17. The French Cultural exception

17.5 Anti-semitism and Chauvinism

The repulsive extermination of the European Jews between 1933 and 1945 and the ensuing vigorous propaganda of the Jewish communities systematically presenting themselves thereafter as the sole and perpetual victims entitled by right to endless reparations and by right also pretending to be the privileged defenders of all racially oppressed minorities enshrine the Jew 4 in a deceitful light. We feel Mitleid, regardless of the true nature of the Orthodox Jew, even if the contemporary behavior towards Palestinians of Israel, led by a rabid ultra-conservative religious government, is a vivid demonstration of the inhumane nature of his Weltanschauung.

Philippe August expelled the Jews and Lombards from the French kingdom in 1214. The kingdom was from then on “Judenfrei” except some small Sephardim communities originating from Spain and Portugal, who had settled in the English continental possessions of Francia (Guyenne, Poitou, Bordelais, etc) and in the Imperial lands (the right bank of the Rhône river, Provence) later on incorporated into the kingdom. In the XVIIth century, they were no more than 20,000, living relatively well. A sizable influx of about 20,000 additional Jews occurred after the annexation of Lorraine, Franche-Comté and Alsace, following the treaty of Westphalia that concluded in 1648 the Thirty Years War. These Jews of Eastern origin (Ashkenazi) were ambulatory merchants, often derelict and uncouth, given to mendacity, spoke Yiddish and German, and were perceived as foreign. The Sephardim Jews and the Christians rejected them.

A change in mentality occurred in the XVIIth century and the hatred of the Jew simmered in France before the nationalistic revolution. Blaise Pascal, to protect the Jews from mishandling, advanced that their derelict lives were an example for Christians, hence they should be tolerated. The mention by Pascal of their squalid ghettos indicates a dismal economic situation that was not particular to the Ashkenazi Jews but was the situation of the immense majority of the population of peasants and artisans of the kingdom, at that time (see fig.16.11). The exasperation of the aversion towards them, manifest a century later (e.g. expressed by Voltaire), was neither gratuitous nor fortuitous but prompted as much by the evolution of the Jewish mentality as by that of the Christian mentality. The access of mediocre minds to a religious literature of hatred and the rise of the national sentiment affected also the Jewish communities, who have their own literature of hatred. An indication of this change in mentality was the treatment inflicted to Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) by the Jewish community of Amsterdam, which resented the acuity of his critics of the Torah. He escaped an attempt at assassination, was forbidden to become a rabbi, was excommunicated in 1656 and was expelled from the city.

The wars sponsored by Louis XIII and Louis XIV in the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries considerably reduced the level of the Christian population of France, Germany and the Low Countries but did not affect the size of the Jewish population. It increased in size, especially from 1700 on. Some Alsatian Jews, a tiny minority expert in the trade of horses, enriched themselves considerably by supplying the French armies in horses and material but a large majority of Jews and peasants remained poor. The survival of the peasants in war-torn countries became problematic with the advent of the Little Ice Age. Inclement weather spelled famines. The expertise of Jews in the lending of money became precious when the increase of taxes, of armed forces, of war and of capitalistic ventures drove the rural population into misery. To survive, the farmers resorted to loans. Jews, to whom farming and many other professions were forbidden, lend to them with usury, also to survive, because they had no other income.

The geographic proximity of the Jews and their intimate knowledge of the needs of the peasants, their mastery of writing and reading, their intellectual sophistication and familiarity with banking operations rapidly gave them economical command over the life of whole villages of peasants. The development of cemeteries 5 and the building of synagogues in villages and small towns, whose opulence competed with Christian churches, attested to their numerical strength and their wealth. The rising national sentiment of the Jews who began to view themselves as a separate Israelite nation, their adherence to the Torah, the awareness of their difference reinforced by its study and the development of a mathematically oriented rationality of thought were no inducement to wield their newly acquired economic power with humanness. Their behavior entered in 1792 in direct conflict with the French concept of equality of citizens within a nation.

For the Inquisition, the Jew was the murderer of the Son of God. What was asked from the Jew was conversion. As soon as the Jew converted he no longer was a Jew. The problem was of a religious nature and could find a solution. The cement of the newly founded French laic Republic was hatred directed against the Gallican Church and the Catholics in general but also against the Jew. The most respected political and moral authorities of the country overtly expressed their aversion for the Jew (e.g. Chateaubriand, de Vigny and Renan), which amplified to the point of advocating their extermination. The hatred flared up in such a way that there was no more any solution possible because the Jew suddenly represented altogether the enemy within and without. The internal logic that governed the mentality of the country forced this attitude on all the social classes of the country, who united to forbid any accommodation with humanness and common sense. For the French aristocrats and noblemen, the Jew had organized the revolution and was responsible for its excesses. The Jew was the murderer of the king. For the French socialists, the Jew was the capitalist, soon embodied by the Rotschilds, who had adulterated the noble goals of the revolution. The impoverishment of the working classes, the advent of Napoleon, the monarchic restoration, the annihilation of the Parisian Commune were all the fault of the Jew. The politicians claimed that the Jew attempted to undermine the Republic, subvert it and take the reins of power. For scientists, the Jew was a grotesque parody of the human race. He represented the most negative, vulgar aspects of human nature. For the Gallic Church, the Jew was responsible for the loss of power of the Church and the laity of the Republic. For the armed forces, the Jew was the traitor who stabbed the country in the back while it was gloriously fighting the whole of Europe with success, until the defeats of Trafalgar, Russia, Spain, Waterloo and 1870. Only treason could explain the ultimate military defeats.

Napoleon amplified the hatred of the Jew with an infamous decree branding them as lazy but cunning usurers. The blind hatred of the Jew culminated in France with the condemnation in 1894 of the Jewish captain Dreyfus, an Alsatian 6 convicted of spying on false charges forged by the military High Command: the extermination of the Jew was then publicly advocated in newspapers. It is to the credit of the socialist political leader Jaures (figure 17.7) that the French socialist party sided with Dreyfus who was eventually rehabilitated.


Jaures was a strongly anti-militarist militant and the defense of Dreyfus also meant an indictment of the army. Jaures was assassinated on July 31, 1914 on the ground that he had weakened the army, and WW I initiated 3 days after the murder. After the defeat of the Central Empires in 1918, an exacerbated nationalism developed in the Germanic part of the dismembered Empires and the hatred of the Jew, already a significant political force in Germany (Anti-Semitic Petition of 1880), amplified and Germany adopted a National Socialist regime.


4. Montaigne (1533-1592) opposed all systematizations and fiercely opposed this overgeneralization that had begun to spoil the Western mode of thinking during his time.

5. R. Weyl: Le cimetière juif de Rosenwiller. Eds. SALDE, 1988

6. The chauvinism of France after the return of Alsace to Germany in 1870 also influenced the Alsatians and, in 1914, 140 French generals of Alsatian origin were ready to engage combat with Germany for the return of Alsace to France. These poor souls had learned nothing from the Dreyfus affair and did not foresee the ignominious lot France reserved to the “treacherous” province once it was recovered.

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