Napoleon scholar details Emancipation of European Jews

A lithograph celebrates Napoleon’s 1806 decree of granting freedom to Jews in his Empire.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Napoleon Bonaparte, the military genius who became Emperor of France “from the very beginning promoted the liberation of the Jews,” according to J. David Markham, of Olympia, Wash., president and former executive vice-president of the International Napoleonic Society. Markham spoke last Sunday at the Missouri History Museum on “The New Alexander: Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt and the Holy Land,” in conjunction with the museum’s current major exhibit, “Treasures of Napoleon.”

The exhibit features hundreds of items collected by Pierre Jean-Calinchon, one of the foremost experts on the French Emperor. Markham’s remarks and the many items on display at the History Museum, trace the dazzling life of Napoleon Bonaparte from his birth in Corsica in 1769, through his early prowess as a military strategist, his coming to power in 1799 in the aftermath of the chaos of the post-French Revolution period, to becoming Emperor of France in 1804.

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Napoleon’s triumphs and defeats have been the subject of countless biographies and exhibits, which trace his rise to ruling over 80 million people in Central Europe, “until his ultimate defeat at Waterloo in June of 1815, and his exile to the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he died on May 5, 1821,” Markham said.

Markham, who has taught history at the university and high school levels, focused his remarks on Napoleon’s military campaign in Egypt and the Holy Land in 1798, in which he again demonstrated his mastery of a “divide and conquer” approach to the field of battle. He also had the ability to gain the love and unquestioning support of his troops, who followed him through the scorching deserts of Africa and the bone-chilling winters of Czarist Russia.

Markham pointed out that by 1798, Napoleon was acclaimed for his “great success in defeating the Austrian army that was threatening France in northern Italy,” and for having been “successful in negotiating the Treaty of Campo Formio, which brought peace between France and Austria in that region.”

Napoleon’s success, which earned him the status of hero throughout France and much of Europe, raised alarm bells at the Directory, France’s ruling body in Paris, which feared that the young military genius would attempt to seize ultimate power, which by 1804 he accomplished.

Napoleon’s decision to launch a military campaign in Egypt and the Holy Land, Markham said, was one of “the most romantic” in his “storied career.”

“His campaign in Egypt and the Holy Land led to a greater understanding of that mysterious region and to an inevitable comparison of Napoleon to Alexander the Great,” Markham said. It was also an attempt to check potential British influence in Egypt and Palestine, which were then under the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, the Egypt-Holy Land campaign provided the first of many examples of Napoleon’s remarkable role in the Emancipation of the Jews not only of France, but in all of the areas of his conquest and ultimate empire.

“In 1798, Napoleon led an army that invaded Egypt,” Markham noted. “On the way there he took over the island of Malta. When he discovered that Jews on that island had not been allowed to operate a synagogue, he issued an immediate order rectifying the situation.”

Markham, who details Napoleon’s remarkably positive record towards the Jews in his book “Napoleon for Dummies” (Wiley Publishing, Inc., $19.95), provided considerable historic proof to establish the facts of Napoleon’s role as a major benefactor of European Jewry.

“The history of the Jews in Europe is an unhappy one,” said Markham. “They suffered discrimination in every quarter and had been blamed for the (Black) Plague, economic depressions, famine and pretty much everything else that ever went wrong.”

He added, “The Catholic Church didn’t exactly promote tolerance for other religions, especially Judaism. The Inquisition in Spain largely drove Jews out of that country. And the Crusades, nominally directed against Islam, often brought death and destruction to the Jews as well.”

Markham pointed out that the French Revolution “created little in the way of improvement for Jews. They were granted citizenship, but as a religious institution Judaism was considered (by the Revolutionary authorities) pretty much on par with the Catholic Church. Synagogues were closed and Judaism was treated with much the same disdain as Catholicism. France had a strong strain of anti-Semitism, and anyone who went up against it was in for a struggle.”

Napoleon was to become the overpowering force who would not only “go up against” French anti-Semitism, but “who from the very beginning promoted the liberation of the Jews,” Markham continued. “Throughout much of Europe in the 18th century, Jews had been forced to live in ghettos and even to wear yellow armbands. In 1797, while in Ancona, Italy, Napoleon was made aware of this fact and was absolutely amazed. He quickly ordered that the armbands be removed and that Jews be given the right to live wherever they wished. It was a policy that he would follow during all of his military campaigns throughout Europe. . . Clearly, Napoleon saw discrimination against Jews as a direct affront to his firmly-held belief in equality, and he was determined to do something about it.”

Napoleon’s first formal act of emancipation for Jews was his lifting of the ban in Malta against synagogues, which he issued immediately after his army took over the island on its way to the campaign in Egypt and Palestine. “After Malta, Napoleon gained control of Egypt and from there moved into the Holy Land, which is modern-day Israel,” said Markham. “He took with him a proclamation, dated April 20, 1799, that essentially declared that Palestine was to be a new Jewish homeland. Napoleon planned to issue this proclamation when he entered Jerusalem. Unfortunately for him, and for the Jews, he was stymied at the siege of Acre (Acco), and never made it to Jerusalem.”

Napoleon was to withdraw from Egypt, Markham noted, “but the document still exists, and in 1947, David Ben-Gurion used it as one of his justifications before the United Nations when he was seeking creation of the Jewish state of Israel.”

Napoleon faced a considerable backlash against his pro-Jewish moves, but he continued to promote their rights not only in France proper, but throughout his Empire. In one of Napoleon’s most far-reaching, even grandiose gestures towards his Jewish subjects, he convened on May 30, 1806 calling an assembly of major Jewish leaders and rabbis to discuss all issues relating to their status and well-being. “The meeting was called a Sanhedrin, and it was designed in part to allow Jewish leaders to respond to the attacks being made against them. It was also called to signal once and for all Napoleon’s support for full Jewish citizenship.”

On Nov. 29, 1806 Markham noted, “Jews were declared full citizens and Judaism made one of the three official religions of France, along with Protestantism and Catholicism. The Sanhedrin convened again in February and March 1807 to fine tune the provisions of the law granting Jewish independence.”

In response to an anti-Jewish backlash, in 1808 Napoleon issued a decree that placed restrictions on Jewish freedom, but after emotions cooled down, Markham said, “the restrictions were pretty much removed in most of France and by 1811 they were completely gone. Jews were finally full members of society, able to work, worship and live as they wished. Small wonder, then, that Napoleon is seen as a hero to many Jews today.”

The “Treasures of Napoleon Exhibit will continue at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park until April 11, 2011. For information, call 314-746-4599, or go to