Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Jews, Napoleon and the Ottoman Empire: the 1797-9 Proclamations to the Jews

While campaigning in Israel in 1799, did General Napoleon Bonaparte write a "proclamation" to the Jews? 21st-century historians are divided. But, the deeper story is not simply whether he did so while in Israel, but also the one or more of his earlier Jewish proclamations, similarly issued as revolutionary propaganda to destroy the Ottoman Empire. Thus, a neglected Ottoman-Turkish source says there was already, in the Muslim year 1212 (1797-8), a French-Revolutionary proclamation inviting Jews to come together to "establish a Jewish government in Jerusalem" (قدس شريفده بر يهود حكومتى تشكيل). Based on such a report from Constantinople, European newspapers in May 1799 repeatedly featured accounts of a Napoleonic proclamation inviting Jews to reestablish ancient Jerusalem. An age-old People and its aboriginal homeland -- this compelling theme echoed for decades, with profound consequences in the 20th century. 

Allen Z. Hertz was senior advisor in the Privy Council Office serving Canada's Prime Minister and the federal cabinet. He formerly worked in Canada's Foreign Affairs Department and earlier taught history and law at universities in New York, Montreal, Toronto and Hong Kong. He studied European history and languages at McGill University (B.A.) and then East European and Ottoman history at Columbia University (M.A., Ph.D.). He also has international law degrees from Cambridge University (LL.B.) and the University of Toronto (LL.M.).


Jacques Godechot's La grande nation, l'expansion révolutionnaire de la France dans le monde (1789-1799) was first published in 1956. In a book review, University of Paris, Professor of French History, Marcel Reinhard observed with regard to the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (April-June 1958):
The rights defined in 1789 were those of every man, of every citizen, and they were, despite some opposition, also recognized as applying to Jews and Blacks. And as such, they also passed onto the world stage. Thus, the concept of national sovereignty wasn't simply the privilege of the French nation, but was a natural and imprescriptible right recognized for every nation.
Reinhard's international assessment was not just an ex post facto judgment, but was often expressed in the 1790s. Then, it was integral to the key notion of la grande nation. This referred to the great French People which was literally big, because numbering 27 million at a time when the USA had only 5.3 million and the British Isles 15.7 million. Ideologically, la grande nation was deemed to be, spiritually and materially, older brother to other fraternal Peoples, including the Jewish People. And, the Revolutionary French Republic was imagined as entitled to senior status in relation to the other actual or imminent revolutionary republics. The modern comparison would be to the global leadership once claimed by Soviet Russia among Communist countries.

Consider the example of the Corsican-born Maniote, Dimo Stephanopoli who was sent as French-Revolutionary emissary to the Morea (Peloponnese), then under Turkish rule. There, he expounded at a late 1797 secret meeting, at Marathonissi in the Mani, with patriots from several parts of Greece. According to Dimo, the French Revolution had universal meaning (1799):
Learn what has happened in the new Athens. The French People has destroyed its tyrants and has given itself laws. These laws propagate themselves with regard to all the Peoples. Man, they say, was born and must live in freedom (libre). We are all equal and must constitute nothing less than a single family of brothers. [...] Buonaparte will come all the way to Constantinople to plant the tree of liberty.

Just as China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) brought an end to the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1978, so in November 1799 Napoleon terminated the French Revolution which was bitterly anti-Roman Catholic. In France, some Catholics had stubbornly sustained regional insurrections against the French-Revolutionary regime, throughout the period of the Directory (1795-1799).

For both Deng and Napoleon, ending the revolution meant an astonishing ideological evolution over a relatively short period of time. In this context, Napoleon's views of Jews, Judaism and the Jewish People were significantly different during and after the French Revolution. As a revolutionary, Napoleon naturally recognized the peoplehood of the Jews, just as he did that of the Greeks. But once the French Revolution was over, he lost interest in Jews as a sovereign People, inter alia, because ending the revolution famously meant reconciling with Roman Catholics. Certainly, Napoleon understood that the Roman-Catholic Church theologically despised Jews and has historically always wanted Jerusalem for itself.

Napoleon personally generated around 33,000 letters and myriad other papers. Although a great mass of his product has survived, many items were lost in the normal course of events. Moreover, some pieces were purposely burned for political reasons while he was emperor (1804-1815). At that time, his earlier sympathies for Jewish peoplehood and homeland became an embarrassment best forgotten.

During the reign (1852-1870) of his nephew Napoleon III, some of the uncle's documents were intentionally destroyed, including because they were judged to be strongly offensive to Roman-Catholic feeling. A Catholic (perhaps even ultramontane) perspective was consistently championed by the devout Empress Eugénie who regularly attended cabinet meetings. She would probably have seen any archival confirmation of Napoleon the Great's revolutionary proclamations promising Jews Jerusalem, as seriously damaging the Bonaparte dynasty's brand among Catholics in France, Europe and the Mideast. If so, such a political calculation would have been rational. At that time, many Catholics worldwide still harbored the peculiar reactionary prejudice that Jewish emancipation domestically and Jewish peoplehood internationally were subversive French-Revolutionary principles attacking Christianity.

The very same logic had already been adopted by the Greek Orthodox Church -- not only with respect to Jewish emancipation, peoplehood and homeland -- but also with regard to the popular rights of the Greeks themselves. Thus, as early as 1798, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople was energetically backing the Turks against pro-French, Hellenic revolutionaries like Rigas Feraios (Ρήγας Φεραίος). Let it be remembered that the reactionary Austrians arrested Rigas for serious political crimes and then heartlessly extradited him to Ottoman Belgrade, where the Turks killed him in June 1798.

Under the revolutionary slogan "liberty, equality and fraternity," the historic, inflammatory Rigas proclamation was printed in Vienna in Greek (1797) by the thousands, and then widely read in the Balkans. But, not a single one of this original printing can be found today. Several thousand of these proclamations were destroyed by the Habsburg authorities. And, the Orthodox Church systematically collected and burned the printed Rigas proclamations found in the Ottoman Empire. All that is now left to us of the text of the famous Rigas proclamation stems from a single, handwritten, German translation, preserved in the Austrian State Archives. Can we be surprised if, as explained below, Napoleon's proclamations to the Jews met a similar fate in the grim struggle between revolution and reaction?


For more than two hundred years there has been argument over the authenticity and meaning of one or more wartime messages which the 29-year-old French Revolutionary General, Napoleon Bonaparte is alleged to have addressed to the Jewish People during his 1799 campaign in the Holy Land. This territory was then included within the 18th-century French understanding of Ottoman "Syria" where Napoleon himself judged "Jews were quite numerous."

Napoleon was hungry for glory. From youth invoking the names of the great men of ancient history, he regularly included the storied Achaemenid ruler Cyrus the Great (d. 530 BCE) who famously sent Jews back to their homeland and authorized the building of the Second Temple. "I am Cyrus," said former USA President Harry Truman in 1953 when, five years after the fact, he was trying to take full credit for creating the State of Israel. Exactly like Truman, the Napoleon of 1797-9 felt the weight of both history and posterity.

This probably made it easy for him to grasp that helping the Jews return to their ancestral homeland would be the kind of deed likely to win him lasting fame. Such deference to Jewish antiquity was counterpart to Napoleon's revolutionary views about the companion possibility of freeing the Greeks. In exile on Saint Helena (1815-1821), he reminisced:
What glory to him who will liberate Greece! His name will be engraved beside that of Homer, Plato and Epaminondas. I nourished such a hope [1797] when I was fighting in Italy.
The two different territories that had once been ancient Greece and the biblical Land of Israel (Heb: אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל‬ Eretz Yisrael) were then both part of the Ottoman Empire which Napoleon was certain (1797) would fall during his lifetime. He was a Corsican. From his Mediterranean perspective, Jews and Greeks were similar as storied, age-old Peoples now living partly under Ottoman rule and partly in broader diaspora. From his revolutionary perspective, the "spirit of liberty" ensured that, in either case, national awakening was already on the horizon.

