Allen Z. Hertz
May 5, 2021 was the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon (1769-1821). During his brilliant career, he was a Revolutionary General; then First Consul of the French Republic; and finally, “Emperor of the French” and King of Italy.
Napoleon was French, only because just before his birth in Ajaccio, Louis XV conquered the Italian island of Corsica, for centuries ruled by the Republic of Genoa. There was then no unified, sovereign country called Italy. But, that age-old toponym “Italy” was, nonetheless, a powerful geographical, cultural, and linguistic reality. For the teenage Napoleon, little Corsica is la patrie, his homeland. But, in the same breath (April 26, 1786), he salutes the island’s democratic hero, Pasquale Paoli “as among the bravest men of modern Italy.”
Under Louis XV and XVI, Corsica was not much different from other parts of Italy, some of which were also under foreign rule. Thus, it is fair to say that, by ethnic origin, little “Napoleone” was Italian, and by religion, Roman Catholic. However, he eventually became the most prominent French Revolutionary, and a strongly anti-Christian Deist, who repeatedly rejected the historical existence of Jesus.
For example, during his conquest of Italy (1796-1797), he reduced the Papacy’s territorial power and wealth. He sent to Paris museums, as booty, hundreds of priceless, papal works of art. And, in many Italian places, he moved quickly to ostentatiously emancipate the Jews.
For example, in February 1797, he freed the Jews of Ancona. He purposely selected Jewish soldiers of the French Revolutionary Army to tear down the ghetto gates, to protect local Jews, and to explain the Revolution to them.
From Paris, he drafted (January 11, 1798) the orders that drove Pope Pius VI from Rome. In the Mideast (1798-1799), Napoleon issued proclamations telling Muslims and Jews that “God has no Son.”
Napoleon was son of a minor noble family that spoke and wrote Tuscan Italian, and always kept ties to the Italian mainland. For example, his politically talented father Carlo and older brother Giuseppe both graduated from the University of Pisa, where Jewish students were also studying. The circumstance that his family was generally sophisticated and cosmopolitan matches the role of Italian as the main Mediterranean language of diplomacy, from the 15th to the 17th century.
In the 18th century, Italian plays somewhat less of a role in diplomacy, but, nonetheless, remains the Mediterranean’s principal international language of navigation, coastal business, translation, and tourism. The Mediterranean salience of Italian was even greater immediately after 1789, when France’s trade, merchant marine, and naval power were diminished, due to the turmoil of the decade of Revolution (1789-1799). From the late Middle Ages until the early 19th century, Italian was the “foreign” tongue most widespread in the Eastern Mediterranean. There, multilingual, coastal Jews had to read and write Italian, which was essential for international trade.
Napoleon grows to manhood knowing much about the many different peoples, languages, and religions of the Mediterranean. He is also able to use Italian to speak directly to Mediterranean Jews and coastal Greeks. Initially, he is a Corsican patriot who claims (April 26, 1786) for his island countrymen the new political right of self-determination. Young Napoleon strongly believed that a small People like the Corsicans had an inalienable right to opt for sovereign independence. Thus, he found it easy to see that Jews and Greeks also had the right to be free.
During the decade of Revolution, Napoleon sees Jews and Greeks as storied, age-old Peoples, living partly under the rule of the Ottoman sultan and partly in a broader diaspora. As a Revolutionary, he is confident that, whether regarding Jews or Greeks, the growing “spirit of liberty” ensures that national awakening is already on the horizon.
Privileging Jews over Catholics
Napoleon was always hungry for glory. From youth, he invoked the names of the greatest men of ancient history, regularly including the storied Achaemenid ruler Cyrus the Great (d. 530 BCE). Cyrus famously sent Jews back to their ancestral homeland, and authorized the building of the Second Temple. (“I am Cyrus,” former USA President Harry Truman said in 1953 when, five years after the fact, he was trying to take full credit for creating the modern State of Israel.) Exactly like Truman, the Napoleon of 1797-1799 felt the weight of both history and posterity. Napoleon grasped that helping the Jews return to Israel would be an epic deed, likely to win him lasting fame.
Sailing from Malta to invade Egypt, Napoleon purposely put rabbis ahead of bishops, and the religion of Moses before that of Jesus Christ, in a shipboard speech (June 22, 1798) urging his troops to tolerate Islam.
There was likely lateral thinking, strategy, and shrewd propaganda in his Cairo order (September 7, 1798) authorizing Jewish community organization. He named two “high priests of the Jewish People” (grands prêtres de la nation juive). The “grand prêtre” terminology harks back to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. He probably did so, to appeal to millennial Jewish hopes for rebuilding the Temple.
