Given the current political, economic and cultural state of today’s volatile global environment, and the fact that the term “nation-building” has evolved into such a highly controversial descriptive, it’s fascinating to explore Napoleon’s 18th century personal perspective on nation-building, particularly when it comes to the Jews. As is universally known, without a single break in history, the Jewish people have been consistently and systematically singled out and “targeted” as the most disruptive and destructive element in any environment we have found ourselves in since the onset of the Diaspora. More often than not we are continuously despised and persecuted, with the rare exception being, as in this particular instance, identified and “assigned” a unique status of expectations and demands never imposed on any other religious, racial or social sect. No surprises here whatsoever, of course-- as always, we stand alone.
This paper will show how Napoleon sees the Jews of France as a worthy investment for building the future stature of his country. This was NOT from any sense of generosity or charitable sensitivities on his part, but strictly from a rational and pragmatic nationalist perspective. Yet it was this very perspective that so dramatically elevated the Jews’ visibility and prestige as he brought them together-- a process that inexorably created the seeds for the Jews to begin seeing themselves as their own unified nation within a nation. When comparing the lives of the Jews before and after Napoleon and looking at the critical actions and decrees that Napoleon issued involving the Jewish people, it becomes readily apparent how one of the most strategically brilliant and ruthless individuals in history unintentionally became a friend for the ages for the Jewish people.
Prior to the ascent of Napoleon’s reign, the Jews of France had defined themselves as they always had, strictly by their core values for centuries-- maintaining their status as the “Chosen People” while dealing with the myriad, inevitable conflicts that arose from their very existence. For hundreds of years prior to Napoleon’s arrival, the Jews had been economically and politically marginalized and physically confined to the ghettos of Europe. The spectre of rampant assimilation and its horrific consequences was a pervasive, common “threat” that both Jew and gentile alike could categorically agree would prove to be everyone’s downfall, especially the Jews themselves. Yet while Jews were forced to dwell amongst themselves, they did what we Jews do best-- they studied, practiced and retained their Torah values, passing them down from generation to generation as the Chosen People they had come to be known as for the previous 35 centuries.
For the Jews of France, the French Revolution, in fact, created little in the way of substantive improvement in their lives. They were granted citizenship, to be sure, but as a religious institution, Judaism was considered (by the Revolutionary authorities) pretty much on par with the Catholic Church, namely, despised religious outcasts. Synagogues were closed and Judaism was treated with much the same disdain as Catholicism. France had a strong, unbreakable strain of anti-Semitism, and anyone who went up against it was in for a monumental struggle-- a struggle very few in history were willing to take on, including Napoleon Bonaparte.
It was, however, Napoleon’s destiny to become the overpowering force who would not only resist French anti-Semitism, but would, from the very outset, promote the full and complete liberation of the Jews. Napoleon's involvement with the Jews began in February 1797, when his army occupied Ancona, Italy. He was stunned and bewildered to discover some people wandering the streets wearing yellow bonnets and arm bands on which the "Star of David" was boldly emblazoned. When he asked his officers why these people were wearing the bonnet and arm bands they told him that as Jews, they had to be identified as such so they could be herded back to their ghettoes after dark. Napoleon reacted decisively by immediately issuing orders to have all yellow bonnets and armbands removed, and to permanently close the ghetto, thus allowing the Jews to live wherever they wanted, freely attend and build synagogues, and to practice their religion openly. (Wieder.
Napoleon and the Jews. Aish.com) Franz Kobler beautifully writes in his book, Napoleon And The Jews: “In every Italian city which the French army entered, the ghetto gates were removed, hacked to pieces and burned, the shameful badges thrown away, and the symbols of freedom--Trees of Liberty-- planted by the delivered Jews. Their enthusiasm at the great transformation was boundless. For the first time in the history of Italian Jewry the commander of a victorious army appeared not as an oppressor but as a liberator of the Jewish people.”(Kobler. Napoleon and the Jews. 18)
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