Was Napoleon an Anti-Semite?
Napoleon, the Jews and
Religious Freedom

By J. David Markham



To many, the image of Napoleon is that of a heroic leader whose great success on the battlefield assured him the title of Napoleon the Great. To others he is seen as a wise ruler whose economic, educational and political reforms laid the groundwork for the modern era. To a few, of course, Napoleon was a tyrant who seized control of France and led her to a decade or more of continual war. The reality of Napoleon is actually far more complex than most understand. One of the major, though often overlooked, aspects of this complexity is his role in religious matters and, especially relevant here, his relationship to Jews in Europe and the middle east.

Napoleon was the product of the enlightenment and the French Revolution. These movements at the very least questioned both religion and the power of religious organizations, and at the extreme sought their elimination. Though raised in a Catholic family, Napoleon was at his heart a secularist whose ideas of liberty and equality did not necessarily match attitudes taken by organized religion. Given this background, it would be easy to understand if Napoleon had simply ignored religion or even been hostile towards it. As we all know, that was hardly the case. Napoleon’s approach to religion–really towards religious tolerance–was one of the most progressive approaches seen up to that time. And far from being an anti-Semite, Napoleon was good for the Jews of France and, indeed, of all of Europe. For I would argue that it is by deeds that we must judge people, and not by words. Is one who makes comments, perhaps even seemingly hateful comments, an anti-Semite? Or do actions more truly reflect one’s real feelings? It is not an easy question and reasonable people can differ on how they see the issue.

Comments made for political or personal reasons, comments taken out of context, comments that may reflect some personal biases that reflect either a personal heritage or the times in which they were made cannot be the final word in determining true attitudes. I believe that it is the actions that people take that are the true basis for judgment, and by that standard Napoleon is anything but an anti-Semite.

And even in the case of adverse actions, we must look at the causes of those actions, the long-term consequences of the actions, and how they fit into an overall pattern before we use them to determine our opinion of the man himself. We must attempt to understand actions in the context of the times in which they were taken and the circumstances that existed that may have influenced, perhaps unduly, those actions.

We must remember that Napoleon lived in an area and an era where discrimination against Jews–indeed, against anyone who was not of the “official” religion of the land–was hardly uncommon. In pre-Revolutionary France, as throughout Europe, Jews were greatly restricted in their abilities to live where they wished and engage in whatever occupations most suited them. Clearly, many in France believed there was a “Jewish Question,” a fact that, in light of the Holocaust and of more recent history makes one quite uncomfortable. In France, Jews were discouraged from living in cities and were even prohibited from marrying without special permission. Official policy was designed to keep the number of Jews to a minimum. Jews often could not travel except during hours designated by the government, and were required to wear certain distinctive clothing. Elsewhere in Europe, especially in Catholic areas such as Poland and the Papal States, Jews were forced to live in ghettos and were otherwise restricted in their movements and activities.

These restrictions were largely the result of the predominance of the Roman Catholic Church in France and throughout much of at least southern Europe. The Church was probably the single most powerful institution, challenging even the state itself, when it came to public policy, especially on matters of religion. The Church was given very special consideration in influencing policy throughout the spectrum of laws, and this fact was one of the major reasons for the anti-religiosity of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution took some important steps to remove at least some of the discrimination against Jews, but it would be a mistake to believe that the Revolution was entirely good for Jews. During the Estates General, numerous proposals regarding Jews were put forward, including some that called for their expulsion from France! Jews were also represented in this assembly and, naturally enough, proposed the removal of many of the restrictions placed upon them. But while many Jews wanted greater freedom, they were less interested in completely assimilating into French society. This is an issue that was sometimes used against them and which would fall to Napoleon to deal with a few years later.

Ultimately, the French Revolution gave at least theoretical equality and freedom to people of all religions. Jews had the same rights of travel and settlement as all French citizens. But unlike Protestantism, Judaism was not recognized as a state religion and therefore did not have the protections that would imply. And Jews soon found themselves in the position of defending their very religious beliefs against an increasingly secular government. All “traditional” religions were looked upon with suspicion, but it is likely that Jews were seen with more suspicion than most. The “Cult of Reason” was designed to replace all other religions, and some Jews, like some Christians, succumbed to its allure. The Revolutionary Wars caused the confiscation of the wealth of churches and synagogues, and the Terror in general was not kind to any religion. Even the Revolutionary calendar made it more difficult to determine the Sabbath. Thus, toward the end of the Revolution the situation for Jews actually deteriorated. When the Terror ended and the Directory became the administrative head of France, the situation for Jews had improved, though they were still considered by many to be second-class citizens.