Jewish peoplehood as revolutionary rhetoric

The pertinent events occurred several years after revolutionaries had executed Louis XVI, King of France. The contemporary context was the eve of the War of the Second Coalition (1798-1802) pitting several European monarchies and the Ottoman Empire against the Revolutionary French Republic (la grande nation) and its satellite republics. Then, revolutionary and republican rhetoric still trumpeted the new political principle of the self-determination of Peoples. From 1798-9, there is detailed evidence that some prominent revolutionaries, exactly because they were doctrinally so hostile to the Roman-Catholic Church, were all the readier to see the Jews as an age-old and famous People "bent under the yoke of princes."

Formerly a Roman-Catholic priest, Joachim Le Breton
was one of the editors of the highly influential journal
La Décade philosophique.

Under the government of the Revolutionary Directory, the influential Paris weekly La Décade philosophique was, ideologically, France's premier periodical. It was religiously read by the Republic's leadership, including Napoleon who for a time carefully cultivated good relations with its editors and writers.

Likely party to the secret that Napoleon's army would soon set sail for Alexandria was the former Roman-Catholic priest Joachim Le Breton. He was a senior official of the Ministry of the Interior, a Member of the Institut National, and one of the editors of La Décade. He conveniently wrote "Considerations on Egypt and Syria and the Power of the English in India." This is a detailed, two-part article, published on April 9th and 19th, 1798. The long essay is nothing less than a strategic and moral justification (la mission civilisatrice) for the intended French invasion and colonization of Egypt and Greater Syria. Those two regions are specifically identified as new venues for large-scale European settlement, instead of the Americas. (Napoleon too then thought those two Mideast places ought to be extensively colonized by Europeans.)

In this connection, Le Breton highlighted the Jewish People's longevity; and its enduring love for its aboriginal homeland, the city of Jerusalem and the site of the Temple. Indicting Christian bigotry, he portrayed the Jews as a long-persecuted People of perhaps three million. Referring to "the destiny of this people," Le Breton judged Jews capable of forming "the body of a nation" in "Palestine." To that place, "they would rush from the four corners of the globe if given the signal." They would be won over to "our Revolution" and forever grateful to France (la grande nation).

Hopes high till Napoleon's fleet annihilated in Aboukir Bay

When Le Breton wrote, Napoleon had already implemented key revolutionary doctrine by emancipating Italian Jews. He famously abolished the ghettos during his spectacular conquest of the peninsula and the Ionian Islands (1796-7). Suddenly, Italian Jews got equal rights of citizenship and immediately began participating in the new revolutionary order as soldiers, officials, envoys, emissaries, agents and spies. In the late 1790s, the revolutionary press was mostly philo-semitic. The tendency was to portray Jews positively, including as soldiers fighting for the cause of the Revolutionary French Republic. For better or worse, Jews were then perceived to be partisans of the Revolution which was, at the same time, characteristically anti-Catholic.

Napoleon astonished the Mediterranean world by taking the mighty island fortress of Malta from the bitterly anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish, Roman-Catholic Order of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem (June 1798). There, Napoleon dramatically freed Muslims and Jews held as slaves. He also established Jewish civic rights, including the right of local Jews to freely practice Judaism in their own synagogue.

Among Mediterranean Jews and Greeks, Napoleon's string of stunning victories increasingly triggered a soaring expectation that only climbed still further with his conquest of Ottoman Egypt from the local Mamluks (July 1798). National dreams of the early arrival of "liberty and equality" persisted from 1797 until the annihilation of Napoleon's fleet at Aboukir Bay by British Admiral Horatio Nelson (August 1-3, 1798).

News of the French naval disaster in Egypt ended an exceptional period of anticipation when Napoleon was popularly seen as a second Alexander, destined to soon conquer Constantinople and liberate Turkey's subject Peoples. During that interval of excitement, such revolutionary hopes were purposely fed by the Directory's mouthpiece, Le Moniteur which persistently published reports of real or imagined rebellions, and several times predicted the imminent fall of the Ottoman Empire.

George Arnald (1827), end of the great French flagship L'Orient
at the Battle of Aboukir Bay, August 1-3, 1798.
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Napoleon targeted all the Ottoman Peoples

Regarding both secret agents and the conduct of France's foreign relations, legislator and diplomat François Barbé-Marbois in Paris told the upper chamber, le Conseil des Anciens (June 26, 1797):
The most important operations are consummated, not in his [Minister of External Relations] offices, but rather under the tent of the generals of the Republic. That is to say, it is the bayonet that cuts the quills of our policies, and it is the War Department that picks up the expense of our negotiations.
From mid 1797, General Bonaparte became the Ottoman Empire's next-door neighbor in the Adriatic region -- pertinently including Ancona (Italy); the Ionian Islands; and the Balkan coast at Butrinto, Parga, Preveza and Vonizza. There, la division française du Levant reported to Napoleon as General in Chief of the Army of Italy.

Soon, the Ottoman Near East was swarming with French agents and awash in revolutionary propaganda, as 1797-1798 reports to Constantinople from Turkish regional officials repeatedly indicated. In this regard, Le Moniteur confirmed the Sultan's worst fears (February 13, 1798): "Sudden revolution [in the Ottoman Empire] will be the fruit of Greek-language writings which arrive in profusion and which are distributed among the People to prepare them for a great change."

In 1797-8, Livorno, Rome, Pisa and Venice had Hebrew-language presses and Jewish typesetters ready to meet the needs of the new revolutionary order. Moreover, Napoleon was then personally positioning presses equipped with characters for printing propaganda in French, Italian, Greek, Ottoman-Turkish and Arabic.

For example, a printing press was dispatched to the Ionian island of Corfu. There, the French printed a proclamation in Greek and Italian which announced that "with the establishment of a press, those kings still sitting on their shaky thrones tremble, their iron yoke has been lifted from off the necks of the people by revolution." That same press was soon also used to print, significantly in Italian, the lectures (discorsi) delivered in the synagogue on Corfu. There, local Jews were major beneficiaries of the new revolutionary regime. Alongside the French, Corfiote Jews valiantly fought as soldiers trying to defend their island against the combined attacks of reactionary Russians and Ottomans (1798-1799).

Despite more than two hundred years of friendship between France and the Ottoman Empire, Napoleon had scant respect for the Sultan's sovereignty. Starting in 1797, he repeatedly aimed revolutionary propaganda at the subject Peoples of the entire Ottoman Empire. And to be sure, nothing less than that had been specifically commanded by the Directory via France's Minister of External Relations, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, who until 1791 had been Roman-Catholic Bishop of Autun (August 23, 1797):
Nothing is more important than that we put ourselves on a good footing with Albania, Greece, Macedonia and other provinces of the Turkish empire in Europe and even with all those that are bathed by the waters of the Mediterranean, notably Egypt which one day could become of great utility to us. The Directory, in approving the ties which you have established with Ibrahim Pasha and the Albanian nation, desires that you make the French people known to the remainder of the Turkish provinces, in a way that sooner or later could turn out to their benefit and to ours, and to the disadvantage of our common enemies.
Meeting his old friend in Passariano (Udine, Italy), General Louis Desaix described in his diary what he had then learned from Napoleon about the French plan to bring down the Ottoman Empire (September 1797):
The general has a great and skillful policy: it is to give to all of these folks there a grand idea of the French nation. He has received the Directory's command to spread via printing, proclamations throughout all of Africa and Greece. He wins the hearts of all these nations; he reminds them of their ancient glory, their ancient name; he instructs them about the astonishing and prodigious feats of the French. And, they are all surprised to find out what they learn; they are very thirsty for news; they come in great numbers to Ancona to equip themselves with merchandise and one of their greatest pleasures is to take these proclamations to read and to carry them back to their country.  
Those familiar with 18th-century Adriatic trade would immediately know that Jews were then a rather important part of the commerce between Ancona and the Ottoman east. Thus, there is no sense in which Desaix's revealing passage can reasonably be read so as to exclude the many Jewish merchants who regularly went to do business in Ancona, where there was also a large Jewish community already enthusiastic for the revolution and Napoleon.

