Azure no. 26, Autumn 5767 / 2006

The Huguenots, the Jews, and Me

By Armand Laferrere

A tale of French philo-Semitism.

My great-great-great-grandfather was named Moses. My cousins have names like Sarah, Deborah, Jeremy, Judith, Esther, Raphael, and Samuel. My grandfather was hounded by the Gestapo in Paris, and put on a train to Dachau (he survived). My father and uncle have fond memories of their time as kibbutz volunteers in the early 1960s. I have had a reasonably good knowledge of the Hebrew Bible since childhood, and during the last Intifada, I took a public stance in France in favor of Israel. Although my language and culture are French, I often feel more comfortable—morally and intellectually—in Israel than I do in my own country.

Yet I do not (as far as I know) have a single drop of Jewish blood in my veins. Neither did I, nor any member of my family, convert to Judaism. But philo-Semitism, which often includes an emotional identification with the Jewish people, is part of the heritage of the community I was raised in: The French Huguenots, or Protestants.

The first thread of a link between our two communities was woven from the very beginning of the history of French Protestantism. What most Jews remember of the European Reformation are, understandably, Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic statements. But Luther, with all due respect, is not the father of French Protestantism (there are Lutheran churches in eastern France, but their history is quite different from that of the Huguenots). Rather, our founding father is John Calvin, a Frenchman whose teachings started the most dramatic revolution in Christian-Jewish relations in the history of Christian theology.

 

The difference between Luther and Calvin on the Jewish question was originally, as always, theological. Luther had broken with the Catholic Church by arguing that salvation is the result not of obedience to any institution, but rather of faith in Jesus Christ. As this condition could obviously not be met by Jews, his initial good will towards them gave way to rage. There followed a recycling of the worst of the Middle Age blood libels, and hysterical calls for persecution.1

In spite of his opposition to the Catholic Church, then, Luther, if anything, only added fodder to the traditional Catholic case against the Jews. Like the Church, he described the Jews as Christ killers and, like the Church, he believed that the Jewish Scriptures contained a “spiritual” meaning that could be understood only by means of the New Testament. Since the Jews followed a “literal” interpretation of these texts and refused to accept their “true” meaning, Luther viewed them as enemies of, rather than precursors to, Christianity.2

Moreover, Luther compounded the traditional Church views by making the distinction between law and grace the single most important tenet of his theology. Jews, according to Luther, make the same mistake as the Catholics inasmuch as they expect salvation through obedience to the law: They follow the prescriptions of the Tora, just as Catholics follow the Pope’s orders. Therefore, neither group can enjoy real salvation, which comes from faith alone.

By contrast, Calvin took a different view of the concept of “justification by faith,” one that led to an opposite interpretation of Judaism. His was a wholly pessimistic view of man; indeed, Calvin’s work at times reads like an obsessive contemplation of the entire and absolute wickedness of all men, whether believers or non-believers, good Samaritans or evildoers, the damned or the saved. As he wrote in Institutes of the Christian Religion:

Oil will sooner be pressed from a stone than any good work from us.... I, in turn, ask [my contradictors], “Do they think that there is anything in him who is taken that disposes God to him?” If they admit that there is nothing, as they must, it will follow that God does not consider the man but seeks from his own goodness the reason to do him good.3

Calvin’s radically dark view of mankind leaves no room for a scapegoat: The Jews, he believed, cannot be described as exceptionally evil, since all men may lay claim to that distinction. Thus, when Calvin contemplates Christ’s death on the cross, he does not indict Jews, Romans, or any one group in particular. Instead, he assigns guilt in equal measure to all mankind. Since a just God, for reasons unknown to us, decided to love his creatures in spite of their absolute wickedness, Christ had no other option but to take our guilt upon himself and suffer the death we all deserved. “To take away our condemnations... he might free us both by transferring our condemnation to himself and by taking our guilt upon himself,” Calvin explained.4 In this interpretation, Christ’s death is not a crime in search of a culprit. It is, rather, the supreme blessing, an undeserved forgiveness for our otherwise unpardonable sins. Théodore de Bèze, one of Calvin’s disciples, took this argument even further by stating that Christ had not been crucified either by the Jews or by Caiaphas and Pilate, but rather by you and me: “We, brothers, we were the ones who, after so much pain, ordered him to be bound and slaughtered.”5 With this, centuries of Christian blood libels against the nation of Israel were suddenly countered by Calvinist theology.

