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Five Jews into Frenchmen: Nationality and Representation in Revolutionary France
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Jews into Frenchmen: Nationality and Representation in Revolutionary France

Gary Kates

On 2 January 1792 in the center of the northeastern French town of Nancy, recently elected political leaders gathered to officiate at a new kind of patriotic ceremony. Standing before the town council were fourteen of Nancy's most notable Jews, including the Grand Rabbi, ready to swear an oath of allegiance to the young regime. "The oath that we are about to take," announced Berr Isaac Berr, the lay leader of the local Jewish community, "makes us, thanks to the Supreme Being, and to the sovereignty of the nation, not only men, but French citizens." Never again, they believed, would French Jews be the victims of persecution because of their "religious opinions." Berr, however, made it perfectly clear that he did not believe emancipation meant assimilation. "Each of us will naturally follow the religion of his father," he remarked to his gentile countrymen. "Thus, we can be loyally attached to the Jewish religion and be at the same time good French citizens. Yes, Messieurs, that's what we will become. We swear it to you."[1]

In his response to this avowal, the mayor of Nancy happily welcomed Berr's remarks and declared what he thought to be the fundamental rationale behind Jewish emancipation: "Society must never investigate the beliefs of a citizen. Whatever the form he uses to honor the divinity does not matter so long as he obeys the Laws and serves his country." Then the mayor read the oath, which proclaimed the Jews' loyalty to the nation, to the laws, to the king, and to the Constitution. Each of the Jews responded: "I do swear."

Meanwhile, at Bischheim-au-Saum, a village near Strasbourg, 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. That was the only way, the council insisted, that they could be sure


that the person was telling the truth. The Jews refused to cross themselves, arguing that it was a violation of their newly won religious freedom. In March 1792, negotiations broke down over this point until both sides appealed to the departmental Directory, a regional authority that spoke on behalf of the central government. The Directory agreed with the Jews, stating that the law required "simply the obligation of taking the civic oath, without prescribing either the form nor the manner in which it will be made." The Directory ordered the town to go ahead with its ceremony.

Because of the controversy, thirty local national guard troops were assigned to the ceremony, which was finally set for 18 April. As the ceremony was beginning, however, there were cries from the crowd, particularly from the national guardsmen, for the Jews to remove their hats. The Jewish leaders refused to do so, claiming that one should never make an oath in God's presence without covering the head. The crowd, of course, argued the reverse, and the municipality was forced to cancel the event, lest it turn into a riot. Once again both sides appealed to the Directory, and once again the Directory sided with the Jews, accusing the town council of obstructing the law. Finally, on 30 April, at the insistence of the Directory, the five most prominent Jews of Bischheim succeeded in swearing allegiance to their country, thereby winning their full political rights.

These ceremonies, the result of the law passed by the Constituent Assembly on 27 September 1791 which granted full political rights to Ashkenazic Jews, allow us to examine the ways in which Jewish emancipation was received at the local level. We find leading Jews stubbornly determined to acquire full political rights and equally determined to maintain their religious identity. At the same time, we see French revolutionary leaders insisting on the principles of equality before the law and religious freedom, even at the risk of offending local constituencies. Consequently, ever since these early days of the French Revolution, Jewish emancipation has been seen as something of a watershed in both French and Jewish history. For the French, the law meant that their country was the first modern European nation-state to offer Jews political equality. For the Jews, emancipation meant the beginning of their "Haskalah," the end to the ghetto and centuries of forced separation from gentiles. For both French and Jews, then, Jewish emancipation signaled an entirely new kind of epoch: secular, free, and tolerant.

Yet now, in the midst of the bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution, it has become increasingly difficult to see the emancipation movement in such a sanguine light. The tragic events of our own century have made emancipation at best problematic, and perhaps even irrelevant. From the Dreyfus Affair to the Holocaust, the overriding theme of European Jewry has been its destruction, not its liberation. Berr Isaac Berr pledged that his people would survive as Jews, because it is natural for people to follow "the religion of their fathers." But except for a few very rare families,


few French—indeed, few European—Jewish families today can trace their genealogy back to the eighteenth century. Those Jews who did not assimilate were murdered or, if they were lucky, were forced to flee Europe. For many in the generation who lived through the Holocaust, the destruction of European Jewry in this century has made eighteenth-century Jewish emancipation seem like a tragic farce.

