a free press and slowly the truth began to come out. The tide began to turn with famed French author �mile Zola published his denunciation--�J�accuse!�. Zola was pilloried in the press and found guilty of libeling the French Army. He had to seek refuge in Britain. But the French Army was unable to continue supressing the truth. Evidence made it clear that Cpt. Dreyfus was innocent and France's higest court completely exonerated Cpt. Dreyfus. The traitor who sold documents to the Germans was a Christian officer--Major Ferdinand Estrhazy. No amount of evidence would convince the anti-Semites. And despite the exoneratioin of Captain Dreyfys, the affair tore Frabce apart. In the midst of the Dreyfus Affair, Action Fran�aise was born--convinced of Cpt Dreyfus' guilt inspite of the mass of evidence. It became the leading anti-Republican and anti-Semetic group during Workd War I, the inter-War era, and the German World War II occupation.

World War I (1914-18)

The War was a terrible shock to the French people. It began as a patriotic crusae to regain the lost provinces of Alsace-Loraine. This time the French Governmnt had he prudence not to fight the Germans alone. The War began with the German invasion of Belgium to avoid the French border fortifications. After the Miracle on the Marne stopped the Germans before Paris, the War turned into a terrible blood letting. What was thought to be a brief patriotic expercise turned into the dreadful cargage of World War I. No one in 1914 imagined how long the War ould last and how many men would be killed anbd wounded. Anti-Semetic agitation which had been building during the late-19th and early-20th centuries declined abated during World War I. The govrning national spirit promied by the Government was union sacr�e for all French people.

The Inter-War Era (1920s-30s)

The relative ansence of anti-Semetic attacks during Wotld War I continued in the inter-War era, at least during the 1920s. This began to change even before the NAZIs seized power in Germany. The Wall Street Crash in America (1929) had repercussions throughout the world, including France. It began an economic contraction and a sharp upturn in unemployment. Jews as was were so often the cases were blamed for the economics problems. Then Hitker seized power (1933). Hitler immediately began to persecute the country's Jews. Many German Jews fled to France as well as Jews from other countries where pro-NAZI groups also began persecuting Jews. By the time of World War II, the Jewish population in France had more than doubled with the flood of refugees. The came to France not only because of the protection of French law, but also because it was the French Army which had stopped the Germans in World War I. The Socialist Popular Front government led by Jewish Primeminister L�on Blum horrified the powerful political right (1936). The right saw it as the first step to a Bolshevik revolution in France. And they saw the Jews and leading the process. This gave rise to a virulent racist campaign at the very time that desperate foreign Jews were pouring into France and placing their lives in the hands of the French Republic and laws. A flood of immigrants, many Jewish, reached France. The Anchlus, Munich (Czech) Crisis, and Kristalnacht and resulting persecution camapaign turned Jewish emigration into a flood. Some estimates suggest that some 3 million immigrant sheltered in France, making up some 7 percent of the population. And this only increased with the collapse of the Reublic in Spain (1939). Thousands of desperate Republican refugees, meaning people with left-wing outlooks, crossed the border into France.

World War II (1939-40)

The Holocaust (1940-44)

France is unique among all the countries which experienced the Holocaust. France was the only defeated Allied country whose government actively assisted the NAZIs. After the French surrender. The Vichy authorities actively assisted the NAZIs track down and deport Jews. [Eizenstat] The first action taken against French Jews after the 1940 invasion was the expulsion from Alsace. To my knowlege, this was one of the very few non-lethal expulsions conducted by the NAZIs. Presumably the master plan for killing the Jews had not yet been fully worked out. Another early action involving German Jews was deporting Jews in Western Landen (Baden, the Saar, and the Palatinate), including some of the oldest German Jewish families, in October 1940 to camps in the French Pyrenees (Gurs, No�, R�c�b�dou, and Rivesaltes). Gurs was the largest. The death rate was very high because there were not even the most basic facilities. The camps were run by Vichy authorities. The killing of Dutch, Belgian and French Jews began in July 1942 when the death camps in Poland became operational. Vivian Fry, before American entered the War, worked tirelessy in Vichy to build up a rescue network working with the Emergency Resue Committee, a private relief organization. The NAZIs had inserted a "suuender on demand clause" in Article 5 of the Franco German Armistace of 1940. Fry succeeded in resucing more than 1,500 artists, musicians, politicams, scientists, and writers, many but not all Jewish. The Germans make life a nightmare for French Jew, both in Vichy as well as the occupied area. Many French people risked their lives to protect Jews, including French people that were anti-semitic. One French girl recalls a priest who helped save her and her family describe how he disliked Jews, but saving them from the Germans was the "Christian thing" to do. [Cohn] Others assisted the Germans.


Smitha, Frank. "The Hebrews between Assyria and Egypt", The Ancient World.


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Created: 5:23 PM 8/26/2004
Last updated: 7:43 AM 12/12/2014