The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present

The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present

The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present

The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present


In the first English-language edition of a general, synthetic history of French Jewry from antiquity to the present, Esther Benbassa tells the intriguing tale of the social, economic, and cultural vicissitudes of a people in diaspora. With verve and insight, she reveals the diversity of Jewish life throughout France's regions, while showing how Jewish identity has constantly redefined itself in a country known for both the Rights of Man and the Dreyfus affair. Beginning with late antiquity, she charts the migrations of Jews into France and traces their fortunes through the making of the French kingdom, the Revolution, the rise of modern anti-Semitism, and the current renewal of interest in Judaism.As early as the fourth century, Jews inhabited Roman Gaul, and by the reign of Charlemagne, some figured prominently at court. The perception of Jewish influence on France's rulers contributed to a clash between church and monarchy that would culminate in the mass expulsion of Jews in the fourteenth century. The book examines the re-entry of small numbers of Jews as New Christians in the Southwest and the emergence of a new French Jewish population with the country's acquisition of Alsace and Lorraine.The saga of modernity comes next, beginning with the French Revolution and the granting of citizenship to French Jews. Detailed yet quick-paced discussions of key episodes follow: progress made toward social and political integration, the shifting social and demographic profiles of Jews in the 1800s, Jewish participation in the economy and the arts, the mass migrations from Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, the Dreyfus affair, persecution under Vichy, the Holocaust, and the postwar arrival of North African Jews.Reinterpreting such themes as assimilation, acculturation, and pluralism, Benbassa finds that French Jews have integrated successfully without always risking loss of identity. Published to great acclaim in France, this book brings important current issues to bear on the study of Judaism in general, while making for dramatic reading.


The history of the Jews of France is an integral part of the history of the Jews as a people. Prior to 1789, the Jews of France played a central role in Jewish history as a particular incarnation of the multisecular existence of a people in diaspora, deprived of territory. They have continued to do so since then, by introducing into this history an essential rupture, pregnant with “messianic” hopes, and a new departure, legally consecrated by emancipation and its corollary, citizenship, that represent the inclusion of the excluded. From that moment onward, France represented liberty—the Rights of Man—and stood as a model both in the imagination of its Jewish citizens and in that of Jews elsewhere, not only in Europe, but throughout the Near East. And while emancipation occurred only gradually in other countries, and not at all in some, in their minds France never fell from the pedestal that it had come to occupy in the concert of nations.

This book is intended chiefly as a synthesis. It draws upon classic works as well as the most recent and most innovative research. I have not written it, however, simply to add another stone to an edifice slowly and patiently constructed by my predecessors. The abundance of existing works on the Jews of France, and the diversity of the viewpoints found in them, are proof of the lively interest they have aroused in an era of heightened historical consciousness, when the descendants of the new Jewish citizens of the Revolution began to treasure their history and to inquire into the origins of their present place in French society; and also of the interest they have aroused outside France. Some of the most daring works on the Jews of France have been produced by scholars living in other lands.

As a specialist on the Jews of southeastern Europe and the Near East, I find myself confronted regularly with a reality that cannot be ignored: France—its history and the history of its Jews—has profoundly affected the contemporary history of Jewish peoples living far outside its borders. By providing a model that is both validated and validating, it has shaped the self-perception of these peoples no less than the course of their individual and collective histories, which in their turn are almost organically linked to France—that coveted “elsewhere.”

Indeed, the Jewish leadership of France, proud of its achievements, convinced of the superiority of a country so generous to its Jews, and filled with gratitude toward it, labored to bring about the Frenchification of fellow Jews in the East. It tried to impose upon them, from above, a voluntarist style of westernization, with its own pattern of emancipation, and to give them a French-style education nourished by dreams of France. The . . .

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