Following in the wake of the Napoleon Wars (1804-1815) in which Napoleon conquered much of Europe, came the emancipation of the Jews of Western Europe. Before Napoleon, for hundreds of years the Jews had been economically and politically marginalized and physically confined to the ghettos of Europe. After Napoleon, the Ghetto walls came down and the Jews of Western Europe were free to enter European society for the first time. For better and for worse, this represented one of the greatest periods of transformation for these Jewish communities. These new freedoms allowed the Jews of Europe to prosper and have tremendous impact on European society, but also led to a wave of secularization, assimilation and even conversion to Christianity.
Napoleon Bonaparte had not met any Jews in his youth, and perhaps not even during his school years in France. His first contact with the organized Jewish community probably took place on the 9th of February 1797 in Italy during the Italian campaign.
When Napoleon and his army entered Ancona, the Jewish community was living in a small ghetto. Napoleon, at that time, remarked that certain people were walking around with yellow bonnets and a yellow arm band with the “Star of David” on it. He asked one of his officers, what was the purpose of the yellow bonnet and the arm band. The officer replied that these were Jews who had to be identified in order that they return to the ghetto every evening. Napoleon immediately ordered that the arm bands and the yellow bonnets be removed and replaced them with the tricolor rosette. He closed the ghettos and gave instructions that the Jews could live wherever they wanted and they could practice their religion openly. The Jews of Ancona were overjoyed when they discovered that the first French soldiers who entered the ghetto were Jewish! Later, Napoleon also closed the “Jewish Ghetto” in Rome. He liberated also the Jews of Venice, Verona and Padua. The “liberator of Italy” abolished the Laws of the Inquisition, and the Jews felt free at last. On the 12th of June 1798 when the French occupied Malta, Napoleon learnt that the Templar Knights did not allow the Jews to practice their religion in a synagogue. The Knights enslaved their Jewish prisoners and mercilessly used them or sold them. He immediately gave permission to the Jews to build a synagogue.
When the French troops were in Palestine, and besieging the city of Acre, Napoleon had already prepared a Proclamation making Palestine an independent Jewish state. He felt confident that he could occupy Acre and the following days he would enter Jerusalem and from Jerusalem he would issue his proclamation. He was unable to realize this project because of the intervention of the British.
This proclamation was printed and dated the 20th of April 1799, but his unsuccessful attempt to capture Acre prevented it from being issued. The Jews had to wait more than 150 years before their state was proclaimed. The proclamation, however did bear fruit. It was a precursor to Zionism, heightening awareness of the cause of Jewish statehood. The ideas Napoleon expressed found the admiration of many who saw Napoleon’s gestures as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, which foretells of the restoration of the Jews to their land. The idea drew many adherents, especially in England. One hundred and eighteen years later, the British would issue the “Balfour” declaration which called for a Jewish homeland and ultimately – 31 years later in 1948 – Israel would be recognized as a sovereign state by popular vote in the United Nations General Assembly. Perhaps it can be said that Napoleon’s premature announcement on that first day of Passover in 1799 played an important role in the creation of the state of Israel.
In the Paris Moniteur Universel, on 3 Prairial of the year VII (22 may 1799). It was announced: “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.” On the 16th of August, 1800, Napoleon declared: “If I governed a nation of Jews, I should reestablish the Temple of Solomon.” In a private conversation that Napoleon had with Dr. Barry O’Meara, which took place on the Island of St. Helena, on the 10th of November 1816, Dr. O’Meara (who was Napoleon’s personal physician at the time) asked the Emperor point blank as to why he was encouraging and supporting the Jews. The Emperor Napoleon replied, and I quote:
“My primary desire was to liberate the Jews and make them full citizens. I wanted to confer upon them all the legal rights of equality, liberty and fraternity as was enjoyed by the Catholics and Protestants. It is my wish that the Jews be treated like brothers as if we were all part of Judaism. As an added benefit, I thought that this would bring to France many riches because the Jews are numerous and they would come in large numbers to our country where they would enjoy more privileges than in any other nation. Without the events of 1814, most of the Jews of Europe would have come to France where equality, fraternity and liberty awaited them and where they can serve the country like everyone else.”