Calvin’s other new idea was that although all men are radically corrupt, some of them will be saved and welcomed in God’s paradise. This will not, however, be the result of their particular merits. Rather, while the good works of the chosen few may help to identify them, they are in fact merely the result of God’s grace, and not its cause. Furthermore, there is never any certainty as to who in the end will be saved, for in the depths of their true nature, the elected are just as wicked as the damned.

This is where sympathy with the Jews becomes a central tenet of Calvin’s theology. In arguing in favor of his theory of “predestination” (i.e., election, or “chosenness”), Calvin repeatedly quotes the history of Israel as evidence. This small nation, he explains, was chosen by God to manifest his love, not because the Jews were less sinful than other peoples, but because it was God’s eternal, unmerited, and unquestionable decision: “God has attested this [predestination] not only in individual persons,” he wrote, “but has given us an example of it in the whole offspring of Abraham....”6 He also maintained that “[those who say that God’s goodness extends to all creatures], let them answer why God bound himself to one people, to be their father.... They add that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile... provided, to be sure... that God calls men both from the Jews and from the Gentiles according to his good pleasure, so that he is bound to no one.”7

Finally, while Catholics and Lutherans argued that the Law of Moses was but a symbol of the spiritual alliance of God and man in Christ, Calvin insisted that the Law, which was given only to the Jews, be seen as a sign of God’s particular love for Israel. Members of all other nations can be saved only through their faith in Jesus. The Jews, however, were saved before Jesus came; they thus remain the particular object of God’s love, since his promises cannot be withdrawn. Nor is that love conditional upon their following the Law of Moses. On the contrary, it was revealed centuries before the Tora, at the time of the covenant of Abraham, and is an eternal covenant: “For the Lord through the hand of Moses did not give that law to be proclaimed among all nations and to be in force everywhere,” Calvin wrote. “But when he had taken the Jewish nation into his safekeeping, defense, and protection, he also willed to be a lawgiver especially to it.”8 The reason, then, why non-Jews are not required to obey the intricacies of Tora law is not because they follow a “higher” interpretation of it, as maintained by the Catholic and Lutheran traditions. Rather, it is because their path to salvation is the same as Abraham’s: God’s unintelligible and indisputable decision.

Indeed, book 2, chapter 10 of Institutes of the Christian Religion is entirely given over to proving “The similarity of the Old and New Testaments.” Here Calvin explains that God’s election of the Jews is not metaphorical, but real. They will enjoy eternal life, he declares, and then goes on to prove this claim, bizarrely, by means of their continuous suffering: “If these holy patriarchs looked for a blessed life, as they undoubtedly did, from God’s hand, they both conceived and saw it as a blessedness other than that of earthly life.”9 He further rejects the argument that baptism makes for an essential difference between Christians and Jews, quoting the Apostle Paul: “They all went through the sea, they all were baptized by Moses in the clouds and in the sea.”10 In later times, Huguenot preachers would emphasize another text by Paul, this one from Romans 11, which states that “God did not reject his people… God’s gifts and calling are without regret.”11

 

Therefore, Calvin’s theology—unlike Luther’s—represents a historical breakthrough in the Christian apprehension of the Jews. For the first time in fifteen centuries, since Paul’s epistle to the Romans, a major Christian thinker laid the groundwork for a perception of Israel that is both positive and non-missionary. So, too, for the first time in Christian thought are Jews described as the clear and direct object of God’s love, and not as merely precursors to Christianity or a group that should be targeted for conversion.

