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French Revolution

Position of the Jews Before the Revolution

The Storming of the Bastille (French: Prise de la Bastille) occurred in Paris, France, on the afternoon of July 14, 1789. The medieval armory, fortress, and political prison known as the Bastille represented royal authority in the center of Paris. The prison contained only seven inmates at the time of its storming but was seen by the revolutionaries as a symbol of the monarchy’s abuse of power; its fall was the flas: Phpoint of the French Revolution.

The nature, status, and rights of the Jews became an issue of public consequence in France in the last two decades before the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789. The Jewish population was then divided into some 3,500 Sephardim, concentrated mostly in southwestern France, and perhaps 30,000 Ashkenazim in eastern France. The Sephardim had arrived there after 1500 as *Marranos. By 1776, when the last lettres patentes in their favor had been issued by the crown, they had succeeded, step by step, in establishing their status as a merchant guild, avowedly Jewish, with at least the right to live anywhere within the authority of the parlement of *Bordeaux. The leading families of the Sephardim engaged in international trade. They were sufficiently assimilated to behave like bourgeois, and some were *Deists or nonbelievers before the Revolution. The Ashkenazim in eastern France were foreign and un-French in their total demeanor. This community spoke Yiddish and was almost totally obedient to the inherited ways of life. The power of the community over the individual was much larger among the Ashkenazim than among the Sephardim, for rabbinic courts were, in Metz and in Alsace, the court of first jurisdiction for all matters involving Jews. Except for a few rich army purveyors and bankers, Jews in eastern France made their living from petty trade, often in pursuits forbidden to them; by dealing in cattle; and from petty moneylending. More than any other, this last occupation embroiled the Jews in conflict with the poorest elements in the local population, the peasants.

Another economic quarrel involved the Jews in several places in France, and especially in Paris, with the traditional merchant guilds. In March 1767, a royal decree was issued creating new positions in the guilds and making these new posts freely accessible to purchase by foreigners. Jews managed to enter the guilds in a few places in eastern France, and to bid for entry in Bayonne. These efforts were fought in lawsuits everywhere. The new, Physiocratic insistence on productive labor had also helped sharpen the issue of “productivization” of the Jews in these years before the Revolution.

In the intellectual realm the Jews became a visible issue of some consequence in the 1770s and 1780s for a variety of reasons. The attack of the men of the Enlightenment on biblical religion inevitably involved these thinkers in negative discussion of the ancient Jews and, at least to some degree, of the modern ones. All the newer spirits agreed that religious fanaticism, whether created by religion or directed against deviant faiths, needed to end. The Jews were thus an issue both as the inventors of “biblical fanaticism” and as the object of the hatred of the *Inquisition. Some of the great figures of the Enlightenment, with *Voltaire in the lead, argued that the Jews had an ineradicably different nature, which few, if any, could escape. The more prevalent, less ideological opinions were those of men such as the Marquis de *Mirabeau (the younger) and the Abbé *Grégoire, that the defects of the Jews had been created by their persecutors, who had excluded them from society and limited them to the most debasing of economic pursuits, leaving them entirely under the sway of their own leaders and their narrow tradition. With an increase in rights and better conditions, the Jews would improve.

Propaganda and pressure by Jewish leadership in eastern France, led by Herz *Cerfberr, the leading army purveyor in the region, had resulted in 1784 in the two last acts of the old order concerning Jews. In January 1784, Louis XVI, speaking in the accents of contemporary enlightened absolutism, forbade the humiliating body tax (see *Taxation) on Jews in all places subject to his jurisdiction, regardless of any local traditions to the contrary. In July of that year a much more general decree was published which attempted a comprehensive law for the Jews in Alsace. It was a retrograde act. A few increased opportunities were afforded the rich, but no Jew could henceforth contract any marriage without royal permission and the traditional Jewish pursuits in Alsace, the trade in grain, cattle, and moneylending, were surrounded with new restrictions. The rich were given new scope for banking, large-scale commerce, and the creation of factories in textiles, iron, glass, and pottery. The Jewish leaders in Alsace fought against this decree, and especially against that part of it which ordered a census in preparation of the expulsion of all those who could not prove their legal right to be in the province. This census was indeed taken, and its results were published in 1785. Nonetheless, Jews continued to stave off the decree of expulsion until this issue was overtaken by the events of the Revolution. These quarrels and the granting of public rights to Protestants in 1787 kept the question of the Jews before the central government in Paris. Under the leadership of Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon de *Malesherbes, the question was again discussed by the royal government in 1788. Delegations of both the Sephardi and the Ashkenazi communities were lobbying in Paris during these deliberations. The prime concern of the Sephardim was to see to it that no overall legislation for Jews resulted in which their rights would be diminished by making them part of a larger body which included the Ashkenazim. The representatives of the Jews from eastern France followed their traditional policy of asking for increased economic rights and of defending the authority of the autonomous Jewish community.

