What the World’s Jews Owe to Napoleon
It’s been 200 years since French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte died, at 51 years old, on the British island of Saint Helena, where he was held captive for six years. In many countries, he is remembered as a tyrant. An exception, however, is the Jewish world, where the image of him has remained positive because he spread the liberal values of the French Revolution and allegedly promised the Jews a state in Israel.
An old Jewish legend claims that Bonaparte failed to conquer Russia in 1812 because he was busy seeking blessings from Russian rabbis who saw the invasion as the beginning of the battle that would precede the coming of the Messiah.
In October, though, Napoleon retreated, and during the withdrawal, his army was destroyed. Back in Paris, Bonaparte was forced to abdicate and exiled.
That Napoleon raised hopes among Jews had its explanation in events during his campaign as commander-in-chief in Italy and in Palestine in the 1790s, and as ruler of France after 1799.
When Bonaparte conquered Ancona, he encountered Jews who were trapped in the ghetto. As commander, he allowed them to live wherever they wanted, and freed them from requirements to wear distinguishing symbols. During the siege of Akko, newspapers reported that Napoleon had called on the Jews of Asia to join him, and “[restore] ancient Israel.” Historians still argue whether he really intended to establish a Jewish state, but that did not prevent rabbis from heeding the commander and urging Jews to return.
Religious freedom was introduced after the revolution in France in 1789, but the attacks on the Catholic Church during the reign of terror meant that the law had little impact on the country’s Jews. As France’s ruler, however, Napoleon recognized the value of opening the churches to stabilize the country, and in 1806, the Jews were next.
Napoleon convened a council of Jews to discuss their future status. He offered them citizenship in exchange for the council reasserting French law before their own. To prove their loyalty, members had to answer questions about marriage and military service. Some rabbis were unconvinced and believed that accepting these conditions would give them freedom, but also risk losing their Jewishness. Nevertheless, the council approved, and in all the countries Bonaparte conquered in the victorious years leading up to the invasion of Russia, Jews accepted similar ultimatums. Many Jewish leaders promised — and possibly believed — that the coming of the Messiah was imminent.
Despite these promises, however, the Messiah never came to Russia. Nor did the Jews get their own state from Bonaparte. In 1815, after his first exile, he returned to France from Elba and regained power, before finally being defeated at Waterloo and taken as a prisoner to St Helena.
But Napoleon’s influence on Jewish life did not end with his death. In countries liberated from French occupation, the new laws remained intact. Ghettos disappeared and Jews turned into Mosaic believers. But as the skeptical rabbis predicted in 1806, many also abandoned their faith completely.
However, the loss at Waterloo also triggered counter-revolutions with severe consequences for the Jews. People who did not like the ideals of the revolution now saw the Jews as dangerous Bonapartists. In France, antisemitism took on a new form. Origin replaced religion as a source of distrust. The culmination of the French Jew-hatred of the century was reached at the trial of captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was falsely accused of treason in 1894. Theodor Herzl, a Jewish correspondent from Vienna, covered the trial. He decided afterwards to establish a Jewish state, with the help of one or more of the major world powers. By selling Israel as a future ally, he hoped to win their support.
It was antisemitism that led Herzl to start the Zionist movement, but in developing the strategy of courting kings, emperors, and sultans, he clearly had Bonaparte’s promise from Akko in the back of his mind. In March 1899, he wrote to the German Emperor that “what could not be fulfilled under Napoleon I can be fulfilled under William II.” Forty-nine years later, the state of Israel was officially proclaimed.
Svante Holmberg is a teacher of Religious and Social Studies, and a member of the Stockholm Jewish Community. His opinion pieces about education and essays on the history of religions are regularly published in the Swedish media.