Among the most eminent of this generation who share that perspective is Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg. Holder of a Distinguished Chair at Dartmouth, former head of the World Zionist Congress, regular contributor to the "Op-Ed" page of the New York Times , as well as to the New York Review of Books , Rabbi Hertzberg has established himself as one of the most prominent intellectuals in the American Jewish community, and his book, The French Enlightenment and the Jews: The Origins of Modern Anti-Semitism ,[2] quickly became the definitive discussion of the subject. Its argument is original and disturbing. Until Hertzberg, most writers held the view that modern anti-Semitism was a right-wing phenomenon that surfaced during the late nineteenth century in opposition to the liberal ideas usually associated with the French Revolution. But Hertzberg turned that contention upside down: twentieth-century antiSemitism, he claimed, is not in conflict with French revolutionary ideology but in fact stems from it. "Modern, secular, anti-Semitism," he wrote, "was fashioned not as a reaction to the Enlightenment and the Revolution, but within the Enlightenment and Revolution themselves."[3] For Hertzberg, Jewish emancipation was the first step in the long march to Auschwitz.

Hertzberg did not simply claim that those who opposed emancipation were anti-Semitic but argued further that even the proemancipation legislators contributed to modern anti-Semitism: they saw emancipation as the only way to assimilate the Jew and rid France of its "Jewish problem." Once Jews lost their communal autonomy and faced the centralized state as individual Frenchmen, Hertzberg claimed, their days were numbered. The hostility of the Jacobins to all religious expression during the Terror offered Hertzberg the proof that he needed.

Hertzberg's argument managed to combine the ideas of three influential Jewish intellectuals: Hannah Arendt, Jacob Talmon, and Asher Ginzberg (better known as Ahad Ha'am). From Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism , Hertzberg gleaned two fundamental concepts: first, that in the modern age the revolutionary left and the radical right are equally repressive. Since revolutionary change most often depends on the coercive power of the centralized state, its impact on the individual is bound to be tyrannical. Second, Arendt claimed that anti-Semitism had played a crucial role in recent European history. "Political developments have driven the Jewish people into the storm center of events," she wrote. The way that Europe treated its Jews could be taken as a bellwether of the quality of European political culture.[4]

Arendt had specifically noted that these features were true only for the


contemporary world. She pushed back her analysis to the last decades of the nineteenth century, but no further. Although elsewhere Arendt was later highly critical of the French Revolution, nowhere did she accuse the Jacobins of establishing a totalitarian or anti-Semitic state.[5] For her, modern racial anti-Semitism was novel and distinct from older attitudes, preventing any explanation of the Holocaust from reaching back as far as the eighteenth century.

Jacob Talmon's Origins of Totalitarian Democracy provided that continuity for Hertzberg. In Jacobinism, Talmon discovered "a vision of society of equal men re-educated by the State in accordance with an exclusive and universal pattern."[6] Like Arendt, Talmon considered the radical left to be as repressive as the right. The Jacobins had acted fanatically, he believed, systematically violating individual liberties on behalf of a messianic ideal. But while Talmon attacked the liberal ideals of the revolutionary left, he ignored Jewish emancipation altogether.

