Napoleon and the Jews

An 1806 French print depicts Napoleon Bonaparte emancipating the Jews.

Napoleon Bonaparte of the First French Empire enacted laws that first emancipated Jews in France, establishing them as equal citizens to other Frenchmen. In addition, in countries that he conquered during the Napoleonic Wars, he emancipated the Jews and introduced other ideas of freedom from the French Revolution. For instance, he overrode old laws restricting Jews to reside in ghettos, as well as lifting laws that limited Jews' rights to property, worship, and certain occupations.

Historians have disagreed about Napoleon's intentions in these actions, as well as his personal and political feelings about the Jewish community. Some have said he had political reasons but did not have sympathy for the Jews. His actions were generally opposed by the leaders of monarchies in other countries. After his defeat by Great Britain, a counter-revolution swept many of these countries and they restored discriminatory measures against the Jews.

Napoleon's Law and the Jews

The French Revolution abolished the different treatment of people according to religion or origin that had existed under the monarchy. Roman Catholicism had been the established state religion, closely tied historically to the monarchy, which represented both religious and political authority. 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 that restricted the rights of people in their nations who practiced minority religions.

In the early 19th century, through his conquests in Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte spread the modernist ideas of revolutionary France: equality of citizens and the rule of law. Napoleon's personal attitude towards the Jews has been interpreted in various ways by different historians, as at various times he made statements both in support and opposition to the Jewish people. Historian Rabbi Berel Wein in Triumph of Survival: The Story of the Jews in the Modern Era 1650-1990 (1990) claims that Napoleon was interested primarily in seeing the Jews assimilate, rather than prosper as a distinct 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."

Napoleon was concerned about the role of Jews as money lenders, wanting to end that. The treatment of the Alsace Jews and their debtors was raised in the Imperial Council on 30 April 1806. His liberation of the Jewish communities in Italy (notably in Ancona in the Papal States) and his insistence on the integration of Jews as equals in French and Italian societies demonstrate that he distinguished between usurers (whether Jewish or not), whom he compared to locusts, and Jews who accepted non-Jews as their equals.

His letter to Champagny, Minister of the Interior of 29 November 1806, expresses his thoughts:

[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.

(While insisting on the primacy of civil law over the military, Napoleon retained a deep respect and affection for the military as a profession. He often hired former soldiers in civilian occupations).

Through his policies overall, Napoleon greatly improved the condition of the Jews in France and Europe, and they widely admired him. Starting in 1806, Napoleon passed a number of measures enhancing the position of the Jews in the French Empire. He recognized a representative group elected by the Jewish community, the Sanhedrin, as their representatives to the French government.

In conquered countries, he abolished laws restricting Jews to living in ghettos. In 1807, he designated Judaism as one of the official religions of France, along with Roman Catholicism (long the established state religion), and Lutheran and Calvinist Protestantism. (Followers of the latter had been severely persecuted by the monarchy in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.)

In 1808 Napoleon rolled back a number of reforms (under the so-called décret infâme of 17 March 1808), declaring all debts with Jews to be annulled, reduced or postponed. This caused so much financial loss that the Jewish community nearly collapsed. In an effort to promote assimilation, Jews were restricted in where they could live, unless they converted to Christianity. Napoleon ended these restrictions by 1811.

Historian Ben Weider argued that Napoleon had to be extremely careful in defending oppressed minorities such as Jews, because of keeping balance with other political interests, but says that the leader clearly saw political benefit to his Empire in the long term in supporting them. Napoleon hoped to use equality as a way of gaining advantage from discriminated groups, like Jews or Protestants.

Both aspects of his thinking can be seen in an 1822 response to physician Barry O'Meara, who had written to Napoleon after he had been exiled, asking why he pressed for the emancipation of the Jews:

I wanted to make them leave off usury, and become like other putting them upon an equality, with Catholics, Protestants, and others, I hoped to make them become good citizens, and conduct themselves like others of the their rabbins explained to them, that they ought not to practise usury to their own tribes, but were allowed to do so with Christians and others, that, therefore, as I had restored them to all their privileges...they were not permitted to practise usury with me or them, but to treat us as if we were of the tribe of Judah. Besides, I should have drawn great wealth to France as the Jews are very numerous, and would have flocked to a country where they enjoyed such superior privities. Moreover, I wanted to establish an universal liberty of conscience.[1]

