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Jewish Experience During the French Revolution

During the French Revolution, the marginalized groups in French society such as Jews and women were optimistic. This was because of the changes enacted that would benefit them. The Jews were granted citizenship and integrated in French schools. However, changes in relation to Jews could not be sustained for long due to the concept of ‘nationalism,’ one of the ideals of the French Revolution. The said concept restricted minority groups such as the Jews because their sense of identity- mainly their culture, religion, and beliefs- were threatened and being redefined in the process.

This was both a conflicting idea and a hard struggle for the Jews, whose culture prior to the French revolution, was based on tradition; the Jews had a very strong connection and adherence to their cultural and religious beliefs, as taught to them from childhood. Inherently, cultural and religious devotion overrode any affinity to French nationalism and secular learning; the latter actually made them reach out to their own people more. The notion of accepting Jews as French citizens also posed a problem to the French public because of their long held anti-Semitic philosophy.

In addition, the idea of the Jewish emancipation meant that the so-called Jewish problem will be solved through assimilation. This defined what it meant to be a French citizen to the general public. However, there were others who thought that emancipation led to the demise of about 380,000 Jews. While women-who consisted the other marginalized group in society- never gained emancipation unlike the Jews. Jews in France were considered different even though they have been born and raised in the country.

Their religious beliefs and practices were illustrated in the way they dress and the language that they speak, mainly Yiddish. They were also inclined to live close together and interact with each other. This isolated them from a majority of people. Thus, the French people were wary of incorporating them into mainstream society. However, these were all changed in the eve of the French Revolution. In 1791, the French General Assembly permitted Jews in France to be French nationals by granting them citizenship (“Rites and Passages”). However, the French conception of

“citizenship depends upon a sharp dichotomy of the public and private spheres. …. Therefore, taking the civic oath, which conferred the right to vote and participate in civic life, meant limiting Judaism and ‘Jewishness’ to the private sphere and that ‘citizenship’ would be in conflict with communal affiliation…. [also there is the imposition and issue of the] ineluctable effects of an education steeped in French culture. ” In addition, full equality on paper did not easily translate into the realities of life and French society (Stone).

Therefore, equality for French Jews came at a price. The condition wherein this right was established would mean that “Jewish communities [must] surrender their special privileges of communal autonomy and rabbinic jurisdiction in civil affairs” (Marrus). This made the Jews aware that, in order for them to be fully accepted as French citizens, they had to “integrate into society” (Marrus). In essence, this meant that Jews would lose their distinct ‘characteristics and mannerisms’ which partly identified and isolated them as a group of people.

Thus, the Jews in France had to “be individuals just like everyone else” (http://chnm. gmu. edu/revolution/). However, the concept of the French Revolution actually dealt with “the transform[ation] of the French culture… which required a significant break from the past [which includes] [c]hanges in customs, habits, and education… and the restructuring of the language itself… ” (“The Question of Citizenship”). Therefore, change was not targeted and limited to marginalized groups because everyone in the country was affected by it.

French Revolution was a point in French history wherein what it meant to be a French was being clearly discussed and defined. The key to integration in society lies in education. Napoleon made this declaration clear through the “state-defined project of regeneration [which is the] inculcation of civic rectitude and order, the promotion of French and secular learning… ” (Marrus). Hence, Jewish children’s attendance to public and private schools in France was allowed. The problem with that was “less than 10 percent of Jewish children in Alsace were able to attend public schools, while in Lorraine…

20 percent attended such institutions…. Fearing the effects of secular studies and the difficulties of remaining religiously observant, many were reluctant to send their children to modern Jewish schools or institutions… ” (Marrus). Thus, elder Jews thought that secular studies and nationalism meant that Jewish identity had to be placed at the back burner. This was a predicament to the Jews because their cultural tradition and religious beliefs were deeply ingrained, which made it especially difficult to break away from.

Hence, for the Jews, the concept of being a French citizen was a process that was both baffling and difficult to contend with. Moreover, Jewish resistance to be replicas of the French population made them maintain their “social ties and… cultural traditions so that communal solidarity continued to survive” (Judaken). Thus, the French Revolution actually strengthened and enabled the Jewish community to emerge “stronger and more unified than ever”(Judaken).

Furthermore, Jewish religious traditions “remained central to the discourse of modernization and played a powerful role in helping French Jews interpret the diverse meanings and implications of emancipation” (“Rites and Passages”). These acts were not viewed as a violation against the State because the French Revolution was not able to establish “any tangible results because [o]ccupational structure, residence patterns, and the rhythm of religious life remained, for the vast majority, unchanged until the latter part of the century” (Marrus).

Despite the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, the opposition of the French public against the Jews being French nationals was clearly evident. It was apparent that discrimination against the Jews had always been felt by them because “… [they are] [a]lways held in check by hatred, the Jews have rarely been able to raise themselves, in human dignity, to the level of others…. Jewish identity is shaped by hate, either their own or that of others… ” (Trigano).

This loathing even extended to Jewish employment opportunities because “anti-Semitism… clos[ed] off certain careers to Jews, [which] certainly encouraged Jewish occupational concentration” (Rozenblit). Jobs such as bankers, money lenders or sellers of liquor were the ones that the Jews engaged in. This was also possible with the help of their fellow Jews who made up their community. Furthermore, the French people did not welcome the new addition to their constitution, which included and covered the Jews, with open arms.

People made it hard for the Jews to finalize their French citizenship because they would delay the civic oath taking or make up some unreasonable excuse so they could not take the oath. For instance, in the village of Bischheim-au-Saum- which was near Strasbourgh- “Jews had a more difficult time convincing municipal leaders that they were worthy of emancipation. The town council kept putting off at least five eminent Jews who wanted to take the oath by declaring that every oathtaker must cross himself” (Kates).

Similary, another violation to their religious conviction was when they were asked to remove their hats before taking the civic oath (“The Question of Citizenship”). In addition, people like Edouard-Adolphe Drumont, a known French anti-Semist, would even go so far by saying that “Jews and Judaism were the source of France’s decay and decadence in the modern period” (Judaken). Also, the outright display of hostility against the Jews by the French public manifested itself when “extremist movements…

[want]‘to redefine France’s national identity in terms of certain exclusionary cultural and ethnic criteria’” (Judaken). Thus, emancipated Jews had to fit into the cultural norms and standards of the French society to be considered French. Those who did not assimilate were either slain or forced to leave Europe. (Kates). The extent of the damage with the former resulted in Jewish families not being able to trace “their genealogies to the eighteenth century” because the initial stages of Jewish killings happened around this time period (“The Question of Citizenship”).

Therefore, emancipation was seen by others as a way to “assimilate the Jew and rid France of its ‘Jewish problem’” (Kate). While in hindsight, some people thought that Jewish emancipation “reveal not a Jewish problem but a problem the French had [in] defining nationality and representation…. ” (Kates). On the other hand, there were others who view Jewish emancipation as “symbol of something else” (Kates). Since Jews in France made up such a small number of the population,

“[v]arious groups and writers, including the Paris Communal Assembly and the national Constituent Assembly, used the issue to test what was then perhaps the most fundamental political question: Would the promises inherent in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen translate into equal political power for all Frenchmen, regardless of status, or would those leading the Revolution stop short of democracy by limiting the political power of certain kinds of people?

The debate over Jewish emancipation was thus a debate over what it meant to be a French citizen…. ” (Kates). Although emancipation of the Jews could also be seen as “choice of being Jewish [,] [p]articipation in the Jewish community was no longer a legal obligation. [Rather], it became… a moral duty. Only in this context could Jewish identity become a matter of intense personal concern. ” (Kates). Moreover, for Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, the Jewish emancipation meant the “first step in the long march to Auschwitz….

