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History of French Jewry – Getting French Citizenship

Jordan Levy-Bograd
Jordan Levy-Bograd

Many Israelis are eligible for a French-European passport. Yet before submitting the declaration and embarking on the official process, it’s advisable to get to know a bit more about the history of French Jews and their illustrious background in the cradle of modern culture.

With over 20 years experience in the field of obtaining European citizenship, our office assists descendants of French natives and those from North African countries in arranging French citizenship and acquiring a French passport.History of French Jewry

History of French Jewry – getting French citizenship

The history of Jews in the Land of the Franks goes back to the time of the Second Temple’s destruction, a period in which the land was known to the Romans as Gaul. Jews apparently first came to the cities of southern France via Rome, and from there headed northward to the commercial cities such as Bordeaux, Lyons, Vienne, etc.

In this early period of settlement, the local authorities did not yet permit French Jews to own land. Despite this obstacle, they thrived in many areas of commerce including winemaking, medicine, tax-collecting and shipping. Due to a lack of written records about the community, it is hard to know the size of the population.

According to archeological sources, the Jewish settlement in France is at least two thousand years old. This can be deduced from an oil jar that was found in the Rhone Valley in southern France. The jar includes a drawing of a seven-branched menora, and according to scientific estimates, it was made in the first century CE.

Official documentation of the community began to be written by the Christian clergy in the 5th century CE. During this century the church promulgated severe prohibitions on the Jews. These prohibitions included disqualifying them to work in public positions, a strict prohibition against converting non-Jews, elimination of close contact with Christian acquaintances, etc. Yet they did not interfere with Jews’ daily life or their rituals.

The Jewish community built synagogues in Roman commercial centers that were along the main trade routes. These could be found in Marseilles, Narbonne, Paris, Orléans, Clermont, etc.

Merging of Jews into the French economy

The Jewish population grew over time and its members became exceptional guild owners in a significant number of business spheres. Their fame spread to the royal palace, and as a result they came all the way there to show their unique wares from far-off Babel. The merchants proudly displayed their luxury goods before famous Frankish kings such as Louis the Pious , Charlemagne, etc. Later they decided to invest their energy in the fruitful, well-watered land, to stay there and raise families.

The guild owners imported luxury goods by ship from the Caucasus region and particularly from the East. These goods, intended to serve the local aristocracy, included gold, papyrus, silk, and a wide assortment of spices from India. The French kings more than once expressed appreciation for the blessing that the Jews were bringing to their land. In response, they issued bills of rights – privileges which legally conferred on the Jews broader rights than the other religious or ethnic minorities in France.

It must be said that in the Middle Ages, Jews were almost the only group in Western Europe which maintained long-term trade relations between the West and the East. Among other things, they provided their kinsmen with Torah scrolls, Torah commentaries, halachic questions and answers, and Talmuds to increase the Jews’ reputation with the regional powers.

So the relations between the Jews and the French developed over the generations, as they lived side by side in friendship. Local documentation has been preserved which recounts that Jews sometimes fell victim to murders by local French natives. This led to vendettas by Christians against their countrymen – for murdering Jews without justification.

Antisemitism becomes acceptable in France

Starting with the period of the Crusades that took place at the end of the 11th century, Christians’ attitude towards Jews took a 180-degree turn. In the wake of extreme social change, Jews were regularly accused in churches of being greedy, Christ-killers, accursed and liars. If before the Crusades, the French authorities required the Christian masses to keep away from the Jews and not assimilate with them, from the Crusader period the situation shifted completely. The authorities launched a “royal project” intended to smear the Jews’ name and stir up the masses’ hatred against them.

Foreign records and folk evidence shows that in the wake of the pogroms, the Jews began to migrate eastward towards the center and eastern portion of the European continent – countries like Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Poland. This was due to the intolerable situation imposed on them, and particularly due to the repeated mass expulsions by monarchs and local municipal rulers.

Yet in most cases, the monarchs eventually revoked the expulsion orders and permitted the Jews to return and build their communities as in the past. Generally they were permitted to return after some number of years, when they were still located in the French border regions and had not gotten far away. Thus, a relatively broad Jewish core always remained, and over time included famous Torah interpreters and highly educated scholars, and even individuals of high economic status.

On the one hand, as a result of the repeated, destructive murders and the repercussions of the Black Plague (in which the Jews were accused of intentionally poisoning wells), Jewish leaders decided to keep their heads down and maintain perpetual social isolation from the hostile French population. This was a deep change in Jewish life, and from here on the Jews tried to withdraw into themselves and guard against social unrest. However, it was particularly during this critical period that they developed illustrious individuals and leaders.

