Sunday, 10 February 2019

Napleon and the Jews (and Don't Mess With Trevor Noah)

Here’s some good advice.

Never pick on a late night TV show host.
They will be funnier than you, smarter than you and their producers get to ensure they, quite literally, get the last laugh.

Here’s a good example.
Trevor Noah is one of the funniest and smartest hosts on American Television. Born in South Africa he decided, in the aftermath of the last World Cup to congratulate ‘Africa’ for winning the competition. This didn’t go down well with a number of his French viewers, including France’s Ambassador to the United States, who decided to write to Mr Noah and put him straight.[1]

‘It seems,’ wrote the ambassador, ‘that you are denying these French-born, French-educated soccer players of their Frenchness. France,’ he continued, ‘is indeed a cosmopolitan country, but every citizen belongs to the nation of France. Unlike in the United States of America, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion or origin. For us there is no hyphenated identity.’

As I said, a mistake to take on someone like Trevor Noah. And the poor Ambassador was figuratively disembowelled live on prime time television. I’ll come back to that later.

But I was thinking about this spat earlier this week when I was in France, listening to a professor of French History take a group of Masorti Rabbis through one of the most remarkable moments in modern Jewish history; the case of Napoleon and the Great Assembly.

It’s the late 1700s, the Revolution has been, Egalite, Liberte and Fraternite have been declared, but it’s not at all clear that the Jews should be due the same rights as - forgive the term - proper French citizens. Aside from the matter of our strange habits and the fear that we might have a loyalty that would make it impossible for us to be truly French, there is also the business of money. Too many French people owe too much money to Jewish moneylenders and it would be much cheaper to simply declare Jews or their money-lending illegal and not have to pay back commercial debts.

Eventually, the matter comes to Napoleon and he calls a Great Assembly, 110 representatives of the Jews of Empire, from the Portuguese in the West to the Germans and the Italians, everyone is to come to Paris where, seated in the great Town Hall, Count Mole puts before them 12 questions.

‘An assembly like the present has no precedent in the annals of Christianity,’ Mole opened proceedings,  ‘The wish of His Majesty is, that you should be Frenchmen; it remains with you to accept the proffered title without forgetting that to prove unworthy of it would be renouncing it all together.’

You are either in, or out. Remember the French Ambassador and the Football World Cup - no hyphenated identities to be permitted.

Then the questions,

·       Is divorce allowed in the Jewish religion, and if it is, is it allowed even in contradiction to the codes of French law? 
·       Does Jewish law permit a Jewess to marry a Christian man, or a Jew to marry a Christian woman, or may they marry only other Jews? 
·       In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen who are not Jewish, considered to be their brethren or strangers?
·       Do the Jews who are born in France, and have been granted citizenship by the laws of France, truly acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it, to follow its laws, to follow the directions of the civil and court authorities of France?

At this point, we are told, the deputies shouted as one, ‘To the death.’

You can feel the delight the delegates felt at having been called together to correct whatever mis-impressions might have been on the mind of any concerned non-Jews in their answers - largely drafted by the Chief Rabbi of the day, David Sintzheim. We visited the cemetery where he is buried, the largest in Paris, during our trip. This is from the opening of his response.

The assembly, impressed with a deep sense of gratitude, love, respect, and admiration, for the sacred person of His Imperial and Royal Majesty, declares, in the name of all Frenchmen professing the religion of Moses, that they are fully determined to prove worthy of the favours His Majesty intends for them, by scrupulously conforming to his paternal intentions; that their religion makes it their duty to consider the law of the prince as the supreme law in civil and political matters; that consequently, should their religious code, or its various interpretations, contain civil or political commands, at variance with those of the French code, those commands would, of course, cease to influence and govern them, since they must, above all, acknowledge and obey the laws of the prince.


That sets the tone for everything that follows. They deal with the questions as French men one and all - even the one about inter-marriage. And there was, among the delegates the sense that they had succeeded, assuaged any possible concern the French might have, and they awaited the response of the Emperor hoping to be finally, fully embraced as full members of French society.

But no.

Eventually, Napoleon’s response came back. There were to be new decrees against the Jews. The Assembly had hoped that the State would take on the obligation to pay wages to Rabbis. No chance. The Minister for Cults - now that’s a name - was going to prepare a list of the only Synagogues to be permitted in France. Then came the third decree which wound back earlier doctrines of emancipation  - it’s known as the decret infame. Any debt charged at a rate higher than 5% would be wound back to 5%, any debt above 10% was to be annulled.

