Back to top

10. The Emancipation: the French model

On the eve of the Revolution, there were some forty thousand Jews in France, divided into two groups: the Germans (Ashkenazim) (28,000) in Alsace and Lorraine, and the Portuguese (Sephardim) in Bordeaux and Pont-Saint-Esprit (5,000), and those living in the Comtat Venaissin (2,500).

L'émancipation : le modèle français

Jewish communities in France before the Revolution

bandelette de torah mappah détail.jpg

Bandelette de Torah (mappah), détail, Alsace, 1646-1647

There were some five hundred Jews of various origins in Paris. Officially banished by the expulsion decreed in 1394 and confirmed in 1615, the Jews had no legal status in the kingdom and were therefore subjected to specific legislation.

Jews re-established themselves in the county of Metz from 16th century onwards with the presence of French troops in the Three Bishoprics (Metz, Toul and Verdun). On the eve of the Revolution, there were some 1,200 families living in the region, which became a religious and cultural centre due to the development of the Talmudic academy (yeshivah) in Metz, which itself prompted the creation of a Hebrew printing works in 1764. A synagogue was built at Lunéville in 1786. These communities had autonomous regimes regarding justice, policing and finance, but were crippled by taxes. Their populations lived in poverty, except for a few individual successes such as those of the Berr and Goudchaux families.

The more ancient Jewish presence in Alsace, records of which date back to the 14th century, was recognised by letters patent in 1757. The Alsatian Jews paid for the right to royal protection. At the end of the 18th century, they were some twenty thousand. Organized on the Metz model, they were autonomous, hence the existence of six rabbinic districts and officials charged with their policing and taxation. Attached to tradition and living in rural areas, the Alsatian Jews were mainly pedlars, second-hand clothes dealers and pawnbrokers, activities which fueled Christian scorn and hostility. From 1784, their letters patent, obtained due to the influence of their representative Herz Cerfbeer, showed the kingdom’s interest in the Jews, who were encouraged to take up more diversified and more “productive” activities.

New Christians on arrival, then recognized as Jews by the 1723 letters patent, the Portuguese settled first at Pont-Saint-Esprit and in the hinterland, then in Bordeaux. Their economic role ensured their protection and freedom of movement and trade. They became wealthy in the leather and silk industries, banking and colonial trade, leading a traditionalist yet relatively flexible community life like their counterparts in Amsterdam. Bordeaux had seven synagogues and Pont-Saint-Esprit thirteen for a community of some three thousand five hundred people.

The two thousand five hundred Jews in the Comtat Venaissin lived in difficult conditions, crammed together in the narrow streets of their carrières (quarters) in Avignon, Carpentras, Cavaillon and L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. They were despised by the Christian authorities, who confirmed their inferiority in the text published by the Inquisition in Rome in 1751. Each carrière had its own council but had only limited autonomy without courts authorized to practice rabbinic law. A few years before the Revolution, the population of the carrières fell by around twenty per cent as Jews settled in Provence to escape the yoke of the Church. 

Although Paris was officially out-of-bounds for Jews except for short periods, they lived there from the beginning of the 18th century under the control of the police. The more numerous Germans, localised mainly in the present-day Saint-Merri district, practiced the trades. The Portuguese, specialised in banking and peddling, lived mainly on the Left Bank. Relative tolerance of their presence enabled them to have synagogues and two distinct cemeteries.

Jews and citizens

Jeu de la Révolution Française, 1790

Jeu de la Révolution Française, détail d'un jeu de l'oie, Paris, 1790

At the end of the reign of Louis XVI (1754-1793), the ideas developed by the thinkers of the Enlightenment were espoused by the liberal-minded aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and a few Jewish notables influenced by the thinking of the German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). In 1787, the Royal Society of Sciences and Arts in Metz organized a competition with the subject “Are there means to make the Jews happier and more useful in France?” There were three prize winners: the Roman Catholic priest Henri Grégoire (1750-1831), (1750-1831), the Nancy-based lawyer Claude-Antoine Thiéry (1764- ?*) and the self-taught Polish-born Jew Zalkind Hourwitz (1751-1812). All three claimed that the economic emancipation of the Jews and the suppression of the restrictive measures to which they subjected would guarantee their integration.

