Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“Nineteenth-Century French Anti-Semitism,” By Dennis Durst

“Paris Synagogue Montmartre Detail1235” by GFreihalter – Own work.

Imagining the Jew is a French intellectual pastime that dates back some two hundred years.

-Seth L. Wolitz

The troubling legacy of the Enlightenment for persons of deep religious convictions is an ongoing topic of discussion in the history of religions. One place where this was manifested with special intensity was the nation of France, and resonances of this tension are as recent as the events of Paris in January 2015. Recent attacks on Jews in France have roiled international headlines in recent months. On February 17, 2015, French President Francois Hollande visited a Jewish graveyard where 250 Jewish graves had been desecrated and wondered aloud whether soldiers were now needed to guard cemeteries.[1] Schmuel Rosner warns that:

Anti-Semitic incidents have become a regular occurrence in France. The surge in attacks is well documented, as is the declining sense of security of French Jews. And the French government doesn’t seem to know how to halt this destructive process. (Schmuel Rosner, “France’s Jews Have No Choice but Israel,” New York Times, January 15, 2015)

The rising fear and foreboding over anti-Semitism in France predates the tragic shootings surrounding Charlie Hebdo magazine. This article explores the nineteenth-century roots of French anti-Semitism in its religious, anticapitalist, and scientific racist forms. It concludes with some questions that need answering to ascertain to what extent this history is connected to the current editorially expressed unease on behalf of French Jews.

Nineteenth-Century French Anti-Semitism

The social contract which sought the abandonment of religious particularistic identity so as to embrace first a French, then a universal rationalism, put those citizens of Jewish identity under considerable pressure.[2] The contours of anti-Semitic rhetoric were variegated, as indicated by the spectrum of ideological loci from which such sentiments sprung. Here we find that anti-Semitism is a protean construct and springs up from a variety of sources in the nineteenth century, thus complicating later analyses of the causes underlying the phenomenon.

Alphonse Toussenel

Heavily influenced by Enlightenment voices critical of the Jews, such as Voltaire and Charles Fourier, Alphonse Toussenel (1803‒85) was especially harsh toward Jewish bankers.[3] For example, he called England “the satanic workshop of the industrial world where the poisonous concoctions of laissez-faire economics and free trade have been invented.” Leaving aside the resentment typical of the French toward England, Toussenel was one of a long train of European intellectuals who saw international conspiracy interwoven with Jewish identity. He propounded the myth that the Jews rule France and characterized Jewish bankers as parasites.[4] One recent work on French Judaism notes that Toussenel’s two-volume work criticizing Jewish bankers was first published in 1845, but reissued in 1847, 1886, and 1888, during “a period that saw the rise of a venomous anti-Semitism.”[5]

Anticapitalism is one, but not the only, explanation of the rejection of Jews by certain French intellectuals. After all, critics on the right regularly found Jews who were too far left, even radical, for them to be assimilated into mainstream French society; and critics on the left saw the Jewish banker as its constant bête noire. Thus economic grounds are insufficient to explain the contours of anti-Semitism in French society. In the late 1960s, Jewish essayist Milton Himmelfarb would note this precarious position of being unable to trust either the left or the right as a settled home for Judaism. He lamented:

The disillusionment is greatest with our old idea that all our enemies are on the Right. For most practical purposes, that is where our enemies were, in the nineteenth century. The French Revolution had equality for the Jews as a corollary. We were for the Revolution and its extension, and the Right was against. Now the location of our enemies is not so simple. We have enemies on the Right, but also on the Left; and sometimes it is hard to distinguish between Right and Left. Sometimes our enemies on the Right and Left are happy to cooperate with each other against us. (Milton Himmelfarb, The Jews of Modernity [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1973], 346)[6]

 This paper thus seeks modes of analysis or lenses other than the economic through which to observe this history. Religious dimensions, such as traditional Catholic tropes of hostility toward Jews or post-Catholic biblical critics such as Ernest Renan, are briefly noted below. The scientific racism of de Gobineau, a contributor to the rise of eugenic racism in the next century, is introduced. Then the antireligious leftism of Proudhon rounds out this brief look at nineteenth-century French anti-Semitism.

