Tuesday, April 26, 2011
A Brief History of Anti-Semitism in Paris, Part 1
Before beginning this article, I would like to state that I am by no means an expert on this subject. I am addressing this issue because when I have talked with people about the subject of the treatment of the Jews in Paris throughout its history, for better or for worse, there are quite a few misconceptions on this subject. For example, I've heard from people that Jews did not have a hard time in Paris in World War II (definitely not true), and I have also heard that there is an underlying resentment for the Jews that exists in the populace today (not that I have seen). Over the next couple of blogs, I will do my best to give a brief outline of the treatment of the Jewish population in Paris, beginning with the Middle Ages and going up to the present day.
The persecution of the Jews in Paris began quite early in their history with King Phillippe Auguste in 1180. Under the pressure of his court, he arrested the Jews while in their synagogues, had them imprisoned, and left to purchase their freedom using their wealth. This was done as a political move to get on the side of the many debtors in Paris, who owed significant amounts of money to Jewish moneylenders (the Templars also worked in this field, and were persecuted for it not too far down the road). The money earned from the Jews who bought their way out of jail helped build the famous wall that surrounded the city of Paris, known as the Louvre (not the museum). Pieces of this wall are still visible today in parts of the Latin Quarter, St. Germain, and the Marais. Two years later, Phillipe Auguste expelled the Jews from France and confiscated their savings, which wiped out the country's debt. He later repealed the decree, but his original expulsion created a wave of anti-semitism that made it difficult for the Jews to be treated fairly upon their return.
The Jews made their way back into France and slowly brought themselves back into prominence, as great centers of learning were created and wealth was being restored. However, under Phillipe le Bel in 1306, the Jews were once again expelled from France, this time for supposedly charging too high of interest rates. The Lombards, also known as money lenders in France at this time, were treated in a similar fashion. The Templars were perhaps treated even more cruelly as many were forced to admit to bogus crimes and were subsequently burned at the stake.
One of the most infamous cases involving anti-Semitism in Paris occurred in 1894-1895. Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery captain from a somewhat wealthy Jewish family from Alsace, which had been annexed from France by Germany following the disastrous Franco-Prussian war. Many Jews fled in the direction of Paris, and with the influx of Jews moving to Paris came a subsequent rise in anti-Semitism (somewhat similar to the current influx of North Africans entering France leading to an alarming rise of the French far right political parties and candidates. This subject in itself is worthy of a another article). In October 1894, Dreyfus was accused of passing on intelligence regarding a new cannon being used by the French army. A cleaner apparently found this paper in the waste basket and passed it on to the Chief of the French General Staff, who accused Dreyfus of having written it, though Dreyfus himself claimed that it was obviously a forgery since it wasn't his handwriting. Unfortunately, no one took confidence in his word and he was subjected to a sham of a trial, stripped of his decorations and rank, and sent to serve out a life sentence on Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guiana in South America.
Years later, it was found that the note on which the case was based was indeed a forgery. An intelligence officer brought this to the attention of his superiors, who refused to believe him and to cover up the discovery, sent the intelligence officer to jail as well. In 1898, Émile Zola, in perhaps one his most famous written pieces, "J'Accuse!", attacked the Parisian populace and brought to the forefront the real issue in this case: "Dreyfus symbolized either the eternal Jewish traitor or the denial of justice" (Seven Ages of Paris, Pg. 286). Though his efforts led to a retrial, Zola himself was imprisoned briefly following the article's publication, and perhaps led to his suspected murder in 1902. Dreyfus was finally cleared of the charges in 1906, after more than a decade of captivity. Leading up to his release, the Parisians became divided into "Nationalists" and "Revisionists", and provided a preview of things to come down the road.
In Part 2 of this subject, I will briefly cover events involving the Jewish populace in World War II.
Most of the historical information included in the article came from Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne. This is one of the best, if not the best, books that I have read on the history of this city. If you have interest in the history of Paris, this certainly worth checking out.