Napoleon, the Jews

and French Muslims


By Michael Goldfarb


PARIS Not all stories from the past have relevance today. But here is one not very well-known story about the Jews in Napoleonic France that has much relevance to French Muslims in our own time.


Two hundred years ago, in one of his lesser-known demonstrations of megalomania,


Napoleon, who had morphed in a few short years from a servant of the French Republic to emperor, reconvened what he called the Great Sanhedrin a name taken from the governing body of the Jewish community under the Roman Empire. This council of French Jewish leaders was summoned to resolve a series of issues left unsettled since the French Revolution.


In September 1791, the National Assembly had granted Jews full citizenship, making France the first country in Europe to give them civil rights. This was not done entirely in the spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity. The hope was that by unlocking the ghetto gates and removing all restrictions on employment and movement, Jews would stop acting like a separate nation within France and ineluctably become French.


But legal emancipation is not social emancipation. Complaints that the Jews were stuck in their old ways persisted, particularly in Alsace and Lorraine, where the majority of the community lived.


To find out if there was something in Jewish law and custom preventing integration, Napoleon summoned a council of Jewish leaders and put to them 12 questions about Jewish laws and customs. To modern eyes, these questions combine ignorance, condescension and insensitivity. One was: Are Jews allowed to have more than one wife? Another: Can a Jew marry a Christian?


But the more important questions related to the transition a marginalized people were making to a new idea of citizenship: Jews born in France were treated by the law as citizens, did they regard France as their country? Did they feel they had an obligation to defend it?


In response to Napoleon's questions, 200 years ago this month, a group composed of 71 leading rabbis and businessmen met in the Hotel de Ville in Paris to deliberate on their responses and present them to the emperor. Their answers stated what is now considered obvious, that there was nothing inherent in the religion preventing full integration of the Jewish community into French life. Twelve months later, by imperial decree, the Jewish confession was brought under state control. Jews were obligated to take French names and had to apply annually for a license to do business.


And here is where the story is relevant to our times. French public opinion about Muslims today echoes public opinion about Jews 200 years ago. "They" are not integrating, "they" remain separate. Recently, after much legal wrangling, a Muslim school opened in Lyon. It was the third to open in recent years and a poll in Le Figaro showed that 76 percent of French people opposed the creation of such schools, even though there are Jewish and Christian private schools in France.


When a French Muslim student is forbidden to wear a hijab to school it excites debate about the meaning of secularism in France. The definitions of that term echo the words in the debates about Jews at the time of Napoleon.


And, although modern politicians would not be so insensitive as to put the questions as bluntly as Napoleon, it is not difficult to imagine French cabinet ministers (or cabinet ministers in any European country) wondering about the role of imams in deciding legal matters in the Muslim community; or, given the radical movements sweeping global Islam, wanting to ask young Muslims whether they regard the French as their brothers or strangers? And, to whom do they owe first allegiance, their country or their faith?


On March 11, in the same exceptionally grand room at the Hotel de Ville where their forefathers met, French Jews marked the bicentenary of that event. The words on every speaker's lips were integration and community and patriotism and faith. Speaker after speaker testified that all were compatible with one another.


Sitting in the back of the hall, as the ceremony reached its conclusion with the French Army's choir singing La Marseillaise, a couple of thoughts and one question came to mind.


The price of integration for the minority was not cheap. The practice of Judaism today would be unrecognizable to the recently emancipated Jews of Napoleon's time. Those changes were made necessary by the requirements of integration. Second, there has always been a section of the French majority that has rejected Jewish attempts at integration. Yet despite the Dreyfus Affair and the Holocaust, French Jewish patriotism was undiminished.


The question was: Could one imagine a ceremony at the Hotel de Ville in 200 years where the Muslim community reaffirms its commitment to French definitions of secularism, integration, faith and patriotism?


Michael Goldfarb is currently writing a history of Jewish Emancipation from the French Revolution to the Dreyus Affair.