Ernest Renan

Biblical scholar Ernest Renan was convinced that Jesus of Nazareth never claimed to be the Messiah, but instead was a social reformer who had been misunderstood by the power structure of his time. In this, perhaps, Renan was not that far in his assessment of Jesus from at least some of his Jewish fellow countrymen. Still, Renan is often mentioned as one of the sources of French anti-Semitism. Doubtless Renan thought he was being charitable toward the Jews in the following backhanded compliment, but the reader can imagine the discomfort this assertion must have had on his Jewish contemporaries:

In spite of all their defects, hard, egotistical, scoffing, cruel, narrow, subtle, sophistical, the Jews are nevertheless the authors of the finest movement of disinterested enthusiasm of which history speaks. Opposition always makes the glory of a country. In one sense, the greatest men of a nation are often those whom it puts to death. Socrates honoured the Athenians, who would not suffer him to live. Spinoza was the greatest modern Jew, and the synagogue expelled him with ignominy. Jesus was the glory of the people of Israel, and they crucified him. (Ernest Renan, The History of the Origins of Christianity, vol. 1, Life of Jesus [London: Mathieson, 1863], 29‒30)

Even Jesus the dedivinized social reformer could not escape stereotyping; Renan portrayed one of his allegedly unfortunate qualities as a negative inheritance of his Jewishness:

One of the principal defects of the Jewish race is its harshness in controversy, and the abusive tone which it almost always infuses into it. There never were in the world such bitter quarrels as those of the Jews among themselves. It is the sentiment of nice discernment which makes the polished and moderate man. Now, the lack of this feeling is one of the most constant features of the Semitic mind. Refined works, such as the dialogues of Plato, for example, are altogether foreign to these nations. Jesus, who was exempt from almost all the defects of his race, and whose dominant quality was precisely an infinite delicacy, was led in spite of himself to make use of the general style in polemics. (Renan, Life of Jesus, 188‒89)

 One could more readily quote the ascerbic skeptical ridicules of the philosophes so adored by French intellectuals as examples of “harshness in controversy” or “abusive tone” than Jesus or his Jewish contemporaries.[7] Suffice it to say that polemics are a uniquely human enterprise and not the province of any particular race, people, nation, or generation.

French Catholic Anti-Jewish Sentiment

As a starting point for this discussion, the tensions between Jews who supported the French Revolution and the Catholic church that suffered at the hands of the revolutionaries (confiscation of property, beheadings of priests, etc.) has to be noted.[8] Into the nineteenth century however, with the imperial restoration under Napoleon, a new chapter of ambivalence toward French Jews ensued. Catholics and monarchists complained to Napoleon about the “usurious” practices of the Jews. After first drafting harsh restrictions on Jews in France, Napoleon took a different tack and convened an “Estates General” of about sixty representative Jewish leaders on June 15, 1806. Napoleon’s purpose was to ascertain the possibility of harmonizing French and Jewish law and to what extent the Jews felt attached to his empire. This group grew and morphed into a “Grand Sanhedrin” which met in February 1807, though not independently of Napoleon’s influence. Three decrees emerged by March of 1808. The first two organized French Jews into consistories, a tacit recognition of the Jews as a distinct religious community. The third, more controversial, decree placed restrictions on Jewish business practices, including licensing and hiring restrictions. But by 1831 Jewish rabbis could draw support from the public treasury as Catholic clergy had done before, the Catholic Church no longer being the official state religion of France. This combination of factors intensified anti-Jewish sentiment on the traditionalist Catholic right. Complete separation of church and state in 1905 would end French state support for religious groups generally.[9]

The leading reformist churchman of the early nineteenth century was Felicite de Lamennais (1782‒1854). In a resigned recognition of the changes in French church-state relations, he espoused a position of increasing dependency of the church on the leadership of the pope, with an accent on spiritual rather than political leadership. Others, particularly the bishops, were much less sanguine about the shift toward a secular French society. Alec Vidler describes Lamennais as “both an ultramontane and a Liberal Catholic” in the sense of embracing the new situation as an opening for more liberty for the church from state interference. Pope Gregory XVI, however, interpreted the situation as far more sinister to the interests of the church, condemning liberalization in the 1832 encyclical Mirari vos and undercutting Lamennais’s vision of a smooth rapprochement.