Both Arendt and Talmon, then, sought to discredit the revolutionary left and provide a historical model that justified a more moderate approach to political change. Moreover, like Hertzberg, Arendt and Talmon were both dedicated Zionists, committed in their personal lives to developing an authentic Jewish political culture. Arendt had worked for Youth Aliyah (Jewish immigration to Palestine) programs before World War II and had published articles during the 1940s on Zionist strategy. Talmon moved to Israel after an education in Britain and taught for years at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Both, in short, were highly suspicious of the emancipation process as well as the promises of the revolutionary left. But neither of them blamed modern anti-Semitism on the French revolutionary emancipators.[7]

For the notion that the emancipation process itself lay at the root of modern anti-Semitism, Hertzberg drew on the writings of Ahad Ha'am (1856–1927), the Zionist "secular rabbi" who first began to write in his native Russia during the 1880s and finally moved to Palestine in 1921. Ahad Ha'am had directly attacked France and French Jews for their faith in political emancipation, charging that the Jews' so-called freedom was little more than a mirage. "Their condition may be justly defined as spiritual slavery under the veil of outward freedom ," he wrote in 1891 (emphasis added). "In reality they accepted this slavery a hundred years ago, together with their 'rights'; but it is only in these evil days that it stands revealed in all its glory." Ahad Ha'am condemned Jews for giving up their separate national identity not so much because he distrusted France, but rather because he did not believe that Jews could maintain a religious identity of any significant value in an epoch in which the broader culture had become almost completely secular. Accepting even the best of circumstances for the emancipated Jew, Ahad Ha'am insisted on asking a nagging question: Why would French Jews choose to remain Jewish "for the sake of certain theoretical beliefs which they no longer


hold, or which, if they do really and sincerely maintain them, they might equally hold without this special name, as every non-Jewish Deist has done?"[8]

It is a tribute to Hertzberg's rhetorical skills that he was able to combine distinct arguments from these three thinkers into a powerful interpretation that blamed the tragic events of the twentieth century on the French revolutionary emancipation process itself. "It is strange that he did not even mention the Jewish question during the Revolution," Hertzberg wrote of Talmon.[9]

Here there can be no doubt whatsoever that the Revolution was "totalitarian." Almost all of those who helped to emancipate the Jews, from Grégoire through Robespierre, had in mind some vision of what they ought to be made to become. Talmon's critics may be correct in maintaining that the main body of the revolutionaries, the political center, were willing to leave men to be themselves within the new political order. It was these very people, however, who made demands not only on the public behavior but also on the inner spirit and religion of the Jews. Here the Revolution appeared at its most doctrinaire.

Hertzberg put the blame for modern anti-Semitism on the proemancipators themselves, especially on left-wing deputies who hoped to push France in a more democratic direction. Behind such logic is a clear Zionist agenda. Since the Haskalah, when Jews emerged from their communal autonomy, Western nation—states have faced essentially three choices with regard to their Jewish communities: integration, expulsion, or destruction, or encouraging the establishment of a separate Jewish state. Clearly the French revolutionaries chose the first alternative and, in fact, never seriously contemplated any of the others. The novelty of Hertzberg's argument is that he discredits integration by associating it with expulsion or destruction. Insofar as the French expected Jews to assimilate into French society and culture, they had no respect for Judaism or the Jewish people, he charges. Emancipation was just another way for the French to get rid of their Jews. In this view Zionism was and remains the only response to modernity that is good for Jews.

The problem with Hertzberg's argument is not with his ideology; the notion that Jews are a nation entitled to their own state is certainly legitimate. Rather, it is Hertzberg's understanding of history that is problematic. His interpretation of the French Revolution is highly reductionist. He conflates different phases of the Revolution together, assuming that the achievements of the liberal Constituent Assembly were merely a prelude to the Terror; Hertzberg ignores the differences between the democratic movement of 1790–1792 and the sans-culottes movement of 1793–1794.[10] Worse, by pulling the debates over emancipation out of their proper political context, he distorts the views of the proemancipators as well as the antiemancipators,


who were, obviously, more concerned about the fate of France and her revolution than with Jewish national destiny. Finally, Hertzberg's analysis does an injustice to the Jews themselves. Berr Isaac Berr and hundreds of others who took the loyalty oaths required for full emancipation were not simply fools deceived by their countrymen but patriots who were exploiting a historic opportunity.