In short, when Napoleon came to power, the position of Jews had improved as a result of the French Revolution (the problems caused by its wars notwithstanding), but there was still much work to be done if they were to be truly equal members of French society. There was still a level of discrimination and, perhaps most important of all, Judaism had not yet been given the same level of recognition that Catholic and Protestants had achieved.

As a child, Napoleon had little in the way of contact with Jews, and given the discrimination of the epoch, it seems unlikely that he met any during his years of military education. Thus, we have little on which to base any speculation as to his attitudes developed during childhood, other than to note that anti-Semitism was a significant factor in the society in which he was raised. But Napoleon had enthusiastically embraced the Revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, and these ideals would shape his approach to religion in general and Jews in particular.

Napoleon’s first opportunity to demonstrate his attitudes towards Jews appears to have come in his first campaign in Italy, where upon entering the Italian town of Ancona he found that Jews were forced to live in a ghetto and wear distinctive clothing with the Star of David. Napoleon immediately put an end to those policies (which were the result of Catholic influence), and he later took similar actions throughout Italy. We do not know what motivated Napoleon to take these actions, but someone who was truly anti-Jewish would have been unlikely to do so, as there was no clear political or military advantage to them. It seems reasonable to believe that he did what he did because he thought it the right thing to do.

It is also important to note that as commander of the army of Italy, Napoleon could take these actions without any real fear of contradiction. Thus it may be said that these actions were a better reflection of his true feelings than were later actions and words when he was under great pressure from forces on all sides of the issue. Still, it must also be said that Napoleon took these actions favorable to Jews in a country that was dominated by the Catholic Church and that he was trying to win over to the French cause. As he was trying to “win the hearts and minds” of the Italians, he was clearly going out on a bit of a limb to take these actions regarding Jewish freedoms. All the more reason, it seems, to believe that he truly believed in equality for Jews.

Of course, if these actions were not ever repeated, the argument would be much weaker, especially in light of some actions that Napoleon would eventually take that were less favorable to Jews. But throughout his career, Napoleon acted in favor of the rights of Jews. When Napoleon took control of Malta in 1798, he discovered that the Knights Templar treated Jews on that island horribly. They were kept as mistreated slaves (admittedly a redundancy) and bought and sold without regard to their families. Napoleon set the Jewish slaves free and encouraged Jews to freely practice their religion in a synagogue that he gave them permission to build. Thus with one brief visit Napoleon swept aside centuries of horrible treatment of the Jews of Malta and re-established their community and their rights.

The stop at Malta was, of course, along the way to Egypt. During the Egyptian campaign, which included an excursion into the Holy Land, Napoleon seems to have carried on his favorable policies towards Jews. “Seems” is the operative word, in that there is relatively little evidence as to just what specific actions he took, save for appointing certain officials to deal with Jewish matters. Note, however, that there is no evidence from either Egypt or the Holy Land of any hostility on the part of Napoleon towards Jews. What evidence that does exist points toward an enlightened and, indeed, favorable attitude. He sanctioned both their religion and their organizational structure.

This should not be surprising, as his proclamation to his soldiers specifically required them to treat Muslims as well as they had treated Jews in Italy and to respect their religion and religious leaders. The clear implication was that they should continue to treat Jews as well as they had in Italy. But it should be noted that N’s policies providing better treatment to Jew in Malta, and earlier in Italy, was not necessarily consistent with his policies in Egypt. There, he tried to work with the Muslims and show them he was not inimical to their religion. On Malta and in Italy, he showed that he did not favor the repressive policies of the local Christian powers when it came to Jews.

The most important event dealing with Jews, of course, was Napoleon’s writing of a proclamation creating a homeland for Jews in Palestine. This proclamation was mentioned in the Moniteur and elsewhere, but it was never formally issued. Many people, however, believe that had Napoleon achieved greater success during this phase of the campaign (winning the siege of Acre, for example), he would have issued the proclamation and that Jews might well have had their homeland, well over 100 years before the creation of the state of Israel. Imagine how that would have changed history! In any event, the proclamation was used before the United Nations after World War II as one of the justifications for the creation of the state of Israel. Thus, Napoleon reached out from the grave to give a boost to the establishment of a homeland for Jews, assuring that his name will be forever associated with a Jewish homeland. He was unable to cause that to happen in his own lifetime, but as we will see later, another man would help to fulfill that destiny.

