France Grants Citizenship to Sephardi Jews

January 28, 1790

Sephardi Jews living in France are granted equal rights and given French citizenship by the National Assembly.  In December 1789, following the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the issue of Jewish rights was debated in the National Assembly for three days with no conclusion reached.

The December 1789 debate ranged from the view that the Jews were and always would be a separate and distinct nation.  This view was articulated by Abbe Jean Siffrein Maury who declared before the Assembly on December 23, 1789, “I observe first of all that the word Jew is not the name of a sect, but of a nation that has laws which it has always followed and still wishes to follow. Calling Jews citizens would be like saying that without letters of naturalization and without ceasing to be English and Danish, the English and Danish could become French.”  On the other hand, radicals such as Robespierre argued, “The evil qualities of the Jews emanate from the degree of humiliation to which you have subjected them…any citizen who fulfills the conditions you have laid down, has the right to public office.”

In January 1790, facing acts of violence against them from their Christian neighbors, the Jewish residents of Alsace and Lorraine petitioned the National Assembly for French citizenship.  Despite the plea from the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern France, which represented the majority of French Jewry.  The petition was not granted, however the Assembly decided to grant equality to, “All of the Jews known in France, under the name of Portuguese, Spanish and Avignonese Jews.”  These Sephardim, who were descended from the Conversos and had migrated to France in the 16th century spoke French, interacted with Christians in business and dressed like their French neighbors.  As a result of their different social standing they were recognized by the National Assembly as being distinct from the majority of French Jewry.

After nearly two more years of debate, French Ashkenazim were granted emancipation in September 1791. The event highlights the precarious existence  as well as national character of European Jewry in the century before the beginnings of the Zionist movement.

The photo is of a contemporary French print depicting Napoleon emancipating the Jews in 1791.