Napoleon’s Proclamation to Jews Known to Ottomans

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

While campaigning in Israel in 1799, did General Napoleon Bonaparte issue a “proclamation” to the Jews? Twenty-first-century historians are divided. But, the deeper story is not simply whether he did so in Israel, but also the one or more of his earlier Jewish proclamations similarly issued as propaganda to destroy the Ottoman Empire. Thus, a neglected Ottoman-Turkish source says there was already, in the Muslim year 1212 (1797-8), a French proclamation inviting Jews to come together to establish “a Jewish government in Jerusalem.” Exactly such news about a Napoleonic proclamation inviting Jews to reestablish ancient Jerusalem featured repeatedly in 1799 European newspapers and echoed for decades, with profound consequences in the 20th century.


For more than 200 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 1797-9 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. Such deference to Jewish antiquity was counterpart to Napoleon’s views about the companion possibility of freeing the Greeks. In exile on Saint Helena (1815-1821), he reminisced: “What glory to him who will liberate Greece! His name will be engraved beside that of Homer, Plato and Epaminondas. I nourished such a hope [1797] when I was fighting in Italy.”

The two different territories that had once been ancient Greece and the biblical Land of Israel were then both part of the Ottoman Empire which Napoleon was certain (1797) would fall during his lifetime. He was a Corsican. From his Mediterranean perspective, Jews and Greeks were similar as storied, ancient Peoples now living partly under Ottoman rule and partly in broader diaspora. From his revolutionary perspective, the “spirit of liberty” ensured that, in either case, national awakening was already on the horizon.

Jewish peoplehood as revolutionary rhetoric

The pertinent events occurred several years after revolutionaries had executed Louis XVI, King of France. The contemporary context was the eve of the War of the Second Coalition (1798-1802) pitting several European monarchies and the Ottoman Empire against the French Revolutionary Republic (la grande Nation) 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.”

Under the government of the Revolutionary Directory (1795-1799), the influential Paris weekly La Décade philosophique was, ideologically, France’s premier periodical. It was religiously read by the Republic’s leadership, including Napoleon who for a time carefully cultivated good relations with its editors and writers.

Likely party to the secret that Napoleon’s army would soon set sail for Alexandria was ex-priest Joachim Le Breton. He was a senior official of the Ministry of the Interior, a Member of the Institut National, and one of the editors of La Décade. He 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 those two Mideast places ought to be extensively colonized by Europeans.)

In this connection, Le Breton highlighted the Jewish People’s longevity; and its enduring love for its aboriginal homeland, the city of Jerusalem and the site of the Temple. He portrayed Jews 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.

Hopes high till Napoleon’s fleet annihilated in Aboukir Bay

When Le Breton wrote, Napoleon had already liberated Italian Jews by famously abolishing the ghettos, during his spectacular conquest of the peninsula and the Ionian Islands (1796-7). Suddenly, Italian Jews got equal rights of citizenship and immediately began participating in the new revolutionary order as soldiers, officials, envoys, emissaries, agents and spies. For better or worse, they were then perceived to be partisans of the revolution.

Napoleon astonished the Mediterranean world by taking the mighty island fortress of Malta from the bitterly anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish Christian Order of the Knights of Saint John (June 1798). There, Napoleon dramatically freed Muslims and Jews held as slaves. He also established Jewish civic rights, including the right to freely practice Judaism in their own synagogue.

Among Mediterranean Jews and Greeks, Napoleon’s string of stunning victories increasingly triggered a soaring expectation that only climbed still further with his conquest of Ottoman Egypt from the local Mamluks (July 1798). National dreams of the early arrival of “liberty and equality” persisted from 1797 until the annihilation of Napoleon’s fleet at Aboukir Bay by British Admiral Horatio Nelson (August 1-3, 1798).

News of the French naval disaster in Egypt ended an exceptional period when Napoleon was popularly seen as a second Alexander, destined to soon conquer Constantinople and liberate Turkey’s subject Peoples. During that interval, such high hopes were purposely fed by the Directory’s mouthpiece, Le Moniteur which persistently published reports of real or imagined rebellions, and several times predicted the imminent fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Napoleon targeted all the Ottoman Peoples

Regarding both secret agents and the conduct of France’s foreign relations, legislator and diplomat François Barbé-Marbois in Paris told the upper chamber, le Conseil des Anciens (June 26, 1797):

The most important operations are realized, not in his [Minister of External Relations] offices, but rather under the tent of the generals of the Republic. That is to say, it is the bayonet that cuts the quills of our policies, and it is the War Department that picks up the expense of our negotiations.

