The prime minister of France, Manuel Valls, is rewriting French history inaccurately in an effort to make his country sound more tolerant of Jews than it actually is.
Mr. Valls made his comments to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Monthly, who reported
over the weekend that the French prime minister said, “The choice was made by the French Revolution in 1789 to recognize Jews as full citizens . . . To understand what the idea of the republic is about, you have to understand the central role played by the emancipation of the Jews. It is a founding principle.”
Mr. Valls also told Mr. Goldberg, in an interview that took place before Friday’s massacre at a kosher market, that, “Jews were sometimes marginalized in France, but this was not Spain or other countries — they were never expelled, and they play a role in the life of France that is central.”
Both comments amount to a whitewash, a falsification of the reality of French anti-Semitism. And given that the state of history education in America is so abysmal that we can barely understand our own history, let alone France’s, it’s worth a brief review of the facts to clarify the contexts of both the deadly attacks on Charlie Hebdo and on the kosher market.
Begin with the claim that Jews “were never expelled” from France, unlike Spain. Nonsense. Encyclopaedia Judaica reports that in 1182, King Philip Augustus decreed the expulsion of Jews from France and the confiscation of their real estate. The Jews of France were expelled, and their property seized, again in 1306 by the ironically named King Philip IV the Fair. The Jews were expelled from France yet again in 1322 by Philip V, and one more time by Charles VI on 1394.
The Encyclopaedia Judaica allows that this last decree, “properly speaking” was “not actually an expulsion but rather a refusal to renew the right of residence.” Yet the result was the same — the Jews left. An account at the website of the British Broadcasting Company has the same dates for the series of expulsions.
More recently, in the 1940s, “some 77,000 Jews living on French territory perished in
concentration camps and killing centers — the overwhelming majority of them at Auschwitz — or died in detention on French soil,” the website of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum reports.
“Expelled” is a fine word — perhaps too kind a word — to describe the fate of the tens of thousands of Jews who were taken by train from Drancy, a concentration camp in the suburbs of Paris, to their deaths in Nazi gas chambers.
As for the supposedly salubrious effects of the French Revolution on the Jews, even there the story is far more complicated than Valls’ French fairy tale. The Encyclopaedia Judaica’s France article reports that during the terror that followed the French Revolution, “synagogues were closed down and the communal organizations abolished as a consequence of the general tendency to suppress all religious institutions.”
It’s that anti-religious feeling — the ideology that led to the sacking of Paris churches and even the institution of a new Revolutionary calendar in an effort to obliterate Christmas, Easter, and the Sabbath — that can be seen echoed in some of the Charlie Hebdo content deriding not only Islam but also Judaism and Christianity.
And it may have something to do with why the Charlie Hebdo victims have generated more visible sympathy and public support in France than have the victims of the kosher supermarket attack.
On Sunday, I attended a rally on Boston Common organized by the French consul general. “Je Suis Charlie,” said the printed signs being distributed to the crowd. I took a pen from my pocket and scribbled my own message on the back side of the sign — “Je Suis Juif."
With France’s Jewish community now the world’s third-largest in population after those of Israel and America, it’s an embattled minority that deserves a defense just as much as the irreverent cartoonists do. But a proper defense starts with the somewhat grim facts, not with some phony account of France as some kind of Jerusalem-on-the-Seine.
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