Friday, April 23, 2010

The Napoleonic Sanhedrin Theory of Equal Rights (Part I)

My previous post on the American flag received some strong reactions. At least one person questioned my loyalty to Judaism. I do not blame the person or think he is entirely wrong. I take my loyalty to the United States as a citizen very seriously. I am very open to the possibility that the requirements of citizenship violate the precepts of Judaism and that I have to choose between being a practicing Jew or an American. Part of what separates me from most people today is that I do not view citizenship and the benefits that come with it (voting, equal protection before the law, holding legal office etc.) as inherent rights, but as privileges, privileges that you pay for by taking on certain obligations. These obligations are not to be taken lightly and it is quite possible that the price is too high and one should turn citizenship down. I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that today everyone is given full citizenship, men, women, white, black, Christians, Jews, atheists. Thus citizenship becomes the norm to be treated as a given, without any thought to any consequences. Contrast this with being a citizen of the Roman Empire.

My model for gaining equal rights and citizenship is a little-known event, known as Napoleon's Sanhedrin. Before the French Revolution, Jews lived in semi-autonomous kehillot. They were not citizens of the countries in which they lived in, but were rather sometimes tolerated resident aliens. The French Revolutionary government was the first to grant Jews equal rights. It did this by disbanding the kehillot and making Jews, as individuals, French citizens. In the years 1806-07, when Napoleon was at the height of his power, he gathered together noted Jews from across the religious spectrum and put to them certain questions as to the ability of Jews to be citizens. Among these questions where:

May a Jewess marry a Christian, or a Jew a Christian woman or does Jewish law order that the Jews should only intermarry among themselves?

In the eyes of Jews are Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion considered as brethren or as strangers?

Do the Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and follow the directions of the civil code?

Does Jewish law forbid the Jews to take usury from their brethren?

Does it forbid, or does it allow, usury in dealings with strangers?

This whole affair collapsed into absurdity as members of this "Sanhedrin" attempted to balance Jewish tradition with giving Napoleon the answers he wanted to hear. Are Jews allowed to marry? Yes, sort of, not really, no, but we still are a loving tolerant religion. Today the incident is remembered simply as a historical oddity. That being said, this incident was critical in that it set up many of the issues for modern Jewry as a good example of, what I like to call, the "Enlightenment bargain." Jews agreed to make certain concessions to the surrounding culture and, in turn, they were given citizenship and equal rights. How far these concessions went was up for discussion. It could be anything from agreeing to speak the vernacular to being baptized. In essence, all Jews, even the most extreme Haredim, have made some version of this bargain and have assimilated to some extent.

In a larger sense, Napoleon's Sanhedrin is important in that it offers a different model of gaining equality from the one that modern liberalism is used to. In the modern liberal model, there are oppressed groups being denied what is rightfully theirs. Members of these groups decide to fight for these rights and, aligned with enlightened members of the general society, succeed in gaining equality for their people. For example, blacks in America were being denied the right to vote. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream and finally convinced white America that it was wrong to deny blacks equal rights. A properly chastised white America did a mea culpa and passed the Voting Rights Act of 1964. 

The story of Napoleon's Sanhedrin is not one in which Christian Europe suddenly awoke to the fact that they had been mistreating Jews for a thousand years and finally decided that Jews really were just like everyone else and should be tolerated, given equal rights and ultimately made into citizens. On the contrary, it was Jews being put on trial before European society and asked whether they were deserving of being given citizenship. Being a citizen means taking on certain responsibilities and being of a certain mindset to be able to function within society. Can you be trusted not to simply abuse citizenship for your own ends? If you cannot live up to this then no rights. This model puts the onus, not on the general society, but on the given minority group.

(To be continued …)


Clarissa said...

So the najority has a right to decide whether the minority is worthy? Here are those Communist leanings again. :-) :-)

Izgad said...

I can understand someone accusing me of being authoritarian or even a Fascist, but a Communist? This is not a matter of being worthy or good enough. It is a question of can you be trusted. I can be the most tolerant person in the world, but if I believe that my neighbor is conspiring against the best interests of this country then I am not about to sit back and let this person have citizenship. Clarissa, you originally come from Ukraine. Not to question your patriotism or anything, but do you not agree that it is a valid for people to wonder where your loyalties lie and that you, in order to gain American citizenship and be accepted by American society, carry the burden of actively setting people’s minds at rest.

In the end I have to trust that, whatever disagreements I have with you, you are not some godless Communist agent out to overthrow American democracy and send me to the Gulag for reeducation. In turn you have to trust me that I am not some theocratic Fascist out to anoint George W. Bush as King Fuehrer. The alternative is to start shooting each other.

Vox Populi said...

LOL, aren't you a Libertarian?

I know we speak of a social contract, but in a certain sense, as we the people are suspicious of them the government, there is good philosophical basis for construing citizenship (its rights and responsibilities) as not so much a two-way contract (which is the only really legal kind of contract) as a one-way promise that flows from the state to the individual.

I'm all for paying taxes, sitting on a jury, serving in the Armed Forces when necessary, obeying the law, and loving America but citizenship is not and should not be dependent on any of these things.