A proclamation to the Jews before 1799

News of an undated revolutionary proclamation to the Jews reached the Ottoman Turks certainly before Sultan Selim III declared war against France (September 10, 1798); and probably during the Muslim year 1212, which began on June 26, 1797 and ended at sundown on June 14, 1798. That is what we learn from the Ottoman Empire's chosen historiographer, Ahmet Cevdet Pasha who intellectually was a towering figure. To the point, the high quality of Cevdet's historical writing has been praised by Bernard Lewis (1953).

In the mid-19th century, Cevdet began producing in the Ottoman-Turkish language, for the period 1774-1826, an authoritative twelve volumes, based mainly on documents in the imperial archives in Constantinople. As the Ottoman Empire's officially-appointed chronicler (Ottoman: vakanüvis وقائع نوىس), Cevdet had to be very careful about sequence and chronology. He was neither ambiguous nor confused in clearly pointing to the several months before the September 1798 Ottoman declaration of war against France.

Written in the Ottoman-Turkish language,
Ahmet Cevdet Pasha, Tarih-i Cevdet, Vol. 6, p. 282,
New Edition, 2nd Printing (H. 1309).

Professionally scrupulous about identifying his various sources, Cevdet specifically writes that it was then heard, "from the mouth of a Jew" (بر يهودى آغزندن), that as "understood from a printed and published official declaration" (بر بياننامه قالمه آلنه رق طبع و نشر ايله), Jews from all over had been invited to agree on "establishing a Jewish government in Jerusalem" (قدس شريفده بر يهود حكومتى تشكيل).

Jews as secret agents

Who was this Jew who told the Ottomans about the official declaration for a Jewish government in Jerusalem? It is impossible to say. However, we should bear in mind that Napoleon certainly had Jewish spies, agents or emissaries in the Balkans. For example, Le Moniteur published a Constantinople report (May 13, 1799):
On the 16th of this month [April 5, 1799] in the Bostanji-Bashi prison, the Porte had strangled to death a Jewish physician, lately come from Rushcuk [Ruse on the Danube] with the Kapudan Pasha [November 1798]. Definite proof had been acquired that he was a secret emissary of the French.
More Jewish secret emissaries? The Turks certainly thought so. After the first week of September 1798, they would not let young Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (Ukraine) disembark in Jaffa, because they thought he was a French spy. And, it seems that they perhaps had some reason to be concerned about Jews, many of whom were then dazzled by Napoleon.

Until the Dey of Algiers followed the lead of his Ottoman suzerain in declaring war against France, Marseilles members of the prominent Algerian Jewish merchant families Bacri and Abucaya were used by the Directory for transmitting secret dispatches to Napoleon in Egypt. The Directory appointed two Jewish secret emissaries for the same purpose in 1799. Twenty-one years of age, the Jewish soldier Samson Cerfberr de Medelsheim was sent out from Paris with dispatches in April, but captured by the British Navy off Sardinia. Forty-eight years of age, the Polish Jew Zalkind Hourvitz was a prize-winning essayist, veteran revolutionary, and ex-employee of the Bibliothèque nationale. He was just about to begin his journey from Paris to Egypt, when news arrived of Napoleon's return to France (October 1799).

Another example of a Jewish secret agent was the radical English publicist Lewis Goldsmith. Throughout the 1790s, he openly championed the cause of the French Revolution. No later than 1800, he was secretly on Talleyrand's payroll to produce London propaganda against the policies of Prime Minister William Pitt, the Younger. In January 1801, Goldsmith published The Crimes of Cabinets, subtitled "a review of their plans and aggressions for the annihilation of the liberties of France and the dismemberment of her territories." He was later a Paris editor and propagandist, and also a spy for Napoleon in Europe. Eventually, Goldsmith turned against Napoleon. In fact, Goldsmith became so famous as a vitriolic critic of the French Emperor that, after the Bourbon restoration, he earned a pension from King Louis XVIII of France.

Napoleon's propaganda resented by Turkey 

From 1797 the Turks were fully alive to the modern political meaning of all those many French-Revolutionary references to the glories of ancient Greece. On either side, contemporary diplomatic correspondence and other sources show that the Turks then knew that Napoleon and his local commanders were publishing inflammatory proclamations and dispatching letters and subversive emissaries to spark revolt against the Sultan on the Aegean islands, and in Morea and Rumelia. That last Balkan province notably included the heavily Jewish city of Salonika. But, there were other important Jewish communities in all three of the cited regions, and also in Constantinople and in so many other places of the Ottoman Empire.

The Foreign Minister (Ottoman: reis-ül-küttab رئيس الكتاب‎) and Deputy Foreign Minister (the Phanariote Grand Dragoman of the Porte) repeatedly protested to the French Embassy in Constantinople, as in late 1797 and again in June and July 1798. These Ottoman grievances were embodied in a long memorandum shared with the diplomatic corps simultaneous to Turkey's September 1798 declaration of war against France.

The Ottomans were astute in articulating the French strategic conception of la grande nation: "Everywhere weak republics would be created which France would keep under its tutelage, so that everything everywhere would go according to its arbitrary will." The foregoing and other generous excerpts from the Ottoman memorandum appeared in the Wiener Zeitung (October 10, 1798):
One knows about Bonaparte's letter [July 30, 1797] to the Maniotes [Morea] and of other distributed writings of his deceitful genius. When the Sublime Porte in the strongest terms complained about this, the French government downplayed the matter and undertook to stop it immediately, saying that it wished nothing else than to strengthen the old friendship. But, the [French] generals did not in the least change their behavior. To the contrary, they were even more enterprising and cunning than before.
The Turks were dead right. Sometimes, Napoleon himself recruited his own spies and emissaries, even paying them personally or signing their bank drafts.

Maniotes but not Jews?

Napoleon's modus operandi and rationale relating to the oppressed Peoples of the Ottoman Empire is exemplified by his efforts aimed at the Maniotes who numbered no more than 40,000. Napoleon wrote to the Chief of the Maniotes (July 30, 1797): "The French value the small, but brave Maniote People who alone of ancient Greece has known how to preserve its liberty." Moreover, from Milan, he informed the Directory (August 1, 1797):
The Chief of the Maniotes, a people who trace genuine descent from the Spartiatae, and who occupy the peninsula on which Cape Matapan is situated, has sent one of his principal men to express to me his wish to see French vessels in his port, and to be of some service to the Great Nation.
Already known to Napoleon were Dimo Stephanopoli and his nephew Nicolo, both born and raised in Corsica. Napoleon first checked to make sure that the two were fluent in their ancestral Maniote dialect and then sent them in September 1797 to sow "seeds of true liberty" in Mani. The diplomatic letter that the Stephanopoli carried to Mani explicitly recognized the peoplehood of the Maniote "nation" which was celebrated as descending from ancient Sparta. According to Napoleon, the Revolutionary French Republic and the Maniotes were "two nations equally friends of liberty."

