Harold Behr

French Jewry: Living in the shadow of the betrayal myth

Jews in every country have their own unique but similar tale of woe to tell. During the reign of Charlemagne, the Jews of France enjoyed almost complete religious freedom but with the breakup of the Carolingian empire, the Church came to dominate the State and an era of Jewish persecution set in.

Early Christians propagated the myth that the Jews betrayed Christ. Despite its refutation by scholars and clerics, this is the myth which lies at the heart of European antisemitism, persisting into the present and casting a shadow over interfaith relations.

When the first Crusade was launched in 1096, Jews and Muslims were both denounced as infidels, and the army which gathered for the march on Jerusalem launched its project with the massacre of thousands of Jews on French soil as a prelude to its onslaught on Jerusalem.

At the beginning of the 14th Century the Jews were expelled from the north of the country, where most of them lived, their numbers being augmented by Marranos fleeing from Catholic Spain and Portugal. From then on, Jews maintained a precarious existence until the French Revolution of 1789, when they experienced a brief respite.

The French Revolution, achieved through a combination of enlightened legislation and violence, resulted in the emancipation of Jews among other persecuted minorities. Within the space of a few months, an oppressive monarchy, barely changed from feudal times, was overturned and replaced by a democratic republic.

But the revolutionary wheel, once it had begun to spin, developed an unstoppable momentum. Grievances which had been festering for centuries bubbled to the surface, forcing the newborn democracy to protect itself against radical elements. The much hailed National Assembly, representative of the people, was displaced by a shrunken group of twelve radical revolutionaries, who imposed what became known as the Reign of Terror on the people. They, in turn, were overthrown, signalling the end of revolutionary tyranny. During the ensuing reaction, fomented by counter-revolutionaries, France was governed by an ineffectual triumvirate, which soon collapsed in chaos, heralding the the return to autocracy, this time under Napoleon Bonaparte, a brilliant soldier with grandiose aspirations and a claim to revolutionary credentials. After executing a coup, Napoleon appointed himself as Emperor and promptly set about conquering new territories in the name of his empire.

After the fall of this megalomaniac, France was once again ruled by a Bourbon monarch, a king who “had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.” The pendulum continued to swing between republicanism and absolutism until France’s defeat by Germany in 1871. In the dark days of the German occupation during the Second World War, France was ruled by a pro-Nazi puppet regime. Today, the country is enjoying its status as the Fifth Republic since the Revolution of 1789 and a leading member of the European Union.

There is scant reference in the chronicles of the French Revolution to the Jews. They are listed as yet another persecuted minority group, along with Protestants, Blacks and, curiously enough, “actors” (another despised group), awaiting liberation from the thrall of Catholic rule, but it is hard to discover what part they played in Revolutionary politics.

Notable revolutionaries such as Mirabeau, the Protestant priest Gregoire and even Robespierre, infamous for his leading role in the Reign of Terror, are given honourable mention as being among those who took up the cudgels on behalf of the Jews. The only reference I can find to active participation by the Jews themselves in the Revolution is to a delegation of Jews from the benighted province of Alsace-Lorraine pleading their cause in the National Assembly. On September 28th, 1791, in a momentous declaration of the Assembly, Jews were pronounced equal and free citizens of the Republic of France.

However, the struggle did not end there. Napoleon, ever the opportunist, attached the 77,000 Jews of France to his cause by enshrining their emancipation in his Napoleonic Code, but he betrayed his ambivalence by stipulating that Jews should first and foremost be Frenchmen in their allegiance and by introducing a discriminatory decree which required Jews to guarantee their moral character (meaning their loyalty to France). He also threatened their expulsion from the conquered Rhineland unless they consented to become farmers.

The issue of Jewish loyalty came to a head in 1894, when, after the defeat of the Emperor Napoleon III by Germany, France was once again threatened by its old adversary. The Dreyfus case, in which a French Jewish officer was falsely accused of spying for Germany and condemned to a life sentence on Devil’s Island in French Guiana, mushroomed into a nationwide schism which almost tore the nation apart.

Dreyfus was subsequently pardoned, reinstated into the army and went on to serve honorably in the First World War, but the case was only put to rest a hundred years after the trial, with an official exculpation and an apology from the French government. However, the myth of the Jew as an alien inclined to betray his fellow citizens still lingers and leaves a bitter taste.

Perhaps the lesson to be learnt from the history of French Jewry is that what is happening today to Israel and to the Jews globally has its antecedents in the persecution of European Jewry, not only by Teutons and Slavs, but by Franks and their successors, all of them people once under Christian hegemony.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
Related Topics
Related Posts