At the same time, the rabbinical geniuses wrote the collection of Talmudic commentaries known as “Tosafot”. Commentators, kabbalists, lyricists and legendary rabbis such as Rabbenu Tam, Rashi, Rashbam, Rabbi, Samson of Sens, etc., were raised and immortalized in Jewish scripture forever.

History of French Jewry

Settlement of Spanish expellees and their assimilation into French society

At the end of the 15th century, a large community of Spanish expellees arrived in southern France. A significant portion of the Spanish families headed northward to the central region and settled in central commercial cities such as Bordeaux, Lyons, Toulouse, Nîmes, Montpelier, etc. In this period these cities served wealthy merchants, investors, and prominent capitalists.

In addition, in contrast to Ashkenazi French Jewry, who espoused the religious worldview, clinging to the Torah, the Jews newly arrived from Spain, with its world-renowned culture, adopted secular attitudes and arts. These mostly integrated with the Christian natives and assimilated with the upper-class Christians. The Sephardim sometimes chose to distance themselves from their Ashkenazi brethren due to the significant cultural gap, cultural background and obvious class differences.

As a direct result of massive emigrations, as well as the high assimilation rate among Sephardic Jews, at the beginning of the 19th century, the number of Jews in France was estimated at only 44,000. However, their numbers would grow exponentially due to massive immigrations, particularly from North Africa.

The Crémieux Decree – the French treaty regarding North African Jews

The Crémieux Decree, named for the French-Jewish Parliament member Adolphe Crémieux, was approved and issued in France in 1870. The unprecedented law recognized Algerian Jews as French citizens with full rights. This was In contrast to native Muslim Algerians, who were not recognized by the French authorities as subjects with equal rights.

While Algerian Jews received French citizenship naturally, the Muslims were required to abandon their religion in order for the French legislature to recognize them as ordinary citizens. As a result, they remained in an inferior status according to French regulations regarding natives.

If the Muslims chose submit a declaration to obtain citizenship, they were obligated to submit it formally in writing, while declaring that they had chosen to renounce their religion and all the obligations related to it. However, even in this situation, the applications were rarely accepted by the French authorities.

The unusual class differences which became routine in Algeria raised the level of the ancient tension between the Muslim and Jewish communities. Until that time the Muslims had viewed Jews as subordinates due to their lower religious status. However, from the moment that the Jews surpassed the Muslims socially, this sparked their hostility towards their Jewish fellow countrymen.

This came together with the Muslims’ repeated attempts over many years to throw off the yoke of the foreign-infidel French rule. The Muslims could not stand being ruled by Christians. These internal political tensions were the main factor leading to Algerian Jews’ mass emigration to France.

A year after the French conquest, the first civil uprising broke out due to the draconian French laws. The chaos led the local leaders to hold urgent meetings, in which it was proposed to cancel the Crémieux Decree. Ultimately the proposal was rejected out of concern that restricting the Jews would result in refusal/distancing of cooperation with European Jewish stockholders. The latter’s economic support was essential to the French authorities.

The riots and hooliganism which took place in Algeria led to severe accusations against Jews by both Muslims and French Christians. This in turn caused tens of thousands of Jews to emigrate to France, as noted.

The Cremieux Decree also affected Tunisian and Moroccan Jews

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, France expanded the territory it controlled in North Africa. After conquering most of Algeria, it turned its attention towards Tunisia and Morocco. After conquering those as well, France instituted the same policy towards the Jews that it had used in Algeria. And similarly, significant numbers of Tunisian and Moroccan Jews emigrated.

Jews from the North African protectorate integrated rapidly into French society. They achieved high positions and respected status, in fields such as law, politics, medicine, philosophy, theater, etc. Here are a few names of important figures of North African extraction who stood out in their fields: Bernard Amsalem, president of the French Athletics Federation; David Guetta, possibly the most famous D.J. and music creator in the world; Jean Francois Copé, politician and former French Minister of the Budget, the singer Enrico Macias, and more.

Thousands of descendants of emigrants from North Africa or France are eligible for a French-European passport. Obtaining a French passport grants a wide range of exclusive options reserved solely for citizens of the European Union. These include advantages like free passage between European countries, work and residence in EU countries for an unlimited amount of time, medical care at the rate of a local resident, subsidized studies, and more.

Contact us – history of French Jewry – getting French citizenship

 An attorney for French citizenship, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Our office help acquire French citizenship for those of Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan extraction. If you also think that you are eligible for citizenship, but are not 100% sure, we will be happy to help you find out. Contact us at the telephone numbers or email address below.

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