The Emancipation of the Jews 1794

Observations on Behalf of the Jews of Avignon to the National Convention[1]

Source: Observations pour les Juifs d’Avignon. Paris. L’Imprimerie Momoro, premier imprimeur de la liberté, [n.d. 1794];
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor.

The Jews of Avignon are French. They are citizens. They are ardent friends of the Revolution and they have embraced its principles with enthusiasm. They have served it with all their might. They have served it with a gratitude all the stronger because they owe it their having been freed from an oppression that lasted twenty centuries and for having finally attained the dignity of man. And yet a question is raised today concerning them, a question that could almost lead one to doubt if they are in fact citizens, or even French.

It is against this doubt, so injurious for them, that the Jews of Avignon today request justice from the National Convention as well as its power.

Everyone knows the legislative act that in France abolished corporations of all kinds, and which declared that the debts the corporation contracted would henceforth be national debts, just as the property they possessed would themselves be national property.

This noble decree was the necessary result of the very principle of equality.

And in fact, there can be no equality where there are differences. And in a nation which, in the eyes of reason, is but one sole and great family, corporations are true differences.

In France itself these differences were monstrous.

The corporations there had multiplied enormously. They had broken the state down into an infinite number of parts. They had created a multitude of separate small nations within the nation itself.

Each of these corporations had different and often opposed interests.

They also had separate privileges, and even had rivals. These privileges perpetually crossed each other in their exercise. There were constantly new claims, new combats. And to the shame of reason men, who had originally come together to live as brothers, as time passed had arrived at dividing themselves and fighting each other as if they were enemies.

All these revolting disparities should necessarily fade before the flame of philosophy, which today finally spreads a shining light.

At the moment when, in the name of the French people, the equality of all French citizens was proclaimed, the abolition of the corporations was proclaimed.

The abolition of all of them was proclaimed, for it was felt that this portion of our legislation would be incomplete if it was allowed to make some exceptions to a principle which by its nature allows none.

Nevertheless, against the sacred authority of this principle there were people who appeared to want to recognize the Jews of Avignon as an existing corporation.

And in fact, for several centuries they formed one in Avignon.

This corporation was even completely separate from the people of Avignon, though living alongside them.

It had particular privileges; it had its government, its administration, its regulations. It had municipal officers who presided over it and it deliberated on its own interests. It held assemblies composed of heads of families chosen from among the community. It was subject to laws that only held sway over it. In a word, within the commune of Avignon it was a commune apart whose existence had nothing in common with that of the other inhabitants of the same country.

Under the oppression of the ancient regime, where the Jews were so harshly refused the status of citizens, they were nevertheless recognized as citizens when it came to taxes.

Taxes of all kinds had been established for them. They were subject to pay public expenses. They were above all rigorously subjected to all those of war. They were even taxed arbitrarily without consulting either their capacities. But they had no means of protesting or making their voices heard, since they were Jews.

The corporation was forced to have recourse to loans to meet these taxes, and these loans formed debts.

But these debts were not unsecured. The corporation had properties, it had buildings, it had revenues, and all these goods were so many securities that reassured the creditors in advance and served as a surety for their payment.

When the Revolution came and legislation destroyed all the corporations that existed in France, the Jews of Avignon, whose wishes went all in this direction, ceased to exist in that city as a corporation.

They hastened to abdicate their particular existence in order to rise to the rank of citizens along with all French citizens.

They then individually made all the sacrifices demanded of them by the Revolution.

These sacrifices were taken note of by the constituted authorities.

These authorities so well recognized the Jews of Avignon as worthy of the status of French citizens that they didn’t hesitate to treat them as such.

The corporation was the owner of a large building which formed a temple where they went for the exercise of their religion. The municipality today makes use of it.

It had a quite extensive terrain for its cemetery; the department has taken it over.

The temple had ornaments and precious furnishings were attached to it; these furnishings were given to the popular society and the popular society in turn gave them to the nation, along with other objects that came from the temple.

And so the property of the corporation were dispersed, and only debts were left to it.

But who can take these debts in charge today if not the nation, which now owns the goods that the Jews of Avignon once owned, and which has taken their place?

It isn’t the corporation who can pay them...It no longer exits.

It isn’t the individuals...It wasn’t they who contracted the debts.

And yet, hard as it is to believe, it is these individuals who are today being pursued, and vigorously so, as if it were they who were the debtors.