In the centuries that followed, Calvin’s insight informed the attitudes of several churches that issued from his tradition. As his teachings spread from the French to the English-speaking world, they gave rise to the well-documented philo-Semitism of Cromwell Republicans, Scottish Presbyterians, and various non-conformist churches; later, they pervaded a large part of American Protestantism, which to this day is replete with references to the Jewish Bible. It was in France, however—the wellspring of Calvinism, and soon the site of its most brutal persecution—that Calvin’s theological philo-Semitism started a centuries-old tradition among local Protestants of emotional identification with the Jewish people.

  

In the Calvinist worldview, not only is Israel’s status as God’s chosen people accepted as eternal, but Christians themselves tend to see their individual salvation as a reflection of God’s relationship with the Jews. The implications of this thinking have been several. First, Calvinism led to a marked increase in the number of Christian Europeans who learned the Hebrew language—indeed, all Huguenot preachers learn it to this day. A tradition began among French Protestants of seeing ourselves as a “second chosen people”—that is, identifying with biblical Israel and understanding our own situation through analogies with events in Jewish history. Since believers are encouraged to read the Bible on a daily basis, the stories of the Israelites naturally became part of our own heritage, and were handed down from generation to generation. Psalms, in particular, became one of the primary sources of French Protestant culture; in the past, they could be recited by heart by even the poorest of Huguenot believers, and are still sung every Sunday in French Protestant churches. Even the bizarre mixture of Hebrew first names with French last names, such as banker Samuel Bernard and navy Admiral Abraham Duquesne in the seventeenth century, or political philosopher Benjamin Constant in the nineteenth, became commonplace in our community. Although far from systemic, the phenomenon persists to this day. 

This unsolicited adoption by a Christian tribe of Jewish history and names might perhaps be seen as somewhat offensive by the real nation of Israel, were it not for the fact that later events gave us a true taste of Jewish persecution and exile. While the Reformer was busy transforming the small Republic of Geneva into a rigid Protestant theocracy, French Protestantism was spreading quickly, creating more and more conflict with the Catholic majority.12 During the long war that ensued (1562-1598), both camps were ruthless and bloody. This war began with the massacre of Protestant worshippers by Catholics at Vassy in March 1562. Later, with the assent of young King Charles IX, they organized a nationwide slaughter of Protestant men, women, and children on Saint Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1572. This date—the closest thing to a nationwide pogrom that France was to experience until the onset of World War II—is still seared in Huguenot memories in a way not unlike that of the Ninth of Av for Jews.

When the military defeat of Protestants became obvious, King Henry IV (a former Protestant who converted to Catholicism after unexpectedly becoming heir to the throne of France) declared a truce that, while limiting the number of Protestant places of worship, on the whole guaranteed tolerance towards the Huguenots (the nickname having been earned during the war13). This truce, the Edict of Nantes, ushered in a long era of domestic peace (with the exception of a limited resumption of arms in the 1620s, quickly concluded by another Protestant defeat). True, Huguenots were still surrounded by a hostile majority, but they were left mostly to themselves during the seventeenth century. In the countryside, they gave rise to a class of educated, Bible-reading, Psalm-singing peasants; in the cities, they prospered in industry and finance, while maintaining a secure foothold in a diminishing, yet still significant, part of the aristocracy.

All this changed, however, when Henry’s grandson, Louis XIV, assumed power in 1661.14 Soon, our fate began to look very much like that of the Jews with whom we had always identified. Viewed to this day by the majority of the French nation as a great king, Louis XIV was a patron of the arts who transformed France into the leading military power in Europe. His legacy includes such jewels as the Palace of Versailles, Racine’s poetry, and the paintings of Poussin and La Tour. Yet we Huguenots take a very different view of his reign. He was, we will tell you, a vain and power-obsessed man, one who systematically suppressed all existing checks and balances to his rule. After the death of the queen, he came under the influence of his mistress, Madame de Maintenon. Though she had been born a Protestant (she was in fact a granddaughter of the most famous Huguenot poet, Agrippa d’Aubigné), de Maintenon had since embraced the most intolerant strain of Catholicism. Under her influence, and in accordance with his own distrust for all forms of independent behavior, Louis decided that there should be “only one religion in the kingdom.” A gradual tightening of the rules placed upon the Huguenots ensued, which slowly escalated into full-blown persecution and terror.

