The Church reached the zenith of its power and influence in Europe during the Middle Ages. Then science and reason became the new gods. In this supposedly more enlightened era, one might have thought there would be no place for the old hatreds. Yet as the Jews of modern France were to find out, not everyone in France thought the new slogan of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” (Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood) should apply to them.
While a few crypto-Jews from Spain and Polish and Ukrainian refugees from the Chmielnicki massacres trickled into parts of France during the 1500s and 1600s, Jews didn’t return to Paris until the 1700s. The first official synagogue in the capital city opened in 1788, just in time for the French Revolution, which broke out a year later. By then there were about 40,000 Jews living in France. They received citizenship in 1790, but even though they now had full civic rights as individuals, they lost their rights as a group. Thus, when all religious institutions were shut down during the Reign of Terror (1793-1794) the synagogues were closed as well.
After a decade-long struggle between the various revolutionary factions, Napoleon Bonaparte seized power, proclaimed himself Emperor and set out to conquer Europe. Along the way, he tore down ghetto walls and called for freedom of religion and civil liberties for Jews living under his conquered territories. While some Jews lauded Napoleon’s policies, others were suspicious, fearing that the emperor’s true goal was the assimilation of Europe’s Jews into his French Empire.
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