The Wake Of The French Revolution Of 1789 History Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
In the context of France, and indeed the rest of Europe, Jewish emancipation is a reference to the expansion of political, economic and social rights which resulted from the acknowledgement that Jews were “equal citizens”  . This was coupled with a drive to increase integration, assimilation and acculturation in order to bind citizens together as one nation. In terms of how Jewish emancipation came about in France, it is the conventional wisdom that the French Revolution of 1789 triggered the introduction of anti-discriminatory legislation and the entrenchment of universal rights. It is certainly true that Jewish emancipation in France was more “rapid”  than in other countries, such as Germany, adding weight to the argument that a single event, such as the Revolution, must have acted as a catalyst. However, it is important to note that Jewish emancipation did not occur immediately after the Revolution and nor did it come about suddenly; both prior to and during the Revolution, efforts to advance the case for emancipation were “gather(ing) momentum”  . This implies that attributing Jewish emancipation to a single event would be a great injustice to those tirelessly working to achieve emancipation throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is the intention of this essay to assess the extent to which the Jews in France were emancipated as a result of the French Revolution, both in theory and in practice. In order to do this effectively, it will first be necessary to consider the position of the Jews prior to the Revolution in order to be able to compare and contrast this with their after the Revolution, thus highlighting points of continuity and change. Finally, the essay will address the counter-argument, assessing evidence that full emancipation had not been achieved following the French Revolution.
On the whole, the eighteenth century was not a time of prosperity for Jews in France, with only the Sephardic Jews of Bordeaux able to “boast of any degree of happiness and prosperity”  . Arguably, the ability of the Sephardim to participate in social and political life had a “powerful effect on the cause of Jewish emancipation”  , proving the worth of the Jews to their fellow citizens. In contrast to the small number of Jews able to prosper in this period, the majority suffered extreme levels of discrimination and suffering throughout the eighteenth century. For instance, Jews in Paris were subject to strict background checks and investigations in order to assess their right to reside in the city  . What is more, facing arguably the worst conditions were the Ashkenazi Jews in Alsace-Lorraine who have been described by Hirsch as being in a “deplorable plight”  , with “few communities living under such conditions”  in Jewish history. The Ashkenazi Jews faced “tighter controls” and were prohibited from settling and restricted to money-lending, with the law being upheld by the very people who despised the Jews, meaning loans were virtually impossible to recover  . This bleak snapshot of Alsatian Jewish life lead Hirsch to conclude that their “poverty and degradation could hardly (have) reach(ed) a lower depth”  . However, despite seeming like a bleak time for Jews in France, a convincing case can be made to suggest that they may have had a better experience during the eighteenth century than popular writing would have people believe. For instance, the likes of the historian Hertzberg have subtly suggested that the gloom associated with this period is merely superficial, asserting that “formal political arrangements lagged behind the rights that were actually being exercised by the Jews”  . This suggests that, despite clearly having few official legal rights, they had far more rights in practice, albeit “fashioned extra-legally”  . Crucially, however, despite the poor conditions experienced prior to the Revolution, it is vital to note that there were demands and progress towards emancipation, with the economic advantages to the State of granting Jews equal rights stressed as much as fifty years prior to the Revolution  . In spite of this, overall it is clear that, for the majority of Jews living in France, the eighteenth century was a time of deprivation, discrimination and suffering.
In stark contrast, there is a great deal of evidence which indicates a significant change in the political, social and economic way of life for Jews living in France in the wake of the Revolution of 1789. At first glance, the most dramatic and fundamental change would logically be linked with the Declaration of the Rights of Man, passed in August 1879, as the Declaration stated that “all men are born, and remain, free and equal in rights”  . Crucially however, historians, including Berkovitz, have argued that the Declaration was “not initially interpreted to include the Jews”  . In spite of this, it is possible to argue that the ambiguity regarding Jewish inclusion in the Declaration paved the way for Jewish rights to be debated, resulting in Sephardic Jews gaining equal rights in January 1790  . As this suggests, however, not all Jews were emancipated at the same time; the Sephardim were granted full citizenship six months before the Ashkenazim based on what Sylvie Anne Goldberg describes as their perceived “high(er) degree of acculturation”  . Whilst one way of interpreting this would be to suggest that Jews were still divided and not fully emancipated, a second, more enlightened, interpretation may be more helpful. After all, the recognition of Jews, albeit only a minority, was arguably a key precedent and, without it, it is possible to question whether the 1791 clarification of Jewish emancipation would ever have occurred.