The whole effort had been a disaster for the Jews. We had been suckered; led to believe we would be treated just like everyone else if we could show we deserved to be so treated, and then treated like unloved outsiders to be tolerated as long as we didn’t get too out of line. It took Napoleon’s death before the search for full acceptance of being a Jew in France could go on. Frankly, it’s going on still.

The point of the story is that Napoleon refused to let French Jews be ... French Jews. They were to be allowed to pray how they wanted, but they couldn’t take their Jewish identity with them into the brave new world of post-revolutionary France. Even being a little bit committed to being Jewish as part of a national, or ethnic identity was too much for Napoleon.

It was then, just as the French Ambassador wrote to Trevor Noah 200 years later - a case of no hyphenated identities. Just as Rabbi David Sintzheim was refused to be allowed to be Jewish-hyphen French, so too Ngolo Kante and Paul Pogba were being refused to be allowed to be African-hyphen French.

Why is it, Trevor Noah asks the French Ambassador, that when a French citizen of African descent is unemployed, when they may commit a crime, or they are considered unsavoury they are African immigrants, but when their children go on to provide a world cup victory for France they are only to be referred to as French.

Noah suggests the same thing could be seen in the case of the African man who climbed a building, in France to rescue a child who was dangling off a balcony some four stories in the air. President Macron gave that man French citizenship.

So, says Noah, is that man no longer African? When he was on the ground he was African? When he climbs up and rescues the baby, all of a sudden he’s French? I mean, what would have happened if he had dropped the baby on the way down, would he have gone back to being African again?

I don’t mean to pick on the French, because we do exactly this in this country, and other countries too.

If someone, a member of this Synagogue, or one like it, runs a profitable business, employing thousands and makes donations to charity - they are a British entrepreneur born to Jewish parents. If it all goes wrong - they are a Jewish stereotype.

And the problem isn’t that we, British Jews, or French Jews, or any other kind of Jew, or any African immigrant, or anyone else from any race or religion or ethnic group isn’t capable to giving good answers to the sorts of questions posed on behalf of Napoleon to the Jews of France in the 1790s. The problem is the assumption behind these sorts of questions.

These sorts of questions, time and time and in place after place, assume that our difference is somehow a threat. I, and my threat to the purity of this place should either be tolerated or not tolerated. Those are the options in the mind of those who ask these questions. And as an assumption, it’s invidious and deceitful. Difference is how a community thrives. Variety in society is about more than the different kinds of takeaway options you can order from the ever increasing range of restraints on our high streets. Variety in society is the source of economic creativity, cultural creativity, scientific creativity ... I could do on.

Why can’t the football players be French-African, or French-Angolan, or French-immigrant? I mean they are, so why not celebrate that, celebrate how someone can be an immigrant of one generation and a poster-hero of a nation the next. And if there is a French-African who commits a crime, why not deal with the vast array of possible causations that might be at play, not focus just on one factor that allows me to feel no complicity, no mercy and no sense of obligation towards the creation of a more fair society for all.

And as for me, why can’t I be both British and Jewish? Actually, if you really want to know who I am and how I can make my most significant contribution to society you’ll need a bunch of hyphens ‘British-Jewish-middle-aged-male-straight-...’ and others.  

When, Louis, I say to you today take this Jewish heritage of yours and tend it, nurture it and hold it close, I’m not trying to take other parts of your identity away from you. It’s about being Jewish-hyphen-everything-else.

The goal of Jewish life, here, now, isn’t to retreat into a single definition of who we are. But rather to become a rounded collection of interconnecting hyphens. The dangerous thing, the deceitful thing if being forced to reject one part of our true identity for the sake of joining or staying a part of another club.

Don’t be fooled, Louis, or any of us. Don’t be prepared to give up the Jewish part of your identity to belong anywhere; you will betray an important part of yourself if you do - and it won’t work. Your truth will always accompany you wherever you go. Rather find ways to celebrate in the true hyphenated nature of who you are, as a Jew and as so much more.

And in doing so, we can, perhaps, help create societies more capable of understanding the richness, the vibrancy and power of all hyphenated identities.

Shabbat Shalom





[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COD9hcTpGWQ
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