“Jews Are Guilty Unless Proven Innocent” Napoléon I
ED-NOTE – 210 years ago, on Saint Patrick’s Day, Emperor Napoléon I decided to settle once and for all the ‘Jewish Question’ or ‘Jewish Problem’.
Not fully understanding the nature of the disease he was trying to diagnose, Napoleon had first been rather sympathetic to the Jews whom he saw as ‘normal’ French citizens who simply followed a different religion. Indeed, Napoleon and post-monarchy France had done all they could to welcome the 40 000 Jews who had been parasitizing the country into the Brotherhood of Mankind under the French flag. France was the first country to fully emancipate the Jews in 1791; it gave them all the civil liberties everyone else enjoyed, the same rights but also the same duties and responsibilities attached to any citizenship. French Jews were never asked to give up their religion: they were only asked to become real French citizens, with an allegiance to France and the French people alone. But unlike any other people/religious groups who had been granted citizenship with full and equal civil rights, the emancipation of the Jews gave rise to even more problems which the French Revolutionaries did not foresee. And how could they?
In 1807, Napoléon took the first step in trying to solve all the problems the emancipation of the Jews had created and decided to revive the Grand Sanhedrin. Naively believing that rabbis are just like ‘priests’, he put before them 12 questions some of which are extremely revealing as to the practices of Jews of France in that time:
1. Is it lawful for Jews to have more than one wife? (obviously, if polygamy had not been prevalent, he would have never had raised this point) 2. Is divorce allowed in the Jewish religion, and if it is, is it allowed even in contradiction to the codes of French law? 3. Does Jewish law permit a Jewess to marry a Christian man, or a Jew to marry a Christian woman, or may they marry only other Jews? 4. In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen who are not Jewish, considered to be their brethren or strangers? 5. What type of conduct does Jewish law prescribe toward non-Jewish Frenchmen? 6. Do the Jews who are born in France, and have been granted citizenship by the laws of France, truly acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it, to follow its laws, to follow the directions of the civil and court authorities of France? 7. Who elects rabbis? 8. What kind of judicial power do rabbis exercise over the Jews? 9. If there is rabbinical jurisdiction over the Jews, is it regulated by the laws of the Jewish religion or is it merely a custom existing among Jews? 10. Are there professions from which Jews are excluded by Jewish law? 11. Does Jewish law prohibit Jews from taking usury from other Jews? 12. Does Jewish law prohibit Jews from taking usury from non-Jews?
By way of deception they sneakingly played along, lied and said everything Napoléon wanted to hear. Eventually, even Napoléon had enough, understood that the Jews are “the most despicable of men”, understood that Christian Medieval France was right to never allow a Jew to testify in court and issued his Imperial Edict which the Jews call the “Infamous Decree” whereby the Jews were declared guilty until proven innocent.
HAARETZ – 17MAR16 – This Day in Jewish History – 1808: Napoleon Issues Decrees to Frenchify the Jews
The decrees were part of a larger plan on his part to accelerate Jewish assimilation into French society. While two of the decrees were largely administrative in nature, a third, which came to be known as the Infamous Decree, singled out Jews for a number of economic restrictions, and was understandably unpopular among them.
Napoleon, who reigned from 1804 to 1815, could be said to have harbored ambivalent feelings toward the Jews, as his actions reflected. Overall, however, his desire was to see them become fully French, with all that implied.
The first two of this days decrees pertained to the hierarchy that was to be established for control of Frances Jewish communities. Every town with a Jewish population exceeding 2,000 was to have a consistory – a council – with members representing both the senior local rabbis and the communitys lay leadership. The consistories would in turn be under the jurisdiction of a central body in Paris, and would derive their powers from the Ministry of Religions.
The model of the Jewish consistoires was based on that already in place for Frances Roman Catholic and Protestant communities. These consistories also served as a two-way channel to the government, not only helping to enforce official policy at the local level – in particular as it pertained to military service, which was to be strongly encouraged among the Jews – but also as a source of intelligence regarding what was happening in individual communities.
As for the third, Infamous decree, whose terms were to be in effect for a decade, as put by Paula Hyman, the late historian of Jewish-French history, Napoleon expressed his confidence in the efficacy of social engineering through law, expressing the hope that at the end of the ten-year period, there would no longer be any difference between [the Jews] and the other citizens of our empire.
DRAFTING THE JEWS
Erasing the differences meant moving the Jews from being predominantly involved in moneylending and commerce into other walks of life. Among other things, the law voided all outstanding loans Jews had made to women, soldiers and minors, unless the debtors had permission from their husbands, superior officers or parents, respectively. Furthermore, loans with interest rates exceeding 10 percent were canceled outright.
The social engineering element was evident in the decrees intention to transfer Jews into farming or into being small craftsmen. To achieve this, it limited their ability to move around the empire, if such a move did not include the acquisition of land. And they were not permitted to move at all into the Alsace region, which already had a high concentration of them.
In the case of Jews who continued making their living from commerce, they were required to renew their licenses yearly, at which time they also had to bring testimony to the effect they were not indulging in usury.
Additionally, Jews who had been drafted into the armed forces were not permitted to pay someone else to serve in their place, a privilege extended to the rest of the population.
Finally, on July 20, 1808, Napoleon issued a final decree that required all Jews to take on permanent first and family names. These were not include the traditional formulation of son of or daughter of, nor were they permitted to derive from the Bible or from their town of origin.
Eventually, the application of the Infamous Decree was limited to northeast France, and when the period of 10 years was over, Louis XVIII, Napoleons successor elected not to review its terms at all. For this, he earned himself the epithet Liberator of the Jews.
In reality, though, neither the adoption of the decree nor its elimination a decade later had the desired effect of making French Jews like all other Frenchmen, nor did they end the suspicion and in some cases hatred that non-Jews had for them.
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