But is it not inconceivable that people force these unfortunate Jews to have recourse to the authority of the Convention in order to force the Convention to pronounce itself on a question already so formally resolved in principle?

On what pretext in fact can they ask every Jew of Avignon in particular to pay debts contracted by their former corporation?

It can’t be claimed that this corporation alone was not destroyed along with all the others of the republic. The legislation proves the contrary.

It also can’t be said that the debts it is a question or pronouncing upon are not debts contracted by that corporation... The list of debts state their nature.

Finally, it cannot be maintained that these debts are not legal. Their legality is established by their object and the very form in which they were contracted.

Why then would they refuse to apply to the Jews of Avignon both the general law which, by abolishing the corporations of every kind, declared their debts national debts and the particular law of August 15, 1793 which in extending this general disposition also declared national debts “the debts of all communes, departments, and districts contracted by virtue of a legally authorized deliberation up to and including August 10, 1793.”

They thus doubt that these Jews are French, for if they are French their corporation is destroyed.

If they are French the debts contracted by that corporation to meet the expenses of an oppressive government had to have become national, just as the property itself became national.

Finally, if they are French each Jew individual can no more be pursued for the payment of debts contracted by his corporation than the inhabitants of a commune can be pursued in particular for the debts contracted by that commune.

Can it be that they the property of the Jews of Avignon will be regarded as national? That they will seize and make use of them? And that the debts for which these properties were the security and whose value is greater than the debt will become individual debts?

And so they will treat the Jews today as they were once treated, that is, they will agree to regard them as citizens only when it comes to taxation, and when it comes to rights they will be nothing but foreigners!

These unfortunate men would again be the playthings of a generous nation, as they once were of all depots.

Misfortune would not have ceased to pursue them: it will still be attached to them. Prejudice, which they have been victim of for twenty centuries, will remain the same. They will have gained nothing from our principles. The zeal with which they embraced and served the Revolution will be nothing but a useless zeal. All their sacrifices will have been wasted. They would still be oppressed, persecuted, humiliated, outside the law. In a word, they would still be Jews in the eyes of the law when for some time already in the eyes of the law there exists nothing but citizens.

No! French legislation will not be insulted in this way!

They will not introduce into our laws a contradiction that would dishonor them.

They will not blacken the reputation of the Revolution in this way.

When a system is fundamentally just its consequences must be accepted.

Honesty in the laws is needed.

Equality cannot be a vain word.

There cannot be one portion of Frenchmen treated in one way and another portion treated in another.

We cannot have abolished the corporations and still recognize only one.

The national Convention cannot recognize the Jews.

There are no more Jews in France.

In France there are no more Catholics, Protestants, Anabaptists, Jews, or sectarians of any kind. There are only Frenchmen.

But if there are only Frenchmen within the nation there can be no distinctions.

The Jews of Avignon should not be looked on differently than other French citizens.

Their corporation cannot be recognized as still existing when that corporation was abolished along with all the others.

All of our laws must be applied to them.

Above all the decree of August 15, 1793 must be applied to them, which formally declared national the authorized debts of all corporations, which same law declares their properties national.

This is all the more necessary since the nation today owns all their property. It would be forced to return them these properties, and return them as they were at the moment they were sacrificed, along with the compensation appropriate to this sacrifice, if it doesn’t assume their debts.

In a word, there must be no hesitation in allowing the Jews of Avignon the enjoyment of the same rights as all other citizens, since they share the same duties.

Otherwise we have no choice but to say that equality does not exist. There will not be unity in our legislation. There will not even be any in the republic. And against the wishes recognized and pronounced of our principles, in France we will still distinguish between Frenchmen and Jews.

Aaron Ravel
Aaron Vidal Milhaud

This 3 Vendémiaire of the Year III of the Republic one and indivisible.

1. These observations were written to be placed before each member of the National Convention as backing for the more detailed request presented to the Convention on 28 Fructidor by the Jews of Avignon.

This request of the Jews of Avignon has nothing in common with the request that was presented to the Convention by the Jews of the city of Metz.

It appears that the object of the request of the Jews of Metz was reimbursement for supplies they provided the nation, and for which we are told payment is due.

On the contrary, the Jews of Avignon request that the nation, which destroyed their former corporation, and which now possesses all their property, also assume the debts for which this property was a security and which were caused by the taxes that the former government levied against them. The two petitions are thus completely different. [Translator’s note: footnote in the original]