Napoleonic Code: exhibit gives insight into emperor who freed Jews from ghetto


Among the “Symbols of Power” displayed at the Saint Louis Art Museum’s exhibit of the art of the French Empire under Napoleon Bonaparte, 1800-1815, are the birds and the bees, and the very choice of these essentially secular symbols and the virtual absence of any overtly religious symbols of that era provide clues to Napoleon’s pivotal role in granting and extending crucial rights to the Jews of Europe during his reign.

“Symbols of Power: Napoleon and the Art of the Empire, 1800-1815” is appearing at the Saint Louis Art Museum through Sept. 16, and deserves to be viewed by the entire community, but perhaps especially by the Jewish community, some of whom may not be aware of Napoleon’s role in the emancipation not only of French Jewry but of the Jews in the vast European Empire which came under his rule as a result of his stunning military conquests.

Napoleon Bonaparte brought stability to France in the tumultuous and bloody aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789, which had granted the Jews of France full civil and political rights to a greater extent than was the case in any European nation until that time. The French Revolution would descend into the chaos of the Reign of Terror, with the guillotine’s blade cutting off the heads first of the Royalty and aristocracy and then the Revolutionary leaders began to turn on themselves. When Napoleon decided to enter the political arena in 1799, he was welcomed as the powerful military genius who could bring stability to France and grandeur to the violence-weary nation.

By 1804, Napoleon was able to crown himself the Emperor of France, pointedly removing his crown from the hands of the Pope and placing it on his own head, making it absolutely clear that he, and not the head of the Church of Rome was in full charge of his nation, and that he would brook no interference from the Vatican. Napoleon’s supremacy over the Pope, which historians call “Caesaropapism,” gave him free reign to make independent decisions regarding his non-Christian subjects.

The year 1804 is also of great significance to St. Louis, the State of Missouri and this entire region because it was the year that Napoleon, the enlightened Emperor of France sold the vast Louisiana Territory to the United States during the administration of Thomas Jefferson, author of our Declaration of Independence, who was then the third President of the United States. Had it not been for the Louisiana Purchase, there would have been no Westward expansion of the United States, there would have been no St. Louis, Missouri, and certainly there would not have been a secure Jewish community. When the Louisiana Territory was briefly under Spanish rule, the infamous Inquisition was in effect, in which Jews had three choices: convert, leave or die. When Napoleon conquered former Spanish or Portuguese territories, he would immediately end the Inquisition, granting instant freedom and civil rights to the Jews of those areas. The current excellent film Goya’s Ghosts , about the career of the artist Goya during the period in which France conquered Spain, depicts dramatically how Jews and descendants of Jews who had been convicted of “Judaizing” and sent to dank prisons, were liberated when the French Army took control.

Napoleon was fascinated not by Roman Catholic and other Christian imagery, but rather by the trappings of ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt. The artists and artisans of his day deliberately emulated and copied the styles of ancient Rome. Napoleon viewed himself as the 19h century successor to Alexander the Great of Macedonia/Greece and Julius Caesar of Rome. A porcelain bust of Napoleon which is part of the exhibit at the Saint Louis Art Museum shows a stern, thoughtful head of Napoleon in a pose which evokes the ancient marble busts of Caesar and Alexander. The exhibit at the Saint Louis Art Museum includes chairs designed to resemble those used by Roman military commanders. The straight lines of the Napoleon-inspired furniture are designed to reinforce his masculine power; the curved lines of the furniture and clothing inspired by or produced for the sensual Empress Josephine evoked the seductiveness of Helen of Troy or the Roman and Greek gods and goddesses of love and beauty.

It should be noted that when Alexander the Great conquered Judea in 333-332 BCE, he allowed the local Jewish leadership to run the affairs of the Jewish community as long as it did not disrespect Greek rule. Later, under the Syrian Greek puppet King Antiochus Epiphannes, Jewish practices were curtailed and the Temple in Jerusalem was defiled with statues of pagan gods, leading to the Maccabean revolt.

Napoleon’s attitude toward the Jews of his realm was closer to that of Alexander than to that of Antiochus. He was curious about the Jews who lived behind ghetto walls, and was told by his advisers that the members of the community spent much of their days deeply immersed in study–of their sacred texts, the Torah, the Talmud and wisdom literature. “If the Jews spend so much time in study, they must be intellectually strong people,” Napoleon commented to his advisers. “Let us see if they would agree to have us make them fully French citizens–let them be Frenchmen on the street and Jews at home and at their synagogues.”

In 1806 Napoleon actually convened an Empire-wide conference of the great rabbis and community leaders of the Jews of his realm, and called the gathering a “Sanhedrin,” invoking the name of the Council of 71 priests and rabbis who ran the affairs of the First and Second Temples in ancient Israel and Judea. Napoleon gave the Jews at the Sanhedrin a choice: to remain isolated in their own ghetto enclaves, or to join general French society, blend in as much as possible, and confine their Jewishnesss to their homes and synagogues. Most of the Jewish leaders attending the conference agreed, although some more traditional Jewish leaders were opposed to any pressures to assimilate or to give up Jewish practices.

In any event, as a result of Napoleon’s Emancipation of the Jews of his Empire, France became the model European nation in terms of full political and civil rights for its Jewish citizens. Jews were free to study at the Sorbonne and other great French universities, to become artists, physicians, lawyers and even military officers in the French Army, such as the successful career of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was a French Jew with a sterling military record in the latter part of the 19th century. As is well-known, Dreyfus was wrongly accused of treason and put on trial in Paris in 1894. France was split down the middle, with the Dreyfusards insisting that Dreyfus was innocent and the victim of a frame-up (they were proved correct later), and the Anti-Dreyfusards, who were convinced not only that he was guilty, but that his being Jewish was a major factor in his treason.

Covering the Dreyfus trial for a major German language newspaper was a young Jewish journalist from Vienna named Theodor Herzl. When Herzl arrived in Paris in 1894 he saw some protesters carrying signs reading, “Death to Dreyfus.” Within days, signs sprouted saying “Death to the Jew Dreyfus” and finally, angry mobs of Frenchmen gathered daily in front of the courthouse shouting “Death to the Jews!”

The young Jewish journalist Herzl was stunned and sickened by the quick rise of anti-Semitism in Paris. “If such Jew-hatred could take root so rapidly in Paris, the most liberal city in the most liberal country towards the Jews then what hope is there for Jews in countries like Austria and Germany where anti-Semitism is already rampant?”

Herzl collected his thoughts in a draft of a pamphlet called Der Judenshtadt, The Jewish State, which became the Manifesto for the modern, practical political Zionism Herzl came to found and lead. “If liberal France could develop such hatred for the Jews, then the only solution would be for the Jews to have an independent nation of their own in which they would be in the majority and could assure that their rights and physical safety would be protected,” he wrote.

Herzl’s radical new Zionist vision caught on like wildfire among thousands of Jews all over Europe, and also some fierce opposition from very traditional Jews who insisted that humans could not create a Jewish State before the coming of the Messiah, to liberal Jews who worried about being accused of dual loyalty. By 1897, Herzl convened the first World Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, at which he told the delegates from all over the world, “If you will it, it need not be a dream” and predicted that within 50 years there would indeed be an independent Jewish State.

Among the four women delegates at that first World Zionist Congress was Rosa Sonneschein, wife of Rabbi Solomon Sonneschein, first rabbi of Congregation Shaare Emeth and later of Temple Israel in St. Louis. Rabbi Sonneschein was opposed to Zionism, but his feisty and colorful wife, founder of a national Jewish women’s magazine called “The Jewess” supported Zionism. By 1947, after the calamity of the Holocaust, Herzl’s dream came true when the United Nations approved the UN Partition Plan, dividing up the British Mandate of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states; on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, who first heard Herzl speak when Ben-Gurion was 10 years old, read out Israel’s Proclamation of Independence at the Tel Aviv Museum, underneath a portrait of Theodor Herzl.

Herzl himself literally worked himself to death on behalf of the Zionist movement, finally dying in 1904 at the tender age of 44. That same year, the flag of the Zionist movement flew for the first time over an official public building at the Hall of Nations at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in Forest Park. That World’s Fair was the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, celebrating the Centennial of the purchase of the Louisiana territory,from the very same Emperor Napoleon, which of course includes St. Louis.

And now, in the same Forest Park, at the Saint Louis Art Museum, we can view the symbols and trappings of the absolute power Napoleon exercised not only on the battlefields of Europe until he literally met his “Waterloo” in 1815, to grant considerable freedoms to the Jewish people. But the combined liberalism of the French Revolution and the powerful pragmatism of Emperor Napoleon could not prevent the anti-Semitism that engulfed France during the Dreyfus Trial, which in turn led to Herzl’s vision of an independent Jewish State. The exhibit provides a good entry point for further study into this fascinating period, and then to “connecting the dots” toward the creation of an independent Jewish State which will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2008, and the expansion of the United States, now in its 13lst year of independence.

Take advantage of the remaining opportunity to see the Napoleon Exhibit at the Saint Louis Art Museum before it closes on Sept. 16, and use the experience as an opportunity to do additional study on these profoundly important events in the history of the Jewish people and the United States.