Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Napoleon Bonaparte

(1769 - 1821)

Napoleon Bonaparte was the emperor of the French. He proclaimed the emancipation of the Jews in the Italian states which he had established, and the majority of the Jews in Italy hailed Napoleon as a liberator and political savior, calling him “Ḥelek Tov” (lit. “Good Part”; cf. Bona-Parte). Even by this time, however, problems had arisen from the contradictions posed by Jewish laws and communal autonomy on the one hand and the political and civic obligations of the Jews on the other.

In May 1799, during Napoleon’s campaign in Palestine (see below), the government newspaper Moniteur published the information that Napoleon had issued a manifesto in Palestine which promised the Jews their return to their country. Many European newspapers reproduced this information, although today it is questioned whether Napoleon really issued such a declaration. The news concerning the manifesto and Napoleon’s Palestine campaign made little impression on the Jews in Europe. On the other hand, the campaign gave rise to millenarian hopes among certain nonconformist circles in England; for the first time, their expectation of the return of Israel to Palestine and hence to the Church was linked with realistic political projects.

The principal influence exercised by Napoleon as emperor on Jewish history was in the years 1806 to 1808 when he convened the Assembly of Jewish Notables and the (French) Sanhedrin, and established the Consistories. The programmatic documents formulated during this period and the institutions which then came into being embody the first practical expression of the demands made by a centralized modern state on the Jews who had become its citizens – “the separation of the political from the religious elements in Judaism.” The news of the activities of the Jewish assemblies stirred both Jewish and gentile sectors of society in Central and Western Europe. The Austrian authorities were apprehensive that the Jews would regard Napoleon in the light of a messiah. In England, theological hopes and political projects for the “Return of Israel” intensified. On March 17, 1808, however, Napoleon issued an order restricting the economic activity and the freedom of movement of the Jews in the eastern provinces of the empire for a period of ten years, an order which became known among Jews as the “Infamous Decree.”

Napoleon’s victorious armies brought civic emancipation to the Jews in all the countries of Central and Western Europe where governments dependent on him were formed. The central Jewish Consistory established in the Kingdom of Westphalia was the first Jewish institution in Europe to introduce reforms into the Jewish religion. The Jews of Eastern Europe were only ephemerally influenced by Napoleon’s conquests. Discussions were held among Hasidim as to whether support should be given to Napoleon or the Russian Czar Alexander I in order to hasten the coming of the messiah.

The Palestine Campaign (Feb. 8–June 1, 1799)

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. At the beginning of February, Napoleon invaded the Holy Land at the head of a 13,000-man army.

He took El Arish on February 20 and reached Gaza on February 24; the small Jewish community there fled to Hebron. On March 1, Napoleon reached Ramleh and, on March 7, Jaffa surrendered after a four-day siege. The French army continued northward, crossed the southern Carmel on March 16 and 17, and reached al-Ḥāvithiyya (west of Sha’ar ha-Amakim). Haifa was captured on March 18. The following day, the French army reached the walls of Acre where the pasha, Ahmad al-Jazzār, and the Turks organized resistance. A Jew, Ḥ.S. Farḥi, Ahmad al-Jazzār’s chief aide, also played an important role in its defense. Supported by British warships, the city withstood a protracted siege and several assaults by the French.

During the siege, he prepared 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. By June, Napoleon’s army, now plague-ridden and decimated, had moved back into Egypt.

From a political point of view, Napoleon’s campaign in Palestine marked the beginning of a renewed interest of the Western Powers in Palestine as occupying an important international position. From a social-cultural point of view, the importance of the campaign was much more limited. However, this was the first substantial contact made between the inhabitants of Palestine and Westerners since the destruction of Crusader Acre.

Impact on Jewish History

The forces unleashed by Napoleon brought in their wake contradictory effects on the course of modern Jewish history. The breakup of old European feudal patterns of societal organization was eventually to open up a range of new economic and political options for the Jew. The closed societies that restricted but sheltered him were never again to be the same. On the other hand, the immediate effect of these forces was to provoke an almost total reversal in the process of civic emancipation brought about in the course of Napoleonic conquests.

Nonetheless, Jewish Emancipation was to come eventually, even if its triumph was to be delayed till later in the century. Well in advance of that time, the Napoleonic uprooting of the established order forced the Jewish community to contend with the many challenges posed by that process to their traditions and their lives. Already before Napoleon there were individual Jews seeking an accommodation with the world outside the ghetto. The events that surrounded the Napoleonic adventure extended the concern of the few to the preoccupation of the people as a whole. Moreover, Napoleon’s insistence on a price to be paid by the Jew for his entrance into the modern world was to set the tone for much of the debate within the Jewish community during the Emancipation era. How to remain loyal to the traditions of his people and at home in the modern world was a problem.

On November 10, 1816, Napoleon’s personal physician asked the Emperor why he was encouraging and supporting the Jews. Napoleon replied:

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.


R. Anchel, Napoléon et les Juifs (1928); E.A. Halphen (ed.), Recueil des lois, décrets et ordonnances concernant les Israélites (1851); Sagnac, in: Revue de l’histoire moderne et contemporaine, 2–3 (1901–02); P. Guedalla, Napoleon and Palestine (1925); Gelber, in: REJ, 83 (1927), 1–21, 113–45; F. Kobler, The Vision Was There (1956), 42–47; F. Pietri, Napoléon et les Israélites (1965); B. Mevorakh, Napoleon u-Tekufato (1968).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.