Napoleon specifically saluted Maniote peoplehood and tried to subvert the few Maniotes. Therefore, why would anyone doubt Cevdet Pasha's official account of a 1797-8 French-Revolutionary appeal to the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire? True, the Maniotes were famous as fierce warriors. But, in the Ottoman Empire, Jews were more numerous than Maniotes, not to mention the millions of Jews across Europe. Moreover, revolutionary Jews had already shown that they too could fight; and generally Jews could also offer Napoleon other kinds of important advantages.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1863), Bonaparte in the Mideast, 1798-1799.
The Revolutionary French Republic and Bonaparte then
strongly championed the new political principles of
popular sovereignty and the self-determination of Peoples.

Napoleon's many propaganda proclamations

From 1796, Napoleon placed exceptional emphasis on public relations, including revolutionary propaganda custom-made for various niche audiences, near and far. During his early campaigns, he was always concerned about the availability of printing presses and foreign-language typeface. For example, he repeatedly signaled urgent need for Greek and Arabic characters, the latter also useful for printing in Ottoman-Turkish.

Less than a week after the Revolutionary French Army disembarked in Ottoman Egypt, Napoleon ordered (July 7, 1798) French, Arabic and Greek printing to begin within twenty-four hours. He wanted four thousand Arabic-language proclamations pronto. He frequently wrote to ensure that his proclamations were distributed to the inhabitants of Egypt.

Napoleon was also astute and proactive in finding imaginative ways to spread his proclamations in Greater Syria, to which regular travel was still possible during July and August 1798. For example, the French invasion fleet had carried from Malta some of the prisoners freed from slavery imposed by the Knights of Saint John. Napoleon made sure that the former prisoners heading home to "Syria" were equipped with copies of his proclamations, which were probably also made available to ordinary travelers heading in that direction. There is certainly no reason to presume that Jews were lacking among the Malta prisoners, other travelers, and the many spies that Napoleon was trying to send from Egypt to "Syria." Such spies, emissaries and agents carried various proclamations and secret letters.

London, The True Briton, No 1922
Tuesday, February 19, 1799.

For example, The True Briton of London published (February 19, 1799) an English translation of an undated, Arabic proclamation that Napoleon had preemptively addressed to "the inhabitants of Syria." We can be certain that this proclamation originated before 1799, due to the average speed of late 18th-century communications from the Mideast to Constantinople, and then onward to Vienna and London. Thus, Napoleon had to have issued that proclamation proleptically, i.e. at a minimum, fifty days before he left Cairo (February 10, 1799) to cross the Sinai Desert. Consistent with revolutionary doctrine, this document denies the divinity of Christ, and then invites the populace to rally to Napoleon's banner (1798):
Cairo the Great, Alexandria the Powerful, Cyprus, Jerusalem, Ptolemais [Acre], and Damascus, the plains and the ancient monuments which surround those Cities, have witnessed [prolepsis!] the approach of our Armies, whose power is infinite, and incomprehensible even to the wise. Protection to every City which shall open its gates to us! But woe to those Cities and their inhabitants, which shall reject our beneficence! It is to declare this truth to all Syria that we have issued this Proclamation which is irrevocable. If you repair to our standard, you will never be forsaken -- if not, the sword of vengeance shall reach your heads.
The Ottomans derided such proclamations as lying "sweet talk." Nonetheless, after Napoleon's army took Gaza (February 25, 1799), there were more proclamations for Muslims and also a series of individual messages for Christians in the Lebanon, Nazareth and Jerusalem.

On March 7, 1799, Napoleon conquered Jaffa. First the city was sacked. Then, after the initial slaughter, there were some premeditated mass killings of civilians and prisoners of war. Specifically, the extermination of the Ottoman prisoners of war continued until March 10th. Napoleon exploited this horror to send four separate proclamations to threaten the Muslims of Acre; Jerusalem; Nablus; and Gaza, Ramle and Jaffa. In each case, he asked them to choose between submission and the terrors of war. To the latter three cities of the coastal strip, he wrote (March 9, 1799):
It is good for you to know that all human efforts are useless against me, because everything that I undertake must succeed. Those who declare themselves to be my friends prosper. Those who declare themselves to be my enemies perish. The example which has just happened at Gaza and Jaffa ought to make you know that, if I can be terrible to my enemies, I am good to my friends and above all mild and merciful to the poor people.
Later, he also wrote a private letter to court Bashir Shihab II, the Emir of the Druze (March 20, 1799): "My intention is to make the Druze nation independent, to lighten the tribute which it pays, and to deliver to it the port of Beirut and other towns necessary for the outflow of its commerce."

Why not the Jews?

So, Napoleon troubled to write a letter to the Emir of the Druze and even a proclamation to the Sheikh of Nablus, but nothing either for the Jews of Ottoman Syria or for the great Jewish People of world history? Before and during his "Syrian" campaign, Napoleon certainly sought to derive advantage from every other significant component of the local population. Thus, it would have been exceedingly peculiar for him to have omitted communications or approaches to Jews. However, Jews in "Syria" were wisely far too afraid of the prospect of brutal Ottoman retaliation to have much to do with the French invaders.

Nonetheless, some time in the week following the conquest of Jaffa, Napoleon had a talk with some Jews, probably at his requisitioned residence in the roomy seaside home of the consular agent Antonio Damiani, who was a Christian. The latter represented Britain and various other parties, including the Constantinople rabbinate in helping disembarking Jewish pilgrims find lodging in Jaffa. There, the Jews told Napoleon that he was seen as the savior of the Jewish People. In reply, Napoleon questioned them about the present situation of the Jews in the country, their expectations for the future, and some pertinent points of Jewish history.

Jewish history weighed heavily

Despite revolutionary secularism, Napoleon took ancient Jewish history very seriously. Before sailing for Egypt (May 19, 1798), Napoleon had prepared a list of the books he wanted on board. There, he classified the Catholic "Old Testament" under the heading of "politics," along with some titles like the Koran and Montesquieu's De l'esprit des lois. An hour before Napoleon left Cairo for the "Syrian" campaign, he wrote to the Directory (February 10, 1799): "When you read this letter, it is possible that I might be on the ruins of the city of Solomon."

Regarding the "Syrian" campaign, Napoleon reminisced (January 1813): "I constantly read Genesis when visiting the places it describes and was amazed beyond measure that they were still exactly as Moses had described them." During his exile on Saint Helena, Napoleon personally completed (1819) a careful account of the campaign. He again recalled that he and his entourage were struck by the accuracy of the geographical descriptions in the Catholic Old Testament, which the French mathematician Gaspard Monge read aloud to them in the evenings, in the tent of the General in Chief.

Napoleon's soldiers came very close to Jerusalem. But he was careful not to take the Holy City, because he wanted to move fast to first capture the fortified ports at Jaffa and Acre. Moreover, for political reasons, he wished to parry any Muslim perception that he might be yet another Roman-Catholic Crusader. But despite their revolutionary scorn for Christianity, his troops were still "burning to see" sacred sites like the "plateau of the Temple of Solomon," as Napoleon specifically recollected.

Secret agents & "letter to the Jewish nation"

In 1819, Napoleon also remembered that the French Revolutionary Army had in early 1799 sent Jewish agents to Damascus and Aleppo. The implication was that their mission was to secretly gather intelligence and discreetly stimulate local Jewish support. If so, did they confidentially invoke revolutionary doctrines of "liberty, equality and fraternity"? Did their discreet propaganda portray Napoleon as ready to sponsor restoration of the Jerusalem Temple?

Perhaps linked to one or more of these Jewish agents is a pitch-perfect document that (without payment or other financial reward or incentive) first surfaced in 1940 London. This discovery was a modern trace of Napoleonic ephemera. Originating from Nazi Vienna (August 1939), it was an elderly refugee's last-minute German typescript of his Prague, Orthodox-Jewish family's long-treasured, handwritten, German-language document. Without specifying the source language or languages, the latter speaks for itself in saying that it is a 1799 translation into German from an original Napoleon text, dated April 20, 1799.

