On May 30, 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte issued an imperial decree calling for an “Assembly of Jewish Notables” to answer questions regarding the loyalty of newly emancipated French Jews to the French state. The assembly, convened two months after the French dictator’s decree was issued, consisted of 112 prominent Jewish businessmen, financiers, rabbis and scholars. Napoleon, among his many questions to the Jewish leadership, asked if Jews were allowed to marry Christians. He also wanted to know if Jews considered Frenchmen “as brethren or as strangers.”

The questions seemed strange to the Jewish leaders, even shocking. Fifteen years earlier, the French state emancipated its Jews, giving them citizenship and equality with all citizens of France. Jews, while not leaders of the French Revolution, did support the overthrow of the ancien regime and fought to defend the newly emerging nation-state against foreign invaders. Napoleon’s queries into Jewish loyalty were both insulting and demoralizing.

Nevertheless, the Assembly of Notables bent over backwards to prove to the French dictator that French Jews were loyal Frenchmen to the core.

Perhaps the Jewish leaders of France 200 years ago should not have been surprised by Napoleon’s questions.

The French revolutionaries stated the ground rules of the emancipation of the Jews with utter clarity: Everything to the Jews as individuals, but nothing to the Jews as a nation. The ground rules for the granting of citizenship were that Jews had to deny themselves the status of a national group and had to transfer that national allegiance to France.

After 1789, Jewish identity in France was solely religious and a private matter. That was the logic of the revolution: no Jewish law courts, no Jewish self-government, and no Jewish national identity. Every Jew in France was a “French citizen of the Mosaic faith.” There could be no Jewish state within a French state. The public identity of the Jew was his or her French identity.

Most enlightened Europeans expected Jewish identity to wither under the terms of the granting of citizenship.

Why would any Jew want to continue being Jewish if offered the great privilege of equality with the Christian majority? Immanuel Kant, the greatest thinker of the German Enlightenment and a friend of the Jews, expected nothing less than the death of Judaism with the granting of emancipation to the Jews of Europe.

While it is true that most Jews in France embraced citizenship – after years of living as a barely tolerated minority it was clear to them that equality was a blessing – there is little doubt that the agenda of the emancipators was not benign. As the Zionists realized in the century after emancipation, the granting of citizenship to Jews in France was not to benefit the Jews but to fulfill the “logic of the Revolution.” What looked good on paper was not fulfilled in reality. That reality was that Jews had lived as a nation apart from Christians and Muslims throughout the lands of the exile. In the Diaspora, Jews did not possess a homeland and sovereignty. But religious practice and self-government maintained a legal, social and theological bond among Jews, from North Africa to Poland.

Halachah – Jewish law – was the constitution of all Jews, whether in the pagan, Christian or Muslim realm.

Medieval Jews – unlike their modern counterparts – were not plagued by the self-hatred produced by dual identity. As Jews today, none of us want to return to the status of a tolerated and persecuted minority. But as the great Zionist thinker, Max Nordau, stated: The medieval ghetto Jews knew who they were. The medieval ghetto was not a prison, but a psychological refuge.

EMANCIPATION, IN many ways, was a form of imperialism and colonialism. While Jews did not have a homeland to be colonized, the condescension of European Christians toward Jews and Judaism was as racist as the “white man’s burden” of European colonizers in Africa and Asia. The granting of citizenship was not as lethal as King Leopold’s rape of the Belgian Congo more than 100 years ago. But the psychological effects of Enlightenment and Emancipation were devastating.

When 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine – born a Jew but a convert to Lutheranism - described Judaism as a “thousand-year old family affliction,” he was only expressing the inner torture of the modern Jew who is forced to deny his own age-old identity as an embarrassing fossil and show his love for a superior civilization that is not his own. That so many Jews followed Heine in this form of self-debasement is tragic.

What shocked journalist Theodor Herzl during the framing of Captain Alfred Dreyfus was not the anti-Semitism of Parisians crying “Death to the Jews!” What appalled Herzl was that Dreyfus, like Herzl himself, was a Jew who in every way carried out his end of the bargain in the scheme of Emancipation, but was rejected anyway.

The Nazi destruction of European Jewry decades after the Dreyfus Affair only confirmed that Emancipation was a terrible, deadly and tragic delusion.

Jews in America did not have to undergo the process of Emancipation – they were granted equal rights as citizens and were given religious freedom from the creation of the Republic. But it would be a mistake to believe that the “New World” was totally immune from the realities of the Europe.

Founding Fathers such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were sons of the Enlightenment and were inheritors of its prejudice against Judaism. Adams looked forward to the day when Jews would “wear away” certain “asperities and peculiarities” and become “liberal Unitarian Christians.” Jefferson, in a letter to fellow American patriot William Short in 1820, described Judaism as a “superstition” and Jews as a “bloodthirsty race” who worshipped the “local God of Israel.”

Of course, Jefferson was referring to the Jews of the time of Jesus. His support of religious freedom for Jews earned him the loyalty of many Jews in early America. But one can hear the echoes of “the white man’s burden” in the Founding Fathers’ condemnation of Judaism as a primitive religion of Revelation. It should come as no surprise that American Jews are the most secular of all this country’s ethnic groups – the roots of the degradation of their faith is deeply embedded in American history. When identity is based on ethnic food, ethnic culture, ethnic pride – and in a country where politics has supplanted religion for most Jews as the source of their identity – Judaism is at a distinct disadvantage.

The idea that young Jews do not support Israel because of Israeli policy in “the occupied territories” is ridiculous.

We suffer from the alienation born of self-hatred and inferiority, despite all our successes. Our malady as American Jews is systemic. It is rooted in the reality of our modern history. We are the heirs of Heine.

The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.

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