Despite these flaws in his analysis, Hertzberg has focused on some genuine historical problems concerning Jewish emancipation which still require attention: given that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was passed in August 1789, why did French Jews have to wait two years before being offered full political rights? Why did the proemancipators equate emancipation with assimilation? Why did they have so little respect for the integrity of an autonomous Jewish identity that they expected Jews to dissolve their official communal institutions?

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Jewish emancipation is that it happened at all. French Jews, in fact, constituted only a tiny fraction of French society. Moreover, they were concentrated into relatively few towns. Some 3,500 Sephardic Jews lived in and around Bordeaux, 30,000 Ashkenazic Jews lived in Alsace and Lorraine, and perhaps 500 others lived in Paris. Nor was their participation in the Revolution particularly noteworthy. There were no Jews, to my knowledge, elected to any of the national assemblies during the Revolution. And outside of the debate over their own fate, it is difficult to think of one Jewish writer, journalist, or political activist who played more than the most minor role. It is likely that the vast majority of Frenchmen, including those deputies sitting in the Constituent Assembly, had never met even a handful of Jews, if that many.

These facts have led Eugen Weber to argue that "the Jewish question was a Jewish question," that is, of interest only to Jews. "Most normal French," he asserted to a rather dismayed audience at a 1985 conference on the history of Jews in France, have not cared about Jews and don't care to think much about them now. Outside of Alsace, "the French thought about Jews hardly at all. They had other fish to fry."[11] But surely Weber was exaggerating. Otherwise, how do we explain the inordinate amount of attention given to the Jewish issue by the French revolutionaries? No agenda has ever been more full than was the Consitutent Assembly's. It had to deal with such crucial issues as the constitution, taxation, the reorganization of the church, and an increasingly recalcitrant king, not to mention their own internal disputes and factions. Many other pressing issues, such as women's rights, were ignored. Certainly it was not imperative that the Constituent Assembly deal with the Jewish question; and at least some deputies did not think it was worth it. "We have even more important matters to deal with," exclaimed the moderate leader Guy Target during one of the debates:


What we say in regard to the Jews affects only a part of society; but to establish a judiciary, to determine the size and manner of the French army, to establish a financial system, here are three issues that interest the entire kingdom, and which require immediate action.[12]

But the Jewish question did not go away. Leaders of the National Assembly kept returning it to the agenda. Even the Paris municipal legislature considered Jewish emancipation very important, though there were only five hundred Jews living in the capital. At one point during the early weeks of 1790, nearly every one of Paris's sixty district assembiles debated the issue and, by an overwhelming majority, urged the National Assembly to fully emancipate all Jews.[13]

Thus Target was off target on one major point: few people treated the debate on the Jews as concerning only "a part of society." Non-Jews chose to address this issue because the emancipation debate was not really about the Jews at all. Since there were so few Jews in France, and since they played little role in the Revolution, they were easily turned into symbols of something else. Various 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.

In fact, it has been argued that French Jews did not need emancipation, at least no more so than any other group in France. Although we think of the era before the French Revolution as a bleak period in Jewish history, the status of the Jew was much better in France during the last decades of the Old Regime than in most other European countries. Old Regime society was corporate and particularistic. The law recognized individuals only insofar as they held membership in a legal group. A tailor needed the protection of his guild, a priest his religious order, a merchant his town corporation, and so on. In this respect, Jews were considered legitimate subjects of the king if they were attached to a legally recognized Jewish community. Political life usually consisted of each separate group gaining its own privileges from the royal government at the expense of every other group. As Salo Baron noted sixty years ago, throughout the eighteenth century French Jews were particularly adept at securing special laws for their communities. "Even then they belonged to the privileged minority which included nobles, clergy and urban citizenry."[14] This is perhaps an exaggeration but, at least in terms of legal advantages, the political status of most Jews was greater than that of most


peasants. Jewish communities prospered at the pleasure of the royal government and often against the muffled shouts of the peasants who, especially in Alsace and Lorraine, were hostile to Jews. Despite local bigotry, by the eve of the Revolution royal reformers such as Malesherbes were calling for further reform. So long as the central government continued its policy of protecting Jewish interests, French Jews could reasonably expect to be optimistic about the future.

