Differing Ways of Reading, Differing Views of the Law - French Catholicism and its Treatment of the Jewish Question During Vichy

Richard Weisberg

Yeshiva University - Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

June 2000

Cardozo Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 016

On September 30, 1997, the French Catholic church issued a formal apology to the Jewish people for the silence of many Catholic leaders and parishoners in the face of the victimization of Jews during the period known as Vichy. Encouraging though this document was, particularly when taken together with the Vatican's subsequent statement of regret about the Shoah more generally, the apology can only mark the very beginning of our understanding of the relationship to the Jews - in each European country - of the dominant religion. In France, the overwhelming faith of the population was, of course, Catholicism. Scholars and theologians continue to debate the historical role of Catholic anti-semitism in the persecution of French Jews (see, e.g., Pierre Birnbaum). My own archival findings relating to this issue, published in the last chapter of my book "Vichy Law and the Holocaust in France" (English edition, 1996 per Gordon & Breach and NYU Press; French edition, 1998 per editions des archives, Paris) may help to add specificity to the reconstruction of theology's place in developments that sent some 76,000 Jews to the death camps from France and that may also have helped rationalize the legalized looting of billions of francs of French property during the years 1940-44. Documents tend to show - in contrast to many private, Christian acts of mercy and charity towards the Jews - an official response by the Church that went beyond "silence" to actual complicity in the racist laws of the Vichy regime. The Church's position seems to have had less to do with politics - for example, the Church's fear of Communism - than with a complex theological and hermeneutical posture towards the Jew-as-Talmudist that will require close and sensitive scrutiny if prejudice is finally to be alleviated.

This paper examines the phenomenon I have called "Hermeneutic Flexibility" and its effect on French Catholic discourse during the War. I elaborate on my earlier suggestion that a special way of reading texts helped otherwise decent French professionals to abandon quickly their own finest traditions of equality under the law. Both in its specific declarations, and in its theological doctrine, the Church actively produced in those brought up as Catholics a flexibility that resulted in special persecution of the Jew-as-Talmudist.

"Flexibility," on this argument, means an ability within a given community of readers to move quickly from earlier understandings of established texts. Unlike the "talmudist," the flexible reader shifts with the situation to alter understandings that may have existed for decades, even centuries. So it was that the French ingrained idea of egalitarianism budged to exclude the entire population of Jewish people. To do this, to traduce their own traditions so rapidly, lawyers needed the help of the reading tradition they grew up with. Catholic theology, (which in fact opined from the Vatican in 1941 that there was nothing basically wrong with Vichy's racial laws) provided the doctrinal basis for flexible digressions from ethical behavior.

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Date posted: June 26, 2000  

Suggested Citation

Weisberg, Richard, Differing Ways of Reading, Differing Views of the Law - French Catholicism and its Treatment of the Jewish Question During Vichy (June 2000). Cardozo Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 016. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=234043 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.234043

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Richard H. Weisberg (Contact Author)
Yeshiva University - Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law ( email )
55 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10003
United States
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212-790-0205 (Fax)

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