"Petition of the Jews of Paris, Alsace and Lorraine to the National Assembly" (28 January 1790)
When the Jews of Paris and the eastern provinces presented their case to the National Assembly, they leaned heavily on the precedent of granting full rights to the Protestants and on the language of human rights philosophy. They insisted that the Jews should be treated no differently from anyone else and refuted one by one all the customary prejudicial arguments used against the Jews, such as their reliance on making loans with interest (usury). Their petition shows the power of the language of rights; "All men of whatever religion . . . should all equally have the title and the rights of citizen." Despite the pleas of the Jews, the assembly held off on granting them full political rights until September 1791.
A great question is pending before the supreme tribunal of France. Will the Jews be citizens or not?
Already, this question has been debated in the National Assembly; and the orators, whose intentions were equally patriotic, did not agree at all on the result of their discussion. Some wanted Jews admitted to civil status. Others found this admission dangerous. A third opinion consisted of preparing the complete improvement of the lot of the Jews by gradual reforms.
In the midst of all these debates, the national assembly believed that it ought to adjourn the question. . . . This adjournment was based on the necessity of further clarifying an important question; of seeking more positive information about what the Jews do and what they can be; of knowing more exactly what is in their favor and what is not; and finally, of preparing opinion by a thorough discussion for the decree, whatever it may be, that will definitively pronounce on their destiny.
It was also said that the adjournment was based on the necessity of knowing with assurance what were the true desires of the Jews; given, it was added, the disadvantages of according to this class of men rights more extensive than those they want.
But it is impossible that such a motive could have determined the decree of the National Assembly.
First, the wish of the Jews is perfectly well-known, and cannot be equivocal. They have presented it clearly in their addresses of 26 and 31 August, 1789. The Jews of Paris repeated it in a new address of 24 December. They ask that all the degrading distinctions that they have suffered to this day be abolished and that they be declared CITIZENS.
But moreover, how could it be supposed that the legislators, who trace all their principles to the immutable source of reason and justice, could have wanted to turn away in this matter from their accustomed manner of proceeding to seek what they should do, not in what should be, but solely in what is asked of them? . . . It is not therefore because it was believed important to know exactly what the desires of the Jews are, that the question was adjourned, but because it was judged worthy of a thorough investigation.
Their desires, moreover, as we have just said, are well known; and we will repeat them here. They ask to be CITIZENS.
And the right that they have to be declared such; the disadvantages that would result from a decree opposed to their wishes; all these grounds, and others still, will be set forth in this writing, with the energy suited to men who demand, not a favor, but an act of justice.
Finally, none of the objections made by their adversaries, or rather by the adversaries of their admission to civil status, will remain without response. . . .
If they only had to prevail upon justice, they would have little to say. But they have to combat a prejudice, and this prejudice is still so present in so many minds that they will always fear not having said enough. People argue, moreover, from their religion, their customs, their laws, as if they knew perfectly all these subjects; and it is important to draw attention to errors, which are in this regard widespread, accredited, and which perpetuate the prejudice that oppresses the Jews.
Here is, then, the plan of their memoir. They will begin by establishing the principles which require the right of citizens for the Jews. They will prove, next, that France itself would benefit from according this right to them. They will recall and combat the objections used to deny them civil status. Finally, they will demonstrate that the right of citizens should be accorded to the Jews without restriction and without delay; that is, that it would be at once unjust and dangerous to want to prepare them to receive citizenship by gradual improvements. . . .
[Then begins a detailed examination of the various charges against the Jews.] In truth, [the Jews] are of a religion that is condemned by the one that predominates in France. But the time has passed when one could say that it was only the dominant religion that could grant access to advantages, to prerogatives, to the lucrative and honorable posts in society. For a long time they confronted the Protestants with this maxim, worthy of the Inquisition, and the Protestants had no civil standing in France. Today, they have just been reestablished in the possession of this status; they are assimilated to the Catholics in everything; the intolerant maxim that we have just recalled can no longer be used against them. Why would they continue to use it as an argument against the Jews?
In general, civil rights are entirely independent from religious principles. And all men of whatever religion, whatever sect they belong to, whatever creed they practice, provided that their creed, their sect, their religion does not offend the principles of a pure and severe morality, all these men, we say, equally able to serve the fatherland, defend its interests, contribute to its splendor, should all equally have the title and the rights of citizen. . . .
[The Jews] are reproached at the same time for the vices that make them unworthy of civil status and the principles which render them at once unworthy and incompetent. A rapid glance at the bizarre as well as cruel destiny of these unfortunate individuals will perhaps remove the disfavor with which some seek to cover them and will show if it is right to make them all the reproaches that have been addressed to them.
Always persecuted since the destruction of Jerusalem, pursued at times by fanaticism and at others by superstition, by turn chased from the kingdoms that gave them an asylum and then called back to these same kingdoms, excluded from all the professions and arts and crafts, deprived even of the right to be heard as witnesses against a Christian, relegated to separate districts like another species of man with whom one fears having communication, pushed out of certain cities which have the privilege of not receiving them, obligated in others to pay for the air that they breathe as in Augsburg where they pay a florin an hour or in Bremen a ducat a day, subject in several places to shameful tolls. Here is the list of a part of the harassment still practiced today against the Jews.
And they would dare to complain of the state of degradation into which some of them can be plunged! They would dare to complain of their ignorance and their vices! Oh! Do not accuse the Jews, for that would only precipitate onto the Christians themselves all the weight of these accusations.
The vices of some of them are the work of the peoples who have given them shelter; the degradation of others is the fruit of the institutions that surround them. To say everything in one word, it is not at all the degradation and vices with which they are reproached that has attracted the harassment which overwhelms them but rather these harassments have produced their degradation and their vices. . . .
Let us now enter into more details. The Jews have been accused of the crime of usury. But first of all, all of them are not usurers; and it would be as unjust to punish them all for the offense of some as to punish all the Christians for the usury committed by some of them and the speculation of many. For a great many years now, moreover, the courts have heard fewer and fewer complaints about usury by the Jews. And, often, the Christians who accused them have given up their complaints.
Reflect, then, on the condition of the Jews. Excluded from all the professions, ineligible for all the positions, deprived even of the capacity to acquire property, not daring and not being able to sell openly the merchandise of their commerce, to what extremity are you reducing them? You do not want them to die, and yet you refuse them the means to live: you refuse them the means, and you crush them with taxes. You leave them therefore really no other resource than usury; and especially, you leave only this resource to the most numerous class of these individuals, for whose needs the legitimate interest from a modest sum of money is far from being sufficient. . . .
Everything that one would not have dared to undertake, moreover, or what one would only have dared to undertake with an infinity of precautions a long time ago, can now be done and one must dare to undertake it in this moment of universal regeneration, when all ideas and all sentiments take a new direction; and we must hasten to do so. Could one still fear the influence of a prejudice against which reason has appealed for such a long time, when all the former abuses are destroyed and all the former prejudices overturned? Will not the numerous changes effected in the political machine uproot from the people's minds most of the ideas that dominated them? Everything is changing; the lot of the Jews must change at the same time; and the people will not be more surprised by this particular change than by all those which they see around them everyday. This is therefore the moment, the true moment to make justice triumph: attach the improvement of the lot of the Jews to the revolution; amalgamate, so to speak, this partial revolution to the general revolution. Your efforts will be crowned with success, and the people will not protest, and time will consolidate your work and render it unshakable.
The materials listed below appeared originally in The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Lynn Hunt (Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996), 93–97.