The protections of citizenship are most often needed by the various malcontents of our society, and it is for the protection of revolutionaries, gadflies, common criminals and eccentrics that we fashioned these rights of due process.

Every pedophile and terrorist born in this country is entitled to, inter alia, habeas corpus, counsel, and a fair jury trial. Were we to make citizenship dependent on an individual's perceived loyalty to the nation (whatever that would mean) we would effectively be nullifying the protections of the bill of rights and other safeguards? Who needs freedom of speech if everyone is "loyal"? Can there be cruel and unusual punishment towards someone who has committed no crime?

>The story of Napoleon's Sanhedrin is not one in which Christian Europe suddenly awoke to the fact that they had been mistreating Jews for a thousand years and finally decided that Jews really were just like everyone else and should be tolerated, given equal rights and ultimately made into citizens.

I'm sure your knowledge of this history is far more comprehensive than mine, but I suspect that it was a great deal more complicated than that. Enlightenment ideas were flowing throughout Europe and the Americas at the time, and the idea that citizenship and basic rights were a right of everyone was gaining widespread traction. To a certain extent, many Europeans were waking up and thinking that Jews were really like everyone else.

Conversely, the successful revolution in American civil rights gained a lot of traction because MLK and the black establishment decided to do things non-violently (if unlawfully) and to show white people that black people were fully capable of being valued members of society.

Izgad said...

Yes I am a libertarian. This post was looking at rights from a “pre-government” perspective, almost a state of nature. Of course the goal is that I should submit to the tolerance of the libertarian government and embrace my Ukrainian neighbor as an equal citizen of the Libertarian State instead of scalping them. How do we get there? How do I come to put away my tomahawk, give up my Hobbesian blood-feud and smoke the peace pipe? I think of Israel Zangwill’s play the Melting Pot, where the Jewish main character comes to America and gets with the daughter of the Cossack who caused him to flee in the first place.

Clarissa said...

Izgad: I have no interest whatsoever in American citizenship. I am very happy with the passport I carry right now and am not planning to change it. I have no "patriotism" and consider everybody who does to be brainwashed, so there is nothing in me to question in this respect. :-) :-)

The people around me don't seem to be in any way othered by my origins, so I haven't felt any need to set their minds at rest. They seem pretty settled in their minds. :-)

I made a joke about you being a communist because I heard about the majority being all important and the individual (or the minority) having to prove things to the majority a lot. That was in the Soviet Union.

Izgad said...

So if Ukraine sent you a draft notice: “We are being invaded by Russia. We need you to come back and take up arms in defense of the country,” would you do it?

Clarissa said...

I have lived away from Ukraine for such a long time that I would not presume to know enough about their current situation to go as far as taking up arms and killing people.

Izgad said...

Your Ukrainian passport protects you. It forces the American government to treat you with a certain level of courtesy, knowing that there is a Ukrainian government that will step in and protest on your behalf and will retaliate against American citizens in kind. My model for this is Cicero’s famous comment about the value of being able to say: “I am a Roman citizen.”

That Ukrainian government exists because, particularly in the face of an imperial Russia, there are people willing to take up arms in the defense of the country. Without Ukraine, you are just a refugee dependent upon the charity of the world and completely at the mercy of those who would wish to harm you. You think that you can simply take advantage of the benefits your Ukrainian citizenship gives and not pay the price when needed? Are you willing to simply sit back and let other people pay with their lives for what you benefit from?

Notice that my nationalism is completely non-aggressive and assumes and respects all other people for their nationalism. I do not claim that the United States is better than Ukraine. I have my obligations to my country and will leave the citizens of Ukraine to fulfill the obligations to their country in the hope that we can all work together in peace.

Clarissa said...

I travel with a Canadian passport, actually. In my opinion, I have obligations to the place where I live, not to the place with which I'm associated through some kind of meaningless paperwork. I am obligated to pay taxes and observe the laws of the place where I live. After I do that, I consider my part of the social contract with the place where I happen to live to be fulfilled. Nobody should expect any more from me, which I think is fair.

Nationalism always relies on people's emotions simply because it requires the complete suspension of any reason and logic. I cannot possibly force myself to respect anybody's unreasoning, illogical, overly emotional attachment to an imagined community, to something that simply does not exist.

Clarissa said...

Karl Deutsch: "a nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours."

Benedict Anderson: "a nation is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. . . Regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings."

Izgad said...

You attack a straw-man version of nationalism, one that is defined by hatred and aggression toward other countries. I love my family and feel obligated toward them. I am not sure how this is any more arbitrary than a country. My family loyalties do not mean that I have anything against members of other families. My love for America does not mean that I wish to wage war against Canada and subjugate Canadians. While nationalism, as with most good things, is often abused, this should not take away from the fact that nationalism has often played a critical role in the struggle for freedom, for example in breaking up the Iron Curtain.

Clarissa said...

There is no collective identity without "the Other." The Other is always a place where the inner fears of the group are projected. The Other is indispensable as an object against which a collective identity defines itself. If theOther does not exist, it is constructed and imagined.