The beating of war drums has seldom been a good sign for Europe’s Jewish communities. Dispersed by the endless conquests of their homeland, they were among the victims of many periods of war, from medieval English kings taxing them to fund armies, to the massacres by early crusaders, through to the Holocaust during World War Two.
But there was one series of conquests that was good for Europe’s Jews. As Napoleon’s armies marched across Europe, they brought empowerment and opportunity for Jewish communities.
The Religious Pragmatist
Napoleon was one of history’s great pragmatists. The Republican who became an emperor was willing to work with any group or set of ideas that he thought could strengthen the French state. While many conquerors sought to enforce the religious values of their homes upon others, he sought to make use of Europe’s diverse religious communities.
The Catholic church’s authority in French territory had been undermined by the revolution, during which much political and economic power was taken from the church. Many in France were now secularists. Napoleon was already managing competing religious viewpoints, and as he expanded into Protestant parts of Europe he had to work with other strong religious communities.
His solution was to integrate religious hierarchies into the structures of power, using them to tap into the support of their communities. He did this with Protestant and Catholic clergymen, the obvious religious power blocks in Europe.
He also approached the Jews.
A Middle Eastern State
One of the early signs of Napoleon’s empowerment of Jews came in 1799, during his invasion of Syria. While there, he tried to resurrect efforts to found a Jewish state in the Middle East. It was a practical plan rather than an idealistic one – if he could create a state more beholden to him than to his Middle Eastern political competitors then he could ensure some support in the region.
But the expedition to Egypt and Syria was a disaster. Cut off by the British Royal Navy, the French had to give up on their campaign. Napoleon returned to France while his troops endured a gruelling march home around the edge of the Mediterranean.
Back in France, Napoleon set to work establishing his regime, including building up his support base. To this end, he appealed to the Jews.
As with much of his support building, Napoleon used the memories of great men to build kudos by association. He compared himself with Herod the Great, a Jewish king from a non-Jewish family who made a point of tolerating the public life of other religions. While remembered among Jews for achievements such as his impressive building projects, Herod was remembered by Christians as the man who ordered the massacre of the innocents. Associating with him was a direct appeal to religiously tolerant rule, and showed a sensitivity to the different perspective of Jews from Christians.
Napoleon worked to provide the Jews with rights and powers equal to others in the Empire. In 1805, he granted legal recognition to the Jewish community. For a group used to being singled out and persecuted, it was a powerful moment.
One of the greatest challenges in all this was reconciling the Jewish and Napoleonic legal codes. The idea that all people should be bound by the same set of laws was an important one, both in maintaining order in the Empire and in justifying its expansion. After all, this was an empire born out of revolution, one which began its expansion declaring equal rights for all.
But Jews lived by their own set of laws, and inevitably there were clashes between the two codes. To deal with this, Napoleon called what became the Assembly of Notables, a gathering of leading Jews from across the Empire. They were tasked with reconciling the Napoleonic legal code and Jewish religious law.
The notables, drawn from all over Europe, were an officially recognised assembly of Jews, uniting co-religionists from across the continent. They were empowered not only to address the clash of law codes but to answer such questions as whether Jews and Christians could marry and whether French Jews should consider themselves French.
Napoleon had united and empowered this dispersed religious community in a way that had never happened before.
The Grand Sanhedrin
Not content with this hugely significant assembly, Napoleon renamed it, making it into a Grand Sanhedrin – an institution not seen since the days of the Roman Empire. David Sinzheim, the grand rabbi of Strasbourg, was given the presidency of the Sanhedrin.
The Sanhedrin addressed twelve key questions raised by Napoleon, and which would form the basis of legislation around the Jews. Napoleon’s intention was to create a distinct Jewish Code, similar to the Napoleonic Code, but taking religious practices into account. If he could not entirely contain the Jews within the same law code as everyone else, he could at least be the guiding hand behind their laws.
Napoleon was making the Jewish leadership into makers of civil law.
The Moses of the French
It would be a mistake to see Napoleon’s treatment of the Jews – or any other group for that matter – as entirely positive. A declaration of 1808 restricted some of their legal rights.
But the fact that he involved them in self-government at all was a huge step. Instead of placing pressure on these often-repressed people, he brought them together, fostered creative decision making, and encouraged a vision of European Jewry as a united whole.
The reaction was hugely positive. He was labelled by prominent Jews as “the Solomon of our century” and “the Moses of the French”. The Sanhedrin compared him with the Persian King Cyrus, ending the Babylonian captivity of Jerusalem.
Empowering Europe’s Jews gained Napoleon the support he had sought. It also helped to strengthen them as a community, so that they came out of the Napoleonic wars more united and confident than ever before.