> History > Middle Ages

Napoleon and the Jews

August 22, 2022 | by Benjamin Elterman

Was the diminutive ruler a friend or foe to the Jews?

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His namesake is famous the world over for 19th century imperial conquests, a personality complex synonymous with overcompensating, and an awesome independent film.

But did you know that Napoleon’s conquests also ushered in an era of unparalleled freedom for the Jews of Western Europe?

Back in the late 1700s, Jews in Italy were segregated and forced to live in ghettos. Jews could leave during the day, but they were forced to wear arm bands or bonnets with an identifying star of David.

When Napoleon occupied Ancona in central Italy, he saw the anti-Jewish discrimination and ordered to close the ghettos immediately, allowing Jews to live freely and practice Judaism openly. Napoleon also closed the ghettos in Rome and liberated the Jews of Venice, Verona, and Padua.

If European emancipation wasn’t enough, some historians believe Napoleon was even ready to give the Jews back their ancestral homeland of Israel, which at the time was still under Ottoman rule.

Why was the compact conqueror so benevolent to the Jews?

According to his personal physician Dr. Barry O’Meara, Napoleon was quoted as saying, “It is my wish that the Jews be treated like brothers as if we were all part of Judaism… I thought that this would bring to France many riches because the Jews are numerous and they would come in large numbers to our country where they would enjoy more privileges than in any other nation.”

But Napoleon’s love for the Jews wasn’t so clear cut. In 1808 he issued an Infamous Decree limiting Jewish residence in France and took away many freedoms. Historian Richard Ayrun believed that Napoleon in fact “despised the Jews” and was only using them for his own political advantage. Napoleon has also been quoted as calling Jews “a nasty people, cowardly, and cruel” and also a “most contemptible of people.”

So was Napoleon a friend or foe?

Whatever his true feelings, Napoleon’s actions undeniably made Jewish life a whole lot easier throughout Western Europe. Perhaps it’s fitting that it is illegal in France to name a pig Napoleon, but that doesn’t make it Kosher.

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