Eminent speakers will discourse knowledgably all day concerning the Grand Sanhedrin of 1807, that historical event of the foremost philosophical and moral importance.
For my part, I did not wait for the bicentennial to study this act of Napoleon in favor of the Israelites. I have devoted a pamphlet to this subject, with a summary appearing in the review Napoleon Ier for March 2007. This article is available in both English and Hebrew.
In the time available, I will limit my remarks to emphasizing the exorbitant price that Napoleon had to pay for his policy of liberating the Jews.
During the campaign of Italy in February 1797, the young General Bonaparte was shocked by the inordinate restrictions placed on the Israelites. From that moment, he began an effort of emancipation that culminated in the victory of the Grand Sanhedrin of February 1807, having already issued his famous exhortation to found a Jewish state, an exhortation proclaimed to the world in April 1799 outside Acre, not far from here. Working almost single-handedly during the ten long years that separated these two dates, he had to overcome incessant and hateful opposition. Napoleon was animated solely by a ferocious determination to bring about the triumph of a spirit of tolerance.
This exploit was even more laudable because, as we know, it had to confront a hateful hostility, both external and internal to the Empire. His merit is even greater because he was conscious of defending a tiny minority of human beings against the efforts of an immense majority that was determined to keep these pariahs in their current state. There were no more than perhaps fifty thousand in France and approximately the same in neighboring countries. Yet, as a man of the Enlightenment, Napoleon made the courageous and even rash choice to give priority to human rights over his own political interests. He was to pay dearly for this decision.
The Jewish question in effect played a major role in the fall of the Empire, although no direct responsibility should be imputed to the Jews themselves. It is essential to insist on this point.
In France, the Grand Sanhedrin inspired a recurring anti-Semitism, principally in Alsace. The bright lights of the intelligentsia, such as Chateaubriand, aroused agitation that the Catholic clergy did little to calm. Yet, one must note the benevolent attitude of a minority of prelates, including the Abbot Gregory, faithful friend of the Jews. But the damage was done. A good portion of the Catholic clergy, forgetting the benefits of the legendary Concordat, slyly fed a blind opposition to the Empire, an opposition whose noxious effects affected even the Emperor's entourage. Under these circumstances Napoleon quarreled even with his uncle, Cardinal Fesch, who vehemently reproached the Emperor for “ignoring the scripture that predicted the final judgment for the day when the Jews shall be recognized as part of the nation.” Napoleon counseled him sharply to “ calm his emotions with cold baths. ”
Outside France, the Jewish question increased the belligerent situation that Napoleon sought desperately to end at any cost.
In Prussia, the Lutheran Church secretly encouraged the emergence of German nationalism. In 1813, the German units of the Grand Army turned their weapons against their French brothers in arms, definitively killing the idea of a united Europe.
In Russia , opposition to the Grand Sanhedrin reached fever pitch. The Orthodox Church designated “ Napoleon as the anti-christ and the enemy of God for having founded a new Hebrew Sanhedrin, which is the same tribunal that once dared to condemn the Lord Jesus to the cross.”
We are now at the heart of the Jewish question. The fatal accusation of “Christicide,” if you will permit me such a neologism, was officially launched. As a consequence, the friends of the putative executioners of Christ became unpardonable accomplices to this unspeakable crime. This abominable suspicion clung constantly to Napoleon's skin, reducing his laborious efforts for peace to nothing.
The most dramatic consequence of this situation would be in effect the final condemnation of peace in Europe. The Emperor founded this peace at Tilsit in July 1807 through the backhanded alliance with Russia, neutralizing the bellicose desires of Austria and Prussia. Yet, as soon as the treaty was signed, during the period of preparation for the Grand Sanhedrin, the first signs of Russian defection appeared. Always well informed, Napoleon tried desperately to preserve Franco-Russian friendship at the meetings n Erfurt of September-October 1808. He succeeded in creating only a fragile patchwork, a façade of alliance. Considering Napoleon to be Satan incarnate, the Russian Orthodox Church became the soul of a permanent conspiracy against the Emperor within the court of Saint Petersburg. The church constantly and insidiously sabotaged Franco-Russian understanding until the fatal conflict in 1812.
