Napoleon and the Jews

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An 1806 French print depicts Napoleon Bonaparte emancipating the Jews.

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[edit]

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 spread the modernist ideas of revolutionary France: equality of citizens and the rule of law.

Napoleon's personal attitude towards the Jews is not always 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:

I wanted to make them leave off usury, and become like other men...by 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 community...as 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]

Privately, in a letter to his brother Jerome Napoleon dated 6 March 1808 he makes his views explicit:

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 proclamation to the Jews of Africa and Asia[edit]

During the siege of Acre in 1799, the main French newspaper during the French Revolution, Le Moniteur Universel, 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]

The siege was lost to the British 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 others, like Ronald Schechter, that it was merely a rumor of which there is no evidence.[5] 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.

In 1940, Franz Kobler claimed to have found a detailed version of the proclamation from a German translation.[6] Kobler's claim was published in the official periodical of the Zionist Organisation, The New Judaea.[7] His detailed version went significantly further than the Le Moniteur quote of 1799. Rather than simply requesting help to liberate Jerusalem, the Franz Kobler version suggests the invitation was to create a Jewish state,[8] and includes phrases such as "Rightful heirs of Palestine!" and "your political existence as a nation among the nations", more commonly associated with the zionist movement which began approximately a century later.[8] The document has since been claimed to be a forgery.[9][10][11]

Napoleon's legacy[edit]

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 Israelite Consistory of Westphalia became a model for other German states until after the fall of Napoleon, and the condition of the Jews in the Prussian 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.

Reactions of the major European powers[edit]

The first to object against the creation of the Great Sanhedrin was the Russian Czar Alexander I. He vehemently denounced the liberties given to the Jews and went further still, demanding that the 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 17 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 Jews.

Jews in Europe[edit]

All the states under French authority applied Napoleon's reforms. 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.

Footnotes[edit]

  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, By Antoine Siméon Gabriel Coffinières, Mathieu Guillaume Thérèse de Villenave, 1814
  4. ^ Ben Weider (1997). "Napoléon et les Juifs (in french)". 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. ^ Napoleon and the restoration of the Jews to Palestine. Discovery of an historic document by Franz Kobler. (The New Judaea, September, 1940)
  7. ^ The Menorah journal, Volume 37
  8. ^ a b Napoleon, the Jews and the Sanhedrin, Simon Schwarzfuchs, Oxford University Press, USA, 1984
  9. ^ Laurens, Henry, Orientales I, Autour de l'expédition d'Égypte, pp.123-143, CNRS Éd (2004), ISBN 2-271-06193-8
  10. ^ Obstinate Hebrews: representations of Jews in France, 1715-1815, By Ronald Schechter, 2003 "Simon Schwarzfuchs has persuasively shown that the document to which Kobler refers was a forgery"
  11. ^ Enlightenment in the colony: the Jewish question and the crisis of postcolonial culture, Aamir Mufti, Princeton University Press, 2007

References[edit]

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