17 May 2015


by Ori Z. Soltes

On September 28, 1791, two years after the onset of mass revolutionary violence that we know now as the French Revolution, the Convention, having pronounced itself a champion of the rights of humankind, and after having spent some time debating the issue, declared that Jews—some of whom had ancestors resident in what had become France over the centuries since the early Roman Imperial period—were no longer to be thought of as and treated as foreigners (and less than humans). Rather than Jews who happened to live in France, they were to be understood as Frenchmen who happened to be Jewish.  Fully enfranchised as citizens of the new Republic, they were to be accorded liberté, égalité and also fraternité to the same extent that French Catholics were (together with any stray Protestants who had wondered back after the Revolution, having been expelled more than a century earlier under King Louis XIV).

Napoleon and the Jews

Although France was not the first country to emancipate its Jewish population—the Hapsburg Emperor, Joseph II, had begun that process seven years earlier with the Edict of Tolerance of 1784—the French began to think of themselves, and to be thought of by the rest of Europe, as the paradigm of a polity in which one’s form or place of worship was all but disconnected from one’s role and one’s ability to play a role in the socio-economics, culture and even politics of the nation. Even as the First Republic collapsed into a renewed succession of autocracies, beginning with the rise to power of Napoleon I, this sense of self remained essentially intact—Napoleon himself both questioned (under pressure from Count Mole) and then reaffirmed both Jewish loyalty to France and the extension of citizen rights to Jews within France.

It came as somewhat of a surprise, then, a century after the 1791 declaration by the Convention—in the context of a spying scandal a generation after the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War, as the army still sought a scapegoat for that catastrophe besides its own bloated inefficiency—that the Jewish army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was framed and tried and found guilty in 1894 for the crime by an absurdly organized military court. Aside from the eagerness with which the French Army ate one of its own, facilitated largely by the fact that he was a Jew and that he came from the border territory of Alsace that had been lost to Prussia 23 years before, the frame-up and what accompanied it should not have been so surprising.
Captain Dreyfus

Edouard Drumont, a political pamphleteer, journalist and virulent anti-Semite, had penned a book in 1886, La France Juive, in which he warned his fellow French Catholics of the danger to the nation of its voracious Jewish minority. So when Dreyfus was brought to trial, Drumont’s feuilleton, La Libre Parole (Free Speech) mounted a steady campaign not only to support a conviction of Dreyfus, but expended enormous energy to promote a broader campaign of anti-Semitism marked by cartoons and caricatures that sought to restore a medieval sense of Jewish complicity with no less than the Satan himself and his cohorts. The Church itself eagerly supported that sort of perspective. Drumont’s campaign was successful. Deep wells of hatred against Jews boiled their contents up to the surface of French society and revealed that the Emancipation Decree of 1791 by the First Republic and that of Napoleon in 1807 had effectively been false: Frenchmen continued, in large numbers, to support the ongoing notion of the fundamental alien-ness and even lack of humanity of Jews.
Edouard Drumont

Not everyone fell into that ugly pit of hatred, of course. Emile Zola most famously refused to. He partnered with the brother of Dreyfus in pressing the case for the Captain’s innocence—it would take 12 years for this to be proven, and for the real perpetrator of espionage crimes to be revealed, a financially and morally bankrupt member of the lower nobility, Walter Esterhazy, whose drinking and gambling problems necessitated his selling French military secrets to the Prussians for a reasonable price. The lynchpin in moving the process forward to the eventual exoneration of Dreyfus was Zola’s now-renowned very public essay, J’accuse, in which he named the names of all those in the government, army and church who had allowed their anti-Jewish sentiments to twist justice into a knot.
Emile Zola
More than a century after the Dreyfus affair we find France once again twisting justice into a knot by way of a completely different affair. It doesn’t involve spying and it doesn’t involve Jews but it does involve a profound contradiction of what France has purported to be its persona among the nations as it has lessened its colonial ambitions around the world and with it, its manifestation of the Euro-American habit of freely dispossessing non-European peoples of their cultural heritage.

I refer specifically to the—now repeating—willingness to ignore morality and justice in favor of financial profits by permitting, indeed encouraging, the auctioning off of precious religious objects that belong to the Hopi nation, one of many significant Native American groups that has been recognized both by the American government and internationally with regard to its cultural and spiritual integrity and distinctness.

In the past year HARP has twice partnered with the Hopi Nation in using our expertise to argue before the French courts that these auctions amount to no less than plundering a people of its heritage. We have failed twice; the French have been deaf to our arguments, their deafness, as so often in such cases, based on legal technicalities (for example, that the actual entity speaking before the court, the Chairman of the Tribe, is not the actual owner of the objects, but rather the tribe itself is, but the tribe cannot speak on its own behalf in the court because the court does not recognize the tribe as a legal entity—they, of course, offer their Chairman as their representative, who does legally represent them. The court further refused to recognize HARP as a legitimate representative of the Hopi Nation, although to solve that issue they made us their legal representative by according to us power of attorney. The French court chose to be blind to the court-worthy presence of both the Chairman and HARP. Figure that one out).

Yet another auction of sacred Hopi objects is now swiftly approaching, scheduled for early June 2015 and so far there is no indication that the French courts will diverge from the path they have thus far taken. What does this mean? At least three things:
Hopi protesting auctions of sacred objects in Paris

1/ they have chosen to ignore the international documents of which they are signatories that recognize the integrity of indigenous peoples all over the globe and that, in this case, should by any moral logic to protect the Hopi Nation from being plundered of its cultural and spiritual heritage;

2/ in so doing, the French are repeating the same sort of crime committed by the Nazis and others, historically, including the French Emperor Napoleon I, when they plundered the cultural property of other nations or, in the case of the Nazis, individual families and galleries across Europe. In this latter case, the post-World War II choice by the French to appropriate at least 2100 objects for their own museums on the grounds that the owners or their heirs could not be located has left a bad taste in many peoples’ mouths still, now, seventy years after those misappropriations were quietly carried out;

3/ France has now positioned itself to become the place where galleries and collectors know that they can dispose of their ill-gotten (as opposed to legitimately gotten) objects of cultural and spiritual value to peoples across the planet at a profit. The traditional French disdain for the Americans as cultural barbarians must hide itself, it would seem, behind the paradoxical veil that, what the American legal and moral system will not allow with respect to such objects can, if they are smuggled outside the United States, make it through French customs and enter France where their illegitimate owners will be rewarded for their trouble rather than be punished for their crime.

So the paradox—or is it hypocrisy?—that carried from the twisting of the principles of the Revolution into l’Affaire Dreyfus has carried a century forward and twisted those principles of respect for humankind into another turn. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as one of those French Enlightenment philosophers said, I suppose.

For additional references, see the following posts on plundered art: