Sunday, May 8, 2016

A Rabbi asks a priest a question... part 18

Continued from last week….

Liberté, égalité, fraternité!!  Liberty, equality, fraternity! But now off with your head. The French revolution lopped off the heads of at least 20,000 in an attempt to blot out the evils of the Bourbon Monarchy and Catholicism and then went on to kill hundreds of thousands more in suppressing counter revolution.

Who pray tell were the Bourbons? Remember the wars of religion? The old royal family, the Valois petered out due to insanity and debauchery, and the nearest royal cousin was, heaven forfend, a Protestant!  Henry married a Valois princess, whom he eventually divorced and promised to become a Catholic in order to escape death in the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre in which French Catholics slaughtered several thousand Protestants who were in Paris to celebrate the wedding as well as thousands more throughout France. He escaped Paris in 1576 and renounced Catholicism.

He rejoined the Protestant forces in the wars of religion, then so popular in Europe. He eventually became Catholic (again), saying that, “Paris was worth a Mass.” No way could he rule France and not be Catholic. His grandson was Louis XIV (1638-1715). He was the Catholic Sun King who went to daily Mass with his wife and mistresses and fought Catholic Austria with his allies the protestant swedes. His great grandson was Louis XVI who got his head cut off by the revolutionaries a few paragraphs back. The whole revolution thing was such a great success that having cut off the head of the last Bourbon king, Louis XVI in 1793 they elected Napoleon Bonaparte as their dictator in 1799.

He won three million of the one and a half million votes cast, thus proving that equality was the rule of the day. Your vote was as worthless as everyone else’s vote. Vive la Revolucion! Napoleon then placed himself on the imperial throne in 1804 plunging Europe and the world into a war that cost about one million lives. So where are the Jews in all this?

Up until the revolution the Jews were repeatedly exiled from France then invited to return. It seems that Jews were good for the economy. But come the revolution, and a councilor of the revolutionary parliament declared, “I believe that freedom of worship does not permit any distinction in the political rights of citizens on account of their creed. The question of the political existence of the Jews has been postponed. The men of all sects (should be) admitted to enjoy political rights in France. I demand that… a decree (be) passed that the Jews in France enjoy the privileges of full citizens.”

Judaism in France became, “nothing more than the name of a distinct religion.” French Jews were French. In gratitude for their new nationality, French Jews dedicated themselves to France, fighting in the Army of the Republic against the European enemies of their new homeland France. They contributed materially to the war effort. Candelabra of synagogues were sold, and wealthier Jews donated their jewels to the cause. They were French and proud of it. Napoleon brought Jewish emancipation and citizenship to the lands he conquered, liberating Jews from their ghettos and making them full citizens of the new Europe. In 1807, he made Judaism an official religion in France, along with Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism. Still, he may have had mixed motives. He seems to have been prone to the medieval custom of borrowing money from Jewish financiers and then welching on the debt.

In 1808, Napoleon took back some of his reforms. All debts owed to Jews were cancelled, reduced, or at least postponed. The new decrees also restricted where Jews could live. The restrictions were ultimately eased in 1811 and eventually abolished, but still…

Why dwell on Jews in France? It’s pretty much the story of Jews in Europe. You’re welcome to live here, just don’t get too comfortable. You are not us. After the revolution things were different, right? Not quite. In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer who happened to have a Jewish background was sentenced to life imprisonment for sharing French military secrets with the German Embassy in Paris, Dreyfus was imprisoned on Devil's Island in French Guiana. He was released after five years, a broken man. He was completely innocent. The real culprit was eventually exposed, but at the time it was quite convenient to blame the Jew! After all, how loyal could a Jew be? 

The Dreyfus Affair had unanticipated fruit. The Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl, a Jew, was present at part of the trial, the cancellation of Dreyfus’ army rank in 1895. Herzl was convinced of the need to resolve the Jewish question. “If France, the bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism, can get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant 'Kill the Jews!' Where can they be safe once again, if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it as the Dreyfus affair has so clearly demonstrated…” If the Jew could never become part of another nation, they would have to form a nation of their own.

Christendom had broken down into political chaos and now Judaism would enter the fray. The superior nation state that had become the substitute for religious chosen-ness in the Christian world would engender the Jewish state. Christianity and Judaism were a long way from their competition as religious variations on the faith of Israel. Religion took a back seat to secularized, nominal Christianity and a secular “reformed” Judaism. Oh, by the way, Alfred Dreyfus died an old man in 1935, just before the greatest horror known to human history broke, and it broke hard on the Jews.

Next week “If you worship me, I will give you all the kingdoms of the world….”

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