The title is Letter to the Jewish Nation from the French Commander-in-Chief Buonaparte. No inference can be drawn from the Italianate spelling of Napoleon's family name, because at issue here is a self-declared German translation, perhaps from one or more of Hebrew and French, and maybe even Italian. In any event, the translator himself might have opted for the family-name variant most familiar in contemporary German usage. In 1799 both variants were commonly used in the European press, sometimes even in Le Moniteur.

In that specific year, April 20th was notably the first day of Passover, which is pertinently a Jewish holiday celebrating the theme of the liberation of the Jewish People. The German typescript discovered in 1940 also contained a separate (perhaps entirely unrelated) covering letter said to be from a certain "Aaron, son of Levi, Rabbi of Jerusalem." The covering letter was dated, according to the Hebrew calendar, Nisan 5559. In 1799, this Hebrew month began on April 6th and ended on May 6th.

Both missives claim to be written from Jerusalem. The alleged Napoleonic letter falsely (or perhaps proleptically) identifies Jerusalem as the site of the headquarters of the "General in Chief of the Armies of the French Republic in Africa and Asia." As we have already seen, similar prolepsis significantly featured in the aforementioned proclamation to the inhabitants of Syria.

Who was this Rabbi Aaron whose covering letter describes himself as "in the Holy City first rabbi and priest"? Nobody knows. In 1799, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem was Haim ben Asher Yom Tov Algazy. Like the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Rabbi Algazy then advertised his opposition to the French revolutionaries and publicly demonstrated loyalty to the Sultan. Algazy clung all the tighter to the Ottomans, because -- just as so many times in the past -- the various other elements of the local population sought to incriminate Jews, in this instance by charging complicity with Napoleon. To the point, a Jew wrote a Hebrew letter from Jerusalem (summer 1799):
Since Egypt and the neighboring provinces have been occupied [July-August 1798], a great misfortune has befallen us through the wickedness of the non-Jewish population. They have slandered us by saying that, among the [French] army, twelve thousand military volunteers are serving who are children of Israel. This has done us harm beyond measure. We are being attacked daily, and they threaten to kill us and to destroy all Jews, the inhabitants of Zion, God forbid!
But diametrically opposed to Algazy's loyalism were the revolutionary politics of the purported Rabbi Aaron, whoever he was. Since 1944, there have been repeated conjectures that the mysterious Rabbi Aaron might perhaps have been Rabbi Moshe Aharon Halevi, then president of one of Jerusalem's four rabbincal courts. As such, Moshe Aharon Halevi was entitled to be called "first of the rabbis of the city." In 1799, he temporarily left Jerusalem for Salonika to tend to the printing of a book of his writings. But, by summer 1799, he appears to have returned to Jerusalem, because he then cosigned, with some local rabbis, a letter to Italian Jews that will be discussed below. This means that Moshe Aharon Halevi felt secure enough to remain in the Ottoman Empire after Napoleon's withdrawal. That alone suggests that he was probably not the radical Rabbi Aaron of the covering letter.

The alleged Napoleonic letter dovetails with the propaganda formula described by General Desaix (September 1797): "He reminds them of their ancient glory, their ancient name; he instructs them about the astonishing and prodigious feats of the French." In the context of the revolutionary doctrine of self-determination, the alleged Napoleonic letter places great emphasis on Jewish peoplehood. "Israelites" are described as "lawful heirs" to their "ancestral land" and encouraged to "hasten" home to reclaim their "patrimony." Citing the Catholic Old Testament, the alleged Napoleonic letter salutes the Jews as descendants of the Maccabees who are celebrated as heroes comparable to those of Sparta and Rome. Extravagant rhetoric lauds the Revolutionary French Republic.

Moreover, the companion rabbinic letter refers to rebuilding both the city walls and a Temple in Jerusalem; and calls to arms all able-bodied Jews, no matter where they live. Both letters are politically consistent in referring to the key concept of the Revolutionary French Republic as la grande nation, in the German text die große Nation.

If we take both (or only one) of these letters to be genuine, they (or it) could perhaps have been written after the Battle of Mount Tabor (April 16, 1799), where Napoleon decisively defeated a regional Ottoman army led by the Pasha of Damascus. Judged from the sometimes trivial subject matter of his contemporary correspondence, Napoleon then had lots of time on his hands. Perhaps he used some hours in further efforts to spark rebellion among the disparate elements of the population. At that time, he wanted to get all "Syria" to revolt against the Ottomans, as confirmed by his then private secretary Louis de Bourrienne. The latter recorded verbatim Napoleon's conception of what was to have followed the expected (but ultimately unrealized) French conquest of Ottoman Acre. There, Napoleon counted on capturing a great pile of cash and a large store of arms and ammunition (May 8, 1799):
I march on Damascus and Aleppo. While advancing into the country, I grow my army with all the discontented; I announce to the people the abolition of servitude and of the tyrannical governments of the pashas.

Proclamation or letter?

As first published in 1940, these two missives nowhere contain the word "proclamation," but rather self-describe as "letter" or Zuschrift in the German-language manuscript. By contrast to "proclamation" which intrinsically has a public character, "letter" preserves the possibility of confidentiality. Even so, after the French retreat, local Muslims launched pogroms, including the execution of two Jewish students. Moreover, the Jews of Jerusalem and Tiberias were falsely accused of collaboration with the enemy, as an Ottoman pretext for extorting huge bribes.

Moshe Aharon Halevi and other Jerusalem Rabbis prepared a Hebrew letter for dispatch to Jewish communities in Italy. Therein, they described the negative effects of Napoleon's campaign on Eretz Yisrael (אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל‬) Jews (summer 1799):
Since the conquest of Egypt, we are having problems with the local populations, which accuse us of having furnished twelve thousand soldiers to Bonaparte. This charge has caused us much trouble, starting from the summer of 1798 to this present summer. Our Jews materially and morally suffered losses from the fighting at Jaffa and Acre. Now, in addition, they have had to sell all their jewels and luxury items in order to raise money to appease the anger of their neighbors.
All this underlines that Mideast Jews were a vulnerable aboriginal minority. Evidently, considerable discretion was needed for conducting relations with them. After his Islamic experience in Egypt (1798), Napoleon would probably have known that a public proclamation favoring Jews would likely enrage both Muslims and Mideast Christians, and endanger Jews throughout the Ottoman Empire.

"Proclamation" tale in Hamburg, Berlin, London and Paris

The world seems to have known little or nothing about the "Letter to the Jewish Nation" dated April 20, 1799. But way too soon to have then originated from distant Ottoman "Syria" came remarkable European tidings about an apparently earlier, undated (and perhaps entirely unrelated) Napoleonic "proclamation to the Jews." The latter news perhaps reflects the proclamation (Ottoman: beyanname بياننامه) to the Jews that, according to Cevdet Pasha, the Turks had heard about in the period before the Sultan's declaration of war against France (September 10, 1798).

In this connection, two or three writers of the last thirty years have referred to an alleged April 1799 report, most appropriately from Constantinople. This news from Turkey was said to have been initially published, maybe in early May 1799, perhaps in the French-language Gazette de Hambourg, a city that was neutral during the War of the Second Coalition. Such vague references are hard to verify directly, because the spring 1799 numbers of the Gazette de Hambourg are extremely rare or no longer exist. I have been unable to find them.