After the Austerlitz campaign, Napoleon returned to Paris in 1806 by way of Strasburg. There, he was given an earful from Christian residents regarding their alleged financial oppression by Jews. Napoleon was not generally inclined towards bankers and other businessmen, and may well have believed that some of the charges were accurate. The image of the Jewish banker who gets wealthy at the expense of “honest” businessmen and farmers has been one of the most omnipresent anti-Jewish images throughout history, and it would be unfair to expect Napoleon to be completely free of its reach.

Here we must note that there was one aspect of Jewish life in France and elsewhere in Europe that made it somewhat easier to use them as a scapegoat for various ills. After centuries of oppression, many Jews, not surprisingly, wanted to stick together in distinctive communities where they could maintain their religious and cultural ways of life. Assimilation was not their goal, though they wanted the freedom to worship and live as they wished. This approach, as understandable as it might be, left Jews open to charges that they were not really loyal to their country, that they did not really see themselves as “Frenchmen” and should therefore be looked upon with suspicion.

Note that this reflects much of what we see today. Muslim immigrants to Europe, Palestinians in Israel, and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic immigrants to the United States, often exhibit similar beliefs. They wish to maintain their cultural and religious identity, whether that be in what they wear, how they pray or what language they speak. Napoleon, reflecting the attitudes of most Frenchmen (or Americans, or people in general), would have preferred that all people living in France concentrate more on assimilation rather than distinctiveness.

The desire of many Jews to be governed within their community by their religious beliefs and institutions was also something of a problem for Napoleon and for France. Napoleon had recognized religious freedom and tolerance, but his government was quite secular. The Code Napoléon was to be the secular law of the land.

Again, this reflects the modern era as well As Professor Schwarzfuchs points out in his excellent book, Napoleon, the Jews and the Sanhedrin, both Napoleon and the modern state of Israel wanted to recognize the individual role of Judaism while limiting its role in government. This is hardly anti-Semitic, of course. Today we see the awful consequences of a state dominated by religion, a state whose so-called secular laws are a direct reflection of the laws of that religion. In Israel, Europe and the United States, those who believe in secular government are constantly under pressure from those who want the laws of the state to reflect the beliefs of a particular religion.

In response to the complaints heard in Strasbourg, Napoleon raised questions regarding the status of the Jews, and some of what he said was certainly not favorable toward them. He raised the possibility of deportation and of economic sanctions. Worse, Napoleon appointed Count Molé to investigate the situation. Molé was anything but sympathetic to Jews, and his report was predictably unfavorable. But Napoleon had been careful to have Jacques Claude Beugnot also make a report. Beugnot was a committed liberal, and his report found that the charges against the Jews were absurd and that, as French citizens, Jews enjoyed all of the protections of French law. Upon hearing both reports, Napoleon rejected any idea of expelling Jews, but did call for special laws to be enacted regarding them. Before this was to be done, however, he wanted a special assembly of Jewish leaders to meet in Paris to make their recommendations and to answer questions about the relationship between Jews and France. This was the Great Sanhedrin, and whatever unfortunate aspects there were to the motivation for calling it, the Sanhedrin was a unique opportunity for Jews to set forth their desires and to show once and for all that they were not a threat to France.

Many of the questions that were posed to the Sanhedrin reflected the question of assimilation detailed above. And the answers were designed to show Napoleon that Jews considered themselves Frenchmen and that they were loyal to the country and held no ill feelings towards non-Jewish French citizens. Napoleon himself was praised by those attending–on his 37th birthday (August 15th), no less! As a result of the Sanhedrin, Napoleon declared that Judaism was one of the three official religions of France. His policies of religious tolerance, his opening of Jewish ghettos throughout Europe, all had come to this decree of 1806, which gave Jews a measure of equality never seen before.

Sometimes one can best be defined by the enemies one makes. If Napoleon and his policies were anti-Semitic, then it would be unlikely he would be attacked by those who were. But Napoleon’s policies were attacked viciously by Christians in and out of France. Metternich of Austria complained, and the Protestants of Prussia were strongly opposed as well. Even the Italians were not as supportive as one might have expected. The worst objections came from Tsar Alexander of Russia, who accused Napoleon of being the anti-Christ because of his support of Jewish freedom. Anti-Semitism, it seems, was alive and well throughout Europe.

