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Napoleon and the Jews

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The ascendancy of Napoleon Bonaparte proved to be an important event in European Jewish emancipation from old laws restricting them to ghettos, as well as the many laws that limited Jews' rights to property, worship, and careers.

Napoleon's Law and the Jews

The French Revolution abolished the different treatment of people according to religion or origin that existed under the monarchy; the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen guaranteed freedom of religion and free exercise of worship, provided that it did not contradict public order. At that time, most other European countries implemented measures restricting the rights of people from minority religions. The conquests of Napoleon Bonaparte had the effect to spread the modernist ideas of revolutionary France with respect to the equality of citizens and the rule of law.

Napoleon's personal attitude towards the Jews is not always considered to be clear, as some feel that he made a number of statements both in support and opposition to the Jewish people at various times. Historian Rabbi Berel Wein in Triumph of Survival claims that Napoleon was primarily interested in seeing the Jews assimilate, rather than prosper as a community: "Napoleon's outward tolerance and fairness toward Jews was actually based upon his grand plan to have them disappear entirely by means of total assimilation, intermarriage, and conversion." This ambivalence can be found in some of his first definitively recorded utterances on this subject in connection with the question of the treatment of the Alsace Jews and their debtors raised in the Imperial Council on April 30, 1806. On the other hand, his liberation of the Jewish communities in Italy (notably in Ancona in the Papal States) and his insistence on the assimilation of Jews as equals in French and Italian society indicate that he was sincere in making a distinction between usurers (whether Jewish or not), whom he compared to locusts, and Jews who accepted non-Jews as their equals.

This attitude can be seen from the letter he wrote on the 29th of November 1806, to Champagny, Minister of the Interior:

[It is necessary to] reduce, if not destroy, the tendency of Jewish people to practice a very great number of activities that are harmful to civilisation and to public order in society in all the countries of the world. It is necessary to stop the harm by preventing it; to prevent it it is necessary to change the Jews. [...] Once part of their youth will take its place in our armies, they will cease to have Jewish interests and sentiments; their interests and sentiments will be French.

(It should be remembered that Napoleon, while insisting on the primacy of civil law over the military, retained a deep respect and affection for the military as a profession, and often recycled former soldiers in civilian occupations).

The net effect of his policies, as a result, significantly changed the position of the Jews in Europe, and he was widely admired by the Jews as a result. Starting in 1806, Napoleon passed a number of measures supporting the position of the Jews in the French Empire, including assembling a representative group elected by the Jewish community, the Sanhedrin. In conquered countries, he abolished laws restricting Jews to ghettos. In 1807, he made Judaism, along with Roman Catholicism and Lutheran and Calvinist Protestantism, official religions of France. Napoleon rolled back a number of reforms in 1808 (so-called décret infâme of March 17, 1808), declaring all debts with Jews annulled, reduced or postponed, which caused the Jewish community to nearly collapse. Jews were also restricted in where they could live, in hopes of assimilating them into society. These restrictions were eliminated again by 1811.

Though Ben Weider argued that Napoleon had to be extremely careful in defending oppressed minorities such as Jews, he clearly saw political benefit to his Empire in the long term in supporting them. He hoped to use equality as a way of gaining advantage from discriminated groups, like Jews or Protestants and Catholics. Both aspects of his thinking can be seen in a response to a physician (Barry O'Meara) who asked why he pressed for the emancipation of the Jews, after his exile in 1816:

My primary desire was to liberate the Jews and make them full citizens. I wanted to confer upon them all the legal rights of equality, liberty and fraternity as was enjoyed by the Catholics and Protestants. It is my wish that the Jews be treated like brothers as if we were all part of Judaism. As an added benefit, I thought that this would bring to France many riches because the Jews are numerous and they would come in large numbers to our country where they would enjoy more privileges than in any other nation. Without the events of 1814, most of the Jews of Europe would have come to France where equality, fraternity and liberty awaited them and where they can serve the country like everyone else.

