On April 30, 1796, the French jurist, civil-rights advocate, and Jewish community leader Adolphe Cremieux was born, in Nimes, southern France.
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Isaac-Adolphe Cremieux was the son of David Cremieux, a silk merchant whose father had moved from nearby Carpentras to Nimes. (The Jews of the region could trace their history back to the 14th century and in some cases much earlier.) David had been a supporter of the French Revolution, and was imprisoned and lost his business when the Thermidorian counter-revolution took place, in 1794.
Adolphe Cremieux was one of the first Jews to study at the state-sponsored Lycee Imperial, in Paris. Later, he studied law at the University of Aix-en-Provence. He was admitted to the bar in Nimes in 1817, and quickly earned a reputation as a defender of people who had been victims of racial, religious and political persecution.
This included himself: Cremieux refused to take the more judaico, a humiliating oath Jews were required to utter on appearances in court, and he successfully fought to have the oath eliminated.
In 1824, Cremieux married Amelie Silny, from a prominent Jewish family in Metz. He returned to Paris in 1830 after the July Revolution (when the Bourbon monarchy was overthrown), and began practicing law in the court of appeals there. He became involved in Jewish communal affairs, and in 1840, traveled with Moses Montefiore to Egypt and Syria to appeal for the release of the Jews accused of ritual murder in the so-called Damascus Affair.
Three years later, he became president of the Central Consistory of French Jewry – a position he had to resign in embarrassment two years later, when it became known that his wife had had their children secretly baptized.
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Cremieux’ formal political career began in 1842, when he was first elected to the Chamber of Deputies. In 1848, after a Republican revolution forced King Louis Philippe
to abdicate, Cremieux became justice minister in a provisional government. In that capacity, he helped bring about the abolition of slavery in French colonies, and the end of the death penalty for political offenses.
In 1851, when he withdrew his support for Louis-Napoleon, Cremieux found himself imprisoned.
After his release, Cremieux returned to his private law practice, and also threw himself into Jewish affairs, not only at home (he was a founder of the Alliance Universelle Israelite, in 1860), but also defending Jews in Romania, Russia and Morocco.
He became justice minister again, briefly, in 1870, after the collapse of the Second Empire. It was during this period that he drafted the Cremieux Decree, which offered full French citizenship to Jews in the colony of Algeria, even if they were born there. Much as this benefited them, it also became a source of resentment towards Algerian Jews by that country’s Muslims and Berbers.
In 1871, Cremieux returned to the Chamber of Deputies, as a representative of Algiers, and in 1875, he was elected a senator for life, at the time the highest public honor one could receive in France.
Cremieux died in Paris on February 10, 1880, at age 83, nine days after his wife. He was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery.