Revolutionary France enacted laws that first emancipated Jews in
France, establishing them as equal citizens to other Frenchmen. In
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.
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.
1 Napoleon's Law and the Jews
1.1 Bonaparte's alleged proclamation to the Jews of Africa and Asia
2 Napoleon's legacy
2.1 Reactions of major European powers
2.2 Jews in Europe
5 External links
Napoleon's Law and the Jews
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
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)
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]
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.
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
(Followers of the latter had been severely persecuted by the monarchy
in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.)
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
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
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 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.
In a private letter to his brother Jérome Napoleon, dated 6 March
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
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."
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."
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. 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
In 1940, historian Franz Kobler claimed to have found a detailed
version of the proclamation from a German translation. Kobler's
claim was published in The New Judaea, the official periodical of the
Zionist Organisation. The Kobler version suggests that
inviting Jews across the Mideast and North Africa to create a Jewish
state. 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
which developed in the late 19th century.
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
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 (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. 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.
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 ― the same
council that the Christian bible states, condemned to death (by
crucifixion) the revered figure, Jesus of Nazareth."
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.
^ Barry Edward O'Meara (1822). "
Napoleon in Exile". Retrieved 12
^ "New letters of
Napoleon I". 1898. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
^ "Buonaparte peint par lui-même dans sa carrière militaire et
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
^ Ronald Schechter (2003). Obstinate Hebrews: Representations of Jews
in France, 1715–1815. University of California Press.
^ Franz Kobler, "
Napoleon and the restoration of the Jews to
Palestine", The New Judaea, September 1940
^ "The Menorah Journal".
^ a b Simon Schwarzfuchs (1979). "Napoleon, the Jews and the
^ Simon Schwarzfuchs (1979). Napoleon, the Jews and the Sanhedrin.
Routledge. pp. 24–26.
^ Laurens, Henry, Orientales I, Autour de l'expédition d'Égypte,
pp.123–143, CNRS Éd (2004), ISBN 2-271-06193-8
^ 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."
^ "Enlightenment in the Colony".
^ Jeremy D. Popkin (1981). "Zionism and the Enlightenment: The "Letter
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...
Napoleon and the Jews
The Enlightenment in Jewish History
Labyrinthe. Atelier interdisciplinaire (a journal in French) published
in 2007 a special issue dealing with the topic: Les Juifs contre
l'émancipation. De Babylo