The Era of Revolution

In the era of the Revolution the Jews did not receive their equality automatically. The Declaration of the Rights of Man which was voted into law by the National Assembly on August 27, 1789, was interpreted as not including the Jews in the new equality. The issue of Jewish rights was first debated in three sessions, Dec. 21–24, 1789, and even the Comte de *Mirabeau, one of their chief proponents, had to move to table the question, because he saw that there were not enough votes with which to pass a decree of emancipation. A month later, in a very difficult session on Jan. 28, 1790, the “Portuguese,” “Spanish,” and “Avignonese” Jews were given their equality. The main argument, made by Talleyrand, was that these Jews were culturally and socially already not alien. The issue of the Ashkenazim remained unresolved. It was debated repeatedly in the next two years, but a direct vote could never be mustered for their emancipation. It was only in the closing days of the National Assembly, on September 27, 1791, that a decree of complete emancipation was finally passed on the ground that the Jews had to be given equality to complete the Revolution, for it was impossible to have a society in which all men of whatever condition were given equal rights and status, except a relative handful of Jews. Even so, the parliament on the very next day passed a decree of exception under which the debts owed the Jews in eastern France were to be put under special and governmental supervision. This was a sop to anti-Jewish opinion, which had kept complaining of the rapacity of the Jews. The Jews refused to comply with this act, for they said that it was contrary to the logic of a decree of equality. Opinion thus had remained divided even in the last days when Jews were being given their liberty.

This division of opinion about the status of the Jews was, to some degree, based on traditional premises. Such defenders of the old order as Abbé Jean Sieffrein Maury and Anne Louis Henry de la Fare, the bishop of Nancy, remained in opposition, arguing that the Jews were made by their religion into an alien nation which could not have any attachment to the land of France. The more modern of the two, Maury, went further, to quote Voltaire to help prove that the Jews were bad because of their innate character and that changes of even the most radical kind in their external situation would not completely eradicate what was inherent in their nature. De la Fare was from eastern France, and he was joined in the opposition to the increase of Jewish rights by almost all the deputies from that region regardless of their party. That this would occur had already been apparent in the cahiers from eastern France which, apart from one writer under the influence of Abbé Grégoire, were almost uniformly anti-Jewish. The most notable of the left-wing figures from Alsace in the revolutionary parliament, Jean François Rewbell, remained an uncompromising opponent. He held that it was necessary to defend “a numerous, industrious, and honest class of my unfortunate compatriots who are oppressed and ground down by these cruel hordes of Africans who have infested my region.” To give the Jews equality was tantamount to handing the poor of eastern France over to counterrevolutionary forces, for the peasant backbone of the Revolution in that region would see the new era as one of increased dangers for them. The only organized body in eastern France which was publicly in favor of increased rights for the Jews was the moderate, revolutionary Société des Amis de la Constitution in Strasbourg, with which the family of Cerfberr had close connections. This group argued that the peasants were being artificially whipped up and that their hatred of the Jews would eventually vanish. A policy of economic opportunity would allow the Jews to enter productive occupations and become an economic boon to the whole region. It was along this general line that the Jews, if they were regenerated to be less clannish and more French and if they were dispersed in manufacture and on the land, would be good citizens, that their friends argued for Jewish emancipation. In the first debate on the “Jewish Question” on Sept. 28, 1789, when the Jews of Metz asked for protection against the threat of mob outbreaks (there had been outbursts in Alsace that summer and some Jews had fled to Basle), Stanislas de *Clermont-Tonnerre, a liberal noble from Paris, had agreed that the existing Jews did merit the hatred against them but ascribed what was wrong with the Jews to the effects of oppression. The Jews themselves could not maintain any separatism, for “there cannot be a nation within a nation.” The emancipation of the Jews in France eventually took place on the basis sketched out by him: “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation but granted everything as individuals …” Such views were argued in the revolutionary years by the Jacobins of Paris, who were pro-Jewish (almost all the others and especially those in eastern France were anti-Jewish) and by the main body of moderate revolutionaries, who ultimately made their feeling prevail, that emancipation was a moral necessity, its purpose being to improve the Jews so that they could be part of a regenerated society.

