Napoleon and the Jews

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An 1806 French print depicts Napoleon Bonaparte emancipating the Jews. Napoleon stellt den israelitischen Kult wieder her, 30. Mai 1806.jpg
An 1806 French print depicts Napoleon Bonaparte emancipating the Jews.

Revolutionary France enacted laws that first emancipated Jews in France, establishing them as equal citizens to other Frenchmen. In countries that Napoleon Bonaparte's ensuing First French Empire 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.

First French Empire Empire of Napoleon I of France between 1804–1815

The First French Empire, officially the French Empire, was the empire of Napoleon Bonaparte of France and the dominant power in much of continental Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. Although France had already established an overseas colonial empire beginning in the 17th century, the French state had remained a kingdom under the Bourbons and a republic after the Revolution. Historians refer to Napoleon's regime as the First Empire to distinguish it from the restorationist Second Empire (1852–1870) ruled by his nephew as Napoleon III.

Napoleonic Wars Series of early 19th century European wars

The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) were a series of major conflicts pitting the French Empire and its allies, led by Napoleon I, against a fluctuating array of European powers formed into various coalitions, financed and usually led by the United Kingdom. The wars stemmed from the unresolved disputes associated with the French Revolution and its resultant conflict. The wars are often categorised into five conflicts, each termed after the coalition that fought Napoleon: the Third Coalition (1805), the Fourth (1806–07), the Fifth (1809), the Sixth (1813), and the Seventh (1815).


In an effort to promote Jewish integration into French society, however, Napoleon also implemented several policies that eroded Jewish distinction. For example, he restricted the Jewish practice of money-lending, restricted the regions to which Jews were allowed to migrate, and required Jews to adopt formal names. He also implemented a series of consistories—which served as an effective channel utilized by the French government to regulate Jewish religious life.

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.

French Revolution Revolution in France, 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen foundational document of the French Revolution

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, set by France's National Constituent Assembly in 1789, is a human civil rights document from the French Revolution.

Freedom of religion freedom practicing of religion

Freedom of religion is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or community, in public or private, to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance. It also includes the freedom to change one's religion or beliefs.

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. Orthodox 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."[ page needed ]

Berel Wein is an American-born Orthodox rabbi, lecturer and writer. He authored several books concerning Jewish history and popularized the subject through more than 1,000 audio tapes, newspaper articles and international lectures. Throughout his career, he has retained personal and ideological ties to both Modern Orthodox and Haredi Judaism.

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.[ citation needed ] 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.

Ancona Comune in Marche, Italy

Ancona is a city and a seaport in the Marche region in central Italy, with a population of around 101,997 as of 2015. Ancona is the capital of the province of Ancona and of the region. The city is located 280 km (170 mi) northeast of Rome, on the Adriatic Sea, between the slopes of the two extremities of the promontory of Monte Conero, Monte Astagno and Monte Guasco.

Papal States territories in the Appenine Peninsula under the sovereign direct rule of the pope between 752–1870

The Papal States, officially the State of the Church, were a series of territories in the Italian Peninsula under the direct sovereign rule of the Pope, from the 8th century until 1870. They were among the major states of Italy from roughly the 8th century until the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia unified the Italian Peninsula by conquest in a campaign virtually concluded in 1861 and definitively in 1870. At their zenith, the Papal States covered most of the modern Italian regions of Lazio, Marche, Umbria and Romagna, and portions of Emilia. These holdings were considered to be a manifestation of the temporal power of the pope, as opposed to his ecclesiastical primacy.

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.[ citation needed ]

(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.)

Ghetto Part of a city in which members of a minority group live

A ghetto, often the ghetto, is a part of a city in which members of a minority group live, typically as a result of social, legal, or economic pressure. Ghettos are often known for being more impoverished than other areas of the city. Versions of the ghetto appear across the world, each with their own names, classifications, and groupings of people.

Judaism ancient, monotheistic, Abrahamic religion with the Torah as its foundational text

Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish people. It is an ancient, monotheistic, Abrahamic religion with the Torah as its foundational text. It encompasses the religion, philosophy, and culture of the Jewish people. Judaism is considered by religious Jews to be the expression of the covenant that God established with the Children of Israel. Judaism encompasses a wide body of texts, practices, theological positions, and forms of organization. The Torah is part of the larger text known as the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible, and supplemental oral tradition represented by later texts such as the Midrash and the Talmud. With between 14.5 and 17.4 million adherents worldwide, Judaism is the tenth largest religion in the world.

Protestantism division within Christianity, originating from the Reformation in the 16th century against the Roman Catholic Church, that rejects the Roman Catholic doctrines of papal supremacy and sacraments

