You are here :
Home /
The French and the Dreyfus Affair /
Jews in France /
Jews and the Republican State

Jews and the Republican State

The glory of serving the State

Shortly before the French Revolution, a lawyer from Berlin lamented the fact that in France, the Jewish population was "squeezed and oppressed," but rejected its access to civil service: "the glory of serving the State." At the end of the nineteenth century, although the Reich still kept Jews out of the Army, the same was not true of France: on 27 September 1791, the Assembly granted Jews the right to practice every profession. As of 29 January 1790, the Paris local authority formally noted that Jews "shared the honors and the pains of military service," acknowledging the "patriotism of which they have given proof." Under Napoleon's initiative, 95 Jewish deputies, meeting between July 1806 and April 1807 in a Great Sanhedrin-Jewish high religious court-admitted that Jews were subject to the regulations of the Civil Code of 1804, and viewed military service as a "sacred duty."

Jews under the Third Republic

Although the first Jewish prefect had been appointed under the Second Empire, it was under the Third Republic that the doors of the senior civil service were truly opened to Jews. Concurrently, the Crémieux Decree of 24 October 1870 conferred French citizenship on the Jews of Algeria. The Annuaire des Archives Israélites published a merit list of those who had been promoted, justifying the emancipation of 1791 that had resulted in "useful citizens united in happiness and the greatness of the country." In November 1870, Léopold Sée was the first Jew to be promoted to brigadier general; in 1876, during a Yom Kippur service, senator Adolphe Crémieux urged Jewish soldiers to cherish the Republic that had "given [them] equal rights and equal duties," and to have "fraternal bonds" with their comrades.

Pierre Birnbaum has counted 171 "State Jews" among the political and administrative elite-members of Parliament and of the Council of State, generals, judges, and prefects-all of whom set great store by the principles of 1789. For the period 1870-1940, he lists twenty-five generals, thirty-four judges and forty-two prefects; of these, fifteen judges and as many generals were from eastern France.

In the general officer corps, sixteen Jews were graduates of the Ecole Polytechnique, and fourteen were from families who had established themselves in industry or trade. It was often through marriage that they acquired real financial security. Captain Dreyfus-a Frenchman originally from Alsace, a Polytechnique graduate, the son of an industrialist and the son-in-law of a diamond dealer, and a commissioned officer-could legitimately aspire to become a general. In provoking the Affair, anti-Semitic forces would crush this ambition.


Assembly of the Jews of France in 1807

Shooting party at the Rothschilds in Ferrières