The revolution of 1848 initially had little of the anticlericalism of the 1789 Revolution. However, a series of riots in Paris in June of 1848 led to the death of the Archbishop of Paris on the barricades, and the threat of anarchy led to a conservative reaction in the government. This also led to a split between traditional monarchist Catholics and their liberal fellow countrymen. An embittered battle over government support for religious education, in which Jews and Catholics were generally on opposite sides, brought this tension into the open.[10]

The key figure espousing a conservative version of anti-Semitism in France was Louis Veuillot (1813‒83), an outspoken ultramontane journalist and proponent of church control over public education. The main organ for elucidating his views of the Jews was L’Univers, of which he became the editor in 1843. In fighting all efforts to separate church and state, he was at odds with the stance of most Jews in France. His series of articles defaming Jews in the 1840s is the chief source for examining his anti-Semitic thought. Recycling traditional tropes, such as the Jews killing Jesus or that the Talmud taught Jews to hate all Christians, he sparked a strong counterresponse from Jewish and liberal journalists. Initially supporting Emperor Napoleon III, Veuillot began attacking both the Jews and the emperor, in part by publishing a papal encyclical critical of Napoleon III and his efforts to limit papal influence in temporal affairs. The journal was suppressed by the emperor from 1859‒67.[11] Sentiments critical of the Jews have been well documented in the back-and-forth history of interreligious polemics between Jews and Christians, so some of the invective appears, from a historical perspective, rather redundant. The rising influence of science would come to play a tragic role as the new century approached.

Comte Arthur Joseph de Gobineau

Sometimes known as the father of scientific racism, Comte Arthur Joseph de Gobineau (1816‒82) popularized the notion of the biological hierarchy of races. His Essay on the Inequality of the Human Race was published from 1853 to 1855 in four volumes. Thus he predates Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871), two works some mistakenly identify as the original font of scientific racism.

Gobineau could be complimentary toward the Jews, which may be surprising given the later policies that would be launched from his notion of the inequality of races. Even though the Jews originated in a “miserable corner of the earth,” Gobineau noted their achievements:

They became a people that succeeded in everything it undertook, a free, strong, and intelligent people, and one which, before it lost, sword in hand, the name of an independent nation, had given as many learned men to the world as it had merchants. (Arthur Gobineau, Selected Political Writings, ed. Michael D. Biddiss [New York: Harper & Row, 1970], 78)

 It was elsewhere in Gobineau’s theory that later anti-Jewish sentiment would derive aid and comfort. It had long been claimed by critics of the Jews that they were recalcitrant. Indeed, the notion of a “stiffnecked people” goes back at least as far as the biblical story of the Exodus.[12] But in the nineteenth century this presumed feature became wedded to the notion of an unchanging biological heredity. Gobineau would state that “the Jewish type has . . . remained much the same” irrespective of the climates of the lands where they have settled. This unyielding heredity had visible manifestations in Gobineau’s assessment: “The warlike Rechabites of the Arabian desert, the peaceful Portuguese, French, German and Polish Jews—they all look alike.” Gobineau noted the duration of the supposed Jewish facial profile by stating: “The Semitic face looks exactly the same, in its main characteristic, as it appears on the Egyptian paintings of three or four thousand years ago.” A debate was roiling Europe over the origins of the races during Gobineau’s lifetime, with both sides enlisting scientific arguments to buttress their cases.[13] Reluctant to embrace either polygenism (multiple origins of the races) or monogenism (a single race that had at least three very distinct branches), Gobineau averred that “it is certain that the different families are today absolutely separate” and thus resistant to any homogenizing efforts of society. It was this supposed inability to assimilate that would later be amplified so as to ostracize and ghettoize Jews throughout Europe, eventually leading to the Holocaust.