Unfortunately, it was alive and well in France as well, and even within Napoleon’s family. His uncle, Cardinal Fesch, wrote Napoleon a stinging letter opposing his actions, claiming that the world might well come to an end. Count Molé, Marshal Kellerman, Chateaubriand and any number of other important Frenchmen also laid out their opposition to Napoleon’s policies towards the Jews, raising both religious and economic objections. Landlords, farmers, businessmen and others hurled charges against Jews. Many of the old stereotypes were present, along with accusations that Jews were disloyal and anti-social. Napoleon had been known to buckle to such pressure, and in any event had to deal with the political reality that pressure was being brought to bear from groups he desperately needed in his camp. He had similar difficulties with the question of slavery in the colonies and even regarding the role of women, the legality of divorce, etc.

In response to this pressure, Napoleon issued the Restrictive Decree of 17 March 1808. To Jews and liberals then and now, it was known as the “infamous decree,” and it rolled back many of the gains achieved by Jews under Napoleon’s reign. While on the one hand it granted certain administrative organizational changes that would help unify Jewish communities in France, on the other hand it placed numerous economic and other restrictions on them. Debts owed to Jews were now quite easy to avoid, Jews had to seek permission to engage in commerce, and Jews could not avoid conscription by paying a substitute in the way that other citizens could. Designed to last ten years, these measures were a humiliation to Jews and a major step back from Napoleon’s previous actions. There is no question that this decree is a blot on Napoleon’s otherwise excellent record regarding Jews. However, when one takes into account the circumstances, one can at least be understanding if not supportive. By modern liberal standards, it was an abomination. But by modern liberal standards much of what went on in the early 19th century was an abomination. Napoleon, so progressive in so many areas for his day, would not be nearly as progressive by today’s standards. We cannot judge his attitudes towards education, women, or Jews by today’s standards, but only within the context of the time.

Moreover, Napoleon soon realized that he had made a mistake and took action to at least partially correct what he had done. Within a few months most of France was freed from the restrictions of the infamous decree, and by 1811 only Alsace was covered by its provisions.

Napoleon’s rise to power and his relationships with the Jews marks a watershed moment in Jewish history. For the first time, a ruler of Europe undertook major action to restore to them a level of freedom unheard of for centuries. Perhaps the most convincing evidence of this is the fact that after Napoleon’s fall, and led, not surprisingly by the Papal States, the nations of Europe were tripping over each other in their rush to undo the good that Napoleon had done. Ghettos and Stars of David were back in vogue. Whatever else may be said of Napoleon, his regime was the least anti-Semitic of them all.

One way to understand my answer to the question of whether or not Napoleon was anti-Semitic is to compare him to another great leader whose actions would also have an enormous impact on Jews. In many ways, President Harry Truman and Napoleon were very different. Truman had long-time personal connections to Jews, as explained in Michael Beschloss’ book, Presidential Courage. Truman was almost another son to a Jewish family in Independence, Missouri, while Truman was in high school, and after his service in World War I, Truman’s business partner and friend was Eddie Jacobson. In contrast, Napoleon seems to have had no such personal or friendly connections. Obviously, the two men took power by very different means, though it can be said that each had the good fortune to be at the right place at the right time.

Each man ruled in times of crisis, and each man was confronted with what to do about the Jews. Each man also came from anti-Semitic backgrounds, and each man was under great pressure to take very different extremes of actions. For Truman, the question was whether or not to recognize the new state of Israel. Like Napoleon, Truman was under great pressure not to take actions favorable to Jews. Many of Truman’s advisors felt that it would be a big mistake. His background of anti-Semitism was reinforced by none other than his wife Bess, who would not allow a Jew in the house. Truman himself had written some negative comments about Jews, very much along the lines of those written by Napoleon to his brother Jérôme and others.

And yet, each man followed a different path to do what was right and to give Jews what was rightfully theirs. Napoleon’s actions were largely an analytical response to the ideals of the French Revolution. He carried those ideals further than anyone, and ultimately promoted civil rights for Jews regardless of enormous opposition by public opinion, family members and powerful political interests.

Truman at first seemed likely to succumb to the same kinds of pressures that Napoleon had faced. But Truman, also, found a way to overcome this pressure and to do what was right. His longtime friendship with Eddie Jacobson eventually won the day, and Truman recognized Israel. This action, like those taken by Napoleon, was fraught with political danger but, again like Napoleon, Truman became determined to do what is right.

The two men share something else in common as well. Though each man took action favorable to Jews, those actions were soon seemingly forgotten. Jews felt betrayed by Napoleon’s infamous decree, and Truman didn’t receive much Jewish political support in his campaign for the presidency in 1948 (he lost the states with the largest number of Jews). Yet each man stands out as an enlightened leader whose actions did more to promote the interests of Jews than virtually any other non-Jew since Cyrus the Great. Given the incredibly positive impact of their actions, to accuse either of being anti-Semitic would be a grave injustice.