But the French Revolution threw the status of the Jews into confusion. Without their privileged and autonomous communities, Jews were vulnerable to the passions of the local peasants and small shopkeepers. If the new French government became decentralized, Jews might even stand to lose much more than they might gain by the new changes. The Constituent Assembly first discussed the Jewish question on 28 September 1789 because northeastern French Jewish communities had asked for protection from popular violence that had broken out during the summer. The moderate leader Stanislas Clermont-Tonnerre and the radical priest Henri Grégoire urged the Assembly to adopt the following decree:

The Assembly decrees M. the President to write to the public officials of Alsace that the Jews are under the safeguard of the law and require of the king the protection that they need.[15]

This bill passed with no opposition, and its importance should not be minimized. On the one hand it continued the policies of the old central government of protecting Jews against local persecution and, in that sense, represented no great change for Jews. But insofar as it brought Jews under the same laws as everyone else, it gave them a high degree of civic equality. This was very close to de facto emancipation. Why, then, did it take the Assembly another two years (and hours of tumultuous debate) to go any further?

At about the same time, the Assembly was working out the electoral laws that would operate under the new constitution. Although the Assembly pledged that the constitution and its laws would apply equally to all citizens, they nonetheless made a fundamental distinction between two kinds of citizens: Active and Passive. Both kinds of citizens were treated equally under the law and held the rights guaranteed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The difference between them was that only active citizens could vote and hold public office. The most important qualification for active citizenship was wealth: one had to pay a direct tax that amounted to three days' wages for an average worker. In addition, there were gradations of active citizenship. For example, only those who paid an annual tax of about fifty-one livres—a sum well out of reach of most Frenchmen—were eligible for seats in the National Assembly.

Hertzberg and others have ignored the fact that the 28 September 1789 decree effectively transformed Jews into passive citizens. From that day on,


no one in the Constituent Assembly denied Jews the basic rights guaranteed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen; all agreed, for example, that Jews ought to be free to observe their own religious opinions and should not be forcibly converted. The issue, then, became not one of religious freedom, but rather of the extent to which Jews were qualified to be active citizens. In other words, Hertzberg's claim that "the battle for the Emancipation very nearly failed" needs to be radically qualified: what nearly failed was the attempt to secure the rights of active citizenship for Jews.[16]

Thus when we turn to the debates concerning Jewish rights that took place at the Constituent Assembly on 23–24 December 1789 and 28 January 1790, we find that the bill in question focuses on aspects of active citizenship:[17]

That non-Catholics, who will have otherwise fulfilled all the conditions prescribed in previous decrees for becoming an elector and eligible [for public office] could be elected to all ranks of administration, without exception.

In December this bill passed only when Jews were specifically excluded from it. One month later, a similar bill gave the rights of active citizenship to the Sephardic Jews of Bordeaux and Avignon. But a majority of the Assembly refused to "emancipate" the Ashkenazic Jews of eastern France. Why?

Opposition to offering Jews the rights of active citizenship came from three overlapping groups. First were a small core of deputies from Alsace, most notably Jean-Francois Reubell. They clearly echoed the popular antiSemitism of their region, reflecting a fear of Jewish financial power and, above all else, of usury. Because Jews were concentrated primarily in this part of France, these attitudes were isolated, and this group alone could not have persuaded a majority of their colleagues to vote against Jewish active citizenship.

A second and larger group consisted of clergymen and friends of the church who saw French nationality in religious terms. What concerned the Abbé Maury, for example, was the notion that emancipated Jews could be elected to positions of leadership in what he assumed should be a Christian nation. He thought the prospect of a Jewish judge pronouncing justice on a Christian defendant absurd; for him, the law derived from the sovereign will of a people, 99 percent of whom were Christians. But this did not mean that Maury wished to expel the Jews:

They must not be persecuted. They are men; they are brothers; and it is an anathema to even consider talking about intolerance. You have already recognized that nothing should be done about their religious opinions, and since then you have assured Jews the broadest protection.[18]

In short, even Maury, among the Constituent Assembly's most conservative and "theocratic" deputies, recognized the importance of the September 1789


decree and was not offended by the idea of Jews living in France as passive citizens; rather, what disturbed him was the possibility of being ruled by them.