In the spring of 1788, Chrétien-Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes (1721-1794) was charged by the king with examining the Jewish situation. He made contact with the Portuguese and German Jewish notables, who did not want to change their community statutes but demanded the right to live and work in places of their choice and to practice any profession. Yet at the Estates General in July 1788, opinions on the Jewish question remained divided. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, adopted on 26 August 1789, put an end to all discrimination between citizens. Granting civil equality to the Jews seemed legitimate, yet the National Constituent Assembly was divided on the subject. The conservatives wanted to maintain the measures inherited from the Ancien Régime, whereas the liberals, led by Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau (1749-1791) and Abbé Grégoire, supported the total emancipation of the Jews.

The small Jewish community in Paris proved very active and sent an address to the Assembly. The Jews of eastern France, intent on preserving their community prerogatives, also reacted via the intermediary of member of parliament Berr Isaac Berr (1744-1828). The Portuguese, anxious to remain distinct from the Germans, stressed their long-standing residence and loyalty. The debates concerning the status of non-Catholics took place at the Assembly on 22, 23 and 24 December 1789. During one of these sessions, Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre (1757-1792) proclaimed his famous phrase: “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation […] and granted everything as individuals.” He was supported by Maximilien de Robespierre (1758-1794). By the decree issued on 28 January 1790, the Portuguese Jews were the first to become active citizens. The Jews of eastern France and Paris in turn demanded their rights. The decree declaring the emancipation of all Jews was adopted on 27 September 1791, and sanctioned a few days later by Louis XVI. Berr Isaac Berr rejoiced: “We are now, thanks to the Supreme Being and to the sovereignty of the nation, not only men and citizens but Frenchmen!”  

Jewish notables were well aware that in reality acquiring this citizenship would be a long process. The Revolution had transformed neither mentalities nor community structures and prejudices against Jews were still strong, particularly in Alsace. The “regeneration” did not begin until the First Empire.

The creation of the consistories

Grand Sanhédrin des Israélites de l'Empire français & du Royaume d'Italie

Michel-François Damane-Démartrais (Paris, 1763 - Paris, 1827), Grand Sanhédrin des Israélites de l'Empire français & du Royaume d'Italie, Estampe, après 1807

Initiated by Emperor Napoléon Ier (1769-1821) after the Assembly of Jewish Notables (1806), and the doctrinal decisions of the Grand Sanhédrin (1807), the organization of Jewish worship became effective with the imperial decrees in 1808. The decree of 17 March established a synagogue and a consistory in every département with at least two thousand Israelites. Each consistory was directed by a chief rabbi, assisted by another rabbi and by three laymen appointed by the notables and approved by the authorities. These officials had to be at least thirty years old and could not have practiced usury. 

The consistories advised the public in accordance with the decisions of the Grand Sanhedrin, maintained order in the synagogue, collected the worship duties and above all encouraged their congregations to take up useful professions and promoted a patriotic spirit. In accordance with the decree of 11 December 1808, there were thirteen consistories: Bordeaux, Casal, Coblence, Crefeld, Marseille, Mayence, Metz, Paris, Strasbourg, Trèves, Turin, Nancy and Wintzenheim. The consistories outside France disappeared with the fall of the Napoleonic Empire. The central consistory in Paris was composed of three chief rabbis and two laymen. It maintained contacts with the consistories in the départements, ensured compliance with regulations, controlled the districts, confirmed the appointment of rabbis and laymen and supervised the allocation of worship charges. As the former chairman of the Sanhedrin, David Sintzheim (1745-1812) became the first chief rabbi of the central consistory, assisted by chief rabbis Abraham Vita de Cologna (1755-1832) and Benoît Sauveur Segré (1729-1809). Two notables seconded the rabbinate, Jacob Lazard (*) and Baruch Cerfbeer (1762-1824).

But some of the measures decreed on 17 March 1808, known as the “infamous decree,” were discriminatory. Jewish shopkeepers and traders had to be issued an annual trading license by the prefects. There were also restrictions on where Jews could live in the départements of Alsace, and conscription became compulsory.

The consistories made every effort to comply with imperial demands. A report by the central consistory sent to the Interior Ministry on 23 June 1810 mentions that the Jews “are hastening to render themselves worthy of the paternal bounty of our august monarch.” The reality was rather different: although the regeneration mobilised notables and reformists, it met with the indifference of the working classes. The fall of the Empire did not jeopardize the consistorial system. Freedom of worship was guaranteed by the sénatus-consulte on 1 April 1814.