 

Persecution, of course, is something with which Europe’s Christian monarchs had vast experience—and not least because they had spent the previous six centuries honing their skills on the Jews. It should come as no surprise, then, that the measures taken in France against the Huguenots were directly inspired by European anti-Semitic measures used in the past. 

For a quarter of a century, Louis kept the Edict of Nantes nominally alive, all the while ensuring that it would be implemented in an ever more restrictive way. The number of authorized parishes gradually dwindled; Huguenots were forbidden to express their religious beliefs in public by singing Psalms, and compelled to pay respects to Catholic processions; they were gradually excluded from more and more professions, such as law, tax collection, accountancy, and even watchmaking. Access to courts was restricted, even forbidden in certain areas. Worst of all, however, the conversion of Protestant children to Catholicism was actively encouraged-indeed, the age from which these conversions were considered valid was gradually lowered to just seven years old. Moreover, a “converted” child was then taken away from his parents, who were forced to pay a Catholic institution to raise him. Documents show that government officials and courts were positively enthusiastic in implementing these laws and in devising new and ever crueler torments.15

On account of the increasing persecution, some French Protestants began to leave the country. Most, however, fell victim to an illusion that has often plagued the Jews in their long history of galut, or exile: The Huguenots refused to admit that their Catholic neighbors, with whom they lived, worked, ate, and conversed daily, were in fact plotting to eliminate them. They instead preferred to believe the false reassurances of the courts that, for instance, the destruction of Protestant churches was merely the regrettable, yet necessary, application of the edict, and “not in any way destined to inconvenience the believers.” And so they stayed.

We should, of course, have learned from the fate of Europe’s Jews. Limiting access to courts and prohibiting religious celebrations; barring the way to influential professions; extorting religious conversions—all these measures had often preceded the full-fledged slaughter or forced exile of the Jews. Most Huguenots, however, could not believe that they were about to experience the same fate. We were, after all, as “French” as our persecutors. We did not claim, as did the Jews, to be members of a separate nation, nor did we yearn after a Jerusalem. Our two religions, Protestantism and Catholicism, lived side by side in peace.

In 1685, Louis’ gradual tightening of the screw came to its inevitable conclusion. The king—to near-unanimous applause from the greatest minds in France—revoked the Edict of Nantes, and with it all those freedoms that his grandfather had allowed us to enjoy. All Protestant religious services were banned, and our churches—which we call, not coincidentally, “Temples”—were destroyed. Preachers were enjoined to convert or leave France. Believers were in an even more impossible situation, having been forbidden to practice their religion yet at the same time forbidden to leave. A large number did leave, however, probably between a hundred and two hundred thousand Protestants, most of them members of the social elite: Those who enjoyed protections, could bribe officials, or had business ties abroad that could be used as a pretext to cross the border. They left for England, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, America, and as far away as Guyana and South Africa. Their descendants—my distant cousins—are still there, sporting French names and occasionally curious about the fate of the country from where their ancestors came. To Jews, this will sound all too familiar. It is, after all, largely reminiscent of the worldwide Jewish diaspora.

 

Those who stayed behind, then, were those who could not leave: The poor, the weak, the ones who lacked social connections. Already beset with hardship, their lives were about to become immeasurably worse—decades of brutal persecution were on the way. I remember hearing, as a child, stories that had been passed down for almost three centuries about how the king’s loutish soldiers—the Dragons—would occupy a village and garrison the most brutal beasts of the regiment in Huguenot homes. The Dragons frequently brutalized young and old, raped girls and women, and coaxed or beat small children into “conversions,” which resulted in their being carted off to Catholic institutions. Able-bodied men were arrested at whim and forced to serve in the king’s galleys, where they were treated no better than slaves.

