It has been 200 years since French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte died, at the age of 51, 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 his image has remained positive as he spread the liberal values of the French Revolution and allegedly promised Jews a state in Israel.
An old Jewish legend claims that Bonaparte failed to invade Russia in 1812 because he was busy seeking the blessings of Russian rabbis who saw the invasion as the start of the battle that would precede the coming of the Messiah.
In October, however, Napoleon retreated and during the withdrawal his army was destroyed. Back in Paris, Bonaparte is forced to abdicate and go into exile.
The fact that Napoleon raised hopes among the Jews is explained by the events of his campaign as commander-in-chief in Italy and Palestine in the 1790s, and as ruler of France after 1799.
October 11, 2021 11:52 a.m.
When Bonaparte conquered Ancona, he encountered Jews trapped in the ghetto. As a commander, he allowed them to live where they wanted and freed them from the obligation to wear distinctive symbols. During the siege of Acre, newspapers reported that Napoleon called on the Jews of Asia to join him, and “[restore] ancient Israel. Historians still wonder if he really intended to establish a Jewish state, but that didn’t stop the rabbis from listening to the commander and urging the Jews to return.
Religious freedom was introduced after the revolution in France in 1789, but attacks on the Catholic Church during the reign of terror meant that the law had little impact on the country’s Jews. As ruler of France, however, Napoleon recognized the value of opening churches to stabilize the country, and in 1806 the Jews were next.
Napoleon called a council of Jews to discuss their future status. He offered them citizenship in exchange for the council reaffirming French law before theirs. To prove their loyalty, members had to answer questions about marriage and military service. Some rabbis were not convinced and believed that accepting these conditions would give them freedom, but also risk losing their Jewishness. Nonetheless, the council approved, and in all the countries conquered by Bonaparte in the victorious years before the invasion of Russia, the Jews accepted similar ultimatums. Many Jewish leaders promised – and perhaps believed – that the return of the Messiah was imminent.
Despite these promises, however, the Messiah never came to Russia. The Jews did not get their own state from Bonaparte either. In 1815, after his first exile, he returned from Elba to France and regained power, before being finally defeated at Waterloo and taken prisoner at Saint Helena.
But Napoleon’s influence on Jewish life did not end with his death. In countries freed from French occupation, the new laws have remained intact. The ghettos disappeared and the Jews became Mosaic believers. But as the skeptical rabbis predicted in 1806, many also gave up their faith completely.
However, the loss of Waterloo also sparked counter-revolutions with grave consequences for the Jews. People who disliked the ideals of the revolution now viewed the Jews as dangerous Bonapartists. In France, anti-Semitism is taking on a new form. Origin has replaced religion as a source of mistrust. The culmination of the century’s hatred of French Jews was reached during the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of treason in 1894. Theodor Herzl, a Jewish correspondent in Vienna, covered the trial. He then decided to create a Jewish state, with the help of one or more of the great world powers. By selling Israel as a future ally, he hoped to gain their support.
It was anti-Semitism that led Herzl to launch the Zionist movement, but in developing the strategy of courting kings, emperors and sultans he clearly had Akko’s promise in mind. In March 1899, he wrote to the German Emperor that “what could not be accomplished under Napoleon I could be accomplished under William II”. Forty-nine years later, the State of Israel was officially proclaimed.
Svante Holmberg is a professor of religious and social studies and a member of the Jewish community in Stockholm. His opinion pieces on education and his essays on the history of religions are regularly published in the Swedish media.