Napoleon & the Jews

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Great Sanhedrin


     Sanhedrin is a Greek work meaning an assembly. It is derived from the Greek word “to sit” and “seat” and referred first to an ordinance in the Torah in which Moses  assembled 71 Jewish elders headed by the High Priest as advisors (Bamidbar 11:16). In post exilic history the Romans allowed the Jews to  govern themselves by once more assembling 71 men to function as a “government in exile.” Much later, in 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte appointed 71 Jews to serve as a Sanhedrin and answer 12 questions the emperor asked of them.

     This was not the first time Napoleon concerned himself with the Jews of France and Europe. Napoleon was the son of the French Revolution of 1789, which had succeeded and proclaimed liberty, fraternity, and equality for all, including Jews. This meant that Jews were to be given the right to leave the ghettoes to which they had been confined for centuries in all Christian countries.

     When Napoleon won numerous battles and invaded as many small and large European countries as battles he had won, he declared everywhere that the Jews were to be released from the ghettoes and treated as equal citizens.

     Years earlier, in 1799, when he was a general in the French army, Napoleon invaded Egypt with a view of invading the Holy Land. He therefore appealed to the Jews and promised to establish a Jewish homeland in ancient Israel as soon as he could defeat the British. However, the British fleet prevented Napoleon from gaining a victory at the battle of Acre, and he was forced to leave Egypt in defeat.

     Wherever Napoleon’s armies went, Jews were emancipated. Napoleon’s motive in befriending the Jews of his time is not clear. His message was the first attempt to give the European Jews some sense of belonging to the Western world. Napoleon brought on the enlightenment of the Jews and their entry into the objective, secular, and scientific world. 

    Indeed, all these efforts on behalf of the Jews were voided during the “Dreyfus Affair” and by the collaboration of the French with the Germans in rounding up the French Jews for mass murder during the German occupation in 1941.

     Today, French Jews are leaving France for Israel or the United States, as religious beliefs and greed leads once more to violence against the Jews of France and all of Europe. Once more Europeans seek to enrich themselves by seizing the property of dead Jews, as was done by the European murderers of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

     The Great Sanhedrin is no more and France is no longer a major power in the world. Instead, the Jews have liberated themselves and returned to the land of their fathers In Israel. No longer are we dependent on the good will of this or that politician. We have taken our fate into our own hands without the Napoleons of this world. Nevertheless, Napoleon Bonaparte will always remain a light among the nations for his brief encounter with the Jewish people. May his memory be preserved among us.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The German Jews in America (2014).

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