All this, however, ceased immediately for those who accepted the benevolent authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, the dragonnades were highly effective in this regard: Once comprising more than 10 percent of the French population, Protestants gradually decreased to their current level of only 1 to 2 percent. But just as persecutions of the Jews always ended in a regrouping of survivors and a defiant shout of “Am Israel Chai” (“The people of Israel lives”), Protestant life, too, regrouped and carried on, although often away from the public eye. In the cities of the North, for example, the destruction of our temples led to a life of secrecy and dissimulation, not dissimilar to the case of the Spanish Marranos. Thus did Protestants lead an openly Catholic life, but privately educate their children in the ways of their true religion, meeting secretly at one another’s homes to conduct religious services. This tradition of “family services,” complete with private harmoniums, continued long after the persecutions ended, well into the twentieth century.

In the mountainous region of the Cévennes in southern France, the Protestants took valiant measures in response to Catholic torment. Inspired by the story of Judah Maccabee, the leader of the Jewish revolt against the Greeks in the first century B.C.E., the Camisards, or Protestant peasants, took up arms against the king’s armies and retreated to hideouts in remote places. There, they held large religious services called “assemblies in the desert.” To these southern Huguenots—for whom the study of the Jewish and Christian Bibles was often the only education they ever received—it was natural to understand their own fate through the eyes of ancient Jewish history. Calling themselves “the people of the desert,” they preached about the corruption of Babylon (Louis’ France) and Joshua’s victories.

The libels that were used to justify anti-Protestantism were also often inspired by old anti-Semitic canards. Whereas Jews were accused of murdering Christian children, Protestants were said to abide by a religious obligation to kill their own children if they expressed interest in conversion. In 1762, Jean Calas, a Toulouse Protestant, was executed on these grounds after his son’s suicide. It took a three-year campaign by Voltaire, then Europe’s most prominent intellectual, for the courts to acknowledge that evidence in the case against Calas had been forged, and that he was, in fact, innocent.

 

 

Ironically, as anti-Protestantism became Catholic France’s defining hatred, French Jews experienced a period of respite. Christian divisions had already provided Catholics with a convenient scapegoat, and there remained little energy, it seemed, for pursuing a second one. Thus, while France had persecuted the Jews with vigor in the Middle Ages, it became one of the very few European countries to leave them in comparative peace from the onset of the religious wars in 1562 to the end of the nineteenth century. Interestingly, even now, though French Protestants themselves do not encounter anything more than residual hostility, the most endemic irrational hatred in France is directed not towards Jews but towards America, and specifically towards everything in America that epitomizes Protestant beliefs: George W. Bush, evangelical Christians, and so on. To this day, French sensitivities seem to respond more readily to the hatred of Protestant Christianity than to anti-Semitism (that is, with the unfortunate exceptions of the Muslim and diplomatic communities). 

The persecution of French Protestants ended shortly before the French Revolution and never returned again, except for a short, chaotic period in 1815, when Catholics sought revenge against all forces associated with the Revolution. The Huguenots’ emphasis on education, their positive attitude towards work, their strong business ethics, and the survival skills they learned during the times of persecution all ensured that, from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, we have been significantly over-represented in the French economic and political establishment. Yet the memories of our ill-treatment at the hands of the Catholics persist. During the long decades of quiet, Protestants would reflect on their troubled past by emphasizing the parallels with Jewish history. Interestingly, French Jews had the same reaction; they, too, tended to view the age-old persecution of Jews in other European countries through the lens of France’s treatment of the Huguenots.

The feeling of parallel destinies between French Protestants and Jews has informed a considerable amount of literature in both communities.16 The similarity, for example, between the 1492 Spanish expulsion and the 1685 French Revocation is striking: Both events not only created catastrophic suffering, but also impoverished the persecuting country through the forced exile of a talented elite. Thus did nineteenth-century French Jewish historians such as Jassuda Bedarride and Léon Halévy explain Jewish suffering to their readers by means of a comparison with the treatment of the Huguenots, and, after France was defeated by Germany in the war of 1870, the French Jewish scholar Michel Bréal published the book A Few Words on Primary Education in France, in which he explained France’s recent defeat by the country’s failure to adopt the Protestant faith and the high value that this faith places on education.17 Huguenot writers had likewise sympathized with the Jewish people since the Revocation in 1685. Jacques Basnage, for example, a victim of the Revocation forced to leave France, published in Rotterdam in 1706 the first comprehensive History of the Jews, which describes the 1492 Spanish expulsion of the Jews in terms so moving they could only stem from the feeling of shared experience: “Thousands of banished Jews whom starvation and poverty destroyed… who had to leave everything and incur manifest threats to life.”18

