This Day in Jewish History Liberté and ÉGalité for France's Jews

A vote by the French National Assembly to grant France's Jews full equality under the law sets the stage for Napoleon to do the same in the lands he later conquered.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

On September 27, 1791, the French National Assembly voted to give the country’s Jews full rights and equality under the law. The vote was the culmination of a process beginning in pre-Revolutionary France by which a number of gradual improvements had been made in the situation of the Jews. These included the abolition, in 1785, of a poll tax on Jews, and the granting of the right to live in all parts of the country. Yet when the Declaration of the Rights of Man was passed by the National Assembly in August 1789, it was interpreted as not including the Jews.

Finally, it was the deputy Adrien-Jean-Francois Duport who introduced a resolution in the Assembly that would have normalized the status of the Jews to that of all other citizens, making the argument, “I believe that freedom of worship no longer permits any distinction to be made between the political rights of citizens on the basis of their beliefs and I believe equally that the Jews cannot be the only exceptions to the enjoyment of these rights, when pagans, Turks, Muslims, Chinese even, men of all the sects, in short, are admitted to these rights.”

At the time of the French Revolution (1789), the Jews of France were divided into principal communities of Jews in France: The Sephardim, of whom there were some 3,500, had settled in the country in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition; and the Ashkenazim, in eastern France, who had emigrated from eastern Europe and numbered some 30,000.

The Sephardim were well integrated into society, and in 1790 were for the most part granted equality. But the larger group of recently arrived Ashkenazim spoke Yiddish and lived in closed communities for which they demanded autonomy, and so were the objects of suspicion and discrimination. A debate revolved whether or not Jews were inherently incapable of integrating into French society, or if their “clannishness” was in fact caused by the hatred they faced from their surroundings.

Despite the ongoing political upheaval that France underwent in the decades that followed, and the fact that anti-Semitism continued to be a factor in large parts of society, the emancipation of the Jews was not repealed, and after Napoleon came to power in 1799 and began his conquest, he extended equal rights to the Jews of the lands he conquered.On September 27, 1791, the French National Assembly voted to give the country’s Jews full rights and complete equality and full rights under the law. The vote was the culmination of a process beginning in pre-Revolutionary France by which a number of gradual improvements had been made in the situation of the Jews. These included the abolition, in 1785, of a poll tax on Jews, and the granting of the right to live in all parts of the country. Yet when the Declaration of the Rights of Man was passed by the National Assembly in August 1789, it was interpreted as not including the Jews.

Finally, it was the deputy Adrien-Jean-Francois Duport who introduced a resolution in the Assembly that would have normalized the status of the Jews to that of all other citizens, making the argument, “I believe that freedom of worship no longer permits any distinction to be made between the political rights of citizens on the basis of their beliefs and I believe equally that the Jews cannot be the only exceptions to the enjoyment of these rights, when pagans, Turks, Muslims, Chinese even, men of all the sects, in short, are admitted to these rights.”

At the time of the French Revolution (1789), the Jews of France were divided into two principal communities: of Jews in France – the Sephardim, of whom there were some 3,500, had settled in the country in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition; and the Ashkenazim, in eastern France, who numbered some 30,000 and had emigrated from eastern Europe AND numbered some 30,000.

The Sephardim were well integrated into society, and in 1790 were for the most part granted equality. But the larger group of recently arrived Ashkenazim spoke Yiddish and lived in closed communities for which they demanded autonomy, and so were the objects of suspicion and discrimination. A debate revolved whether or not Jews were inherently incapable of integrating into French society, or if their “clannishness” was in fact caused by the hatred they faced from their surroundings.

Despite the ongoing political upheaval that France underwent in the decades that followed, and the fact that anti-Semitism continued to be a factor in large parts of society, the emancipation of the Jews was not repealed, and after Napoleon came to power in 1799 and began his campaign of conquest, he extended equal rights to the Jews of the lands he conquered.

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