” (Kates). This in turn might convey some truth behind it because all of these feelings of animosity against the Jewish people eventually led to the “betrayal by officials of the new Vichy state…State Jews…. were deported to French concentration camps and then to camps in the East, where they were murdered” (Hyman). This occurred because “during the Vichy period,… a made-in-France campaign against the Jews promoted the persecution of over 300,000 and facilitated the murder of some 80,000…. ” (Berkovitz).

Unlike the Jews, women in society during the French Revolution were never granted full political rights (“Women and the Revolution”). Even though, women actively took part during the French Revolution by “demonstrat[ing] at crucial political moments, st[anding] in interminable bread lines, ma[king] bandages for the war effort, visit[ing] their relatives in jail, support[ing] their government-approved clergyman (or [by hiding] one of those who refused to take the loyalty oath)…. ” (“Women and the Revolution”).

Although, it was ironic that revolutionary symbols depicted women because “[m]ost qualities such as liberty, equality, and reason were taken to be feminine (La Liberte, L’Egalite, La Raison) [hence] they require[d] a feminine representation to make them concrete. This led to one of the great paradoxes of the French Revolution: though the male revolutionaries refused to grant women equal political rights, they put pictures of women on everything, from coins and bills and letterheads to even swords and playing cards” (“Women and the Revolution”).

For women, the only advantage that came out of the French Revolution was their full awareness regarding their status, and challenges and limitations imposed upon them by society. The French Revolution’s ideals had not clearly transcended cultural and religious differences amongst the Jews and the French people. Despite the efforts of the government to include Jews into society by granting them citizenship and allowing them into French schools, the Jews responded with dubious wariness.

They also held on to their cultural and religious tradition more than ever. In addition, the long standing anti-Semitic views and attitudes toward them have not changed matters one bit; even though in paper their equal status to the rest of the population was clearly stated. To minimize and hopefully eliminate anti-Semitic beliefs, French children need to be educated about the history of the Jews in France, Jewish contribution to the French society and other relevant Jewish matters. These concepts have to be included in the school curriculum.

By doing this, the French academia shows that Jews are considered a valuable part of the country and are deemed as equal members of society. Also, no matter how people view the Jewish emancipation, one thing is certain: the emancipation of the Jews established the notion of what it is to be a citizen in France. Lastly, women’s awareness of their status and challenges within the French society was clearly demonstrated by the challenges that they faced to attain equal rights with men.

In essence, the French Revolution which was designed to reform the French political and social spheres did not achieve its purpose of fully liberating the French people from their previous conditions. In particular, anti-Semitic sentiments still prevailed despite the efforts of the French government from freeing the Jews. The hostility towards them still remained prevalent. Moreover, women in French society were still a marginalized group despite their active attempts to change their current status.

Their dominant role in the domestic sphere was something that men did not want to alter at all. Thus, granting them political freedom would mean a break away from the traditional manner of doing things, which men could not accept because the socially defined gender roles in society, was convenient for them.

References: Rozenblit, M. L. (1986). The Transformation of the Jews. The Journal of Modern History, 902-904. Retrieved January 16, 2008, from JSTOR database. Stone, D. (1991). Jews and the Urban Question in Late Eighteenth Century Poland. Slavic Review, 531-541.

Retrieved January 16, 2008 from JSTOR database. Marrus, M. R. (1999). The Jews of Modern France. The American Historical Review, 1770. Retrieved January 17, 2008 from JSTOR database. Trigano, S. (1990). The French Revolution and the Jews. Modern Judaism, 171-190. Retrieved January 17, 2008 from JSTOR database. Legacies of the Revolution. (n. d) Liberty, Equality, Fraternity Exploring the French Revolution. Retrieved January 17, 2008 from http://chnm. gmu. edu/revolution/ Women and the Revolution (n. d. ) Equality, Fraternity Exploring the French Revolution. Retrieved http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/14066.html

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