There is a wave of fear spreading through the Jewish communities of France after the Charlie Hebdo attack and the killing of hostages in a kosher supermarket on the outskirts of Paris. Curiously enough this anti-Semitism is being blamed on the Muslim population which has emigrated to France from its former colonies in the decades since World War II. In fact, anti-Semitism and violence towards Jews has a long and very French history that reaches back long before Islam.
Jews lived in France from the days when Gallia and Vienna (centered in modern day Vienne) were provinces of the Roman Empire. Jews lived everywhere in the Roman Empire—and beyond the Empire in places as far away and exotic as India. The Sibylline Oracle said of the Jews: “Every Land is Full of Thee and Every Sea.” From very early on Jews had been merchants even before the diaspora exiled them from Judea. Their homeland on the Eastern Mediterranean made them naturals at this even as it had done for the Phoenicians before them. Jewish merchants could stretch out eastwards to the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Ocean, and the ancient Silk Road to transport goods such as spices, incense, citrus, and exotic fabrics from Asia and the Islands of the Indian Ocean. They could stretch south down through Egypt and along the Red Sea to the Horn of Africa for ivories and slaves and exotic animals. They could reach up beyond Asia Minor along the Black Sea for amber and bronze and the market for fair-haired slaves. They could reach westwards across North Africa for the excellent wines and abundant wheat produced there in the ancient world as well as gold and slaves from sub-Sahara Africa. And they could reach north and west into the markets of what is today Europe where so much of this treasure could be sold in return for iron, wool, tin, silver, and wood that was in demand in the East. Jewish family conglomerates would send their sons and sons-in-law to the various corners of the world to facilitate the export and import of goods. Unified by blood and marriage and kept unified by a religion that did not allow for religious or cultural assimilation, Jews were able to maintain a common identity wherever they went in the world.
After the expulsion of Christians from the Synagogues and their becoming a religion distinct from Judaism at the time of the composition of the Birkat ha Minim, the prayer cursing the “sectaries” (an euphemism for Christians) c 80 AD, there was most often tension between the Jewish communities in a given place and their Christian counterparts. Judaism and Christianity have often, sadly, acted like the older and younger siblings who have mutual resentments going back further than either can remember. As Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, Jews found themselves increasingly marginalized in many places. Yet it was not always true. Bishop Hilary of Arles (d. 449) was known for his good relationship with the local Jewish community who mourned his death with the singing of psalms. This was somewhat exceptional however. The Third Council of Orleans was very worried about the number of Christians converting to Judaism or at least accepting Jewish dietary and cultural practices. The Merovingian King, Dagobert I, (died 639) proposed to force Jews to accept Christianity or leave his kingdom. He did not follow through on this proposal but its very threat is a sign of the anti-Semitism that was characteristic of French society in the early Middle Ages.
Just as a point of clarification here. What mean by France today was not a reality until the late 19th century when the House of Savoy ceded western parts of its kingdom, including Marseilles, to France. Through much of the Medieval period France should be considered only north of the Rhone River as much of what is today southern France was either subject to the Holy Roman Emperor (read German), Italian overlords, or the Visigoth monarchs of what is today Spain. What may have been true in what is today the south of France may not have been the case in the Paris region. For example, the Jewish communities of the south of France most often were left in relative peace and prosperity at times that there was strong action against them in more northern lands ruled by the French Crown. Nevertheless, we can still speak in generalities as long as we note various exceptions. When the Carolingian dynasty replaced the Merovingian in 751 the plight of the Jews improved considerably. The Rise of Islam and the vast conquests of the Mideast and North Africa in the 7th and early 8th centuries was accompanied by an Islamic domination of the Mediterranean that left Western Europe bereft of the luxuries that had come through the Byzantine Empire to the West. The Arabs joked that “the Franks cannot so much as float a plank on the sea.” There was an almost total collapse of the old trade routes. The international networks of Jewish merchant families were practically the only ones who could function effectively in the mercantile void. According to Ibn Khordadbeh, a government official under the Abbasid Caliphs, who wrote The Book of Roads and Kingdoms Jewish Merchants from what is today France organized a series of trade routes running from the Rhone Valley and connected all the way into China. Jewish merchants carried spices, perfumes, incense, jewels, and silk from the Orient and the Indies to Europe and brought furs, wool, steel goods (mostly weapons from Flanders,) and Slavic slaves from Europe to the Arab world. From the seventh until the beginning of the eleventh century Jewish merchants had a virtual monopoly on trade and this made them essential to the Kingdom. Charlemagne and his successors made sure they were protected and able to have justice in the royal courts. At the same time, they were forbidden to own or hold land or trade in currency. As they could not hold land, neither could they be ennobled or even knighted. Not owning land, their wealth was fluid but this enabled them to use wealth to make wealth whereas the landed nobility whose wealth was in their lands often were cash strapped. Jewish merchants were only too willing to help them through their financial crises but at a price. This created a tension, even an anger, on the part of the landed classes who felt at times they were being taken advantage of. The Jewish community was also, for a great part, very sophisticated and highly educated. Given the travels of the merchant class, many Jews were polyglots. Their sophistication and learning was another source of jealousy for some of the French nobility who, despite their political power, remained somewhat crude through most of the early and central Middle Ages.Things began to change and not for the better in the 11th century. Venice, Genoa, Amalfi, and other Italian cites began to open trading posts in the Levant in what is today Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine, breaking the Jewish monopoly on trade and making the Jews somewhat extraneous to the economic welfare of the Kingdom. A change of dynasty from the Carolingians to the Capets also meant a change in royal attitude towards the Jews. Robert II (Robert The Pious) Capet (reigned 996-1031) bore a particular hatred towards the Jews and instituted a policy of forced conversion and mob violence to intimidate the Jewish populace. His ally, Richard II, Duke of Normandy abetted him in this and the Jews of Rouen sent the Talmudic scholar Jacob ben Jekuthiel to Rome to intercede with Pope John XVIII. A very hefty of gold—and I mean very hefty—persuaded the Pope of the need to protect the Jews of France and the Pope sent a legate to France with a papal order for the King to stop the persecution of the Jews. The King did and he didn’t. While officially they were no longer harassed, anti-Semitic feeling was running strong. Meanwhile, the “Mad Caliph” Al Hakim ibn Amr Allah, had destroyed the Sepulcher of Christ in Jerusalem, leveling the tomb to the ground. Christians around the world were outraged. As Muslims were not near at hand, the only “outsiders” that could bear the brunt of Christian rage were the Jewish communities. In one of those classic cases were the ignorant tar the innocent with too broad a brush meant for the guilty, all sorts of conspiracy theories emerged how Jews and Muslims were in league to profane Christian rites. The Bishop of Limoges gave the Jews of his city the choice of converting to Christianity or exile; those who refused to leave were put to death. Other bishops across France followed suit. Many Jews killed their wives and children and then themselves rather than convert. As the century progressed towards the declaration of the First Crusade in 1095, the hatred of Christians towards Jews in France—and indeed throughout much of Europe—only continued to grow. The Crusades added fuel to the flame as both in France and the Rhineland Crusaders killed Jews indiscriminately. The Jews of Rouen were locked in a church where they either had to accept baptism or death. All but a few chose death. To be continued.