From mid-1797, General Bonaparte became the Ottoman Empire’s next-door neighbor in the Adriatic region — pertinently including Ancona (Italy); the Ionian Islands; and the Balkan coast at Butrinto, Parga, Preveza and Vonizza. There, la division française du Levant reported to Napoleon as General in Chief of the Army of Italy. Soon, the Ottoman Near East was swarming with French agents, as Turkish reports to Constantinople repeatedly indicated.

In 1797-8, Livorno, Rome, Pisa and Venice had Hebrew-language presses and Jewish typesetters ready to meet the needs of the new revolutionary order. Moreover, Napoleon was then personally positioning presses equipped with characters for printing in French, Italian, Greek, Ottoman-Turkish and Arabic.

For example, a printing press was dispatched to the Ionian island of Corfu. There, the French printed a proclamation in Greek and Italian which announced that “with the establishment of a press, those kings still sitting on their shaky thrones tremble, their iron yoke has been lifted from off the necks of the people by revolution.” That same press was soon used to print, significantly in Italian, the lectures (discorsi) delivered in the synagogue on Corfu. There, local Jews were major beneficiaries of the new revolutionary regime. Alongside the French, Corfiote Jews valiantly fought as soldiers trying to defend their island against the combined attacks of reactionary Russians and Ottomans (1798-1799).

Despite more than two hundred years of friendship between France and the Ottoman Empire, Napoleon had little respect for the Sultan’s sovereignty. Starting in 1797, he repeatedly aimed revolutionary propaganda at the subject Peoples of the entire Ottoman Empire. And to be sure, nothing less than that had been specifically commanded by the Directory via France’s Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (August 23, 1797):

Nothing is more important than that we put ourselves on a good footing with Albania, Greece, Macedonia and other provinces of the Turkish empire in Europe and even with all those that are bathed by the waters of the Mediterranean, notably Egypt which one day could become of great utility to us. The Directory, in approving the ties which you have established with Ibrahim Pasha and the Albanian nation, desires that you make the French people known to the remainder of the Turkish provinces, in a way that sooner or later could turn out to their benefit and to ours, and to the disadvantage of our common enemies.

Meeting his old friend in Passariano (Udine, Italy), General Louis Desaix described in his diary what he had then learned from Napoleon about the French plan to bring down the Ottoman Empire (September 1797):

The general has a great and skillful policy: it is to give to all of these folks there a grand idea of the French nation. He has received the Directory’s command to spread via printing, proclamations throughout all of Africa and Greece. He wins the hearts of all these nations; he reminds them of their ancient glory, their ancient name; he instructs them about the astonishing and prodigious feats of the French. And, they are all surprised to find out what they learn; they are very thirsty for news; they come in great numbers to Ancona to equip themselves with merchandise and one of their greatest pleasures is to take these proclamations to read and to carry them back to their country.

Those familiar with 18th-century Adriatic trade would immediately know that Jews were then a rather important part of the commerce between Ancona and the Ottoman east. Thus, there is no sense in which Desaix’s revealing passage can reasonably be read so as to exclude the many Jewish merchants who regularly went to do business in Ancona, where there was also a large Jewish community already enthusiastic for the revolution and Napoleon.

A proclamation to the Jews before 1799

News of an undated proclamation to the Jews reached the Ottoman Turks certainly before Sultan Selim III declared war against France (September 10, 1798); and probably during the Muslim year 1212, which began on June 26, 1797 and ended at sundown on June 14, 1798. That is what we learn from the Ottoman Empire’s chosen historiographer, Ahmet Cevdet Pasha who intellectually was a towering figure. To the point, the high quality of Cevdet’s historical writing has been praised by Bernard Lewis (1953).

In the mid-19th century, Cevdet began producing, for the period 1774-1826, an authoritative twelve volumes, based mainly on documents in the imperial archives in Constantinople. As the Ottoman Empire’s officially-appointed chronicler (vakanüvis وقائع نوىس) Cevdet had to be very careful about sequence and chronology. He was neither ambiguous nor confused in clearly pointing to the several months before the September 1798 Ottoman declaration of war against France.

Scrupulous about identifying his sources, Cevdet specifically writes that it was then heard “from the mouth of a Jew” that, as “understood from a printed and published official declaration” (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.” (Tarih-i Cevdet, New Edition, 2nd Printing, Hicri 1309, Vol. 6, p. 282.) Who was this Jew who told the Ottomans about such a declaration? It is impossible to say. However, we should bear in mind that Napoleon certainly had Jewish spies, agents or emissaries in the Balkans. For example, Le Moniteur published a Constantinople report (May 13, 1799):

On the 16th of this month [April 5, 1799] in the Bostanji-Bashi prison, the Porte had strangled to death a Jewish physician, lately come from Rushcuk [Ruse on the Danube] with the Kapudan Pasha [November 1798]. Definite proof had been acquired that he was a secret emissary of the French.