In the interim, in 1810 the Synod of Moscow impeded the marriage of Napoleon to a Russian grand duchess, the final chance to save the Russian alliance and thus the peace.
Rivaling the intolerance of the Moscow Synod, the papacy continued its hostility towards Napoleon, consummating the definitive rupture of the Empire with Rome. In May 1808, after the Grand Sanhedrin, Pope Pius VII issued an aggressive encyclical to all his subjects. He forbad them to swear allegiance to “ a government that protects all sects and all cults, including even the Jewish religion, that implacable enemy of Jesus Christ, ” etc. Such language is not at all edifying!
The pope multiplied his gestures of ill will. In particular, he refused to confirm the Emperor's nominees for bishop, conforming to his obligations under the Concordat.
Yet Rome's most disastrous attitude was its indisputable involvement in the horrible War in Spain that proved fatal to Napoleon.
The Spanish war is usually depicted as a patriotic uprising. In reality, this was above all a holy war with patriotic overtones, based on Napoleon's friendship with the Jews.
Since the expulsion of all Jews from the kingdom of Isabella the Catholic in 1492, Spain always exhibited the strongest anti-semitism. At the time of the 1808 insurrection, the country remained under the influence of an Inquisition that incarnated a fundamentalist clergy with great influence over the population. The Riot of May 2, the famous Dos de Mayo, was unquestionably fomented by clandestine emissaries suspected of belonging to the mysterious association of the “Holy Alliance.” The sudden assassination of hundreds of French soldiers was done to cries of “ Death to the Infidels!” It is difficult to attribute the uprising solely to the presence of a foreign army which had been well received in the previous year, before the Grand Sanhedrin.
It is equally revealing that on 23 May the uprising began in Austuria, Galicia, and Andalusia, provinces where the French Army had not yet set foot.
One sees the hand of Rome in a letter from Cardinal Desping y Dasseto, former archbishop of Seville, written from Rome on 30 June 1808 to his counterpart in Grenada, in which he wrote that “ you know well that we cannot recognize as king a free mason, Lutheran heretic, as are all the Bonapartes and the French nation. ” The rest of the document establishes the collusion of certain fundamentalist Roman circles with the insurrection and makes specific allusion to an ecclesiastically-inspired plot. The Bishops of Grenada and Santender as well as the coadjutor of Seville notably preached a crusade against “ the Lutheran Corsican antichrist.”
The leaders of armed peasant bands were principally priests and monks, inciting their flocks to commit unutterable atrocities in the name of the struggle against “ the antichrist Napoleon.”
The religious fanaticism even extended to the indoctrination of children, for whom a special catechism was developed that opened with the words “ From whence came Napoleon? From Hell and sin! ”
Given this, can one still deny that the war in Spain was fundamentally a religious war supported by Rome to punish Napoleon for his friendship towards the designated executioners of Christ? The Spanish historian Menendez de Pelayo had the honesty to acknowledge this in writing: “ the Spanish clergy conducted a war of religion against the ideas of the 18 th century .”
It is beyond question that the feverish manifestation of anti-Semitism that was the Spanish war became the tomb of the Empire. Napoleon thus expiated the “crime” of having liberated the Jews from the inhuman conditions to which they had been condemned by the crucifixion of Jesus.
Like Pontius Pilate, he would have done well to wash his hands of this suicidal Jewish question, as had all the other heads of state before him. Instead, he preferred to conduct himself like a new Cyrus. He restored to dignity a community for which he secretly harbored a profound respect.
His sublime sacrifice deserves the eternal recognition of Israel, at the same time as the title of champion of the rights of man.
Tel Aviv Symposium – 31 May 2007