Before Napoleon took over the leadership of the French government, the political situation of the Jews was precarious, unstable, and had to submit to negative laws, and according to specific regions of France, they were sometimes treated in a liberal manner and sometimes in a tyrannical manner. Napoleon’s religious opinions were the height of modern philosophy; he was completely given to tolerance. Everywhere that Napoleon went, he led tolerance by the hand; everywhere that he found several religions, he ended the domination by which one took precedence over the others. “Faith,” Napoleon would say, “is beyond the reach of the law. It is the most personal possession of man, and no one has the right to demand and account for it.”
During the different periods of Napoleon’s career, his sympathy for the Jews was clearly noted. He did everything he could to assure that the Jews were treated on an equal basis as Catholics and Protestants. The French Revolution in 1789 was to change all the various restrictions that Jews had to face in France. It was on the 27th of September 1791 that France adopted a decree, which accorded the Jews of France full citizenship. However, the Legislative Assembly, did not take any specific measures to apply this new freedom that was granted to the Jews. The National Convention closed the synagogues, forbid the use of the Hebrew language and in general made their lives difficult. Under the Directory, the synagogues were open again and Jews got involved in business and in political life. But, in general, the Jews were barely tolerated. Before Napoleon took over the leadership of the French government, the political situation of the Jews was precarious, unstable, and had to submit to negative laws, and according to specific regions of France, they were sometimes treated in a liberal manner and sometimes in a tyrannical manner.
Napoleon was the only government leader that gave Jews equality when most other nations kept them in bondage. When strong opposition in France manifested itself, Napoleon stood firm in his support of Jewish equality. When Napoleon came to power, he did not liberate the Jews for political reasons because there were not much more than 40,000 in all of France, who were living in various provinces. The province where Jews were most persecuted was Alsace, where half of the Jewish population of France was living. In Paris, there were approximately 1,000 Jews. They were excluded from doing business, excluded from government positions and from the purchase of property. The new law dated the 8th of April 1802, which dealt with the organization of various religions, the principle leader of this law was Jean-Etienne Portalis who said: “Jews should participate as equals, like all other religions as permitted by our laws.”
Although there was tremendous opposition by the anti-Semites, Isaac Cerf-Berr, one of the leading Jewish citizens, presented to Minister of Religion Portalis a specific plan that would ensure Jewish integration into the population. The plan was brought to Napoleon at his camp in Boulogne in 1805. He approved the plan and instructed Portalis to implement it as quickly as possible.
It was in 1806, after the Austerlitz campaign, that Napoleon aggressively supported total liberty for the Jews. Notwithstanding this, the French newspaper, the Mercure de France, published a violently anti-Semitic article stating that the Jews could have freedom in France provided they all converted and became Catholic.
Great opposition to Napoleon’s plan to make equal citizens out of the Jews living in France was led by Molé, Beugnot, Segur, and Regnier. Notwithstanding this heavy opposition, including anti-Semitism generated by numerous newspapers, Napoleon was quoted as saying, “This is not the way to solve the Jewish question. I will never accept any proposals that will obligate the Jewish people to leave France, because to me the Jews are the same as any other citizen in our country. It takes weakness to chase them out of the country, but it takes strength to assimilate them.” The decree issued on 30th of May 1806 requested that a special assembly of Jewish leaders and Rabbis from all of the different French departments, would meet in Paris and discuss all outstanding matters including answering questions dealing with accusations against the Jews made by the anti-Semites.
On the 23rd of July 1806, all of these representatives met in Paris. During this time Napoleon stated: “My desire is to make Jews equal citizens in France, have a conciliation between their religion and their responsibilities in becoming French, and to answer all the accusations made against them. I want all people living in France to be equal citizens and benefit from our laws.”
One hundred eleven representatives of the Jewish community, representing all the various departments of France and Northern Italy met at the City Hall situated at St. Jean on rue des Piliers. Napoleon had requested answers to accusations made against the Jews so he could understand their position clearly. Tsar Alexander of Russia protested violently against the liberation of the Jews and encouraged the Orthodox Church in Moscow to protest aggressively. Catholic Austria and Protestant England also protested. In Prussia, the Lutheran Church was extremely hostile towards Napoleon¹s decision and reaction in Italy was also not favorable but not as aggressive.