In a private letter to his brother Jérome Napoleon, dated 6 March 1808, Napoleon expressed a conflicting view:

I have undertaken to reform the Jews, but I have not endeavoured to draw more of them into my realm. Far from that, I have avoided doing anything which could show any esteem for the most despicable of mankind.[2]

Bonaparte's alleged proclamation to the Jews of Africa and Asia

During Napoleon's siege of Acre in 1799, Le Moniteur Universel, the main French newspaper during the French Revolution, published on 3 Prairial, Year vii (French Republican Calendar, equivalent to 22 May 1799) a short statement that:

"Buonaparte a fait publier une proclamation, dans laquelle il invite les juifs de l'Asie et de l'Afrique à venir se ranger sous ses drapeaux, pour rétablir l'ancienne Jérusalem; il en a déjà armé un grand nombre, et leurs bataillons menacent Alep."[3]

This has been translated in English as:

"Bonaparte has published a proclamation in which he invites all the Jews of Asia and Africa to gather under his flag in order to re-establish the ancient Jerusalem. He has already given arms to a great number, and their battalions threaten Aleppo."[4]

Napoleon's forces lost to Great Britain and he never carried out his alleged plan. Historians such as Nathan Schur in Napoleon and the Holy Land (2006) believe that Napoleon intended the proclamation for propaganda and to build support for his campaign among the Jews in those regions. Ronald Schechter believes that the newspaper was reporting a rumor, as there is no documentation that Napoleon contemplated such a policy.[5] Other historians suggest that the proclamation was intended to gain support from Haim Farhi, the Jewish advisor to Ahmed al Jazzar, the Muslim ruler of Acre, and to bring him over to Napoleon's side. Farhi commanded the defence of Acre on the field.

In 1940, historian Franz Kobler claimed to have found a detailed version of the proclamation from a German translation.[6] Kobler's claim was published in The New Judaea, the official periodical of the Zionist Organisation.[7] The Kobler version suggests that Napoleon was inviting Jews across the Mideast and North Africa to create a Jewish state.[8] It includes phrases such as "Rightful heirs of Palestine!" and "your political existence as a nation among the nations." These concepts have been more commonly associated with the Zionist movement, which developed in the late 19th century.[8]

Historians such as Henry Laurens, Ronald Schechter, and Jeremy Popkin believe that the German document (which has never been found) was a forgery, as asserted by Simon Schwarzfuchs in his 1979 book.[9][10][11][12][13]

Napoleon's legacy

Napoleon had more influence on the Jews in Europe than detailed in his decrees. By breaking up the feudal castes of mid-Europe and introducing the equality of the French Revolution, he achieved more for Jewish emancipation than had been accomplished during the three preceding centuries. As part of recognizing the Jewish community, he established a national Israelite Consistory in France, with sub-organizations for various regions. It was intended to serve as a centralizing authority for Jewish religious and community life. Similarly he established the Westphalia (Royal Westphalian Consistory of the Israelites). This served as a model for other German states until after the fall of Napoleon. Napoleon permanently improved the condition of the Jews in the Prussian Rhine provinces by his rule of this area.

Heine and Börne both recorded their sense of obligation to Napoleon's principles of action. The German Jews in particular have historically regarded Napoleon as the major forerunner of Jewish emancipation in Germany. When the government required Jews to select surnames according to the mainstream model, some are said to have taken the name of Schöntheil, a translation of "Bonaparte." In the Jewish ghettos, legends grew up about Napoleon's actions. Twentieth-century Italian author Primo Levi wrote that Italian Jews often chose Napoleone and Bonaparte as their given name to recognize their historic liberator.

Reactions of major European powers

The Russian Czar Alexander I objected to Napoleon's emancipation of the Jews and establishment of the Great Sanhedrin. He vehemently denounced the liberties given Jews and demanded 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."

The Czar persuaded Napoleon to sign a 17 March 1808 decree restricting the freedoms accorded to the Jews. Napoleon expected in exchange that the Czar would help persuade Great Britain to end the war in Europe. Absent that, three months later, Napoleon effectively cancelled the decree by allowing local authorities to implement his earlier reforms. More than half of the French départements restored citizens' guaranteed freedoms to the Jews.

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

In Prussia, leaders of the Lutheran Church were extremely hostile to Napoleon's actions. Italian kingdoms were suspicious of his actions, although expressing less violent opposition.

