The French connection
The first country in which the question of dual loyalties and mixed identity became an issue was France. This is natural, as it was in France that the question of changing the relationship to the Jewish community by including them in the new French nation was first raised, at the time of the French Revolution. The question of emancipating the Jews was discussed in 1789, at a time when vital questions of reorganization of French society were on the agenda of the National Assembly, the chief decision-making body in the country at that time.
The specific question under consideration was whether to allow the Jews to become part of the new national structure that was being planned, by removing the restrictions that had been placed on them generations ago and allowing them equality with all other French people. This was not a crucial practical question for the French legislators: the Jews of France numbered only a few tens of thousands in a population of many millions. It was, however, a question of important principles. The National Assembly had recently passed a statement of reforming principles entitled the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. In this they had promised an end to all discriminatory and particularistic legislation and endorsed the idea of religious freedom for all. The laws that had been aimed at other groups had all been cancelled; the Jews were now the only group targeted by special legislation that mandated inequality. The question of the unpopular Jews was thus a test case of the determination of the Assembly to act on their principles.
The question was debated back and forth as the supporters and opponents of the idea of Jewish emancipation fought for supremacy. Many were opposed to the idea, arguing that the Jews had no interest in being part of the French nation. They saw themselves as a separate nation and were incapable of becoming ‘French.’
Most liberals were supportive of the idea, however. One leader of the liberal camp who led the fight for Jewish rights was a nobleman, Count Stanislas de Clermont Tonnerre. In a stirring speech to the Assembly he put forward a very strong case, arguing that the reformers must be consistent. Either they should deny emancipation to the Jews - in which case they must tear up their blueprint document, the aforementioned Declaration - or they must grant the Jews the same equality as everyone else. There was no other option, he argued vehemently.
Having argued his case, however, he continued by suggesting a condition for Jewish emancipation. In one of the most famous statements in modern Jewish history, he said the following:
The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals. They must be citizens…It is intolerable that the Jews should become a separate political formation or class in the country. Every one of them must individually become a citizen. If they do not want this, they must inform us and we shall then be compelled to expel them. The existence of a nation within a nation is unacceptable to our country.
Count de Clermont Tonnerre
This was the bottom line: the Jews should be accepted if they so desired, but at the price of giving up their national identity. It must be remembered that this statement was made by one of the strongest supporters of Jewish emancipation. The statement eloquently and clearly encapsulated one of the greatest dilemmas that the modern Jew faces. In order to belong, the Jews must lose part of what had defined them throughout their previous history.
The vote was not won that day; within two years, however, the Jews of France were indeed emancipated, having indicated their great willingness to be counted as part of the French nation. In so doing, they paved the way for other Western communities, where the same bargain was struck - sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly.
In following years, the Jews of France found themselves under careful surveillance from a suspicious French public. Were they sticking to the bargain, or trying to get round it? Their many opponents constantly accused them of exploiting France’s generosity to improve their own position without giving what they were meant to give in return.
When Napoleon came to power a few years later, he heard these accusations against the Jews and determined to test whether they were keeping their word. In 1806, he summoned to Paris a convocation of over one hundred Jewish notables - financiers and business people, scholars and rabbis - to answer a series of questions.
The questions were difficult. It was clear to those assembled that they needed to formulate answers that would be acceptable to Napoleon. To do anything else could lead to an abrogation of the legislation that had made the Jews free citizens of France. On the other hand, the rabbis and halachic experts among them must not go against their own legal traditions: they could not lie.
Some of the questions related to intermarriage, rabbinic authority and economic issues. However, the following three questions dealt with issues of national identity:
1. In the eyes of [French] Jews, are Frenchmen considered brothers or strangers?
2. What conduct does Jewish law prescribe towards Frenchmen not of that religion?
3. Do the Jews born in France and treated by the law as French citizens consider France their country? Are they bound to defend it?
The assembly met over many days and slowly formulated their answers to all of the questions. Napoleon accepted their answers, and the Jews remained part of French society, enjoying all the legal rights of every other citizen, although many French people continued to ask similar questions. The assembly’s answers have remained relevant to Western Jewish identity since that time. Let us now examine them in contemporary terms.