Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Napoleon Bonaparte in the Mideast: the 1799 "Proclamation" to the Jews

While campaigning in Israel in 1799, did Napoleon issue a "proclamation" to the Jews? 21st-century historians are divided and I too have no ironclad answer. Perhaps the deeper story is not whether he actually did so, but rather the astonishing 1798-1799 French-Revolutionary focus on Jewish peoplehood and the "Temple of Solomon." Such emphasis on a famous People and its age-old link to its aboriginal homeland 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.).


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 1798-9 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.

Jewish peoplehood as revolutionary rhetoric

The pertinent events occurred six years after revolutionaries had executed Louis XVI, King of France. The contemporary context was the War of the Second Coalition (1798-1802) pitting several European monarchies and the Ottoman Empire against the French Revolutionary Republic 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 saw the Jews as an age-old and famous People "bent under the yoke of princes."

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

For example, the Jewish People's enduring love for its aboriginal homeland, the city of Jerusalem and the site of the Temple was highlighted by ex-priest Joachim Le Breton. At the time, he was a senior official of the Ministry of the Interior, a Member of the Institut National, and one of the editors of the influential weekly, La Décade philosophique.

Likely already party to the State secret that Napoleon's army would soon set sail for the Mideast, Le Breton 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 of those countries in terms of colonization by settlers from Europe.)

In this thoroughly imperialist and colonialist context, Jews are portrayed 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.

Under the government of the Revolutionary Directory (1795-1799), La Décade philosophique was, ideologically, by far France's premier periodical. It was religiously read by the Republic's leadership, including Napoleon who then carefully cultivated good relations with its editors and writers.  Napoleon had already liberated Italian Jews by famously abolishing the ghettos, during his spectacular conquest of the peninsula (1797). In the same way, Napoleon later freed the Jews held as slaves on Malta (June 1798).

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 a prolific propagandist

As always, Napoleon placed exceptional emphasis on public relations, including propaganda custom-made for various niche audiences, near and far. For example, both before and after the French Revolutionary Army took Gaza (February 25, 1799), he sought to win over the Muslims of "Syria" by printing various Arabic-language proclamations which the Ottomans derided as "sweet talk." There were also some separate messages for Christians in Jerusalem, Nazareth and the Lebanon. Moreover, Napoleon 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.
During the "Syrian" campaign, Napoleon certainly sought to derive advantage from every other component of the local population. Thus, it would have been peculiar for him to have omitted some sort of an approach to the 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 (March 7, 1799), 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 on Napoleon

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 Revolutionary 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 (1815-1821), 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. Napoleon's soldiers were close to Jerusalem. Nonetheless, they never conquered the city, though they were "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 discovered in 1940. This was a new, typewritten copy of an old German translation, derived from an earlier text, perhaps partly in French and partly in Hebrew. This is the purported "Letter to the Jewish Nation from the French Commander-in-Chief Buonaparte," dated April 20, 1799. In that specific year, that date was notably the first day of Passover, which is pertinently a Jewish holiday celebrating the theme of the liberation of the Jewish People. There was also a covering letter said to be from Aaron, son of Levi, Rabbi of Jerusalem (dated Nisan 5559). Both letters claim to be written from Jerusalem, falsely identified as the site of Napoleon's headquarters. In the context of the revolutionary doctrine of self-determination, the alleged Napoleon letter puts great emphasis on Jewish peoplehood. It describes "Israelites" as "lawful heirs" to their "ancestral land" and encourages them to "hasten" home to reclaim their "patrimony." It also quotes from the Catholic Old Testament and offers extravagant rhetoric lauding the Revolutionary French Republic. The alleged rabbinic letter refers to building a Temple in Jerusalem and calls to arms all able-bodied Jews, no matter where they live.

If we take these two letters to be genuine, they 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. 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 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.

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 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 perhaps knew little or nothing about the "Letter to the Jewish Nation" dated April 20th. But way too early to have then originated from distant Ottoman "Syria" came remarkable tidings about an undated and perhaps entirely unrelated Napoleonic "proclamation to the Jews."

In this connection, two or three writers of the last thirty years have referred to an alleged April 1799 report from Constantinople. This news was said to have been perhaps initially published, maybe sometime in May 1799, in the Gazette de Hambourg, a city that was neutral during the War of the Second Coalition. Such vague references are hard to verify, because the May 1799 numbers of the Gazette de Hambourg are extremely rare. 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 22ten April. Buonaparte hat, wie est heißt, eine Proklamation an die Juden in mehreren Afrikanischen und Asiatischen Gegenden erlassen, um das Reich von Jerusalem wieder herzustellen. [Constantinople, April 22nd. In several African and Asian places, Buonaparte has issued, as it is called, a proclamation to the Jews for the restoration of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.]

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

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."

London The True Briton, Number 1997, May 17, 1799.

Likely too soon to have been copied from London, but perhaps derived from Hamburg or Berlin, was the same story in the Directory's mouthpiece, 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. [Constantinople, April 17th. Bonaparte arranged for 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.]
Taken as a whole, the pertinent paragraphs in Le Moniteur contain nothing that could not have been copied from the information already provided by the Vossische Zeitung which had covered more ground. Such Paris plagiarism is hardly surprising because the French then lacked own-source information as to what was really transpiring in the Mideast, just as Napoleon was 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 been exceedingly careful to get official approval for whatever they printed about Napoleon, who was of key concern to the Directors.

From Paris Le Moniteur of May 22, 1799.

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. Later, 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."

News of the proclamation also reached Turkish Jews, according to the authorized Ottoman historiographer, Ahmet Cevdet Pasha. He wrote that, during that war with France, the Ottomans had heard "from the mouth of a Jew" that, as "understood from a printed and published official declaration" (Ottoman: 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."

Ahmet Cevdet Pasha, Tarih-i Cevdet, Vol. 6, p. 282
New Edition, 2nd Printing (H. 1309).

If not from the Mideast then most certainly from European newspapers, the astonishing story that Napoleon had issued such a proclamation made its own way through history. Then rapidly rippling through Christendom and also across world Jewry, this exciting tale powerfully stimulated ancient messianic dreams by strengthening belief in the practical possibility of a return to the aboriginal homeland.

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 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.

In this connection, also to be noted is the anonymous "Letter from a Jew to his Brethren" which attracted much attention in France and beyond. This had been 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 revolutionary ideology in boldly indicting "barbarous and intolerant religions" (Christianity? 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, 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.

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. Thus, for his 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 during the "Syrian" campaign.

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