Protestantism is the second largest form of Christianity with collectively between 800 million and more than 900 million adherents worldwide or nearly 40% of all Christians. It originated with the 16th century Reformation, a movement against what its followers perceived to be errors in the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants reject the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal supremacy and sacraments, but disagree among themselves regarding the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. They emphasize the priesthood of all believers, justification by faith alone rather than by good works, and the highest authority of the Bible alone in faith and morals. The "five solae" summarise basic theological differences in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1808 Napoleon rolled back a number of reforms (under the so-called décret infâme, or Infamous Decree, of 17 March 1808), declaring all debts with Jews to be annulled, reduced or postponed. The Infamous Decree imposed a ten-year ban on any kind of Jewish money-lending activity. Similarly, Jewish individuals who were in subservient positions—such as a Jewish servant, military officer, or wife—were unable to engage in any kind of money-lending activity without the explicit consent of their superiors. Napoleon's goal in implementing the Infamous Decree of 1808 was to integrate Jewish culture and customs into those of France. By restricting money-lending activity, Jews would be forced to engage in other practices for a living. Likewise, in order to even engage in money-lending activity, the decree required Jews to apply for an annual license, granted only with the recommendation of the Jews' local consistory and with the surety of the Jews' honesty. [1] This caused so much financial loss that the Jewish community nearly collapsed. On a different note, the Infamous Decree also placed heavy restrictions on the Jews' ability to migrate. The decree prevented the Jews from relocating to the regions of Alsace and required that Jews wishing to move to other regions of France own or purchase land to farm. It also required them to refrain from engaging in any kind of money-lending activity. (The law eventually only placed these restrictions on the Jews of the northeast.) Likewise, the French decree required Jewish individuals to serve in the French military, without any opportunity to provide a replacement individual. [1] The last component of the Infamous Decree – established in July 1808 – required Jews to adopt formal names with which they would be addressed. (Before, Jews were often referred to as “Joseph son of Benjamin.”) They were also prevented from selecting names of cities or names in the Hebrew Bible. Napoleon sought to integrate the Jewish people more fully into French society by establishing the guidelines they were required to follow in adopting names. [1] 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. [2]

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. [3]

Bonaparte's 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." [4]

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." [5]

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. [6] 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.[ citation needed ]

In 1940, historian Franz Kobler claimed to have found a detailed version of the proclamation from a German translation. [7] Kobler's claim was published in The New Judaea, the official periodical of the Zionist Organisation. [8] The Kobler version suggests that Napoleon was inviting Jews across the Mideast and North Africa to create a Jewish state. [9] 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. [9]

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. [10] [11] [12] [13] [14]

Rabbi Aharon Ben-Levi of Jerusalem also added his voice to the proclamation, calling on the Jews to enlist in Napoleon's army "to return to Zion as in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah" and rebuild the Temple. According to Prof. Mordechai Gichon, a military historian and archaeologist from Tel Aviv University, who summarized 40 years of research on the subject, Napoleon had an idea to establish a national home for the Jews in the Land of Israel, "Napoleon believed the Jews would repay his favors by serving French interests in the region."Gichon claimed. "After returning to France, all he was interested in when it came to the Jews was how to use them to reinforce the French nation," Gichon says. "Therefore, he tried to conceal the Zionist chapter of his past." On the other hand, Prof. Ze'ev Sternhell of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, however, believes the entire story is nothing more than an oddity. "Napoleon's big contribution came, in fact, in form of promoting the incorporation of the Jews into French society," [15]

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. It was intended to serve as a centralizing authority for Jewish religious and community life. Napoleon implemented several other regional consistories throughout the French Empire, as well, with the Israelite Consistory serving as the lead consistory; it had the responsibility of overseeing the various regional consistories. The regional consistories, in turn, oversaw the economic and religious aspects of Jewish life. The regional consistories consisted of a five-individual board, usually occupied by one (or, in some cases two) rabbis, and the rest lay individuals who lived in the districts over which the consistory maintained jurisdiction. The Israelite Consistory in France consisted of three rabbis and two lay individuals. In charge of the Israelite Consistory (and the consistory system in general) was a 25-member board. The members of the board, all Jews, were appointed by the prefect, thus allowing the French government to regulate the system of consistories and, in turn, various aspects of Jewish life. [1] Similarly he established the Westphalia (Royal Westphalian Consistory of the Israelites  [ he ]). 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.[ citation needed ] 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."[ citation needed ] 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.[ citation needed ]

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".[ citation needed ]

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 ― the same council that the Christian bible states, condemned to death (by crucifixion) the revered figure, Jesus of Nazareth."[ citation needed ]

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.[ citation needed ]

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

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. [ citation needed ]

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

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.


  1. 1 2 3 4 1946-2011., Hyman, Paula, (1998). The Jews of modern France. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN   9780520919297. OCLC   44955842.
  2. Barry Edward O'Meara (1822). "Napoleon in Exile" . Retrieved 12 December 2012.
  3. "New letters of Napoleon I". 1898. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
  4. "Buonaparte peint par lui-même dans sa carrière militaire et politique".
  5. 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
  6. Ronald Schechter (2003). Obstinate Hebrews: Representations of Jews in France, 1715–1815. University of California Press. p. 201.
  7. Franz Kobler, "Napoleon and the restoration of the Jews to Palestine", The New Judaea, September 1940
  8. "The Menorah Journal".
  9. 1 2 Simon Schwarzfuchs (1979). "Napoleon, the Jews and the Sanhedrin". Routledge.
  10. Simon Schwarzfuchs (1979). Napoleon, the Jews and the Sanhedrin. Routledge. pp. 24–26.
  11. Laurens, Henry, Orientales I, Autour de l'expédition d'Égypte, pp.123–143, CNRS Éd (2004), ISBN   2-271-06193-8
  12. 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."
  13. "Enlightenment in the Colony".
  14. 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...

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