A brief History of the Jewish Community in France
The Jewish historical and spiritual heritage in France found its origin nearly two millennia ago. This was after the Romans conquered the area now known as Paris, a bastion of France’s religion. There is some evidence that Jewish religious heritage in France began with small settlements in Metz, Poitiers, and Avignon. However, solid physical evidence of Jewish religious and spiritual heritage really starts in the 5th century with the tiny Jewish communities in Brittany, Clermont-Ferrand, Narbonne, Agde, Valence and Orléans.
Since that time France has been an important center of Jewish spiritual and religious heritage. Jewish scholarship, one of the most important spiritual heritage in France, flourished, due in part to forced segregation.
The cities of Troyes, Narbonne, Perpignan, and Paris were known throughout both the Jewish and Christian worlds for their rabbis and interpreters of the Torah and the Talmud, and for writers and composers of Jewish literature and liturgy. Among these scholars was a man who is still considered one of the greatest of all time—Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (1040–1105), known to Jewish history by the
In addition to giving the Jewish world some of its greatest scholars, the Jewish religious heritage of France has given the whole world many renowned figures in the arts, literature, industry, and politics, among them Sarah Bernhardt, André Citroën, Jacques Derrida, Darius Milhaud, Leon Blum, Jacques Offenbach, Camille Pisarro, and Marcel Proust.
Jewish Civil Rights
The Jewish spiritual heritage in France had a turbulent history. Although, in the earliest years of European Christianity, there was harmony between the Jewish minority and the Christian majority, over
the centuries religious differences turned into virulent anti-Jewish hatred and resulted in social and religious ostracism and horrific bloodshed.
But at end of the 18th century, liberalizing forces were in the air. The French Revolution of 1789 forever changed the lives of all French people. Thus it also liberated the Jewish communities and their spiritual
and religious heritage in France.
The first important changes came in the form of civil rights for Jews, ensuring the preservation of Jewish communities’ way of life and their spiritual heritage in France. This was an idea vigorously supported by a number of French Christians, among them Abbé Henri Grégoire (1750–1831), a fighter for religious freedom who also opposed special privileges for the clergy and the nobility. When rights were finally granted to Jews in the early 19th century, after long enforced absences from Paris, Jews were once again able to live in Paris as well as other major cities. Thus the Jewish religious heritage in France is now secure. No longer just Jews in France, Jews became Frenchmen.
With the establishment of Jewish civil rights, and in order to facilitate Jewish integration into the larger French society, Napoléon Bonaparte convened an Assembly of Jewish Notables on July 26, 1806. Its purpose was to ascertain the compatibility of Jewish law and French civil law. Once Napoleon was satisfied, in 1808, he assembled a group of rabbis and laymen to codify Jewish civil rights; this Consistoire Central des Juifs de France is still the governing body for France’s Jewish community that further cemented their religious and spiritual heritage in France.
By the middle of the 19th century, Jews were almost completely integrated into French life. However, the political upheavals wrought by France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870) had far reaching consequences for both France and her Jewish citizens, especially during the rise of the French Third Republic. This period saw an increase in anti-Semitism as a political device to divert attention away from French society’s demands for reform.
In 1894, the fate of one French Jew, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of treason based on forged evidence, would almost tear the nation apart. But, while it was Frenchmen who framed Dreyfus, it was also Frenchmen who fought long and hard, and at great personal sacrifice, to see justice done and Dreyfus’ name cleared—among them Georges Clemenceau, Emile Zola, Lucien Herr, and Léon Blum, who in 1936 would become France’s first Jewish prime minister.
WORLD WAR II TO PRESENT
All of France suffered during the German occupation in World War II and many were killed, Jew and non-Jew alike, but of a pre-war population of some 300,000 Jews only about 180,000 survived. It took decades for France to come to grips with the fact that some of its citizens collaborated with the German occupation. For many years the subject was completely taboo. Unofficially, though, it was a subject of literature and film: Marcel Ophuls’ Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity) and Hôtel Terminus, the latter a film about Klaus Barbie, known as the butcher of Lyon; Alain Resnais’s film Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog), which was banned by the government until references to French complicity in the deportation of Jews were deleted; and the 1976 film Chantons sous l’Occupation (Singing Under the Occupation) by André Halimi, about the role of France’s entertainers during the war.
Finally, in 1995, just after his election, President Jacques Chirac spoke at the newly established memorial to the victims of the 1942 Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris. At the site from which thousands of Jews were sent to their deaths in concentration camps, President Chirac publicly acknowledged what France and some of her citizens had done to other French citizens during World War II.
Despite all that the Jewish spiritual and religious heritage in France is still intact. With over 600,000 people, the Jewish community in France today is the third largest in the world.