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