The construction of the synagogues

Jean Lubin Vauzelle, Synagogue de Bordeaux

Jean Lubin Vauzelle (Angerville la Gate, 1776 - après 1837), Intérieur de la synagogue de Bordeaux avec son architecte A. Corcelles, huile sur toile, Bordeaux, après 1812

Under the Ancien Régime, very few Jewish communities had a synagogue, and prayer usually took place in oratories. The synagogues in Metz and Avignon having been destroyed by fire in the 19th century, the only 18th-century synagogues still standing were those at Cavaillon and  Carpentras, in the Comtat Venaissin, and at Lunéville, Pfaffenhoffen and Mutzig in eastern France.   

The Emancipation and the centralization instated by the Napoleonic consistories radically shaped the Jews’ integration into French society. The most visible aspect of this process were the monumental synagogues built in the 19th century. The choice of their architectural style, pregnant with meaning, took into account this new relationship to society, the evolution of the liturgy and the historic references that communities wanted to emphasize.

The first synagogue of this era was built in Bordeaux in 1812. More discreet in appearance, it drew largely on antique references. A few decades later the synagogues in Metz (1844) and rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth in Paris (1852) were still a mixture of the neo-Roman style, symbolizing identification with France’s national history, and orientalism, emphasizing different origins. The dominant style that emerged could be described as Romano-Byzantine. A new interior arrangement emerged around 1850, bringing the bimah closer to the Torah Ark and creating a clear separation between the officiants and the congregation. The appearance of the pulpit, organ and rabbi’s costume accentuated this rapprochement with the ecclesial model. But the French rabbinate, disinclined to be influenced by German reforms, maintained traditional forms of worship.

The construction of synagogues reached its peak during the Second Empire, around 1890, with urbanization, Baron Haussmann’s wholesale reorganization of Paris and the displacement of the Jews of Alsace and Lorraine to France.

In Paris, synagogues were built in rue de la Victoire (1874), rue des Tournelles (1876) and rue Buffault (1877). Orientalism triumphed in the east, at Besançon (1869), and became the dominant tendency in the synagogues built in the 1880s at Châlons, Reims and Vitry-le-François.

The Jews in eastern France: the Alsatian example  

Alphonse levy kippour 1903.jpg

Alphonse Levy (Marmoutier, 1843 - Alger, 1918), Kippour, Paris, 1903-1907

Despite discriminations, there has been a continual Jewish presence in Alsace since the 12th century. Ashkenazi communities developed in the countryside and the Jews became an integral part of the Alsatian social landscape. But until the early 19th century they were relegated to a marginal status prohibiting them from living in towns and owning property and restricting them to the despised professions of pedlar, moneylender and merchant. 

Jewish communities in Alsace were characteristically tightly knit, pious and had their own language, Judeo-Alsatian. Although it produced eminent personalities such as Rabbi Yossel de Rosheim, this rural Judaism left the picturesque figures of the beadle, livestock merchant and pedlar, nostalgically and satirically depicted by the painter and illustrator Alphonse Lévy.

In the 19th century, the changes in the Jews’ status brought by the Revolution and the Empire turned the life of these communities upside-down. Despite their will to preserve their autonomy, the introduction of surnames, the creation of consistories and compulsory conscription decreed by Napoleon gradually forced the Alsatian Jews to conform to economic and legal structures.   

Now able to practice any profession, some pursued military careers, while others made fortunes in commerce and industry or opted for the medical and legal professions or academic careers. They moved to cities such as Strasbourg, Metz, Nancy and Colmar and established themselves in Paris. Reaping the benefits of their new freedom and proud of the social status conferred by Emancipation, they became genuinely patriotic. Following the annexation of Lorraine and Alsace by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, many Jews left Alsace for Rouen, Épinal, Lyon and Paris or emigrated to North and South America. Despite the Germanisation of the Jews who remained in Alsace, most hailed its annexation by France in 1918.

Rooted in rural life and its traditions, part of the Jewish population in Alsace remained scattered in scores of villages until the Second World War. The leading figures and rabbinic personalities of Alsatian Judaism lastingly marked the contemporary history of the Jewish community in France. 

The Crémieux Decree

Adolphe Crémieux, 1878

Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouÿ (Paris, 1842 - Paris, 1923), Adolphe Crémieux, Paris, 1878

The 1845 order setting the parameters for the reform of Jewish worship on the French consistorial model marked the beginning of the Gallicization process in Algeria. Algerian Judaism was reorganized with the creation of consistories in Algiers and Oran in 1847, and in Constantine in 1849. From 1848, the thirty thousand Algerian Jews were used as a vehicle for the dissemination of French values in Algeria. The decree issued on 16 August 1848 gave Jews the right to vote in municipal elections under certain age, residential and tax conditions. In 1860, they were forced to serve in the militia. The consistorial rabbis and Gallicized elites played an active part in Jewish education. When Napoleon III went to Algeria for the first time, the leaders of the Jewish community presented him with a petition with ten thousand signatures expressing the desire to “embrace French civil law and join the great family of France.” In 1865 Napoleon III declared at Oran: “The Algerian Israelite will soon be French.” 

