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The French Revolution, Napoleon and the Jews



with Dr. Frances Malino, Wellesley College

Thursday, November 21

6:30 PM


Until the French Revolution, France’s Jews were mired in insecurity, expelled by kings greedy to steal their wealth, invited back to create more while still subject to restrictive legislation. But influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment, after a series of contentious debates, the French revolutionaries offered Jews the full rights of citizenship in 1791— and Napoleon affirmed them, even as he placed new regulations on the tiny community. How did Enlightenment ideals and prejudices shape the emancipation of French Jewry? And what was the goal of Napoleon’s reorganization of Jewish life?


For a thousand years, French Jews have swung on a pendulum from triumph to tragedy.

The Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center is proud to sponsor a 7-part lecture series in collaboration with the Copernic Synagogue in Paris, to explore that complex story, at once so familiar and entirely alien to many American Jews.

Some of the greatest Jewish rabbis, composers and thinkers, going as far back as Rashi and his grandson Rebenu Tam, have made France their home. Despite their wide-ranging successes, France’s Jews are no strangers to the woes of the modern Jewish experience.

Jews have long occupied an ambivalent place in France. In medieval times, they were reviled and expelled, forced to wear special clothing and barred from most occupations. With the Revolution of 1789, they became the first Jews in the world to be granted equal citizenship under the law. And in the political culture that developed around the ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité, this vibrant and diverse community of over half a million — the largest in Europe, third largest in the world — has thrived, leaving a visible mark on the arts and business, politics, literature, philosophy and the professions.

Yet ancient suspicions have lingered. Some of the same Enlightenment thinkers who inspired the Revolution also passed down a deep antipathy to Jews that flared into the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s. During World War II, one-quarter of French Jewry was deported to Nazi death camps. And today, anti-Semitism is resurgent, a chain of murders, beatings and hatred sparking a dramatic rise in Jewish emigration.

This series will explore that paradox between French ideals and Jewish realities and paint a portrait of the diversity and creativity of France’s Jews since the time of the Revolution.

Each lecture will stand on its own, so feel free to attend as many as you wish.


This program is sponsored by the Streicker family and Dr. Masha Mimran