Great Britain, which was at war with Napoleon, rejected the principle and doctrine of the Sanhedrin.

Jews in Europe

All the states under French authority applied Napoleon's reforms. In Italy, the Netherlands, and the German states, the Jews were emancipated and able to act as free men for the first time in those nations. After the British defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, a counter-revolution in many of these countries resulted in the restoration of discriminatory measures against Jews.

Jews and Arabs in France, before and after the Restoration

From 1801 during Napoleonic rule, a variety of Arabs had traveled with the Grand Armée from Egypt to France, with most settling in Marseilles and some in Paris, where they were recognized as "Egyptian refugees." Those from Egypt included Coptic Christians as well as Muslims. The refugees included a wide range of people: veterans of fighting, but also merchants, domestic servants, and priests. In addition, the immigrants came not only from Egypt but from the Sudan and across the Mediterranean and Near East: Greece, Syria, and Palestine. Veterans who had served with the French army were eligible for state pensions, but all were required to identify as "Egyptian" to qualify for payment, which masked their diversity.[14]

With large numbers in Marseille, Arabs tended to settle in communities or neighborhoods of their own, but gradually more Arabs went to Paris. There they tended to interact more with French citizens. Arab intellectuals helped interpret the cultures to each other, as well as interpreting languages.[14]

Some Egyptian veterans followed Napoleon into exile, and served with him in his final 100 days' return to the continent. Other Arabs were careful to show support for the monarchy. "During the political turmoil of the hundred days and Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, the Arab population was increasingly vulnerable. In 1815, many of the Marseilles Arabs were massacred, targeted in a pogrom fueled by local anxieties about foreigners."[14]

After the final defeat of Napoleon, historian Ian Collier argues that " ‘Arab France’ was unexpectedly realized during the period of the restoration. He describes how a return to universalist ideals of ‘civilization’ permitted geographical and Orientalist societies to flourish in which Parisian Arab intellectuals also participated."[14]

The French monarchy began to narrow some aspects of the society. For instance, it relegated the Legion of Honour to a minor civilian decoration. This decoration had been awarded to numerous Protestants, Jews, and Muslims as well as Catholics during Napoleon's reign. The government replaced it, making the Royal Order of Saint Louis the highest French distinction. This honour required recipients to prove their Catholic faith, effectively barring all religious minorities from being recognized for their service at the highest levels of the society.


  1. Barry Edward O'Meara (1822). "Napoleon in Exile". Retrieved 12 December 2012.
  2. "New letters of Napoleon I". 1898. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
  3. "Buonaparte peint par lui-même dans sa carrière militaire et politique".
  4. Ben Weider (1997). "Napoléon et les Juifs (in French)" (PDF). Congrès de la Société Internationale Napoléonienne, Alexandrie, Italie; 21-26 Juin 1997. Napoleonic Society. Retrieved 23 January 2011. Bonaparte, Commandant en chef des Armées de la République Française en Afrique et en Asie, aux héritiers légitimes de la Palestin
  5. Ronald Schechter (2003). Obstinate Hebrews: Representations of Jews in France, 1715–1815. University of California Press. p. 201.
  6. Franz Kobler, "Napoleon and the restoration of the Jews to Palestine", The New Judaea, September 1940
  7. "The Menorah Journal".
  8. 1 2 Simon Schwarzfuchs (1979). "Napoleon, the Jews and the Sanhedrin". Routledge.
  9. Simon Schwarzfuchs (1979). Napoleon, the Jews and the Sanhedrin. Routledge. pp. 24–26.
  10. Laurens, Henry, Orientales I, Autour de l'expédition d'Égypte, pp.123–143, CNRS Éd (2004), ISBN 2-271-06193-8
  11. Ronald Schechter, Obstinate Hebrews: Representations of Jews in France, 1715–1815, 2003. Quote: "Simon Schwarzfuchs has persuasively shown that the document to which Kobler refers was a forgery."
  12. "Enlightenment in the Colony".
  13. Jeremy D. Popkin (1981). "Zionism and the Enlightenment: The "Letter of a Jew to His Brethren"". Jewish Social Studies. 43: 113–120. The supposed German manuscript original has never surfaced, and the authenticity of this text is dubious at best. ... The French press of the period is full of spurious flews reports...
  14. 1 2 3 4 Minayo Nasiali, review of Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831, by Ian Collier (review no. 1056), Reviews in History, March 2011; Date accessed: 27 September 2016


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