The final decree of September 27, 1791, did not end the tensions in eastern France. The structure of the Jewish community remained, and in some places in eastern France local civil powers continued, at least briefly, to enforce the taxation imposed by the parnasim for the support of the Jewish community. It soon became apparent that the revolutionary government itself needed to keep some kind of Jewish organization in being. The decree of nationalization of the property of the Church and of the émigrés (Nov. 2, 1789) had contained a provision for the assumption of the debts of the churches by the government, but it refused to assume responsibility for the debts contracted by the Jewish communities. The one in Metz was heavily in debt, largely to Christian creditors, and the issue of the payment of these debts remained a source of irritation and of repeated legal acts well into the middle of the 19th century. Those who had lived in Metz before 1789 and their descendants who had moved far away, even those who had converted from the faith, were held to be liable.

Throughout the era of the Revolution there was recurring concern about the patriotism of the Jews (their civisme) and about the channeling of their young into “productive occupations” and making them into good soldiers of the Republic; that is, whether the Jews were indeed “transforming” themselves as their emancipators had envisaged. During the first decade of the Revolution some economic changes were taking place. Jews did participate in the buying of nationalized property, and in particular lent money to the peasants in Alsace, who thus acquired their own farms. This splitting of the estates of the Church and of the émigré nobility into small farms gave the peasantry a stake in the Revolution, but the contribution of Jewish creditors and speculators to this trade (it was significant though not dominant) earned them no gratitude. It remained a fixed opinion, especially among Jacobins, that the Jews were usurers and that they were using the new opportunities of the Revolution to become even more obnoxious. In general, the occupational structure of the Jews changed very little in the 1790s. They continued mostly to be middlemen or peddlers; very few were beginning to work in factories or even to own land, despite much propaganda and occasional pressure on them to take up agriculture. There were some difficulties about their joining the armies of the Revolution. In many places the National Guard refused to accept Jews; sometimes it even attacked them and made minor pogroms, and it was regarded as a matter of unusual public importance that Max Cerfberr was accepted in Strasbourg in 1790. On the other hand, most Jews tried to avoid military service because of the problems of Sabbath and holiday observance which this created for them. A few of the sons of the richest families did become officers in the army as early as the 1790s, but the major military contribution of the Jews during the Republican period was in their traditional role as *contractors to the army. Jewish financiers were actually of minor importance, even here, but their visibility remained high, and they were attacked with particular vehemence. Jews were involved in the military purchasing directory, which was created in 1792, with Max Cerfberr as one of its directors. This body lasted just a few months, but it was at the center of much controversy during its existence, and thereafter. The Jews who were involved were subject to bitter criticism, but in this affair none was put to death for economic crimes or for treason.

The older Jewish leadership continued to dominate the Jewish community in the 1790s, but some newer forces were also arising. In southern France a group of Jewish Jacobins, whose club was named after Rousseau, became in 1793–94 the revolutionary government of Saint Esprit, the largely Jewish suburb of Bayonne. There were a few instances among both the Sephardim and the Ashkenazim of individual Jews who participated in the Religion of Reason. The overwhelming majority, however, both in the French Jewish communities and in those of the papal possessions, *Avignon and *Comtat Venaissin, which had been annexed to France in 1791, kept their religious traditions alive as best they could. No Jew was guillotined during the Terror (July 1793–July 1794) on the ground that his religious obduracy had made him an enemy of society, though such rhetoric was used by some of the Jacobins of eastern France in outraged reaction to the continuing practice of such traditions as Jewish burial. This was termed severely antisocial and a further expression of the supposed Jewish trait of hating the entire human race. During the Terror, many synagogues and other Jewish properties were, indeed, nationalized and synagogue silver was either surrendered or hidden, as were books and Torah Scrolls. In some situations, such as in Carpentras in 1794, the Jews finally “willingly” gave their synagogue to the authorities. Nonetheless, religious services continued in hiding everywhere and after the Terror Jews were able not only to reopen many of their former synagogues but also to establish new conventicles in communities such as Strasbourg in which they had not had the right to live before the Revolution. As early as Aug. 4, 1794, within a few days after the fall of Robespierre, the Jews demanded the right to open a synagogue in Fontainebleau. There were a few cases of mixed marriage, though these remained very much the exception in the 1790s and did not become a trend of any significance until after the end of the century. The whole question of the status of Jewish acts in law remained confused, with many jurisdictions continuing to restrict the personal freedom of Jews and the French courts continuing to recognize Jewish law as determinant for Jews on matters of personal status, and especially marriage.