But, let us turn our attention to the press of Berlin, the capital of another neutral power, Prussia. News of an alleged April 22nd Constantinople report featured in the Vossische Zeitung, Number 58 (May 14, 1799):
Konstantinopel, den 22. April. Buonaparte hat, wie es heißt, eine Proklamation an die Juden in mehreren Afrikanischen und Asiatischen Gegenden erlassen, um das Reich von Jerusalem wieder herzustellen. Auch soll er eine beträchtliche Anzahl Juden bewaffnet, in Bataillons formirt haben, und jetzt Aleppo bedrohen. Die Einwohner in der Gegend von Damascus sollen gegen die Pforte in Insurrektion zu seyn. -- Mit der Großvezier sollen auch viele Janitscharen nach Syrien abgehen.  Der Großherr hatte erst selbst nach Syrien abgehen wollen, wogegen aber die nachdrücklichstens Vorstellungen gemacht wurden. Unter den Französ. Truppen in Aegypten sollen fortdauernd ansteckende Krankheiten herrschen. Man erwartet hier ehestens aus der Krimm eine zweite nach dem Mittelländischen Meere bestimmte Russische Flotte.  --  Der Bruder des hiesigen Französischen Schiffbaumeisters, Le Brun, der sich sehr demokratisch zeigte, ist aus dem Türkischen Dienste entlassen worden. Für den Schiffbaumeister selbst besorgt man noch ein schlimmeres Schicksal. 
[Constantinople, April 22nd. In several African and Asian places, Buonaparte has reportedly issued a proclamation to the Jews to rebuild the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He is also said to have armed a considerable number of Jews, formed them into battalions, and to be now threatening Aleppo. The inhabitants in the area of Damascus are said to be in rebellion against the Sublime Porte. -- Many janissaries are expected to go to Syria with the Grand Vizier. The Sultan at first wanted to go to Syria himself, but the most emphatic representations were made against this idea. Persistently contagious diseases are said to prevail among the French troops in Egypt. Expected here any time now, from the Crimea, is a second Russian fleet bound for the Mediterranean Sea. -- The brother of the local French shipwright, Le Brun, who showed himself to be very democratic, has been dismissed from the Turkish service. For the shipwright himself, an even worse fate is feared.]

Berlin, Vossische Zeitung, Number 58
Tuesday, May 14, 1799.

The hypothesis that the Vossische Zeitung's news of this Napoleonic proclamation might have originated before 1799 is supported by careful analysis of the background of each one of the seven other information items included in this particular Constantinople report. External evidence suggests that, of the seven companion topics, no fewer than five are stale news from the second half of 1798:
  • The tale that Napoleon had "armed a considerable number of Jews" was already, in the summer of 1798, a persistent rumor in Ottoman Syria, as specifically affirmed by the aforementioned two Hebrew letters from Jerusalem.
  • Dovetailing with 1798 events was news that inhabitants of Damascus region were in revolt against the Sublime Porte.
  • Epidemics among French soldiers in Alexandria, Damietta and Mansoura began in December 1798.
  • As early as October 24, 1798, the Wiener Zeitung announced that a second Russian fleet would be coming from the Crimea to the Mediterranean.
  • Long gone were fears for the fate of the Le Brun brothers in Constantinople, because those two French shipwrights were, by January 1, 1799, safe in Saint Petersburg, where they soon agreed to serve the Imperial Russian Navy.
Thus, there is no reason to reject the possibility that the Vossische Zeitung story about the Napoleonic proclamation to the Jews might perhaps also have originated before 1799, and maybe even in the period before the Sultan's declaration of war against France (September 10, 1798), exactly as presented in the official Ottoman history by Ahmet Cevdet Pasha.

Too soon to have been copied from the Vossische Zeitung, but perhaps derived from a possibly earlier publication in the Gazette de Hambourg, was the same story in The True Briton of London. This alleged an April 12th Constantinople report, news of which had just arrived, along with many other items, in the latest mails from Hamburg (May 17, 1799): "Buonaparte, it is said, has published a Proclamation to the Jews dispersed in Africa and Asia, inviting them to restore the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He has armed a great number of Jews, and formed them into Battalions; and now threatens Aleppo." Two days later, similar news "from the Hamburgh Mails" appeared in the Sunday newspaper, Bell's Weekly Messenger of London (May 19, 1799).

London, The True Briton, No 1997 
Friday, May 17, 1799.

Likely too soon to have been copied from London, but perhaps derived from Hamburg or Berlin, was the same story in Le Moniteur (Paris). But cited as source there was an alleged April 17th report from Constantinople (May 22, 1799):
Constantinople, le 28 germinal. Bonaparte a fait publier une proclamation dans laquelle il invite tous les juifs de l'Asie et de l'Afrique à venir se ranger sous ses drapeaux pour rétablir l'ancienne Jérusalem. Il en a déjà armé un grand nombre, et leurs bataillons menacent Alep.
[Constantinople, April 17th. Bonaparte arranged for the publication of a proclamation in which he invites all the Jews of Asia and Africa to come line up under his banners in order to reestablish ancient Jerusalem. He has already armed a great number of them, and their battalions are threatening Aleppo.]

Paris, Le Moniteur, No 243
Tridi, 3 prairial an VII
(Wednesday, May 22, 1799).

The four pertinent paragraphs in Le Moniteur contain next to nothing that could not have been derived (more or less accurately) from the German text in the Vossische Zeitung, which had covered more ground. For example, the extraordinary claim that armed Jewish battalions were then threatening Aleppo was evidently a mistranslation from the German text. The Vossische Zeitung clearly states that it was Bonaparte who was then threatening Aleppo, not the armed Jewish battalions. This important point is decisively confirmed by the versions of the same story in the True Briton and Bell's Weekly Messenger.

Such Paris plagiarism is hardly surprising because the French government lacked much own-source information as to what was really transpiring in the Mideast, just as Napoleon was then getting very little news from Europe. Nonetheless, the article in Le Moniteur was politically significant, because that newspaper was known to regularly publish news, as provided by the Directory. Clearly, the editors would have waited for an official green light for whatever they printed about Napoleon, who was of key concern to the Directors.

Age-old messianism stimulated  

This fascinating "proclamation" story reappeared in the Paris press on May 29th and again on June 27, 1799. For example, La Décade philosophique saluted "invincible Bonaparte" as "master of Syria" and faithfully repeated from Le Moniteur a fanciful figure that multiplied by eight the troop numbers under Napoleon (May 29, 1799):
At the head of an army of one hundred thousand men, [Bonaparte] has proclaimed the delivery of Jerusalem and Judea, and calls back to their ancient homeland the Hebrews dispersed on the planet. Who knows? Perhaps they are going to see in him the Messiah, and soon twenty prophecies will have predicted the happening, the epoch, even unto the circumstance of his coming. It is at the least very probable that the Jewish People will reconstitute itself as the body of a nation, that the Temple of Solomon will be rebuilt.
From Hamburg, Berlin, London and Paris, this blockbuster news spread across Europe and beyond. A contemporary Berlin pamphlet portrayed a debate between a Christian and a Jew. The latter is presented as saying (1799): "All the newspapers speak as one about Bonaparte's conquest of this holy place and add, almost seriously, that he conquered it for the Jews."

Thus, the proclamation was then also well known to German philosopher, theologian, poet and playwright Johann Gottfried von Herder whose command of Hebrew language and literature was solid. His essay Bekehrung der Juden [conversion of the Jews] first reflects on the pertinent 1799 written debate among David Friedländer, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Abraham Teller. Thereafter, Herder reviewed some secular, practical arguments for either toleration or the return of the Jewish People to its aboriginal homeland. With regard to the latter, he sardonically wrote (1802): "Good luck to them if a Messiah-Bonaparte may victoriously lead them there, good luck to them in Palestine!"

The "restoration of the Jews" was also a recurring topic in the 1799 Gentlemen's Magazine of London. And, according to the July 17th Wiener Zeitung, the British House of Lords (June 20, 1799) heard "Lord Radner" (more likely Lord Radnor) condemn secret clubs, free masons and Jacobin societies for propagating the subversive idea of inviting the Jews to gather themselves together to restore "their chimerical Jerusalem."