Napoleon’s propaganda resented by Turkey

From 1797 the Turks were fully alive to the modern political meaning of all those many French revolutionary references to the glories of ancient Greece. On either side, contemporary diplomatic correspondence and other sources show that the Turks then knew that Napoleon and his local commanders were publishing inflammatory proclamations and dispatching letters and subversive emissaries to spark revolt against the Sultan on the Aegean islands, and in Morea and Rumelia. That last Balkan province notably included the heavily Jewish city of Salonika. But, there were other large Jewish communities in all three of the cited regions, and also in Constantinople and in so many other places of the Ottoman Empire.

The Foreign Minister (reis-ül-küttab رئيس الكتاب‎) and Deputy Foreign Minister (the Phanariote Grand Dragoman of the Porte) repeatedly protested to the French Embassy in Constantinople, as in late 1797 and again in June and July 1798. These Ottoman grievances were embodied in a long memorandum shared with the diplomatic corps simultaneous to Turkey’s September 1798 declaration of war against France. The Ottomans were astute in articulating the French strategic conception: “Everywhere weak republics would be created which France would keep under its tutelage, so that everything everywhere would go according to its arbitrary will.” The foregoing and other generous excerpts from the Ottoman memorandum appeared in the Wiener Zeitung (October 10, 1798):

One knows about Bonaparte’s letter [July 30, 1797] to the Maniotes [Morea] and of other distributed writings of his deceitful genius. When the Sublime Porte in the strongest terms complained about this, the French government downplayed the matter and undertook to stop it immediately, saying that it wished nothing else than to strengthen the old friendship. But, the [French] generals did not in the least change their behavior. To the contrary, they were even more enterprising and cunning than before.

The Turks were dead right. Sometimes, Napoleon himself recruited his own spies and emissaries, even personally signing their bank drafts. For example, the Corsican-born Maniote, Dimo Stephanopoli was fluent in that particular Greek dialect. In September 1797, Napoleon sent Dimo and his nephew Nicolo to sow “seeds of true liberty” in Mani, the population of which was no more than 40,000. Napoleon troubled to try to subvert the few Maniotes. Therefore, why would anyone doubt that he then also aimed similar appeals at some of the important Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire? True, the Maniotes were famous as fierce warriors. But, revolutionary Jews had already shown that they too could fight and, in addition, they potentially offered Napoleon other kinds of advantages.

Napoleon’s many proclamations

Napoleon personally generated around 33,000 letters and many thousands of other papers. Although a great mass of Napoleonic material has survived, we can guess that a large amount was lost in the normal course of events. Moreover, some pieces were purposely burned for political reasons while he was emperor (1804-1815) and also under the reign of his nephew Napoleon III (1852-1870). During the latter period, some documents of Napoleon the Great were intentionally destroyed, because it was judged that they would strongly offend Roman Catholic sentiment.

From 1796, Napoleon placed exceptional emphasis on public relations, including propaganda custom-made for various niche audiences, near or far. During his early campaigns, he was always concerned about the availability of printing presses and foreign-language typeface. For example, he repeatedly signaled urgent need for Greek and Arabic characters, the latter also useful for printing in Ottoman-Turkish.

Less than a week after the Revolutionary French Army landed in Ottoman Egypt, Napoleon ordered (July 7, 1798) French, Arabic and Greek printing to begin within twenty-four hours. He wanted four thousand Arabic-language proclamations pronto. He frequently wrote to ensure that his proclamations were distributed to the inhabitants of Egypt. He was also astute in finding imaginative ways for his proclamations to reach Greater Syria, where he kept on sending spies. As we shall soon see, there is no reason to presume that Jews were lacking among the spies that Napoleon was sending from Egypt to “Syria.” Such spies, emissaries and agents carried various proclamations and secret letters.

For example, The True Briton of London published (February 19, 1799) an English translation of an undated, Arabic proclamation that Napoleon had preemptively addressed to “the inhabitants of Syria.” We can be certain that this proclamation originated before 1799, due to the average speed of late 18th-century communications from the Mideast to Constantinople, and then onward to Vienna and London. Thus, Napoleon had to have issued that proclamation, at a minimum, fifty days before he left Cairo (February 10, 1799) to cross the Sinai Desert. Consistent with revolutionary doctrine, this document denies the divinity of Christ, and then invites the populace to rally to Napoleon’s banner (1798):

Cairo the Great, Alexandria the Powerful, Cyprus, Jerusalem, Ptolemais [Acre], and Damascus, the plains and the ancient monuments which surround those Cities, have witnessed the approach of our Armies, whose power is infinite, and incomprehensible even to the wise. Protection to every City which shall open its gates to us! But woe to those Cities and their inhabitants, which shall reject our beneficence! It is to declare this truth to all Syria that we have issued this Proclamation which is irrevocable. If you repair to our standard, you will never be forsaken — if not, the sword of vengeance shall reach your heads.