The feeling of solidarity created by parallel histories explains why many Protestants spontaneously sided with the Jews when anti-Semitism returned to haunt France, first during the Dreyfus affair at the end of the nineteenth century and then, most tragically, after the French surrender to Nazi Germany in 1940 and the subsequent dark times of Philippe Pétain’s collaborationist, anti-Semitic, and murderous regime.

The Dreyfus affair was a singularly traumatic event for French Jews, who realized that even in France—a country that had not persecuted them actively for centuries, and where all professions were open to them—public sentiment could turn against them in a moment. Yet the Dreyfus affair was not, as some Jews at the time believed it to be, the result of a brutal reversal in French attitudes. Rather, it was the culmination of an anti-modernity movement that had been spurred by France’s defeat by Germany in 1870.

This defeat took place after four decades of peace and modernization, during which the industrial revolution had finally reached France, infrastructures had grown dramatically, and a modern financial system had been created. When this process of modernization ended in an unprecedented and humiliating defeat, it gave a new lease on life to the whole gamut of reactionary, anti-modernist hatreds that had long been brewing in the depths of rural Catholic France. Of course, anti-Semitism was one of these hatreds. But anti-Semitism, in nineteenth-century France, was still systematically coupled with anti-Protestantism. Both communities were accused of placing money above national loyalty and entertaining dubious links with foreign countries. Both epitomized the modern world of capitalism and open societies, a world that France’s reactionary writers loved to hate. As the great thinker Ernest Renan wrote in 1883, “The enemies of Judaism are, generally speaking, enemies of the modern mind.”19 The anti-Semitic writers who flourished at the turn of the century-Edouard Drumont, Auguste Chirac,20 Charles Maurras—all included in their obsessive hatred not only the Jews, but also capitalism, the Freemasons, and the Huguenots. In 1899, a minor writer in this bile-spewing school, Ernest Renault, focused his loathing on the anti-Protestant niche, authoring a pamphlet called The Protestant Danger.

 

The privilege of sharing the same tormentors only reinforced the Protestants’ feelings of solidarity with the Jewish people. Not surprisingly, then, as the evidence of Dreyfus’ innocence began to accumulate, Huguenots were disproportionately represented among the captain’s defenders. This is not to say that Catholics were absent from the fight; indeed the most heroic figure of the affair, and the one most instrumental in bringing the truth to light, was a conservative Catholic named Colonel Georges Picquart. Nonetheless, among Christians, only Huguenots as a group sided with the cause of truth and justice in the case of Alfred Dreyfus. Protestant parishes wrote to the captain’s wife to express their support. The Protestant Senator Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, seconded by his nephew Charles Risler and fellow Huguenots Gabriel Monod, Francis de Pressensé, Raoul Allier, and Ferdinand Buisson, led the political campaign for a retrial. Finally, when the question of a retrial came to parliament, only one conservative member voted in its favor: Conrad de Witt, a son-in-law to former prime minister François Guizot, another Protestant. De Witt knew very well that this vote would be the end of his career. Nevertheless, like many of his fellow Protestants, he placed the defense of the Jews before social and professional considerations.