What is more, a strong argument can be made to support the assertion that the declaration of emancipation in September 1791 is clear evidence of the extent to which the Revolution impacted upon French Jews. In the declaration, the French National Assembly describes, with no ambiguity or uncertainty, the annulment of “all adjournments, restrictions, and exceptions (â€¦) affecting individuals of the Jewish persuasion”  . Within a mere two years of the Revolution ending, the fortunes of Jews in France were changed dramatically; they were granted the same political, economic and social rights as their fellow citizens, in theory at least  . This argument is supported by the likes of the historian Dominique Bourel who asserts that Jewish emancipation was “part and parcel of the Revolution”  . However, somewhat conversely, the length of time between the Revolution and declaration of emancipation can also be taken to suggest that it was not merely the impetus of the Revolution itself which single-handedly brought about Jewish emancipation. Rather, the fact that there was a great deal of debate and discussion regarding the eligibility of Jews for citizenship between 1789 and 1791 subtly suggests that the Revolution, and all it represented, brought the debate surrounding Jewish emancipation to the fore, as opposed to guaranteeing equal citizenship for Jews  . This analysis by no means diminishes the significance of the Revolution, but arguably offers a more plausible interpretation of the precise role it played in the achievement of Jewish emancipation in France. Thus, overall, a comparison of the position of the Jews prior to the Revolution with their position after 1789 highlights many contrasts which must surely suggest that the Revolution made a significant contribution to the achievement of Jewish emancipation in France.
However, despite there being clear evidence to support the assertion that the Revolution played a crucial role in emancipating the Jews, there is further evidence which suggests that, in practice, Jewish emancipation had not been fully achieved in the wake of the Revolution. In theory at least, the introduction of anti-discriminatory legislation and the legal recognition of Jews in France would suggest emancipation had been achieved. However, a strong case can be made to suggest that Jewish emancipation in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution only existed legally and in the rhetoric of the French National Assembly. Crucially, in practice, emancipation would take far longer to be achieved because it required the acceptance of non-Jews and a nationwide change in attitude. This argument is supported by the likes of Daniel Gerson who asserts that “equality before the law (â€¦) in no way indicated social acceptance or a cessation of hostilities”  . This suggests that, despite legally gaining equal rights, public opinion remained hostile towards the Jews, with “defamatory pamphlets, (â€¦) pogrom-like riots”  and widespread discrimination still blighting the lives of French Jews. What is more, in their debate on the eligibility of Jews for citizenship, the French National Assembly demonstrated their awareness of public thought, stating that “the people detest”  the Jews. This highlights that, despite dramatic changes to their legal rights, it would take more than a revolution to change peoples’ perceptions of the Jews and for the prejudice to subside and be replaced with acceptance.
Furthermore, following Napoleon’s assent to Emperor of France in 1804, a convincing case can be made to suggest that Jewish emancipation took a step backwards rather than forwards, thus implying that the Revolution did little to entrench the rights of Jews. Despite his good intentions to deliver equality, Napoleon’s efforts actually made life more difficult for Jews and integration less likely. Most significantly, the so-called ‘Infamous Decree’ of 1806 nullified outstanding debts owed to Jews in Eastern France, “forbade (them) to borrow or lend money”  and also restricted their geographical mobility. Moreover, under Napoleon’s rule, Jews also faced what Howard Sachar has described as increased “scrutiny”  and investigation, demonstrated in Count Mole’s delivery of Napoleon’s instructions to the Assembly of Jewish Notables in July 1806. This included a list of questions, such as “is it lawful for Jews to marry more than one wife?”  ; questions proposed by Napoleon in order to discover more about the Jews. However, despite seeking to understand Jewish traditions and practices, the fact that these questions were even being asked subtly suggests that the Jews were still singled-out and perceived as being fundamentally different rather than Frenchmen. Significantly, the fact that Jews were still discriminated against and seen as fundamentally different to the rest of the French population some seventeen years after the Revolution suggests that, in practice, the Revolution was less instrumental in securing long-term emancipation that initial analysis would suggest.
Overall, to a large extent, Jews had achieved, or at least had the foundations laid for, their emancipation in the wake of the French Revolution. In assessing the extent to which Jews in France gained emancipation in the wake of the Revolution, this essay has highlighted the stark contrast between the poor conditions experienced by the Jews during the eighteenth century in comparison with their position in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution. On the one hand, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the Revolution was instrumental in facilitating Jewish emancipation because minority persecution was incompatible with the values of liberty, fraternity and equality preached by the revolutionaries. Moreover, in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, Jews gained legal recognition as citizens and were granted equal rights, which immediately suggests that Jews gained complete emancipation, making this a very clear case to assess. However, the issue of Jewish emancipation is more complicated, with far greater intricacies. As this essay has highlighted, in the wake of the Revolution, Jews were still discriminated against and, in this respect, emancipated only in the legal sense. Moreover, the equal rights granted to Jews in 1791 were not sufficiently entrenched and protected, highlighted by the devastating effect of Napoleon’s 1806 ‘Infamous Decree’ on the French Jewry. Thus, a convincing case can be made to suggest that Jewish emancipation was not on a steady course of improvement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; progress towards emancipation took two steps forward in 1791 but one step back in 1806, for example. In spite of the setbacks however, conditions for French Jews generally improved following the Revolution. Crucially, the Revolution opened up new opportunities for Jews but emancipation could never have been expected to be instantaneous as would take time to overcome the prejudice and for societal acceptance to become universal. What is clear, however, is that “nothing can deprive the French Revolution of its rightful claim to have inaugurated a new and more hopeful era in the life of European Jewry”  .
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