“If Bonaparte wins, the wealth of the Jews will be increased, and their (civil) status will be raised. At the same time, their hearts will be estranged from our Heavenly Father. If, however, our Czar Alexander wins, Jewish hearts will draw nearer to our Heavenly Father, though the poverty of Israel may become greater and their status lower.”
As an individual, it appears that Napoleon was contemptuous of Jews. How, then, could he seriously consider policies which would lead to the amelioration of the Jewish position? The answer has been succinctly put by Alan Edelstein (“An Unacknowledged Harmony: Philo-Semitism and the Survival of European Jewry”, 1982, p.139): Napoleon’s policies were neither specifically antisemitic or philo-semitic, but “basically pro-French, or more accurately pro-Napoleon”.
Napoleon would often do dramatically – what was expedient for his cause. Thus, in 1798, his expedition to Egypt was followed by his invasion of Palestine. During his (unsuccessful) siege of Acre in 1799 he called upon the Jews of Asia and Africa to place themselves under his leadership to re-establish ancient Jerusalem, though he set out on his return to France before the proclamation had reached any important Jewish community.
Another grandiose gesture came in 1806-7 with his convoking a Jewish assembly and later a Sanhedrin, to demonstrate Jewish loyalty to France and the abandonment of national elements in Judaism.
Jews had come onto his agenda in a roundabout way. The 1801 Concordat between Church and State had left the Jews alone. But in 1805 complaints about Jewish economic activities in Alsace needed action. After attempts at repressive regulation of the situation, Napoleon accepted the suggestion of a Jew, Israel Jacobsohn, and decided to call an Assembly of Jewish Notables to sort out the Jewish position.
One hundred and one representatives of the 70,000 Jews of France, the Rhineland and Italy met in Paris to answer twelve questions of which they had been given no prior notice. Napoleon himself never appeared in person. The questions were clearly designed to seal the fate and future of the Jewish communities that were or came under his domination. Basically they were concerned to elicit from the mouths of the Jews themselves the sort of statement that would enable Napoleon to decide whether they deserved their emancipation.
The Notables answered with considerable diplomacy. To the question of whether Jews may marry Christians, they replied that “marriages contracted between Israelites and Christians are binding, although they cannot be celebrated with religious forms”. To any question that sought to elicit whether Jews were a religion or a nation, the Notables felt they had to emphasise the religious dimension and shunt aside or deny the ethnic element.The defect in the Assembly’s answers was that they had no binding doctrinal authority. But one of the answers had mentioned the ancient Sanhedrin of 71 delegates from French-dominated Europe. Fond of the dramatic gesture, Napoleon decided to convene a Sanhedrin of 71 delegates from French-dominated Europe. It was a colourful spectacle; 46 rabbis and 25 laymen sat in a semi-circle in a specially rebuilt hall in the Hotel de Ville in Paris. The sessions were open to the public and artists’ impressions of the scene record the proceedings of the first representative body of Jews to meet for nearly two millennia.
As with the Assembly of Notables, the Sanhedrin confronted a dilemma. Jewish history and tradition required one set of answers; the improvement (and possibly the continuation) of the Jewish position in European society required another. The answers were really dictated by the situation, and the result is called by one historian, Poul Borchsenius, “the sin of 1807”.
And yet, as Jacob Katz has explained (“Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation, 1770-1870”, 1978, pp. 139-141, 157, 245), some delegates had reservations. The rabbis bitterly opposed the radical views of the lay members and refused to accept draft statements that did clear violence to the Halachah, and the final answers were far more innocuous than they might have been. What also needs reiteration is that in Jewish terms the Sanhedrin really had no power to lay down laws or changes to them, and was more of a public relations exercise.
Nonetheless it was only partially successful in achieving Jewish security. Within a year the Consistoire system was established to promote conscription amongst Jews, control their economic activity and govern their religious affairs. Then came the “infamous decree” or “humiliating edict”, as it is variously called, which established a system of supervision of Jewish loans, required permits to engage in business, forbade Jews to settle in north-eastern France or to pay for substitutes to do their military service, though substitutes were permitted for non-Jews.
A number of historians believe that in the long run the decrees assisted the economic readjustment of Jews. HM Sachar’s view is that the decrees “probably hastened the decline of money lending, peddling, and old-clothes dealing as major fields of Jewish enterprise; by 1810 and 1811 Jews were moving rapidly into retailing, drafts, the mechanical arts, and the professions”. Nonetheless the readjustment “undoubtedly would have taken place without Napoleon’s gratuitous and insulting discrimination”.
AL Sachar feels that Napoleon hurt the Jews as much as he helped them. Edelstein says that Napoleon’s acts were probably neither anti- or philo-semitic in themselves but pro-French or pro-Napoleon.