The Ottomans derided such proclamations as lying “sweet talk.” Nonetheless, after Napoleon’s army took Gaza (February 25, 1799), there were more proclamations for Muslims and 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.”

 Why not the Jews?

Before and during his “Syrian” campaign, Napoleon certainly sought to derive advantage from every other significant component of the local population. Thus, it would have been exceedingly peculiar for him to have omitted communications or approaches to 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, 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

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 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, 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 came very close to Jerusalem. But he was careful not to take the city, because for foreign-policy reasons he wanted to parry any Muslim perception that he was yet another Christian Crusader. But despite their revolutionary scorn for Christianity, his troops were still “burning to see” sacred sites like the “plateau of the Temple of Solomon,” as Napoleon specifically recollected.

Secret agents and “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 that (without payment or other financial reward or incentive) first surfaced in 1940 London. This discovery was a modern trace of Napoleonic ephemera. Originating from Nazi Vienna (August 1939), it was an elderly Jewish refugee’s last-minute typescript of his family’s long-treasured, handwritten, German translation, said to be 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 seems to have known little or nothing about the “Letter to the Jewish Nation” dated April 20, 1799. But way too soon to have then originated from distant Ottoman “Syria” came remarkable European tidings about an apparently earlier, undated (and perhaps entirely unrelated) Napoleonic “proclamation to the Jews.” The latter news perhaps reflects the proclamation to the Jews that the Turks had heard about in the months before September 10, 1798.

In this connection, two or three writers of the last thirty years have referred to an alleged April 1799 report, most appropriately from Constantinople. This news from Turkey was said to have been perhaps initially published, maybe in early 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 directly, because the 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.]

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.

Likely too soon to have been copied from London, but perhaps derived from Hamburg or Berlin, was the same story in 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 re-establish 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 government lacked much own-source information as to what was really transpiring in the Mideast, just as Napoleon was then 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 waited for an official green light for whatever they printed about Napoleon, who was of key concern to the Directors.

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. 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.”

The “restoration of the Jews” was also a recurring topic in the 1799 Gentlemen’s Magazine of London. And, according to the July 17th Wiener Zeitung, the British House of Lords (June 20, 1799) heard Lord Radner condemn secret clubs, free masons and Jacobin societies for propagating the subversive idea of inviting the Jews to gather themselves together to restore “their chimerical Jerusalem.”

By contrast, Trinity College Fellow Henry Kett published the widely-read, History, the Interpreter of Prophecy (Oxford, 1799). In those three volumes, Kett said the “collected light of Prophecy” foretells “the restoration of the ancient chosen people of God to the land which He gave to their fathers.” Nor did Kett believe that such prophecy required Jews first to convert to Christianity:

Granting therefore that the Power of France should execute this project, instead of invalidating, it will confirm the truth of Prophecy, and afford another signal example of the over-ruling providence of God. The wicked and blaspheming Assyrian was the rod of his anger and executed [8th century BCE] his judgments upon his people. The tremendous Anti-Christian Northern Power [the Revolutionary French Republic] which has been raised up to be the scourge of nations, shall ‘fulfill his will, though in his heart he means not so.’ The restoration of the Jews may be a part of its commission; and there are some reasons which make this not a very improbable supposition…

Kett judged that “the cruelties that have been exercised upon the Jews for many ages have been a scandal to the Christian name.” He warned the nations “to make no vain attempt to hinder the return of the Jews by whatever means it appears designed to be effected, lest they be found to fight against God.”

If not from the Ottoman lands then most certainly from a variety of European publications, 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 and 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.

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 re-establish 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.

Also to be noted is the anonymous “Letter from a Jew to his Brethren.”  This item specified that it had been translated from an earlier version in Italian. This Italian pedigree is important because, as indicated above, 1797 Italy has to play a big part in any attempt to solve the riddle of Napoleon’s proclamations to the Jews. The Lettre attracted much attention in both France and beyond, partly because it was 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 re-establish the empire of Jerusalem.

Thus, both before and after Napoleon’s fleet sailed for Egypt (May 19, 1798), 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 (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. For example, drawing Talleyrand’s attention to France’s need to take control of Egypt, Napoleon opined (September 13, 1797): “With [revolutionary] armies like ours, for which all religions are equal — Muslims, Copts, Arabs, idolators, etc. — all of that is completely irrelevant; we would respect the one just like the others.”

For his 1798 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 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, including during the “Syrian” campaign.

About the Author
Allen Z. Hertz was senior adviser 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 history at McGill University (B.A.) and Columbia University (M.A., Ph.D.). He also has international law degrees from Cambridge University (LL.B.) and the University of Toronto (LL.M.).
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