Finally, a coalition of conservative deputies wanted to exclude Jews from political life because their goal was to restrict active citizenship to as small a group as possible. These deputies, such as Prince de Broglie, hoped to transform active citizenship into a new kind of aristocracy. Jews, Protestants, actors, urban workers, sans-culottes—anyone who was not of the highest class, they felt, should be denied the right to vote and hold office.

These three groups also had in common the belief that French Jews, especially the Ashkenazim in eastern France, constituted a separate nation within France. The differences in language, dress, marriage, and obviously religious rituals made the Jew as different from the Frenchman as an Englishman or Dane. "The Jews collectively are a corps de nation separate from the French," charged Reubell. "They have a distinct role. Thus they can never acquire the status of an Active Citizen."[19] When all was said and done, this was the most effective argument of the antiemancipators, successful enough to retard full emancipation until the final days of the Constituent Assembly.

The concept of nationality was extremely important in French revolutionary ideology precisely because it replaced the idea of subjects kept apart by privilege with the notion of citizens brought together through their common national identity. For its leaders, the French Revolution was precisely the act of the French nation repossessing the sovereign state from king and aristocracy. The "people" and the "nation" were often, but not always, considered the same thing. When the people acted according to their self-interest, they were merely a collection of individuals. But when the people shared a common interest, their actions were perceived as expressing the national will.

This definition of nationality, so important for the development of political ideas during the Revolution, is most clearly seen in Sieyès's popular pamphlet, What Is the Third Estate? In it, Sieyès described three stages of national development. At first there are a great number of isolated individuals who wish to unite, but they do not yet recognize a common interest. "The second period is characterized by the action of the common will . . . . Power exists only in the aggregate. The community needs a common will; without singleness of will it could not succeed in being a willing and acting body." This was the point at which the Revolution occurred. Finally, Sieyès distinguished a future "third period from the second in that it is no longer the real common will which is in operation, but a representative common will."[20]

Drawing heavily upon Rousseau, Sieyès's ideas were radical because they negated the political legitimacy of all corporate bodies. The Revolution dissolved them all, leaving in their place individuals whose rights were protected by their membership in a nation-state. In this sense "the Jewish question" boiled down to the following problem: Did Jews constitute a nation


distinct from the French (and thus were not part of the new sovereign body)? Or were Jewish communities essentially autonomous corporations, like any other in the Old Regime? This was the essential issue that divided proemancipators from their opponents. The antiemancipators believed that during the Old Regime, Jewish communities constituted both corporations and a separate nation. Therefore although the Revolution had dissolved corporations, it still left the nationality problem unresolved. Antiemancipators, such as the Abbé Maury, therefore proposed something of a compromise: in return for the elimination of Jewish corporate autonomy, Jews ought to be given the basic rights of passive citizens. But insofar as their nationality makes them distinct from the sovereign, they should be refused the rights of active citizenship.

The proemancipators constructed their argument around the notion that the Jews of France did not constitute a separate nation but merely a corporation, which, like other corporations, was in dire need of "regeneration." Clermont-Tonnerre offered the best-known version of this position: "One must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation, and give everything to the Jews as individuals . . . . It would be repugnant to have a society of noncitizens in a state, and a nation within a nation."[21] Commenting on the debate, future Girondin chief Jacques-Pierre Brissot predicted that those Jews who were given the rights of active citizens would "lose their particular characteristics." Their "admission to eligibility will regenerate them."[22]

