The Emancipation of the Jews 1789

Request to Our Lords the Estates General in Support of the Jews

Source: Requête a Nosseigneurs les États-Généraux en Faveur des Juifs [np] [nd 1789 ?] ;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor.

More than four months ago this work was given to the printer by the author. Private reasons caused a delay in publication, but the Abbé Gregoire having asked to be heard on this matter we hasten to bring out these reflections.

An entire nation condemned to opprobrium and poverty, reduced to the profession of usury among a gentle and well-bred people in order to live. These are among the contradictions which human history provides examples of and which afflict more than they surprise philosophers.

It is up to you, gentlemen, to put an end to this barbarism that we exercise towards the Jews and which falls back on us, since they are forced to ceaselessly dupe us and wrest from us the bread they eat by seducing those of our citizens who are unfortunate enough to be forced to have recourse to them.

The recent edict in favor of the different sects and religions, which was dictated by a spirit of beneficence and humanity and in which there is no exception made for them, was of no use to them. When they wanted to take up some kind of commerce, some profession, the merchant and professional bodies opposed this. In order not to have Jews among them they refused them mastership, and consequently condemned them to vegetate in contempt and poverty, against the spirit of the law which seemed to aim at procuring for them a comfortable and honest existence.

But if we were to manage to destroy usury what would become of these unfortunates? In the synagogue of Metz fifteen to twenty usurers feed their brothers to a number of more than four hundred, who have no other means of existence than wandering the city selling old rags and scrap metal. It is impossible to depict their poverty. Crowded into a narrow and stinking street, they don’t have a quarter of the lodging that would be necessary for them not to be poisoned by the bad air and filth. And so they are frail, cachectic, and mangy, and people are so cruel as to mock them when it is our barbarous laws in their regard that reduce them to this deplorable state.

Humanity and nature are outraged, and groan when they see men born among us in France treated ignominiously, paying to enter Strasbourg like filthy animals, hated, humiliated, crowded together in Metz in a horrific way, forced under pain of death by hunger to live off the vilest of professions (that of a usurer) without being able to profess any other. Condemned to engage in commerce in rags, everywhere ransomed, everywhere humiliated, and why? Because they follow a belief different from ours, and this in the eighteenth century, when we speak of nothing but tolerance, humanity, and freedom of conscience, etc. Humans! At long last be consistent. Cease charging yourselves with avenging your god, or avenge him in a way more worthy of him. Come to the aid of your brothers; assist them in supporting the sufferings and necessities of life, and pity them for the errors to which they are attached. Fathers of the fatherland: be touched by the lot of these unfortunates; this is their title in your regard. Carry their just demands to the foot of the throne; ask the clemency of the best of kings for an order of Frenchmen who have groaned for centuries beneath the weight of poverty and misfortune.

They will abandon their infamous profession of usurer with no difficulty if we procure them the means of being able to subsist honestly. They don’t ask titles, posts, or honorific positions of you. They know that by the laws of the state they can not pretend to them. They only request the rights enjoyed by the least of citizens: to be able to be farmers, merchants, artists, day workers, etc. by conforming themselves to the laws and charges demanded by the different commercial and craft bodies.

This people which in distant centuries called itself a people of pastoralists requests, as an act of grace, the permission to cultivate the arid and abandoned cantons in several of the provinces of France. They will pay to the king or the landlords the value or the rent of these lands that currently bring in nothing. And their industry, their fidelity, and their joy at entering society will give them the courage to render these lands fertile. There will result from this an increase in crops, livestock, and public revenue. The lands of Bordeaux alone will furnish work to those among them who will engage in agriculture. Others will be engaged in different mechanical arts and some will enter commerce, which they will also increase by their industry.

We can allow them synagogues only in places where they will be gathered en masse, but there cannot under any pretext be allowed any difference in attire from that of other citizens in order to avoid the hatred and dissension that ignorance and fanaticism give birth to among people of different beliefs.