By contrast, Trinity College Fellow Henry Kett published the widely-read, History, the Interpreter of Prophecy (Oxford,1799). In those three volumes, Kett said the "collected light of Prophecy" foretells "the restoration of the ancient chosen people of God to the land which He gave to their fathers." Nor did Kett believe that such prophecy required Jews first to convert to Christianity:
Granting therefore that the Power of France should execute this project, instead of invalidating, it will confirm the truth of Prophecy, and afford another signal example of the over-ruling providence of God. The wicked and blaspheming Assyrian was the rod of his anger and executed [8th century BCE] his judgments upon his people. The tremendous Anti-Christian Northern Power [the Revolutionary French Republic] which has been raised up to be the scourge of nations, shall "fulfill his will, though in his heart he means not so." The restoration of the Jews may be a part of its commission; and there are some reasons which make this not a very improbable supposition...
Kett judged that "the cruelties that have been exercised upon the Jews for many ages have been a scandal to the Christian name." He warned the nations "to make no vain attempt to hinder the return of the Jews by whatever means it appears designed to be effected, lest they be found to fight against God."

Pompeo Batoni (1775), portrait of Pope Pius VI.
French-Revolutionary hatred for the Roman-Catholic Church
led to creation of the Revolutionary Roman Republic (Feb. 15, 1798).
Pius VI was forcibly exiled to France where he died in Aug. 1799.

Proclamation tale in Prague

Anonymous, Orthodox Jew B addressed a long letter to Count Wratislaw, head of public security (Stadthauptmann) in Habsburg Prague. B denounced Prague members of the schismatic sect of Jacob Frank (1726-1791) for constituting a secret society with dangerous sympathies for "freedom," as advocated by the French Revolution (June 27, 1799):
The overthrow of the papal throne [1798] has given their [Frankist] daydreams plenty of nourishment. They say openly, this is the sign of the coming of the Messiah, since their chief belief consists of this: Sabbatai Zevi [d. 1676] was savior, will always remain the savior, but always under a different shape. General Bonaparte's conquests gave nourishment to their superstitious teachings. His conquests in the Orient, especially the conquest of Palestine, of Jerusalem, his appeal to the Israelites is oil on their fire (sein Aufruf an die Israeliten ist Öhl auf ihrem Feuer).
What does this prove? It shows firstly that, by summer 1799, Prague Jews certainly knew about Napoleon's famous proclamation; and secondly, that informer B presumed that Count Wratislaw too was already aware of this amazing story. But, B never alleged that local Frankists were circulating copies of a Napoleonic proclamation to the Jews. Nor did B suggest that they had themselves forged such a document.

Make no mistake about the hypothesis of a 1799 Prague forgery, as recently suggested by one or more historians. Forging such fake letters in the Habsburg Empire at that time would have amounted to the crime of treason, given the "state of war" with France and the purported Jerusalem rabbi's call to arms. Pertinently, B twice over specifically said he did not think local Frankists capable of treason. Nor did the Austrian police subsequently arrest the Prague Frankists for serious political crimes. This last fact must weigh heavily due to the tragic precedent of the Hellenic patriot Rigas, mentioned above. Directly on point, Rigas had been caught (December 1797) with three wooden chests full of revolutionary proclamations in Habsburg Trieste.

However, B did advise Count Wratislaw to regularly read Frankist mail and to search their leader's home for seditious papers on a Saturday afternoon. For this reason, these last eighty years, there has been speculation about the possibility of a link joining all three of the Frankists; the local Austrian government; and the Prague, Orthodox-Jewish family whose handwritten, 1799 translation yielded the text for the German typescript found in 1940.

If so, we must also take into account 18th-century communications. Specifically, written Napoleonic propaganda leaving Ottoman "Syria" on April 20th would definitely have had enough time (75 days) to reach Prague by July 4th. That was the first day that Count Wratislaw could have received B's advice, because B adds a postscript saying he held back mailing until July 4th.

So, let us provisionally accept the unproven hypothesis that, aimed at the Frankists, was a subsequent Austrian police raid or postal interception that netted those 1799 letters alleged to be from Napoleon and the purported Jerusalem rabbi. Even in that imagined scenario, there would still be no logical reason to presume a Frankist forgery rather than an authentic text, truly from the pen of Napoleon in the Ottoman Near East. There, European Frankists always had some contacts among kabbalists, Sabbateans and local Frankists.

Moreover, a 1799 Frankist forgery from elsewhere is unlikely, because broader 18th-century Frankism was very different -- on the one hand, from B's colored characterization of local Frankists as stubborn Sabbateans; and, on the other hand, from the mainline French-Revolutionary concepts in the 1799 German translation, so reverentially preserved by the Orthodox-Jewish family of Prague. This conclusion is clear from a glance at the principal messages then dispatched from Frankist headquarters at Offenbach, near Frankfurt.

Handwritten in Hebrew (often in red ink), the infamous "red letters" of 1798-1800 say nothing about either Sabbatai Zevi or Napoleon, as Messiah or otherwise; contradict the French Revolution's strong anti-Catholic animus by repeatedly urging Jews to convert to Roman Catholicism; include just one incidental reference to Jerusalem, but not as destination; and spectacularly lack emphasis on return to Eretz Yisrael (אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל‬). By sharp contrast to Sabbatai Zevi, Jacob Frank and most of his followers were generally cool to the idea of the Jewish People going back to the Mideast. For Frank, Poland was the Promised Land.

Highlighting Jews & the "Temple of Solomon"

Months before the 1799 letter (Zuschrift) and the several newspaper items about the "proclamation," the dignified phrase "la nation juive" (the Jewish People) came easily to Napoleon's pen. In 1798, he showed respect for the Jewish People, partly in conformity with French-Revolutionary ideology and partly because he could reasonably imagine that he might soon need some help from Mideast Jews. For example, such anticipated support might perhaps have included getting urgently needed cash from famously rich Jewish families like the Picciotto (Aleppo) and the Farhi (Damascus).

Into spring 1799, Napoleon still harbored hopes of conquering the whole Ottoman Empire and perhaps then moving on via Iran to attack British India. Utter disappointment came only toward the end of May, when failure to take Ottoman Acre seemed to him a turning point in world history. And, he still keenly felt so twenty years later.

احمد جزار پاشا
The Bosnian Ahmet Cezzar Pasha
won great fame in Europe and the Mideast
as the local Ottoman commander who stubbornly

withstood Napoleon's 1799 siege of Acre.

As an exile on Saint Helena, Napoleon carefully read the back issues of Le Moniteur. He would thus have been reminded of the proclamation mentioned in the publication of May 22, 1799. Nonetheless, his own account of the campaign said nothing about issuance of a "proclamation" to the Jews. But very much to the point, Napoleon then chose to refer to the Jewish agents sent to Damascus and Aleppo and to "a vague hope" that was "animating" local Jews when spring arrived in 1799. In the third person, he wrote (1819):
News was circulating among them that, after taking Acre, Napoleon would present himself in Jerusalem where he would reestablish the temple of Solomon.
What Napoleon himself had probably been thinking back in 1799 was perhaps revealed more clearly in Paris in the year following his return from the Mideast. As First Consul of the Republic, he told the Council of State (August 16, 1800): "If I governed a nation of Jews, I would reestablish the temple of Solomon." Napoleon had there been making a broader point about governing to please the majority as "the way to recognize the sovereignty of the people." Thus, in this important democratic context, he chose to rhetorically offer posterity (alongside three other examples) the startling hypothesis of a majority Jewish country centered on the Temple in Jerusalem.