Anti-Jewish acts did not stop entirely with the end of the Terror. In November 1794, two Metz Jews were fined for carrying out Jewish burials and four years later five Jews were sentenced in Nice for building tabernacles for the Sukkot holiday. Thermidor was, however, regarded by Jews as a period in which religious persecution had ended. The problems of this period were mostly economic, for the civic tax rolls in various communities bore down heavily on Jews. From the very beginning of the Thermidor the central government ordered the protection of the Jews against agitation in eastern France. Occasional outbreaks continued and there were even some attacks on Jews for supposedly being in league with what remained of the Jacobins. Some angers that had been evoked by the emancipation of the Jews, and their involvement in the events of the first days of the Revolution, were evident during these days of reaction, but crucial was the fact that no change took place in the legal status of the Jews. Their emancipation was a fact and remained so; so was the economic conflict caused especially by their moneylending; so was the continued existence of their religious tradition and of their considerable communal apartness, even though the legal status of the community had been ended; so was the need of the central power to deal with the Jewish community in an organized way for many of its own purposes. All these questions, and an underlying concern about the “reform” of the Jewish religion and Jewish habits to accommodate the needs of the state, were deeded on to the next era, the period of *Napoleon.

Effects Outside France

The French Revolution brought legal equality to the Jews who dwelt in territories which were directly annexed by France. In addition to its operation in the papal possessions, Avignon and Comtat Venaissin, which were reunited with France in September 1791, just a few days before the final decree of emancipation for all French Jewry, this legislation was applied to such border territories as Nice, which was conquered in 1792.

The German regions on the west bank of the Rhine were acquired by conquest in that same year, and the French conqueror, General A.P. de Custine, announced as his troops were entering the Rhineland that winter, that equality for Jews was one of his intentions. The formal enactments did not take place until 1797, when the supposedly independent Cisrhénane Republic was created. In the intervening years Jews who had begun by being suspicious of the new regime had become partisans of the Revolution.

In the *Netherlands there was a revolution in 1795, with help from the French army, and the Batavian Republic was proclaimed. A group of “enlightened” Jews had been among the prime organizers in Amsterdam of a body called *Felix Libertate. This association had as its purpose the furtherance of the ideas of “freedom and equality.” There was substantial opposition in Holland even among some of the makers of the Revolution to the granting of full citizenship for Jews. The leaders of the official Jewish community were also opposed, for they fought bitterly against the disappearance of a Jewish separatist organization in a new regime of personal rights. There was a substantial debate, which culminated in eight days of discussion (Aug. 22–30, 1796), at the first session of the new revolutionary parliament. This debate was on a higher level than those held some years before in France; it resulted in the decision that Jews were to be given equal rights as individuals but that they had no rights as a people. The view of Clermont-Tonnerre in France in 1789 was thus upheld in Holland. In law this equality remained for the Jews in the Netherlands even after the fall of the Batavian Republic in 1806.

There were almost immediate echoes in *Italy of the French Revolution, but these stirrings were repressed in all its various principalities. In the spring of 1790, the Jews were suspect of being partisans of the Revolution, and there were anti-Jewish outbreaks in both Leghorn and Florence; a comparable riot took place in Rome in 1793. There was almost no truth in all these suspicions. A small handful of “enlightened” individuals were for the Revolution, but the organized Jewish communities looked forward only to some alleviations of their status by the existing regimes in Italy. Radical changes did take place toward the end of the decade, in 1796–98, when Napoleon Bonaparte conquered most of northern and central Italy, including the papal territories, during two years of war. Everywhere the conquering French troops announced the end of the ghetto and equality for the Jews. In Italy, the physical walls behind which Jews dwelt still existed in many places and the advent of the French armies gave the signal for the actual physical breaking down of these barriers by Jews and other partisans of the new order. Trees of liberty were planted in many places, especially in the Jewish quarters. Brief and even bloody revenge was taken on the Jews during Napoleon’s absence in 1798–99 on his campaign in Egypt, as counterrevolutionary forces did battle against “Gauls, Jacobins, and Jews.” In 1800 Napoleon, now as first consul, reconquered northern and central Italy and annexed it to France, ultimately to serve as the kernel of his future Kingdom of Italy. Jewish equality was secure in Italy until Napoleon’s fall in 1815.