The most recent outburst of solidarity with the Jews took place forty years later, in the 1930s, as a wave of murderous anti-Semitism swept through Germany and then all of Europe. Protestant writer after writer waged a fierce intellectual and theological battle against Jew hatred, pointing out the absurdity of its Christian variety. The most moving of these many texts is the one by Pastor Freddy Durrleman, broadcast on Radio-Paris a few weeks after Hitler’s ascent to power: “All the nations in the world have spilled Jewish blood like water,” said Durrleman. “Brothers of Israel, the so-called Christian world has sinned against you, and for this we are humbled and repentant…. It is an honor for me, who am not of Israel, to publicly state my admiration and gratitude to those who were, on the whole, the best and greatest part in the whole history of mankind’s minds and hearts: The prophets of old Israel.”21

After the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, however, words were obviously not enough. While the Vichy government joined enthusiastically in the Germans’ genocidal agenda, Protestant institutions tried in vain to intervene on the Jews’ behalf. The diary of Pastor Marc Boegner, then-president of the Protestant Federation, traces his repeated attempts to convince Pétain to change his “Jewish policy.”22 René Gillouin, a far-right Huguenot and until then a personal friend of Pétain, made similar repeated (though useless) attempts on behalf of the Jews, eventually cutting off all ties with him when his pleas went unanswered.23

Others understood that pleas alone would lead to nothing and decided to act. Some of these acts were purely symbolic, yet brave nonetheless. An example is that of the student Henri Plard, who attended Protestant services with a yellow star sewn to his shirt and spent three months imprisoned in Drancy, the French concentration camp, for being a “friend of the Jews.”24 Perhaps most significantly, however, several organized networks were established by Protestant institutions to save Jews from the Nazis.

At the Oratoire parish in Paris, for example, Pastor Paul Vergara and his assistant Marcelle Guillemot smuggled more than sixty Jewish children to safety by hiding them with Huguenot families. My great-grandparents, Emily and Marc Pernot, and their daughter (and my grandmother) Elisabeth, were among the families who risked everything to save these children, and looked after them with love and care during their stay in their home. In 1943, however, the Oratoire network was dismantled by the Gestapo, and its members went into hiding. Raoul Girardet, my grandfather, fought the occupiers as a member of the Resistance. He was captured in March 1944 and sentenced to deportation. The train in which he was heading to Dachau in June was stopped momentarily on account of America’s bombing of the tracks; Raoul managed to escape and hid in the woods. Had he not been successful, I would not be here to tell his story, for the tracks were quickly repaired and the prisoners who arrived at Dachau immediately killed. But then, if Raoul hadn’t taken the ultimate risk, I, his grandson, would be a lesser man today.

But perhaps the most moving example of Protestant efforts on behalf of French Jewry occurred in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small, all-Protestant town in southern France. There, the whole community gave haven to more than three thousand Jews, mostly children, during the war. When a family volunteered to hide a child, Pastor André Trocmé would say, “I will bring you tomorrow the Old Testament that you have asked for.” Nazi patrols came in search of the Jews repeatedly, but all were safely hidden. Everybody knew, but no one ever spoke.

 

 

Unfortunately, the relationship between the Huguenots and Jews has cooled in the past forty years. To be sure, among many believers, identification with Jewish suffering is an almost reflexive action: When I traveled to Israel in early 2006 with a French organization dedicated to helping victims of terror, I could not help noticing that four out of the ten were Protestants—a telling ratio in light of the fact that Protestants comprise just 1 to 2 percent of the total French population.

Regrettably, however, the leadership of the Reformed Church, the Huguenots’ official body, has of late adopted a more distant tone towards the State of Israel. This surprising estrangement can be partly explained by the Huguenots’ recent acceptance into the French establishment. As Catholic hatred waned to “residual” levels, some Protestants, especially the socially elite, may have felt that echoing the majority’s prejudices was a legitimate price to pay for that acceptance. Thus have several Protestant leaders, such as left-wing politician Pierre Joxe,25 joined in the Israel bashing.

Part of the new coldness towards Israel can also be explained by the opposite phenomenon in Huguenot history: That is, not by a break with Huguenot traditions, but rather by an ill-informed feeling of continuity. Until recently, the victim status enjoyed by the Palestinians led some French Protestants to look past their theological roots to the idea of a compulsory “solidarity with the victim.” Thus did they transfer onto the Palestinians what they interpreted as a historical sympathy for the underdog, who is viewed, according to the discourse of modernity, as somehow more “pure” than the stronger party. Calvin, of course, would have laughed at the idea that anyone, powerful or not, could be considered pure. Moreover, in Israel’s comparatively decent behavior towards its enemies, the Reformer would likely have seen yet one more proof that God shows his love for the Jews by giving them the strength to overcome, to a large degree, the deep corruption that is the lot of all humans. But then, in one of history’s greatest ironies, Calvin was dropped long ago from the list of required reading in French Protestant circles.

