In 1796, Napoleon was appointed commander of the French army in Italy. Following his victories in the battlefield, he was sent in 1798 to conquer Egypt with the intention of going on to take India from the British. He invaded the Holy Land and seized control of the coastal trip up to Acre. His army was stopped from gaining more ground by Ottoman forces backed by the British.
During the siege, he prepared a proclamation, actually a letter to the Jewish Nation, expressing his belief that the time had come for the “Rightful heirs of Palestine” to seize the moment, “which may not return for thousands of years,” and restore “your political existence as a nation among the nations, and the unlimited natural right to worship Jehovah in accordance with your faith, publicly and most probably forever (Joel 4,20).”
Napoleon expected to occupy Acre and move on to Jerusalem where he would issue the proclamation, which was dated April 20, 1799 (the first day of Passover). It didn’t happen, however, because he was forced to retreat from Acre on May 22, 1799, and subsequently left the Holy Land. A year later, on August, 16, 1800, Napoleon declared: “If I governed a nation of Jews, I should reestablish the Temple of Solomon.”
The Jews had to wait more than 150 years to achieve independence in their homeland.
The letter was first published in 1940 and its authenticity and Napoleon’s intentions have been debated ever since. One view is that Napoleon may have believed helping the Jews would win him lasting fame. As it turned out, he didn’t not need the Jews to achieve that goal.
Letter to the Jewish Nation from the French Commander-in-Chief Buonaparte
(translated from the Original, 1799)
General Headquarters, Jerusalem 1st Floreal, April 20th, 1799,
in the year of 7 of the French Republic
BUONAPARTE, COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF OF THE ARMIES OF THE FRENCH REPUBLIC
IN AFRICA AND ASIA, TO THE RIGHTFUL HEIRS OF PALESTINE.
Israelites, unique nation, whom, in thousands of years, lust of conquest and tyranny have been able to be deprived of their ancestral lands, but not of name and national existence!
Attentive and impartial observers of the destinies of nations, even though not endowed with the gifts of seers like Isaiah and Joel, have long since also felt what these, with beautiful and uplifting faith, have foretold when they saw the approaching destruction of their kingdom and fatherland: And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35,10)
Arise then, with gladness, ye exiled! A war unexampled In the annals of history, waged in self-defense by a nation whose hereditary lands were regarded by its enemies as plunder to be divided, arbitrarily and at their convenience, by a stroke of the pen of Cabinets, avenges its own shame and the shame of the remotest nations, long forgotten under the yoke of slavery, and also, the almost two-thousand-year-old ignominy put upon you; and, while time and circumstances would seem to be least favourable to a restatement of your claims or even to their expression ,and indeed to be compelling their complet abandonment, it offers to you at this very time, and contrary to all expectations, Israel's patrimony!
The young army with which Providence has sent me hither, let by justice and accompanied by victory, has made Jerusalem my headquarters and will, within a few days, transfer them to Damascus, a proximity which is no longer terrifying to David’s city.
Rightful heirs of Palestine!
The great nation which does not trade in men and countries as did those which sold your ancestors unto all people (Joel 4:6) herewith calls on you not indeed to conquer your patrimony; nay, only to take over that which has been conquered and, with that nation's warranty and support, to remain master of it to maintain it against all comers.
Arise! Show that the former overwhelming might of your oppressors has but repressed the courage of the descendants of those heroes who alliance of brothers would have done honour even to Sparta and Rome (Maccabees 12:15) but that the two thousand years of treatment as slaves have not succeeded in stifling it.
Hasten! Now is the moment, which may not return for thousands of years, to claim the restoration of civic rights among the population of the universe which had been shamefully withheld from you for thousands of years, your political existence as a nation among the nations, and the unlimited natural right to worship Jehovah in accordance with your faith, publicly and most probably forever (Joel 4:20).
Sources: Allen Z. Hertz, “Napoleon’s Proclamation to Jews Known to Ottomans,” Times of Israel, (August 16, 2018).
“Letter from End of Napoleon’s Campaign in Palestine, Jaffa, May, 1799,” Center for Online Judaic Studies.
Ben Weider, “Napoleon and the Jews,” International Congress of the International Napoleonic Society, Allessandria, Italy, (June 21-26, 1997).