Pierre Joseph Proudhon

As one of the founders of European anarchism and labor agitation, Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809‒65) continued the tradition of French anti-Semitism on the left. He described the Jews as “always fraudulent and parasitical” and mere spectators of hard-working others. An 1847 journal entry indicated his desire that Jews should be banned from employment, their synagogues banned, and their religion made illegal in France. He believed the Jews to be both biologically and culturally incapable of assimilation into French society. Though he was an anti-Catholic rationalist, he borrowed from the Catholic anti-Jewish rhetorical toolbox to attack the Jews for having killed Christ, whom he reinterpreted as a social revolutionary.[14] Proudhon was so fluid in his beliefs that historians struggle to describe him. Such labels as “anarchist,” “proto-fascist,” “rugged individualist,” and “petty bourgeois socialist” have been applied to him.[15] It seems likely his passion for the cause of labor led him to demonize the Jews he perceived to be behind the excesses of an industrial capitalism built on low wages. Historian Robert Wistrich writes:

Proudhon’s grotesque assertions clearly reflect the impact of the new racial doctrines formulated in France in the 1850s by Ernest Renan and the Comte Arthur Joseph de Gobineau. Elements of racism, xenophobia, traditional Catholic anti-Judaism as well as the rationalist doctrines of the Enlightenment can all be found in his visceral hatred of the Jews. (Wistrich, “Radical Antisemitism,” 117)

The End of the Century

The Dreyfus Affair at the end of the century, in which a Jewish naval officer was unfairly accused, tried, and convicted of a treasonous act (then later proved innocent), has received much attention in the literature on French Jewish history. The scope of this article precludes delving into the episode, which belongs more to the twentieth-century ethos. While it would appear the result of the Dreyfus affair was an intensified anti-Semitic sentiment in the French populace, it is not clear this was driven primarily by anti-Semitism as an ideology drawn from French intellectual elites. Nationalism, political squabbles, and generalized prejudice in the population may have been factors just as much to blame.[16]


In light of the recent headlines and the history outlined above, some nagging questions remain. Are there any continuities between the anti-Semitism of yesteryear and its manifestations today? Do old prejudices about Jews persist even in the era of widespread diversity education? How prevalent are residual beliefs about Aryan supremacy and Jewish inferiority that were ascendant in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s? How resistant are traditionalist French Catholics to the more open stances toward Jews expressed at Vatican II and through the efforts of recent popes to build bridges between Christianity and Judaism?

It may seem puzzling that a nation such as France, which so prides itself on equality, fraternity, and liberty, should have a lingering and persistent strain of anti-Semitism emerging at times of crisis. Wistrich concludes, regarding the mid-nineteenth century: “Far from standing at the opposite pole to ‘progressive’ trends of thought, anti-Semitism developed organically out of a radical, secular ‘scientific’ world-view in both France and Germany—the two countries which were its ideological birthplace.”[17] Unpacking the sources of French antipathy to Israel or to the Jews generally will be the task of others more attuned to contemporary matters than myself. There are certainly episodes of anti-Semitism in our own country that are a part of history and even current events, such as the synagogue desecrations in Florida in July of 2014.[18] Thus, such reflection inevitably evokes introspection and self-criticism within our own body politic. Yet it would be fascinating to hear from Jews who have lived both in France and in the United States regarding how their experiences of the two republics might compare.


Dennis L. Durst, M.Div., Ph.D., teaches at Kentucky Christian University.



[1] “Jews, Muslims Face Increasing French Discrimination, Racism—Council of Europe,” RT News, February 20, 2015,

[2] Seth L. Wolitz, “Imagining the Jew in France: From 1945 to the Present,” Yale French Studies 85 (1994): 119.

[3] See Allan Arkush, “Voltaire on Judaism and Christianity,” AJS Review 18 (1993): 223‒43.

[4] Robert S. Wistrich, “Radical Antisemitism in France and Germany (1840‒1880),” Modern Judaism 15 (1995): 115.

[5] Esther Benbassa, The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present, trans. M. B. DeBevoise (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 139.

[6] In context, the essay is titled “The 1967 War.”

[7] See Voltaire, Candide, or Denis Diderot, Encyclopedia for abundant illustrations.

[8] Indeed, many scholars have noted this Catholic resentment of the French Revolution as a Jewish-inspired event; cf. Chad Alan Goldberg, “The Jews, the Revolution, and the Old Regime in French Anti-Semitism and Durkheim’s Sociology,” Sociological Theory 29 (2011): 251.

[9] The foregoing is based on Benbassa, Jews of France, 87‒91, 94.

[10] Alec R. Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution (New York: Penguin, 1974), 68‒78.