Also in Egypt, Napoleon claimed (December 19, 1798) to have “respect for Moses and the Jewish People, the cosmogony of which takes us back to the earliest times.” Such Revolutionary deference to Biblical Jews was an exact counterpart to his parallel respect for the Ancient Greeks.
Historians are unable to find any evidence that teenage Napoleon was negative toward Jews. For example, Jews feature factually, in an entirely neutral way, in his youthful notebooks. During the Revolutionary decade (1789-1799), he sometimes read on Jewish topics, such as Jacques Basnage’s History of the Jews (1706).
As a Revolutionary, he championed the rights of Jews to equal citizenship domestically. And, internationally, he recognized the Revolutionary peoplehood of the Jews, just as he did that of the Greeks.
Philosemitism Begins to Wane
His philosemitism started to wane only after his coup d’état (November 9, 1799) that ended the French Revolution. As ruler of France, Napoleon’s expressions about Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish People gradually darkened. Why? Enthusiasm for the rights of Jews had been a distinguishing feature of the ten-year Revolution against Catholic Europe. Ending the Revolution was difficult and delicate work, requiring reconciliation with the devout peasantry of France. Peace had also to be made with the émigrés of the ancien régime, including reactionary clerics. Such compromise demanded conciliating social elements hostile to Jews who, across Europe, were keenly resented as beneficiaries of the Revolution.
After becoming Emperor (1804), he enacted the “infamous decree” of March 17, 1808. This was principally aimed at Alsatian Jews. They were accused of usury and sharp business practices. His discriminatory law included a range of restrictive measures that violated the right to equality that had been won by the Jews of France in 1791.
As Emperor, he essentially believed that Jews were socially defective, and needed regeneration. Napoleon described this “regeneration” in connection with the Assembly of Jewish Notables in 1806 and the Sanhedrin of 1807. On Saint Helena, he explained (November 2, 1816): “I wanted to make them leave off usury and become like other men. There were a great many Jews in the countries I reigned over. By removing their disabilities and putting them on an equal footing with Catholics, Protestants, and others, I hoped to make them become good citizens.” Such astonishing condescension and discrimination can be explained by the rising hostility toward Jews in the post-Revolutionary era.
Counter Revolution vs Revolutionary Spirit
To curry favor with Catholics, Napoleon bowed to anti-Jewish prejudice that, for centuries, had been the teaching of the Church. Napoleon was convinced that he had to negotiate with Pope Pius VII. Pointing to the Constitution of the United States, the great French Revolutionary, the Marquis de La Fayette, told Napoleon that he was wrong.Nonetheless, Napoleon concluded the Concordat with the Church in 1801.
By contrast, philosemitism had been a strong Revolutionary current. It celebrated Jews as citizens, soldiers, sailors, statesmen, bankers, ambassadors, and spies. In so many European places, the Revolution literally armed Jews, while the Counter-Revolution took away their weapons and their dignity. Discrimination and violence against Jews came from the reactionary forces that fought against the Revolution. The Counter-Revolution marginalized Jews and deprived them of rights and social opportunity.
After the French Revolutionary Army was driven out of Lombardy, the Austrian Imperial Commissioner, Count Luigi Cocastelli, issued a reactionary proclamation in Milan. This is from Leiden’s Supplement aux Nouvelles Politiques (July 2, 1799): “The Jewish Nation (la Nation Juive)seconded the Revolution in Italy with all the zeal that the prospect of the greatest personal gain could inspire in it. Thus, above all, it is the Jewish Nation, which today must pay dear for its attachment to the French and the confidence that it had in the new order of things.”
By contrast, philosemitism was a dominant theme for Napoleon, as General-in-Chief of the French Army of Italy. As early as 1797, Napoleon made Ancona his base for spreading propaganda to revolutionize the subject Peoples of the Ottoman Empire, including the Jews. This is based on the September 1797 diary of his friend, General Louis Desaix.
A French Revolutionary proclamation aimed at the Jews of the Ottoman Empire is corroborated by an authoritative Ottoman-Turkish source. This says that there was, already in the Muslim year 1212 (1797-1798), a Revolutionary proclamation, inviting Jews to “establish a Jewish government in Jerusalem” (kuds-i sherifde bir yahud hukumeti teshkil).
