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Author: Edward Kessler
Editors: Edward Kessler and Neil Wenborn
Date: 2005
A Dictionary of Jewish-Christian Relations
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 5)

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From the Roman period until the present Jews have lived in France, which currently hosts Europe's largest Jewish community (600,000). The first documented community, in 465, was located in Brittany. At that time the Council of Vannes prohibited Christian clergy from taking their meals with Jews (thus suggesting good social relations between Jews and Christians). At other provincial councils bishops adopted measures to separate Jews and Christians and to mark the inferiority of the former, a tendency reinforced by Agobard, who condemned Christians for celebrating the Sabbath with Jews. During the eighth century Jews were active in commerce and medicine, and the Carolingian emperors allowed them to become accredited purveyors in the imperial court and involved in agriculture and especially viticulture, which they dominated, even providing wine for mass.

The Crusades had comparatively little effect on the Jews of France, but were followed by a long period of persecution. In some cities, such as Beziers, Jews were forced to pay a special tax every Palm Sunday. In Toulouse Jewish representatives had to go to the cathedral on a weekly basis to have their ears boxed, and France's first blood libel charge occurred in Blois in 1171 when 31 Jews, having rejected baptism, were burned at the stake. The cathedral of Notre Dame in Strasbourg, with its two statues, Ecclesia and Synagoga (c.1230), demonstrates the traditional Adversus Judaeos approach.

The situation worsened during the rule of King Philip Augustus (r.1180–1223), who imprisoned all Jews in his lands and demanded a ransom for their release. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council forced Jews to wear a badge in the provinces of Languedoc, Normandy and Provence (see yellow badge ). In 1240 Jews were expelled from Brittany, and numerous disputations and anti-Jewish tracts were published. A notorious Talmud trial took place in Paris and 24 cartloads of the Talmud were burned in 1242, marking the decline in northern France of talmudic study, which had been built up by scholars such as Rashi. Violence against Jews culminated in their definitive expulsion from France in 1394, but the Jews of Avignon and Comtat Venaissin were spared Page 160  |  Top of Articlea similar fate by papal intervention. Indeed the Jewish communities in that region were known as 'the Pope's Jews' and flourished.

From the 1500s Marranos settled in France, followed by Jews from Poland and Ukraine fleeing the Chmeilnicki massacres of 1648. Anti-Jewish laws began to be repealed in the 1780s, and the French Revolution granted Jews citizenship as individuals while depriving them of their group privileges. Voltaire called for religious tolerance but also described Jews in ways that suggested they had innate negative qualities. Napoleon considered the Jews 'a nation within a nation' and decided to create a Jewish communal structure sanctioned by the state, ordering the convening of a Grand Sanhedrin which paved the way for the formation of the consistorial system, making Judaism a recognised religion under government control.

While the situation improved for Jews thereafter, the 1840 Damascus Affair, which was one of the latest examples of the blood libel charge, led to outbreaks of anti-Jewish disorder in 1848. An upsurge of antisemitism began in the late 1800s, and Jews were blamed for the collapse of the Union Générale, a leading Catholic bank. The Dreyfus affair took place against this background, motivating Theodor Herzl to write his book The Jewish State in 1896 and Emile Zola (1840–1902) his article J'accuse …! and eventually led to the 1905 law separating Church and state.

When Germany invaded on 10 May 1940 an estimated 300,000 Jews lived in France. Twenty-five per cent perished in the Holocaust, a significantly lower proportion than in other European countries. France became a haven for postwar refugees, and within 25 years its Jewish population tripled. In 1948 the Amitié Judéo-Chrétienne was founded with the aim of improving relations between Christians and Jews, but the Finaly Case demonstrated ongoing obstacles, as did Jean-Paul Sartre's (1905–80) influential book Anti-Semite and Jew, in which he wrote that antisemitism 'derives not from thought but from fear of oneself and of truth … In a word, anti-Semitism is fear of being alive.' Nevertheless, individual figures such as Jules Isaac made a significant contribution to fostering better relations between Jews and Christians, and since 1965 and the publication of Nostra Aetate the Catholic Church in France has been at the forefront of condemning antisemitism. In 1997 the French bishops issued a 'declaration of repentance' for Catholic failings during the Holocaust. The Jewish community is currently facing growing antisemitism, notably among some French Muslims, stimulated in part by the increasing violence in the Middle East since 2002.

                                 EDWARD KESSLER

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2539800256