[11] Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, s.v. “Veuillot, Louis (1813‒1883)”; cf. Pierre Pierrard, Louis Veuillot (Paris: Beauchesne, 1998).

[12] Exodus 32:9; 33:3‒5 (KJV). Of course, these verses have to do with that nation’s relationship with God, not with their later integration with other nations or societies. It is anachronistic and jingoistic to use such texts against them in a modern political debate.

[13] See David N. Livingstone, “The Origin and Unity of the Human Race,” in The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000), 452‒57.

[14] Wistrich, “Radical Antisemitism,” 117‒18.

[15] Gordon Wright, France in Modern Times, 5th ed. (New York: Norton, 1995), 178‒79.

[16] See Wright, France in Modern Times, 240‒43; Benbassa, Jews of France, 141‒45.

[17] Wistrich, “Radical Antisemitism,” 129‒30.

[18] Maggie Newland, “Synagogue Vandalized in NE Miami-Dade,” CBS Miami, July 28, 2014,

5 Responses to ““Nineteenth-Century French Anti-Semitism,” By Dennis Durst”

  1. gabe


    How much of the present anti-Semitic behavior in France (Europe?) may be attributed to native Frenchmen / women? and how much is attributable to the immigrant population(s).

    this is in no way intended to minimize the past actions of the native French (Europeans) but only to gain perspective on what is currently happening.

    Interesting observation regarding enemies on the left and right. It would appear to be true in the US with the leftists of the Democrat party exhibiting hostility to Israel in ever increasing numbers and fashion. Perhaps, this is simply a function of a slavish devotion to their party Leader who apparently dislikes Israel – then again he is simply following in the footsteps of that great ecumenical leader, Jeremiah Wright.

  2. Dennis

    Gabe your comments are stimulating as always. I have a couple books on order that I hope will address the 20th century versions of anti-Semitism and that will likely include a hefty does of immigration discussion. I wonder if both Europe and USA would pay wages that their own people could live on if the “need” for immigration cheap labor would lessen.

  3. Rob

    One correction I think: Dreyfus was an Army artillery officer, not a naval officer.

    Very interesting article, particularly the bios. I am not entirely sure what point was being made though. Continuity with today’s problems? Or that the Left and Progressivism can be tagged with equal responsibility with traditionalism for the phenomenon? Perhaps the author could specify.
    Also is any question-begging going on? The assumption appears to be that no anti-Semitism is justifiable. But one is compelled to ask, what causes the hostility? That is, what brought on the historical anti-Semitism? Simple anger that someone believes and behaves differently, with a different ancestral make-up? Or something more and concrete? Even if only in a fundamental way?
    Put another way, is an internal Jewish population, with great influence in finance (as well as popular culture today) a threat to a united Christendom? Or no? Did this threat bear out concretely at any time?
    One must also ask, whether any country is capable of blind integration (called emancipation in France and Britain) of a minority population which is distinguished most significantly by having a different view of the Good, and thus of the purpose of society and state? Obviously of course, such a question in France implicates the Huguenots as well as the Jews. See Charles Maurras. Ergo the claim (possible from either side of the conflict of course) from the French Wars of Religion, that the other side constituted treason as well as heresy.
    All states are confessional states.

    • gabe

      One thing to bear in mind with respect to the “great influence in finance” argument was that the Jews were providing a much needed service to the populations of Europe as most of Christendom had strict laws / practices against *usury.* In a sense they were compelled to fill a state / religious created vacuum.

      Also, it is not clear if you are imputing to the present day Jewish population such a great influence in finance. If so, you may want to check the demographics of that industry – you will find far more WASP’s in it. (BTW – the *P* in WASP now stands for Progressive as finance industry is a major contributor to the Democrat Party.)

  4. Rob

    This begs the question of whether the “much needed service” was in fact, much needed. This is like saying that a particular group of people provide affordable access to recreational drugs, “to fill a state/religious created vacuum.” Perhaps we are desirous of that vacuum. If so, then laws “persecuting” such a group might be seen in a different light. At least they might be more subjectively explainable, if not objectively justifiable, from the nay-sayers standpoint at least.
    I make no empirical claims as to who commands Western finance by the way. That WASPs may be blamed for drinking deeply from the capitalist well would be only to acknowledge in any event the vices of my own kind.


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