Author and Cal State San Marcos professor Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall spoke about the origins of European anti-Semitism in a lecture for the Cal State Northridge Jewish Studies Department on Feb. 22.
Sepinwall said she disagreed with some historians’ opinion that the Enlightenment, which derived from the French Revolution, fueled anti-Semitic views that eventually led to the Holocaust.
The lecture, which was attended by students in a Jewish studies class held in Sierra Hall, covered the history of Jews in the Modern Era. Sepinwall argued to students and members of the community who were not enrolled in the class that France has been at the forefront of their struggle for equality.
There is a Yiddish expression that says, “Happy like a Jew in France,” she said. Although not considered equal for some time, “Jews were generally safer in France than other places,” even though the practice of Judaism was illegal there in the 18th century. French Jews were restricted to loaning out money and herding cattle for a living, trades which were looked down upon.
But Sepinwall said people need to be careful with the view that France was an anti-Semitic country.
“France still took a shorter time emancipating Jews than other countries,” she said.
Some intellectuals of the time decided to think outside the box and seek a better status for Jews in French society, Sepinwall said. The opposition was a group known as the “impossible-ists,” who thought Jews could never integrate.
There was also a third group known as the “conditionalists,” who held that all men were brothers and that economic reasons were to blame for Jews’ “inferior” status, not “religious stubbornness.” Their belief was that Jews could be regenerated into the society, Sepinwall said.
The idea of regeneration was touched on during Sepinwall’s lecture, an idea that developed in the years preceding the French Revolution. It is the belief that people could be made anew morally, physically and politically.
Although followers of this idea said the law should treat all people equally, it is a condescending premise that asserts there is something wrong to begin with, Sepinwall said.
In her recent book, “The Abbe Gregoire and the French Revolution,” Sepinwall wrote about the life of Henri Gregoire, an 18th century priest who believed in “regeneration” and was known as an activist against racism. Sepinwall argued that although regeneration has at certain times in history led to equality, it also justifies colonialism.
As an example, Sepinwall alluded to Napoleon, who came to power right after Jews were granted French citizenship and did not strip them of that, though some economic sanction returned.
“Napoleon believed he could regenerate Jews,” Sepinwall said.
Sepinwall argued that in France the demands for equality and liberty came from reforms that Louis XVI initiated in return for the money to pull the country out of bankruptcy, as it was experiencing serious economic hardships due to the king’s lavish lifestyle. The country received the financial assistance it needed to be able to rival Britain’s colonies in America.
The result was reforms that common French citizens, who paid most of the taxes, thought furthered their own status over that of the nobility and clergy.
“But they didn’t intend on including the Jews,” Sepinwall said.
Before the French Revolution, there were three Jewish groups living in the country who were divided about ideas concerning the coming political upheaval.
Some Jews, who had lived in France for a long time, wanted to keep their “accepted” status and were not as radical as others, Sepinwall said. Other newcomers, including Parisian Jews who were at the center of intellectual thought and debate, were more radical and revolutionary.
Jews were given equal rights in 1971. These rights came with the condition that the same courts as other French citizens govern them, Sepinwall said.
“After being given citizenship, French Jews were enthusiastic about the French Revolution,” she said. They even celebrated its anniversaries.
Sepinwall said Jews celebrated the French Revolution’s 150th anniversary on the eve of World War II to remind people of the past in the face of the growing anti-Semitism of the time.
A Zionist point of view in opposition of Sepinwall’s is that Jews would be much safer in their homeland of Israel and that they have been na’ve in accepting citizenship in other countries, which she said is easy to have in hindsight of such events as the Holocaust. But they should not overshadow the important accomplishments achieved during the French Revolution.