Napoleon, French Jews, and the Idea of Regeneration

Almost two hundred years after his death, Napoleon remains a larger-than-life figure, one whose historical activities have been eclipsed by numerous legends. One version considers Napoleon the world’s first Zionist for reportedly seeking to restore Jews to the Holy Land during his 1799 military campaign in the Middle East.1 The evidence for this interpretation is nebulous, and a number of scholars consider the recently discovered proclamation supposedly proving it to be a forgery. Even if Napoleon was not a proto-Zionist, he has retained a place in the popular imagination as a great friend of the Jews. This idea has been reinforced by the images that Napoleon commissioned during his reign, portraying himself as Moses bringing law and justice to the Jews, and by his revival in 1807 of the ancient rabbinical institution of the Sanhedrin.