1798-9 Jewish peoplehood in vogue

There were public-policy precedents for the initiative for the Jews which Napoleon is alleged to have made in Ottoman "Syria." Along with the fascinating news of Napoleon's Mideast invasion, widely discussed across Europe was the hypothesis of a return of the Jews to their aboriginal homeland, just as had been earlier presented in the April 19, 1798 number of La Décade philosophique.

Also to be noted is the anonymous "Letter from a Jew to his Brethren." This item specified that it had been translated from an earlier version in Italian. This Italian pedigree is important because, as indicated above, 1797 Italy has to play a big part in any attempt to solve the riddle of Napoleon's proclamations to the Jews. The Lettre attracted much attention in both France and beyond, partly because it was prominently printed as the lead item in the Paris daily newspaper L'Ami des Lois, known to be especially close to the Directory.

Was it really written by a Jew? This Lettre d'un Juif suspiciously lacks special knowledge about Jews, Judaism and Jewish history. But, the Lettre is thoroughly consistent with French-Revolutionary ideology in boldly indicting "barbarous and intolerant religions" (Roman Catholicism? Greek Orthodoxy? Islam?) for preaching hatred towards Jews (June 8, 1798):
The generous constancy with which we have preserved the faith of our ancestors, far from attracting to us the admiration which was our due, only increased the unjust hatred which all the nations hold against us. [...] It is finally time to shake off such an unbearable yoke, it is time to resume our rank among the nations. [...] The hour of awakening has come. Oh my brothers! Let us reestablish the empire of Jerusalem.

The Paris daily L'Ami des Lois (June 8, 1798).
This newspaper was reputed to express views of the
Revolutionary French Government and to be
sometimes financed by the Ministry of the General Police.

Thus, both before and after Napoleon's fleet sailed for Egypt (May 19, 1798), prominently published in Paris were some semi-official strategic points and propaganda particularly sympathetic to the idea of Jewish peoplehood and explaining how the Revolutionary French Republic could richly gain by sponsoring the return of Jews to their ancestral homeland.

This same calculation later appeared in Bonaparte in Cairo, a rapidly written, anonymous "current affairs" book rushed into print in Paris close to the end of 1798 or the start of 1799. There, France's intention to colonize Egypt was reaffirmed. Regarding restoration to the Jewish People (Fr: la nation juive) of "their land of origin," it was argued: "The conqueror of Egypt is too good a judge of men to misunderstand the advantages which could be derived from this people in the execution of his vast plans."

Two February 1799 letters to the Directory

The seasoned Irish revolutionary Thomas Corbet sent from Lorient in Brittany (February 17, 1799) to the principal Republican leader, Director Paul Barras, a plan for facilitating return of the Jewish People to "Palestine." Pointing to Napoleon in Egypt and also to the wider war against England and its allies, Corbet compared the long-suffering Jewish People to the oppressed Irish and Poles. The Jews were portrayed as also hoping to be free. From a Protestant family, Corbet would have naturally understood the French Revolution's principled fight against the reactionary Roman-Catholic Church, for centuries the prime vector for the bacillus of antisemitism.

Another reflection of the public's fascination with the Egyptian campaign was information which fellow Director Merlin de Douai got from Commissioner François, a senior official in northern France. François troubled to report a conversation with a Jew from Germany. According to the latter, Europe's Jews viewed Napoleon as the Messiah whose coming would trigger the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple. The German Jew also said that 1.5 million Jews were awaiting Napoleon's signal to leave for the Mideast. The counsel from Commissioner François was simultaneously strategic and skeptical (February 28, 1799):
One can derive a great deal from these people by flattering their religious prejudices. I leave it to your wisdom either to work to develop this idea if you think it of some value, or to just laugh it off as a joke.
Time, distance and Britain's Royal Navy combined to ensure that the letters from Corbet and François were then probably unknown to Napoleon who for months on end received very little wartime news from France. But those two letters could well have been among the contemporary factors inspiring the Directory to permit Le Moniteur to authoritatively spread the extraordinary news that Napoleon had issued a proclamation to the Jews of Asia and Africa.

Tactic to gain wartime advantage?

The stunted imagination of antisemites automatically sees Jews as a "problem." By contrast, as thoroughgoing opportunists, the Directors were more likely to ask themselves how they could benefit. La Décade philosophique's elite readership had already received (April 19, 1798) the impressive statistic that worldwide there were close to three million Jews, of whom 120,000 or 130,000 were said to be in the Mideast. For sure, the Directors knew that those "close to three million" Jews mostly lived in countries hostile to France. Thus, publishing striking propaganda to win Jewish support for the Revolutionary French Republic was for the Directory a shrewd tactic to gain wartime advantage.

Such secularism, cynicism, and readiness to exploit were also Napoleon's hallmark. To the point, Bourrienne wrote that Napoleon was only interested in religion to the extent that it had political utility. For example, drawing Talleyrand's attention to France's need to take control of Egypt, Napoleon opined (September 13, 1797):
With [revolutionary] armies like ours, for which all religions are equal -- Muslims, Copts, Arabs, idolators, etc. -- all of that is completely irrelevant; we would respect the one just like the others.
For his 1798 invasion of Egypt, Napoleon repeatedly told local Muslims that the French were now similar to them in religion, because the Revolution had rejected the Holy Trinity, retaining belief in just the one God, exactly as required by Islam. Less than a week before Napoleon left Cairo for France, the same theological gambit featured in his letter of peace overtures to Grand Vizier Kör Yusuf Ziyaüddin Pasha, then with the Ottoman army in Syria (August 17, 1799):
The Sublime Porte, which was the friend of France as long as that Power was Christian, waged war against her the moment that France by her religion drew herself closer to Islamic belief.
Napoleon in his own history of the 1798-9 campaign judged that Cyrus had "protected the Jews and had their Temple rebuilt," because he was thinking about conquering Egypt from the east. Similarly, Napoleon believed (1819): "Alexander [the Great] sought to please the Jews so that they might serve him for his crossing of the [Sinai] desert." Here, Napoleon's own ruthless logic suggests that, exactly like the Directory, he too had good reason to discreetly woo Jews, including during the "Syrian" campaign.


After the coup of November 1799, Napoleon was no longer a French Revolutionary general. As First Consul, he famously made the French Republic's peace with the Roman-Catholic Church (1801). As Emperor of the French from 1804, he similarly sought to regulate the situation of the Jews in France. For example, he convoked an Assembly of Jewish Notables to meet in Paris as prelude to hosting a Grand Sanhedrin (February 1807). This extraordinary exercise was aimed at Jews, (for the most part) not as a People internationally, but rather as a religious confession domestically. By 1806-7, his principal pertinent concern was no longer Jewish peoplehood and self-determination, but rather how Jews, as practitioners of a distinct faith, could better fit into French State and society.

Nonetheless, accounts of Napoleon's alleged invitation to the Jews to return to Eretz Yisrael (אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל‬) continued to echo. For example, on the basis of intercepted correspondence, the Habsburg Governor (Statthalter) of Moravia reported that some Orthodox Jews there significantly imagined that the real reason Napoleon had called the Sanhedrin was to stimulate France's flagging international trade (October 1806):
France, therefore, wished to favor the Jews and for that reason to demand from the Turkish empire the city of Jerusalem together with the surrounding territories, in order to set up and restore the seat of the Israelite People there.

If not from the Ottoman lands then most certainly from a variety of European publications, the astonishing 1799 story that Napoleon had issued a proclamation to the Jews made its own way through history. Then rapidly rippling through Christendom and also across world Jewry, this exciting tale powerfully stimulated ancient messianic dreams. At the same time, news of the proclamation permanently strengthened belief in the practical political possibility of Jewish restoration and renewal in the aboriginal homeland.

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