Napoleon was concerned about these protests, which also included some leading personalities in France. Therefore, in 1806, after the campaign of Prussia, and shortly after the victory at Jena, he made a speech in the city of Posen on the 29th of November 1806, where he gave the results of the deliberations of the Sanhedrin, which pleased him very much.
The “Sanhedrin” was convened again on 31st of January 1807 for two months, in order to fine-tune the law that would make the Jewish religion equal. The special decree of 1806 liberated the Jews from their isolation. Judaism became the official third religion of France and the method Napoleon implemented to have Rabbis serve the nation is still in effect today and is the basis of the government’s relation to the Jewish population. The uncle of Napoleon, Cardinal Fesh, also got involved. He told Napoleon, “Sire, so you wish the end of the world to come with your actions to give the Jews equality as Catholics.” Even Marshall Kellermann supported by Mole mobilized opposition to Napoleon’s laws about the Jews and recommended strongly that the Jews be prohibited from dealing in commerce. The Emperor replied formally and strongly, “We must prevail in encouraging the Jews who are only a very small minority amongst us. In the departments of the East, we find a great number of Jews that are very honest and industrious.”
Because of the tremendous amount of criticism that Napoleon was receiving from such famous personalities as Chateaubriand, Cardinal Fesh, Marshal Kellermann, Tsar Alexander and numerous others, Napoleon felt obligated to introduce a “Restrictive Decree.” On the 17th of March 1808, this decree limited the freedom given to the Jews. His plan was to reduce criticism to a manageable level and then gradually, over time, remove the restrictions one-by-one. On the 11th of April 1808, Napoleon received into a special audience, Mr. Furtado and Maurice Levy of Nancy, who wanted to express the emotions of their co-religionists about the restrictive decree. After hearing them out, he immediately ordered 13 departments, including those of Le Midi, The Southwest and Les Vosges to eliminate the decree. In June of that same month, Livourne and the lower Pyrenees were also ordered to remove the “Restrictive Decree.”
Therefore, within three months of this restrictive decree, more than half of the departments involved were able to reinstate the liberty extended to their Jewish citizens. The last holdout was Alsace. This province eventually removed the restrictions. Therefore, in 1811, all restrictions were removed and nothing from a political or civil activity distinguished the Jews from non-Jews in France.
Here is a true anecdote that proves how Napoleon was sympathetic to his Grognards. A young member of the Army served with exceptional bravery. He was from Alsace. The Emperor decided to decorate him with a medal in front of his troops. The Emperor said, “David Bloom, you are a brave soldier. Your place with the Old Guard is inevitable.” Then he took off his own silver medal, which he wore proudly, and pinned it on David Bloom’s uniform. David Bloom responded by saying, “Sire, I am from Alsace and I find it difficult to accept this decoration as long as my family is being dishonored by French laws that limit their equality and freedom.” Napoleon was visibly upset and was reported to have said, “They have lied to me again, and I will correct these unfair restrictions immediately.”
Due to the close collaboration between the administration officials and the local Rabbis and leaders, the Jews were able to leave the ghettos where they were confined and to participate freely in the life of France. Jews were able to enroll in the universities, participate in whatever professions they wanted and were able to work for various government agencies. Nothing was prohibited any more.
The Imperial Almanac of 1811 reported that the Jewish religion was now one of three religions accepted by the French government. Napoleon’s effort to liberate the Jews was effective, not only in France, but also in all the other countries where France ruled. The new Civil Code, which Napoleon created, assured liberty, fraternity, and equality of all peoples regardless of their religion or station in life.
After the Congress of Vienna and the creation of the Holy Alliance, the laws permitting equality, liberty and fraternity were retracted and were not applied again until 1830 when the principles fixed by the French Revolution and the First Empire, were re-instated. In 1811, thanks to Napoleon’s effort, Portugal allowed Jews complete freedom and permitted them to open their synagogues that were closed for over 200 years. Prussia followed in 1812 but retracted the liberal laws in 1815 after the Battle of Waterloo. Other European nations assimilated the Jews between 1824 and 1867, notably Holland in 1830, Sweden in 1834 and Switzerland in 1838. It is remarkable that in England, it was only in 1858, after Lord Lionel Rothchild was elected five times, was he permitted to take his seat in parliament. It is also interesting to know that the laws that were passed in France in 1808 are still in existence today.