Bonaparte and a Jewish state in Palestine

During the siege of Acre in 1799, Bonaparte prepared a proclamation declaring a Jewish state in Palestine, though he did not issue it. The siege was lost to the Ottoman Empire and the plan was never carried out. Some historians, including Nathan Schur in Napoleon and the Holy Land, believe that the proclamation was intended purely for propaganda purposes, and that Napoleon was not serious about the creation of a Jewish state. Some believe that the proclamation was made in order to win the heart of Haim Farhi, the Jewish advisor to the ruler of Acre, Ahmed al Jazzar, and to bring him over to Napoleon's side, as Farhi was the actual commander of the defence of Acre on the field. Henry Laurens holds that the proclamation never took place and that the document which supposedly proves its existence is a forgery.[1]

Still, this proclamation in 1799 is counted by some as having historic importance in the history of Zionism, because it was made by the major political power of its time, many years before Theodor Herz's Der Judenstaat or the Balfour Declaration. Furthermore, the proclamation was used by the founders of today's State of Israel in 1948 to argue the case for the resurrection of their state.

Napoleon's legacy

Napoleon's indirect influence on the fate of the Jews was even more powerful than any of the decrees recorded in his name. By breaking up the feudal trammels of mid-Europe and introducing the equality of the French Revolution he effected more for Jewish emancipation than had been accomplished during the three preceding centuries. The consistory of Westphalia became a model for other German provinces until after the fall of Napoleon, and the condition of the Jews in the Rhine provinces was permanently improved as a consequence of their subjection to Napoleon or his representatives. Heine and Börne both record their sense of obligation to the liberality of Napoleon's principles of action, and the German Jews in particular have always regarded Napoleon as one of the chief forerunners of emancipation in Germany. When Jews were selecting surnames, some of them are said to have expressed their gratitude by taking the name of "Schöntheil," a translation of "Bonaparte," and legends grew up about Napoleon's activity in the Jewish ghettos. Primo Levi said that the Italian Jews often chose Napoleone as their given name to recognize their liberator.

The reactions of the major European powers

The first to object against the creation of the Great Sanhedrin was the Russian Czar Alexander I. He violently denounced the liberties given to the Jews and went further still, demanding that the Russian Orthodox Church protest against Napoleon's tolerant religious policy. He referred to the Emperor in a proclamation as "the Anti-Christ" and the "Enemy of God".

The Holy Synod of Moscow proclaimed : "In order to destroy the foundations of the Churches of Christendom, the Emperor of the French has invited into his capital all the Judaic synagogues and he furthermore intends to found a new Hebrew Sanhedrin. Which is the same tribunal that dared long ago to condemn the Lord Jesus to be crucified."

In Austria, the Chancellor Metternich wrote "I fear that the Jews will believe (Napoleon) to be their promised Messiah".

In Prussia, the Lutheran Church was extremely hostile, while in Italy the reactions were less virulent but remained unfriendly.

The reaction of London was unequivocal, rejecting the principle and doctrine of the Sanhedrin.

The Czar was able to persuade Napoleon to sign a decree restricting the freedoms accorded to the Jews on the 17th of March 1808. Napoleon hoped that in exchange the Czar would keep his promise to put pressure on London in order to end the war. But three months later the Emperor effectively cancelled the decree by allowing local authorities to implement his earlier reforms. More than half of the départements restored the freedoms guaranteed to citizens to their Jews.

Jews in Europe

All the states under French authority applied Napoleon's reforms. In Portugal, the State allowed Jews the same rights as other citizens and authorised them to open the synagogues for the first time in over 300 years. In Italy, in the Netherlands and in the German states, the Jews were able to take their place as free men for the first time in the society of their respective countries.

After the defeat of the Empire at Waterloo, the counter-revolution restored discriminatory measures in many countries. In France however, the Bourbons relegated the Legion of Honour to a minor civilian decoration and replaced it with the Royal Order of Saint Louis as the highest French distinction. Those to be decorated with it were required to prove their Catholic faith, effectively barring Protestants, Jews and Muslims who had received the Legion of Honour from enjoying an equal status under the Restored Monarchy. (The return of the Bourbons was equally accompanied in 1815 by the massacre of Muslim troops who had served Napoleon, in Marseille.)

In the Papal States, Pope Pius VII re-established the ghettos and imposed the wearing of a yellow hat (colour associated with betrayal, and thus Judas Iscariot, but also with prostitutes) and the Star of David.


  1. Laurens, Henry, Orientales I, Autour de l'expédition d'Égypte, pp.123-143, CNRS Éd (2004), ISBN 2-271-06193-8


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This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Napoleon and the Jews. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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