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Eras Journal - Suzette Blom

Abstract of "Jews, Divorce and the French Revolution"

Abstract: On 28 January 1790 and 27 September 1791, the French national assembly passed decrees granting full political and civil rights to the Sephardic Jews and the Ashkenazic Jews respectively, thereby granting Jews as a group full civil and political rights for the first time in Western history. The prevailing attitude of the advocates of Jewish emancipation was, in the words of Clermont-Tonnere; ‘deny everything to the Jews as a nation and deny nothing to them as individuals.’ Emancipation marked the transformation of the Jews from a ‘nation within a nation’ to citizens of the French state.

Emancipation was a complex phenomenon, the legacy of which has never been resolved. A fundamental aspect of this complexity was that the metamorphosis of the Jews was neither as abrupt nor as dramatic as it appeared. The progression toward Jewish emancipation began decades before 1789 and merged with the greater national revolution, almost as an afterthought. In the decades before the revolution this was reflected in the movement toward the secularising of divorce, which had heretofore been considered a repugnant practice of a barely tolerated alien minority. The issue of divorce became a template for Jewish assimilation which could not occur without reform of Jewish customs and distinctiveness. The issue of whether this process accelerated integration or created an ambiguous distinctiveness continues to resonate both with the Jewish community and French society to date.