For hundreds of years, Jews in Europe lived under unequal laws. For example, they were forbidden from working certain jobs, forced to wear specific outfits to make them easily distinguishable as Jews, and were confined to living in ghettos, among other things. It wasn’t until the period of the French Revolution (1789-1799) that the Jews of France were emancipated.
In the decades that followed, Jews living under the reign of Napoleon were finally officially granted freedom and security to live as Jews — so long as they reduced their Jewish identity to a religious one, as opposed to a cultural and/or ethnic one. This fundamentally shifted the way that many Jews continue to relate to their identity today.
FREEDOM OF RELIGION
For the first time, the French Revolution granted Jews and others in Europe freedom of religion. In other words, Jews could no longer be discriminated against based on their religious practices.
Other European rulers vehemently opposed this new Jewish emancipation. The Russian czar, for example, called Napoleon “the anti-Christ” in response to these policies. Austrian, Prussian, Italian, and British leaders also condemned Napoleon’s policies in regards to the Jews. The Lutheran Church also responded with extreme hostility.
For a short period in 1808, Napoleon signed an agreement with the Russian czar to restrict freedom to Jews. Napoleon expected, in exchange, that the Russians would help him seek peace with the British. However, when this didn’t happen, Napoleon cancelled this decree.
A POLICY OF ASSIMILATION
Despite Napoleon’s policy of Jewish emancipation, this newfound freedom came along with one major condition: Jews could no longer exist as a distinct cultural and ethnic minority but instead were forced to assimilate into French society as French citizens.
In 1806, he wrote: “[It is necessary to] reduce, if not destroy, the tendency of Jewish people to practice a very great number of activities that are harmful to civilisation and to public order in society in all the countries of the world. It is necessary to stop the harm by preventing it; to prevent it, it is necessary to change the Jews…Once part of their youth will take its place in our armies, they will cease to have Jewish interests and sentiments; their interests and sentiments will be French.”
Most notably, Napoleon forbade Jews from participating in traditionally Jewish jobs, such as money-lending (of note: for hundreds of years, Jews practiced money-lending because the Church banned them from doing almost anything else). He also cancelled all debts owed to Jews. This nearly caused the Jewish community to collapse.
Historians have long debated Napoleon’s attitude toward the Jews. Some argue that he emancipated them in order to win their favor (as well as that of other religious minorities, such as Protestants) for political reasons.
Publicly, Napoleon claimed that in emancipating the Jews of France, he would convince other Jews to move to France, which, in his view, would result in more wealth for France. He believed that in emancipating Jews, he could turn them into “good citizens.” He also claimed to do this in pursuit of a “universal liberty of conscience.”
His personal views on Jews were a lot less favorable. In 1808, Napoleon wrote to his brother: “I have undertaken to reform the Jews, but I have not endeavoured to draw more of them into my realm. Far from that, I have avoided doing anything which could show any esteem for the most despicable of mankind.”
THE ISSUE OF JERUSALEM
During Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and Syria, a major French newspaper published an article claiming that Napoleon was in favor of the reestablishment of a sovereign Jewish state in Jerusalem. In 1940, a full version of this letter was republished, calling Jews, among other things, “the rightful heirs to Palestine.”
The authenticity of the letter is hotly debated, as there is no verifiable documentation of Napoleon ever making such a proclamation. Some historians believe that the article was published for propaganda purposes, in order to convince the Jews of Southwest Asia and North Africa to join Napoleon in his military campaigns. Realistically, it’s unlikely that Napoleon would support an autonomous Jewish nation, considering that his main goal for the Jews was not political independence, but rather, assimilation.
After centuries of subjugation and inequality, Jews responded favorably to Napoleon’s policies of assimilation, so much so that many Jews in Italy named their children “Napoleon” and “Bonaparte” in his honor. When Jews were forced to take last names, some even chose the name Schöntheil, a direct translation of “Bonaparte.”
Napoleon created an “Israelite Consistory” in France, which allowed the government to oversee the activities of the Jewish community. The consistory, however, consisted of Jews, including rabbis and lay citizens.
Jews also responded favorably to Napoleon’s supposed (and as stated in the previous slide, unlikely) support for an autonomous Jewish state. For example, Rabbi Aharon Ben-Levi of Jerusalem called for Jews to join Napoleon’s army in order to “to return to Zion as in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.”
Napoleon’s assimilationist policies fundamentally shifted Jewish identity. For the first time in hundreds of years, Jews were allowed to exist peacefully (at least officially), so long as they gave up their distinct national/tribal, cultural, and ethnic identity. This set the groundwork for the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) and the establishment of “religious” Jewish movements, such as the Reform and Conservative movements.
The success of these assimilationist policies, however, proved futile in the end. Between 1894-1906, the infamous Dreyfus Affair, in which a French military officer of Jewish descent was falsely accused and convicted of treason in a major coverup, showed Jews that, try as they might to assimilate, antisemitism was not going anywhere.
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