Arthur Hertzberg is correct to see in the proemancipation position the call for an end to Jewish distinctiveness. But he is mistaken in his assertion that this position was the seedbed for anti-Semitism or totalitarianism. The necessity for some kind of "regeneration" stems from the French revolutionary conception of representation. In some representative systems, the deputy is supposed to represent the interests of the majority of voters who elected him. But during the French Revolution, to quote Sieyès again, "every deputy is representing the entire nation."[23] In contrast to the United States, in which legislators represent different interests and constituencies, the French expected their leaders to search only for the one true will of the nation. Any group of deputies who openly represented a particular interest or constituency separate from the national will was considered a dangerous faction. Thus no significant differences could be allowed to arise between a deputy and his constituency, much less between the deputies themselves.

This concept of representation had important implications for the Jews of France. Since granting rights of active citizenship to Jews would make them eligible for various offices, the possibility arose that a Jew could represent a nation that was overwhelmingly Christian, when most of those Christians were ineligible to hold political office. How could a Jewish elector, for example, participate in an election for a bishop (such elections began in late 1790)? Proemancipators such as Sieyès and Grégoire resolved this dilemma


by arguing that the Jewish politician should think only about the welfare of the entire nation, relegating his Jewish life strictly to the private sphere. In order for him to adequately represent the true interests of his nation, his own Jewishness, while remaining personally important to him, must have no political significance.

The Ashkenazic Jews did not win their full political rights until the final days of the Constituent Assembly in September 1791. By then the political mood of the country had changed drastically. Many aristocratic deputies had become disgusted by the pace of revolutionary change, and they were fleeing the country. The moderate leaders were less convinced that the king would abide by the new constitution, and they feared that power would fall into the hands of radical republicans. In this new political context, granting Jews the rights to active citizenship no longer seemed so dangerous. Thus when the popular leader Adrien Duport urged his colleagues to "declare relative to the Jews that they can become French Active Citizen," they decreed that all Jews must have the same rights to "becoming Active Citizens" as any other citizen. Thus "emancipation" was equated with active citizenship, while passive citizenship had long ago been assumed by everyone.[24]

These debates over Jewish emancipation do not reveal an anti-Semitic or even a mean-spirited Constituent Assembly. The hypothesis that emancipation itself provided the seedbed for later tragedies turns out to have been based on a distorted view of French revolutionary politics. Insofar as the Jews were concerned, the early French revolutionaries basically carried on the liberal policies of the preceding government. Anti-Semitism was a local affair, confined to northeastern France. The political status of French Jews changed between 1789–1791 because Frenchmen themselves were transformed from subjects of a kingdom to citizens of a nation. If the Constituent Assembly spent many noisy hours over the fate of the Jews, it was because "the Jewish question" raised issues fundamental to their own identity: it helped to define the secular character of the state, the meaning of active and passive citizenship, the nature of representation, and the place of corporate bodies within the new regime. It also gave radical and moderate politicians an issue they could use to fight the power of the church and the aristocracy.

More fundamentally, the debates over Jewish emancipation reveal not a Jewish problem but a problem the French had defining nationality and representation. Unlike the newly created United States, the French did not conceive of representation in terms of separate interests; only a unitary national will could be the ultimate political expression of French sovereignty. This approach impeded the development of a "loyal opposition," as well as of party politics, and it led France away from political stability. Hertzberg may be correct that this kind of democracy is not good for Jews; indeed, it may not be good for anyone. But this is a political problem and has little to do with anti-Semitism.


Zionist critics distrust the emancipation process because they correctly believe that it represented a renunciation of an autonomous Jewish national destiny. But it is wrong to blame emancipators like Clermont-Tonnerre and Grégoire for what would happen to Jews 150 years later. Worse, it makes fools of those Jews who, since Berr Isaac Berr, have believed in the integrity of the diaspora. In fact, the French Revolution offered French Jews a historic opportunity. Emancipation gave every Jew the choice of being Jewish. Participation in the Jewish community was no longer a legal obligation but became instead a moral duty. Only in this context could Jewish identity become a matter of intense personal concern.

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