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Modern Judaism 22.1 (2002) 1-27

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Liberté, égalité, Utilité:
Jewish Education and State in Nineteenth-century France

Jeffrey Haus

Shortly after its formation in 1808, the Central Jewish Consistory of France—the administrative body charged with overseeing French Jewish religious activities 1 —began to solicit government permission to open specifically Jewish educational institutions. Consistorial leaders based their lobbying efforts upon two main conceptual foundations: utility and equal treatment under the law. Separate Jewish schools, they argued, would aid in the more efficient integration of Jewish youth, producing economic and moral benefits for the French nation. At the same time, the emancipation of French Jews in 1791 and the recognition of French Judaism as a state religion in 1808 required that Jews have the same opportunities to educate their children as Christians had. 2 In developing this negotiating strategy, consistorial leaders sought to establish a mutual obligation between French Judaism and the French state that could then translate into financial and political support. For their part, French government officials focused upon the projected returns on their political and capital investments.

These different approaches to the education issue reveal conflicting conceptions of the proper role of Judaism in the integration process. Both government and consistorial officials believed in the general necessity of French Jewish integration. The determination of just what integration meant, however, proved consistently imprecise. As Pierre Birnbaum has recently observed, Jewish emancipation in France seemed to present two basic options for French Jews: assimilation and "voluntary or involuntary communitarization." 3 Yet succumbing to the temptation to interpret these choices as polarized—that Jews chose one to the exclusion of the other—overlooks the possibility that many French Jews stood somewhere between the two strategies. 4 The way that French Jewish leaders employed the concepts of utility and equal treatment indicates a significant mixing of the two options in consistorial thinking. In negotiating the future of French Jewish education, the consistorial leadership sought to reconcile the demands of integration with the desire to preserve French Jewish continuity, albeit in a more modern form. [End Page 1]

This article will explore the impact of this conceptual reconciliation on the Consistory's attempt to develop a national system of Jewish education in the first half of the nineteenth century. As the state-designated overseers of Jewish integration, the consistorial leadership needed to address both civic and religious concerns in its educational plans. One central question dominated the dialogue: should Jewish children attend general French schools or separate Jewish ones in order to speed their integration? Contrasting notions of utility and equality subsequently framed much of the educational dialogue between Jewish leaders and the French authorities. The struggle to define these concepts set the tone for debates that shaped government decisions regarding material and political support for Jewish education, and consequently limited the educational options open to the Consistory.

As much as any other issue of the post-emancipation era, education raised fundamental dilemmas for the leaders of French Judaism. Modern education stood at the center of the consistorial plan for promoting the regeneration and integration of French Jewry. According to this vision, Jewish schools and schoolmasters would produce Jewish youths versed in both their religious heritage and the basic academic skills required for citizenship in the developing French state. 5 Jewish primary schools would also prepare their students—who would come mostly from the poorer ranks of French Jewry—to take up "useful" occupations, such as manual trades and artisan crafts that would theoretically enable them to integrate into the French economy. 6

This focus, however, placed Jewish schools at odds with the educational priorities of the French government. Most significantly, the regenerative mission meant that Jewish instruction targeted a different clientele than the general French public school system. By contrast, the Napoleonic and Restoration regimes directed their educational resources toward the improvement of secondary education for the first third of the nineteenth century. 7 Such an emphasis made sense: the developing government bureaucracy required the creation of a class of mid-level civil servants trained at French collèges and...


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