In early 1798, Napoleon was in Paris, inter alia, organizing propaganda for his Mideast campaign. He probably wrote the “Letter from a Jew to His Brothers.” His brisk, commanding style is hard to miss. The long letter was printed anonymously on June 8, 1798. It took up the entire front page of the Paris newspaper l’Ami des Lois. This daily was one of the favorite organs of the Revolutionary French Government.
“Translated from the Italian,” the letter called on world Jewry to organize itself to ask France to negotiate with the Ottomans, so that the Jews could return to their native land. English newspapers quickly spotted the connection with Napoleon.
Napoleon’s intention to make Jerusalem the capital of a restored “Jewish Republic” (Еврейская Республика) is confirmed in a letter (August 18, 1798) by the Russian Emperor Paul. He describes this, along with Napoleon’s capture of Alexandria (July 2, 1798). Paul says this news comes from Tamara, his ambassador in Constantinople.
Napoleon conquered Jaffa, on March 7, 1799. He slept in the home of the English Vice-Consul Antonio Damiani. For many years, Damiani(and his father before him) worked for the Constantinople rabbinate. They helped find lodging for pilgrim Jews, disembarking in Jaffa. For decades, the Damiani home was known as a gathering point for Jews coming from abroad.
Napoleon wrote in multiple copies to the inhabitants of Jerusalem (March 9, 1798) inviting delegates to come to Jaffa to promise to do him no harm. At Damiani’s seaside home, Napoleon spoke in Italian to a delegation of Jerusalem Jews. For this meeting, the interpreter was “Signor” Azriel, a Jewish Jaffa merchant. Around this time, Napoleon perhaps wrote the invitation encouraging the Jews of Africa and Asia to return to their ancestral homeland.
April 1799 reports from Constantinople caused at least twenty-two European publications (May 1799), to describe Napoleon’s proclamation, inviting the Jews of Africa and Asia to return to Jerusalem. Though so many of these printed, news stories survive, the full text of this Napoleon proclamation is lost, for reasons described below.
On Saint Helena, Napoleon completed his own account of his campaign in Israel. He says that he was expecting to soon take the Ottoman fortress at St. Jean d’Acre (Akko). Thereafter, his intention was to attack Syria. Napoleon writes that he sent Jewish agents to rally support among the many Jews living in Damascus and Aleppo. Such Jewish agents were likely dispatched after April 16, 1799 — the day Napoleon decisively defeated an Ottoman army, near Mount Tabor in Israel.
Letters, Documents and Proclamations
Only revealed in 1940 was a 1799, official Austrian translation from Hebrew into German. The text is a Napoleon letter, dated April 20, 1799. This recognizes the hereditary right of the “Israelites” to “Palestine” and urges them to return home to claim their “patrimony.” This is perhaps the message that Napoleon’s Jewish agents carried to Damascus and Aleppo.
Napoleon personally generated around 33,000 letters and myriad other papers. Although his product survives in great quantity, many items were lost in the normal course of events. In addition, for political reasons, Napoleon purposely destroyed or even falsified documents. For example, as First Consul in 1802, he ordered a great number of records removed from the French archives. He gradually examined this material, page by page. While he was Emperor, many of these documents were burned at his command, as in September 1807.
Many disappeared pieces perhaps described Napoleon’s frustrations, failures, and crimes in the Mideast. But, such archival destruction is also directly pertinent to the history of the Jews. Why? Earlier expressions of Revolutionary support for Jewish peoplehood and homeland became, for the “Emperor of the French,” an embarrassment to be cleverly spun, or even better, concealed and forgotten. Further documents were destroyed during the reign (1852-1870) of his nephew Napoleon III.
Either directly from the Ottoman Empire or via a variety of European publications, the story that Napoleon had issued proclamations to the Jews rapidly rippled through Christendom, and also across world Jewry. The account was then universally believed, and thus made its own way through history.
This exciting tale principally had two powerful effects: firstly, it fired ancient messianic dreams among both Christians and Jews; and, secondly, it permanently strengthened belief in the practical, political possibility of Jewish restoration and renewal in the aboriginal homeland.
(Currently completing a book on Napoleon’s proclamations to the Jews, Allen Z. Hertz was senior advisor in the Privy Council Office serving Canada’s Prime Minister and the federal cabinet. He formerly worked in Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department and earlier taught history and law at universities in New York, Montreal, Toronto and Hong Kong. He studied European history and languages at McGill University [B.A.] and then East European and Ottoman history at Columbia University [M.A., Ph.D.]. He also has international law degrees from Cambridge University [LL.B.] and the University of Toronto [LL.M.].)