Elsewhere in Europe, the events of the French Revolution had enormous effects, but they did not lead to equality for the Jews. The French-inspired revolutionary Swiss regime of 1798 did not, even during its brief life, show any real desire to give the few Jews in Switzerland legal equality. In the Austrian Empire, the government was fearful of the Revolution, and little was done in the 1790s that went beyond the several decrees of toleration that had been enacted in the spirit of enlightened absolutism by *Joseph II in 1781–82. The early years of the French Revolution coincided with the death agonies of independent Poland, leading to its partition and the end of Polish independence in 1795. Austria, Prussia, and Russia, among whom Poland was divided, were all either actively or passively arrayed against France throughout the 1790s. The influence of the French example, therefore, had no effect on their policy when these countries acquired among them the largest Jewish community, numbering some 800,000, in all of Europe. There was no change during the 1790s in the legal status of the Jews in any of the independent German principalities, not even those which sided with France in war. In the most important of the German states, *Prussia, despite notable and ongoing acculturation by members of the Jewish bourgeoisie in Berlin, the government refused to make any substantial changes in the regime of exclusion. A new decree that was issued at the beginning of 1790 spoke only of some future time, perhaps in three generations, when “regenerated Jews” might be admitted to civic equality. David *Friedlander answered on behalf of the leaders of Berlin Jewry that no changes at all were better than this “new imposition of chains;” what Jews wanted, he boldly added, was that such chains “be completely removed.” To be sure, he and his circle were not insisting that equality be attained immediately by all Jews. Like the more successful Sephardim of France at that moment, the men whom David Friedlander led were interested entirely in their own rights. They proclaimed that the Jews in Berlin had already become culturally and intellectually the equal of the highest of German society, and they were, therefore, to be treated differently from their brethren in Bohemia or Poland, who were yet to wait until they had suitably prepared themselves by westernization for freedom.

The news from France was reported extensively and with exaltation in Ha-Me’assef for 1790, the Hebrew annual that was supported by this Berlin circle and by like-minded men on both sides of the Rhine and in Central Europe. These accents were soon suppressed in the name of patriotism, as Prussia went to war against France, but the example of equality in France, and of the United States Constitution of 1787, remained an ideal. For Jews everywhere in the next century after the French Revolution, the battle for emancipation became the central issue of their lives. Everywhere disabilities and exclusions were measured by the standards of France after 1791. In relation to the Jewish question Napoleon was the heir of the Revolution, and his victories after 1800 only extended the sphere of the emancipation. When he fell in 1815 the legal equality of Jews ended in much of his former empire, except in France and in Holland – and in Prussia, emancipation of 1812 had been a domestic decision, not forced upon Prussia by Napoleon. Nonetheless, the memory of the equality that Jews once held remained. Even in the many countries where nothing favorable to Jews had happened between 1789 and 1815, the example of the French Revolution was a dominant political force. Despite attempts at reaction in the 19th century the states of Europe had increasingly to contemplate full legal equality for all their citizens, including Jews, as a central element of their entering modernity.


Z. Szajkowski, Jews and the French Revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848 (1970); A. Hertzberg, French Enlightenment and the Jews (1968); Milano, Italia, 339–51; Roth, Italy, 421–45; S. Seeligman, De Emancipatie der Joden in Nederland (1913); Z.H. Ilfeld, Divrei Negidim (1799); I. Freund, Emanzipation der Juden in Preussen (1912); A. Kober, in: JSOS, 8 (1946), 291–322; M. Wiener, Juedische Religion im Zeitalter der Emanzipation (1933); R. Mahler, Divrei Yemei Yisrael: Dorot Aḥaronim, 1 (1952), 2 (1954), index.

[Arthur Hertzberg]

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
“Storming of the Bastille,” Wikipedia.

Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.