From Host Desecration to the Dreyfus Affair

After the 1215 Catholic introduction of the doctrine of transubstantiation, it was believed that the chalice of wine contained the very blood of Messiah and that the wafer or “Host” would become the very body of Messiah. While not justifiable by Scripture, the doctrine still stands today.

Within a few decades, as early as 1243 in Germany and Poland followed by France, Jewish people became accused of “Host Desecration” which consisted of the piercing of Christian communion bread (Host) to “re-enact the Crucifixion” of which most Christians claimed they [the Jews] were guilty.

Then around 1320, came the legend of the Jews poisoning the wells of Europe. It was accepted as fact without any proofs of its veracity. Unfortunately for the Jews of Europe, came the “Black Death” or “Black Plague”, and that legend while still not connected to the plague was “vindicated”.

It was the most devastating pandemic in the history of mankind, responsible for the death of about 75 million people worldwide (25 million in Europe alone) in just a few years. To be sure, Jewish people also died during the “Black Death “, but generally in lesser numbers. The regulated kosher laws that religious Jews were bound to follow, forced them to maintain a stricter diet and hygiene, and thus resulted in less death in the Jewish communities. While the reduced number of Jewish casualties could partially be attributed to Jewish customs and kosher laws, it didn’t stop the masses from slaughtering and destroying over 200 Jewish communities, accusing them of poisoning the wells of Europe.

Anti-Semitism moved south for a while and decided to rear its ugly head in Spain during the Inquisition. Torture, forced conversions and deaths were running rampant. For the first time in Jewish history, JUDAISM WAS NO LONGER A THEOLOGICAL PROBLEM BUT NOW HAD ALSO BECOME AN ETHNIC ONE. Even though the Inquisition mostly affected the Jews of Spain, the atmosphere of terror and death crossed over to France and continued to affect Jewish communities all over.

Additionally, the Italian concept of the Ghetto started in 1516 in Venice and Luther’s German Reformation, even though not technically of French origins, would also affect Jewish people across France.

Even though it would be a while before French Jews would suffer another terrible anti-Semitic blow, Jewish history continued to be punctuated by hatred and persecution throughout the years.

At the close of the 18th century, the Jews found themselves at the dawn of a new era. The feudal system had crumbled to make room for a developing capitalist and industrial revolution. Financial knowledge and shrewdness was becoming more of an asset, especially for leaders of countries in development. As a result, Jewish people were somewhat less stigmatized by their involvement in the financial world, and they even became more appreciated by some.

Along with the advent of the “Age of Emancipation”, as a by-product of the French Revolution of 1789, the concept of citizenship was becoming more of a reality all throughout Europe. Inhabitants of a given country were starting to receive citizenship in that very country. Napoléon Bonaparte would take that concept to the next level.

The Jewish Age of Emancipation was known as The Haskalah, or “Age of Enlightment” and reached all segments of Judaism culturally, theologically and geographically.

It can also be understood as the “Age of Assimilation”, as many Jews benefiting from the emancipation also looked into the claims of Christianity. The split between the more traditional religious communities and the more liberal emancipated ones was widening.

The French Revolution of 1789 was instrumental in the birth of the concept of Freedom of Religion, provided it didn’t interfere with public order. This happened at a time when most European countries were restricting the rights of religious minority groups like the Jewish people. The assimilation of Jews was starting to happen.

Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821) became France’s Emperor in 1804. The same year, he introduced “Le Code Napoléon” which was the first modern legal code to be adopted across Europe. It was a major step in replacing the antiquated laws and codes of the now defunct feudal system of the Middle Ages.

From the beginning, Napoléon had one goal in mind: Make the Jews of France into French citizen. He had no intention of stopping them from practicing Judaism in the privacy of their homes, but he just expected them to give their allegiance to the Empire, as all French citizens should.

But in 1808, caving under the pressure of many very upset leaders and statesmen including Chateaubriand, Cardinal Fesh, Maréchal Kellermann and especially Russian Tzar Alexander[, Napoléon felt obligated to introduce a “Restrictive Decree.” The Jewish community was in shock and lost much of its wealth and influence almost to the point of a total bankruptcy. Eventually, after much damage to the Jews, the Decree was eliminated and the status of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” was re-established for the Jews, at least until the fateful defeat at Waterloo, Belgium (1815). Then, at the discretion of each European leader, the fate of the Jews became again one of hardship, restriction, stigmatization and ghettoization.

As the last quarter of the 19th century was approaching, Jews were about to experience another major shift in anti-Semitism. Racial anti-Semitism was about to emerge on the scene. From ancient theological anti-Semitism to modern ethnic and cultural anti-Semitism, the hatred of the Jews was soon to pick-up more momentum.   In 1894 France, at a time when Jewish people thought that their emancipation had prevailed, Captain Alfred Dreyfus (an Alsacian Jew) was accused of treason against the French Government. The French Revolution of 1789, and Napoléon, had brought a hope of equality and integration into French society for French Jews, but anti-Semitism, as a temporarily inactive volcano of hatred, had just spewed its lava again. As the Dreyfus trial went on, mobs of angry Frenchmen were shouting “Death to the Jews” on the streets of Paris.

The Vienna newspaper Neue Freie Press sent their Paris correspondent, Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), to follow the Dreyfus Affair and, by association, the Jews of France. It quickly prompted Theodor Herzl to compile his work of several years into the historic pamphlet Der Judenstaat or “The Jewish State”, published in Vienna in 1896, and leading to the official birth of Zionism.

But the French Jews had not seen the worst yet. Even though many Frenchmen of Jewish origins fought in the great war of 1914-1918, what awaited them around the corner was unprecedented and unfathomable. Emancipation had totally failed for the Jews of France.

(to be continued)