This ignorance, in fact, has led to the most preposterous of public stances among many Protestants today. The intellectual Jean Baubérot, who as a young man was a member of the Jewish-Christian Friendship Association, changed his tack after the 1967 war and published a hastily written condemnation of Israel.26 For a while, some Protestants also identified with the situation of Muslim minorities in Europe, which reminded them of their own past. During the latest Intifada, for instance, the Reformed Church sent two “special representatives” to live for several months in the Palestinian territories and report back on their experiences. The first representative, Pastor Gilbert Charbonnier, spent six months in Ramallah and managed to see only “oppression”—apparently, he was blind to the joyful demonstrations in the street whenever Jews were murdered. Far too embarrassing for the Church, he was replaced by the youthful and well-meaning Carola Cameran, who returned only with pat appeals for peace and is not, thankfully, encumbered by the same ideological judgments.

As the seriousness of militant Islam’s threat to the West has become clearer, more and more Protestants are returning to their philo-Semitic roots. For example, Jeanne-Hélène Kaltenbach, an intellectual who spent most of her life engaging with Muslim leaders, even co-writing with her husband a book heralding the coming of a moderate, civilized Islam,27 changed her views after September 11; one year to the day after that event, she published a damning indictment of France’s appeasement towards radical Islam’s agenda.28 Even Baubérot, though not yet really a Zionist, has expressed his regret for the excessive tone of his 1971 book.

And there is reason to believe that even more Protestants will soon see the light: Not even these last few, overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian decades can succeed in changing the Protestant’s deepest mindset. We are, after all, the ones who suffered at the hands of the dragonnades, and the ones whose ancestors refused to relent under pressure from the greatest king on earth; surely, we owe it to our brave ancestors to live up to their example. Above all, however, we must remember that our religious beliefs offer us no rewards for obeying human authorities, be they a church, a state, or the sacrosanct Majority Opinion. Only by acting in conformity with our true religious beliefs—which, in turn, requires a strength that can only be God-given—can we hope to come down on the side of truth and justice.

We are not many. But we French Huguenots—or, at least, those of us who know our own history—are linked with the Jewish people by too many bonds of culture, history, and religious beliefs to betray that old alliance. The world is now experiencing a new wave of Jew hatred, with many Muslims hoping openly for a new Holocaust and most Europeans all too willing to let one happen. The most tenacious, vilest, and oldest of hatreds is reaching a new high. In such dark and troubled times, may the God of Israel give us the strength to proclaim our everlasting gratitude to the Jews. May he give us the grace, which we do not deserve, of sharing their torments today and their victory tomorrow.

 



Armand Laferrère is a former adviser to the French minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, and a member of the board of directors of the Franco-Israeli Friendship Association. His last essay in
AZURE was “Rethinking International Law” (AZURE 22, Autumn 2005).

Notes:

1. Compare That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew (1523) to later texts, such as Against the Sabbatarians (1538).

2. The accusation of “literalism” is, of course, outrageous when one keeps in mind the extraordinary variety of interpretations of the Jewish Bible in the talmudic and rabbinic traditions. Ignorance of the Talmud, and a systematic refusal to learn about it, may indeed be the largest blind spot in the history of Christian thought.

3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989), book 2, ch. 16, p. 505, book 3, ch. 14, pp. 770, 772, book 3, ch. 23, p. 958.

4. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2:16, p. 509.

5. Théodore de Bèze, Sermons on the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus-Christ, 1590, quoted in Patrick Cabanel, Jews and Protestants in France: A Friendship of Choice, 16th-21st Centuries (Paris: Fayard, 2004), p. 26 [French].