A few months later, in July, article two of the sénatus-consulte authorized the individual naturalisation of Algerian Jews on request. For administrative reasons, only around two hundred Jews obtained it and the entire Jewish community continued to demand it collectively. On the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, the reform seemed to have been accepted in principle. The Minister of Justice and Religious Worship, Emile Olivier, was convinced that this reform was necessary. With advice from Adolphe Crémieux, a project was drawn up, but was rendered null and void by the fall of the Empire. Appointed in turn Minister of Justice in the National Defense Government, Crémieux examined the project again. On 24 October 1870, nine decrees were approved and signed giving Algeria a new constitution. The seventh of these decrees called the “Crémieux Decree,” granted the collective naturalization of the Algerian Jews. “The indigenous Israelites of the départements of Algeria are declared French citizens. Consequently, with the promulgation of the present decree, their real status and personal status will be regulated by French law.”

The decree was by no means unanimously accepted. Conservatives accused it of having “transformed France into a new Jerusalem.” In 1871, Adolphe Thiers’ government endeavored to have it repealed, but a vote in the National Assembly finally confirmed the decree and some thirty-five thousand Algerian Jews became French citizens, with the exception of those from territories annexed after 1870, who eventually became French citizens in 1946, after the Crémieux Decree had been repealed twice by the Vichy government, on 7 October 1940 and 14 March 1943.

Collections of Jewish art  

collection isaac strauss cluny.jpg

La collection Isaac Strauss au musée de Cluny, carte postale, Paris, vers 1910

In 1765, a “court Jew,” Alexandre David, bequeathed a collection of liturgical objects to the synagogue in Brunswick. They were the first liturgical objects to cease to be used for their prime purpose and become objects of admiration and contemplation.

A century later, an Alsatian-born Jew, Isaac Strauss, amassed a collection that would play a pioneering role in the development of collections of Jewish art and constitute the founding nucleus of the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme. Born in Strasbourg in 1806, Strauss moved to Paris in 1827, and had a brilliant career as an orchestra conductor. A passionate art collector, he took a particular interest in Jewish liturgical objects, expressing his nostalgic attachment to a bygone world already radically transformed by the Napoleonic reforms.

When his collection was shown at the Palais du Trocadéro at the Exposition Universelle in 1878 it aroused keen interest and prompted similar initiatives from London to Saint Petersburg. Acquired after he died by Baroness Nathaniel de Rothschild, it was donated to the State in 1890. The “Science of Judaism,’ a movement that emerged in Germany in the early 19th century, influenced the composition of embryonic museum collections, particularly their local historical and ethnographic dimensions. The collection, entrusted by the Société d’histoire des juifs d’Alsace et de Lorraine to the Musée Alsacien in Strasbourg in 1907 (Alsace was still part of Prussia), is an example of this new attitude to folk art and religious ethnography.

In France, Isaac Strauss’s example was followed a few decades later by René Wiener, son of the eminent historian from Nancy who reorganized the Musée Lorrain in 1871. He travelled all over Europe in search of Jewish ceremonial objects and bequeathed his major collection of some three hundred and fifty items to the Musée Lorrain.

Several remarkable private collections were constituted before the 1930s in Europe: the Lesser Gieldzinski Collection, donated by this expert to the Jewish community in Danzig (now Gdansk) in 1904; the Benjamin Mintz collection in Warsaw, now in the Jewish Museum in New York; the Nauheim Collection, shown at Jüdisches Museum in Frankfurt in 1937; the Solomon Collection, published in 1930; the Howitt Collection, dispersed in 1932; the Kirchstein Colllection, sold in 1932; and the Feuchtwanger Collection, permanently loaned to the Bezalel Museum in Jerusalem in 1936.

In 1902, Hadji Ephraim Benguiat, an antique dealer from Smyrna (now Izmir), exhibited his fabulous collection of books and objects linked to Sephardi culture and the history of the communities in the Orient and the Ottoman Empire at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. He wrote in 1931: “[…] the Jew could not preserve his treasures because he has been practically always with a travelling bag on his shoulders and without knowing where he would go. Therefore any antiquities saved from the repeated catastrophes and diaspora are of the greatest value, even if they do not always have the quality and value of the antiquities of other peoples.”