Jewish History in France

  • "Mémorial de Caen" museum

    "Mémorial de Caen" museum

    © ATOUT FRANCE/CDT Calvados/CDT Calvados

Jewish History in France

The Jewish History in france begins nearly two millennia ago, after the Romans conquered the area now known as Paris.

We have hints, although not much physical proof, that small Jewish settlements existed in Metz, Poitiers, and Avignon. But for solid evidence we must move ahead to the fifth century and the tiny Jewish communities in Brittany, Clermont-Ferrand, Narbonne, Agde, Valence, and Orléans. For centuries since then, France has been an important center of European Jewish life and scholarship, fostered, in part, by enforced 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 theTalmud, and for writers and composers of Jewish literature and liturgy. Among the 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 acronym RASHI. In addition to giving the Jewish world some of its greatest scholars, France and its Jewish community have given the whole world many renowned figures in the arts, literature, industry, and politics, among them Sarah Bernhardt, Marc Chagall, André Citroën, Jacques Derrida, Darius Milhaud, Nostradamus, Jacques Offenbach, Camille Pisarro, and Marcel Proust. Jewish Civil Rights The history of the Jewish community in France has been a turbulent one. Although, in the earliest years of the modern era, there was harmony between the Jewish minority and the Christian majority, over the centuries religious differences turned into virulent hatreds, social ostracism, and horrific bloodshed. However, at end of the 18th century, liberalizing forces were in the air. The French Revolution of 1789 would forever alter the lives of all French people, including the Jews of France.

 

The first important changes came in the form of civil rights for Jews, 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 clerical and noble privilege.

When these rights were finally granted, in the early 19th century, after long enforced absences from the capital, Jews were once again able to live in Paris as well as other major cities. 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 Napoléon 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. 

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) would have far reaching consequences for both France and her Jewish citizens, especially during the subsequent rise of the French Third Republic, which saw an increase in anti-Semitism as a political device to divert attention away from societal 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's 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. 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 collaboration of some of its own citizens. In fact, until recently, the subject was completely taboo. Unofficially, though, it was a subject of literature and film: Marcel Ophuls's 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 collusion 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, Jacques Chirac spoke at the newly established memorial to the victims ofthe 1942 .

Vélodrome d'Hiver roundup 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. At over 600,000 people, the Jewish community in France today is the third largest in the world.

Anti-Jewish Violence

Today Since the rash of incidents in April 2002, anti-Jewish violence in France has been on the decline. There were claims that the violence represented a return to government-tolerated anti-Jewish behavior. Although nothing could be further from the truth, the incidents have generated understandable apprehensions. Since 2002, the French government has taken and maintained special security measures to protect Jewish institutions.
As you travel, let common sense prevail. Exercise the same caution you would anywhere. And please be patient and comply with the requests of security personnel.