The Christian religion will in no way be insulted by these new arrangements, given that despite this new order of things the Jews will be no less scattered over the surface of the earth and be strangers everywhere among the nations that tolerate them. It is simply that in France they will be treated with more kindness and humanity than has been the case until today and they will enjoy an existence similar to that enjoyed by their brothers in Poland and several other states of Europe.

The Jews, by living honestly and for the largest part on their own renouncing usury, which is the sole means they had of existing, will no longer be degraded and have reason to blush or to fear the looks of the people. Their name will no longer be an insult to them. Soon, having been educated, the sciences, the arts, the talents will have them share with us the pleasures they cannot today taste. No longer being crowded into a tiny space, having better and more abundant nourishment, their bodies will show the positive effects of this easier life and the freedom of breathing clean air. Instead of feeble and pale beings we will soon see among them the structure, the lightness, and the strength of other nations.

If they are separated from the nation through their belief, they will at least have the consolation of drawing close to it at all the other points that render society precious, above all by their love for a government, a monarch, and a fatherland to whom they will be obligated and from whom they will have received a new being.

The wishes we form for this unhappy portion of humanity are those of all feeling and enlightened people. What better moment to make the voice of humanity, reason, and philosophy resound than that when the fathers of the fatherland, gathered around a humane, feeling, adored sovereign, can present to him the humble and touching request of these unfortunates; can present their profound poverty, the opprobrium under which most of them languish, and the wishes of the nation, which desires an improvement in their lot and to see annihilated the dangerous trap that excess and usury lay for citizens.

Usury undermined at its base, excess attacked by the impossibility of finding the means to be sustained; order, peace and tranquility restored to families and inheritances, a nation made whole; men born French wrested from poverty, opprobrium and infamy; all these are great subjects worthy of occupying your august assembly and being placed before the eyes of the good father who has called you to him to present all the possible means of rendering the people as happy as he would like them to be.

If usury were prohibited to Jews, if they were permitted to engage in agriculture, to profess arts and professions, it would be necessary for them to reach into their funds, which are currently scattered hither and yon. But on the other hand, it would be unjust to force their creditors to reimburse them before the agreed upon term.

In forbidding usury and in granting them the privileges and douceurs which we just spoke of, we must also see to the return of their funds, without causing too great a commotion in the fortune of the unhappy victims of their usury. In this case it appears to me that an amortization fund for the money owed Jews would forestall all these inconveniences. This fund would furnish at agreed upon terms the money owed to Jews by citizens. This fund will also take in hand their current debts. It will also be charged with the bills owed them, and with a small sacrifice on both sides the fund will make an honest profit, which will encourage rich capitalists to invest their money in it. It will be under the protection of the government, which could annually sacrifice something in order to meet the losses and delays to which some of the Jews’ creditors are susceptible. By this means the creditors of the Jews, by paying a small interest to the fund, will obtain the time necessary to set their affairs in order and will be relieved of the enormous and ruinous interest that they currently pay. On the other hand, the Jews will immediately have all their funds, with which they can set up the establishments that their industry and taste suggest to them.

In order to establish this fund on a solid and unshakeable basis it will be necessary for the government to name commissioners charged with receiving from the Jews detailed reports of all that is owed them and the nature of the debts. It will also be necessary for the commissioners to gather information on the solidity of these debts, of the terms and means of reimbursement of the creditors so they can solidly establish the calculations upon which this fund will be formed. It seems to me to be appropriate, for the peace and tranquility of families, that this operation be carried out with discretion, and even that there be three months between the publication of this operation and its execution, so that creditors who do not want their names to appear on the list of debts owed to Jews (who will nevertheless be extremely discreet) have the possibility of reimbursing them before the list is established.

The certificates of debts currently owed Jews will receive the sanction of a judge so that they can be subject to lawsuits in keeping with the arrangements that will be made in this regard and the terms that the amortization fund will grant creditors. It will even be necessary that all bills be renewed to the profit of the fund and in a form to be determined.