Friday, May 13, 2011

Zalkind Hourwitz

I recently read A Jew in the French Revolution: The Life of Zalkind Hourwitz. In it, the author, Frances Malino, analyzes the effect of the French Revolution on the various Jewish communities in France at the time. By careful scholarship on Hourwitz's participation in the Revolution, she clarifies the Revolutionary-era issues of the nature of citizenship, the full meaning of the "rights of man" and who was entitled to these rights, and how civil liberties such as voting could be assigned or withheld. Hourwitz, a self-educated Polish Jew who arrived in France just before the Revolution, makes a perfect example for exploring these issues. His views foreshadowed the famous revolutionary formulation that "it is necessary to refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals." (Clermont-Tonnerre, cited by Malino p. 81)

The questions of Jewish participation in French civic life first arose during the initial meetings of the Estates General at the end of the French monarchy, and continued until Napoleon took over and created a new definition of the Jewish community. Throughout Hourwitz played a serious role. At the center of the debate was the conflict between the existing autonomous Jewish communities in France -- which paid collective taxes, were run by rabbis, and often suppressed the wishes of their members -- and individual Jews who wanted to be independent without giving up their faith. (It's amazing how different this was from the simultaneous recognition of the rights of Jews in the United States, for whom an autonomous community without individual rights would have been unthinkable, and who received the rights of citizens under the constitution without debate.)

A contest in Metz -- home to one of the poorest and most despised autonomous Jewish communities -- was Hourwitz's first appearance in the intellectual life of France. Although he was a recent immigrant with somewhat limited skills, he wrote an essay to answer the contest question: how could the Jews of France be made more useful and happier? His essay, an "Apology for the Jews," won the prize jointly with the Abbe Grégoire and another entrant. Both of them had far more prestige and higher formal qualifications.

His simple answer to the question was: “The means to make the Jews happy and useful? Here it is, cease to make them unhappy and useless, in giving them, or rather returning to them, the rights of citizenship.” (Malino p. 18)

Hourwitz, born in 1751 near Lublin, immigrated to France in around 1787. He lived there until his death in 1812; after years of participation in French civic life, taking the citizens' oath, serving in the national guard, and engaging with the experts in the continuing debate over the rights of Jews and other issues, he finally was allowed to become a citizen in the later part of the Revolutionary era. Besides his prize-wining “Apology” for the Jews, he also worked for the Biblioteque Nationale and wrote several books on language and linguistics.

Hourwitz was always faithful to his ideals: his Jewish identity and the revolutionary principals of equality and liberty. For much of his life he was a poor and disfranchised alien and often had to make a living selling old clothes. He managed to obtain and keep the respect of his revolutionary colleagues who were eligible to vote and often served in the Revolutionary government. Above all, he was a survivor during the time when many fell to the guillotine.

The ability of modern Jews to make the choice to be secular or religious was first being explored by Hourwitz and his contemporaries, so the book touches on issues that are important to my efforts here.

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