The Emperor and the Jews

By Samuels, Maurice | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Emperor and the Jews


Samuels, Maurice, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


WAS NAPOLEON GOOD OR BAD FOR THE JEWS? IN THE century following the emperor's death, it did not occur to most historians to ask this question. The major nineteenth-century accounts of Napoleon and the Empire do not mention Jews at all, except to relate how Polish Jews provided supplies to the French army during the retreat from Moscow. (1) As the focus of Napoleonic historiography shifted from the battlefield to domestic issues, and from hagiography to a more critical form of understanding, however, Napoleon's treatment of his roughly 40,000 French-Jewish subjects has come to seem a vital part of his legacy. This legacy has aroused controversy not only because of the complex and often contradictory nature of Napoleon's Jewish policies, but also because of ideological clashes among scholars of modern Jewish history. To ask whether Napoleon was good or bad for the Jews is to ask about the nature of Jewish modernity, the problem of assimilation, and the politics of Jewish identity.

Robert Anschel's Napoleon et les Juifs [Napoleon and the Jews] of 1928 provides the first sustained treatment of the question. According to Anschel, while Napoleon viewed the Jews negatively, his policies regarding them were mixed. (2) On the one hand, the emperor's retrograde edicts designed to "regenerate" the Jews of Alsace and Lorraine violated Revolutionary principles of equality by subjecting Jews to a series of injurious and exceptional laws. (3) On the other hand, Napoleon's creation of a state supervised bureaucracy governing Jewish affairs (the Consistory system), while serving the Imperial imperative for centralization and oversight, responded to Jewish demands for state recognition and elevated Judaism to the status of a state religion. (4) Moreover, the convocation of Jewish notables in 1807 (grandiosly dubbed by Napoleon the Grand Sanhedrin, in reference to the supreme national-religious court in ancient Israel), set down, under Napoleon's direction, the limits of Jewish religious law and encouraged Jewish assimilation by demanding the affirmation of Jewish loyalty to the modern nation state. (5)

To a subsequent generation of Jewish historians, writing in the wake of Vichy and the foundation of the state of Israel, the Napoleonic policies praised by Anschel seemed like a series of empty promises. For Zionists, the Grand Sanhedrin figured not as the founding moment of a French-Jewish fusion, but rather as a kind of ruse, in which Napoleon duped Jews into abandoning their religious autonomy by promising union with a society that would ultimately betray them. (6) Simon Schwarzfuchs has argued, however, that even while rejecting the assimilatory impulse behind the Grand Sanhedrin, Zionism has nevertheless relied on its primary achievement--the separation of Jewish religious law from civil law. Napoleon's policies, according to Schwarzfuchs, paved the way for all forms of Jewish modernity, Diasporic and Zionist.

But while many historians have debated the social, economic, cultural, and political effects of Napoleon's policies on the Jews, few have studied the ways in which French Jews in the nineteenth century experienced these changes. While many have debated Napoleon's attitude toward the Jews, few have studied the Jews' attitudes toward Napoleon. One exception is Ronald Schechter, who has recently described the synagogue services and Hebrew prayers written in praise of Napoleon during the Empire. (7) In what follows, I present a different side of the Jewish response to Napoleon--a response made a quarter century after Waterloo, when the Jews no longer had to curry favor with the emperor, but faced a new set of social and religious dilemmas. My source is a short story published in the leading French-Jewish monthly newspaper by Godchaux Weil under the pseudonym Ben-Levi. The story dates from February 1841, two months following the return of Napoleon's remains to France, when the cult of the great man's memory was at a height and when the full effect of his policies could be viewed in retrospect. …

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