July 23, 2024

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Napoleon as messianic figure: The Pestiférés de Jaffa and The Letter to the Jews (1799)


I recently discovered a file I had thought was lost on Napoleon. It was an appendix to my book on millennialism. I just found a draft that I sent to an Israeli archeologist and historian, Mordechai Gichon. The focus of the essay is on Napoleon’s messianic pretensions (not specifically biblical, but generic, world-salvific), and his alleged offer to the Jews to come back to the Holy Land and reestablish their sovereignty. The letter only survives in a German translation from the 19th century, and is accordingly of dubious authenticity.

One of the arguments I make for its authenticity, however, concerns the way in which the letter reflects a profound, revolutionary (hence also modern) reversal of notions of honor and shame. Just as Anthony Appiah argues that with modernity key notions that were once considered honorable – slave-owning, dueling, foot-binding – become considered dishonorable/shameful, I argue that what in pre-modern cultures (supersessionist Christian and Muslim cultures) was considered honorable – namely having the Jews live in a degraded status with no sovereignty, become, in Napoleon’s terms: that “which the nations of the world had so shamefully withheld from you.”

Napoleon as messianic figure: The Pestiférés and The Letter to the Jews (1799)

That some contemporaries viewed Napoleon either as the Messiah or the Antichrist is unquestionable.[1] Apparently, at least at certain points in his career, he shared the former view. Certainly, as a consummate master of propaganda, he did not hesitate to encourage others to believe the most of him and his mission.[2]

One of the interesting documents in this dossier is David’s painting of Napoleon and the pest-stricken at Jaffa during his disastrous campaign in the Holy Land. Napoleon himself recalls it as an effort to reassure his soldiers and show no fear. Historians regularly point out the royal pretensions of the act: from the earliest Capetians (and possibly before that), kings of France performed miraculous healings merely by their royal touch.[3] But Napoleon here has no conventional claim to royalty. His act, were it to have succeeded, it would have made a charismatic claim to sovereignty that should not (cannot?) be understood in any traditional monarchical sense.

He had risen to power as a general in the revolutionary army, and if his claim to sacral sovereignty addressed itself to anyone, it was to a revolutionary audience – the French people and all those oppressed of the world whose cottages he would protect as he destroyed the castles of their oppressors. His gesture, had it cured anyone, would have established his right to rule, not as king of France, but something much larger. In 1805, Emperor Napoleon reminisced about how he thought in the Spring of 1799:

Had I been able to take Acre, I would have put on a turban, I would have made my soldiers wear big Turkish trousers, and I would have exposed them to battle only in case of extreme necessity. I would have made them into a Sacred Battalion — my Immortals. I would have finished the war against the Turks with Arabic, Greek, and Armenian troops. Instead of a battle in Moravia, I would have won a Battle of Issus, I would have made myself emperor of the East, and I would have returned to Paris by way of Constantinople.[4]

Bonaparte aspired to be a revolutionary messiah, to take possession of an imperial glory that would have rewritten the very boundaries of civilization and sovereignty on a global scale. If we read Napoleon’s behavior not ex post facto but rather ex post defectu, material that traditional historians might disregard, take on alternative resonance. They sound like the crowing of a rooster that vesperian historians so dislike and distrust.

Take, for example, the famous and contested letter Napoleon addressed to Jews on the 1st of Floreal, Year 7 of the Revolution, inviting them to come to Jerusalem and “to claim the restoration of civic rights among the population of the universe, which had been shamefully withheld from you for thousands of years.”[5] Surviving only in a roughly contemporary German translation, transmitted to modern scholarship by a Frankist family in Prague, the proclamation of a Jewish capital in Jerusalem strikes many historians as so out of synch with Napoleon’s subsequent dealings with the Jews, that they either declare the text a forgery, or dismiss its significance.[6]

And yet, sufficient circumstantial evidence makes it entirely possible that the text is a translation of Napoleon’s original circular letter: the similarity of both style and strategy with other such letters addressed to minorities,[7] the mention of such a letter in the semi-official Moniteur universel de Paris from May 22, 1799,[8] the reflections that Napoleon made, both about the moment he allegedly wrote the letter, and the place of the Jews in his grand schemes. Nor was Napoleon the only one to view the Jews this way: an Irish patriot, Thomas Corbet who had served in the revolutionary army, wrote to Paul Barras, one of the Directors, urging him to address the Jews in just such a tone as Bonaparte’s letter (see below).

Historians who see Napoleon as a shrewd and realistic strategist, tend to dismiss it either as a fake, or a “meaningless gesture,”[10] and point to inconsistencies like its issue in Jerusalem where Bonaparte never went, and its failure to mention Passover, the date of its issue, as evidence of the fake. Others find everything plausible, including the proleptic date and place of issue (Jerusalem), as characteristic Napoleonic procedures. Ultimately it comes down to which Napoleon one imagines: the vesperian view backwards through the later Napoleonic friction with the Jews, or the turkey school’s view forward, of an unvanquished Napoleon, child of destiny.

Let us, for a moment, consider the text a reasonably good translation of an actual French (and probably Hebrew) original. On the apocalyptic curve, it represents a moment of ascending, indeed accelerating apocalyptic momentum. Unlike Condorcet’s text, written ex post defectu in the immediate aftermath of disappointment, Napoleon’s is written ex ante, while his apocalyptic ambitions are still white hot.

The letter itself is a fully millennial document where a man who is reshaping world history speaks in the Blakean language of visionary politics:

Israelites, unique nation, whom, in thousands of years, lust of conquest and tyranny have been able to be deprived of their ancestral lands, but not of name and national existence! …Arise then, with gladness, ye exiled! A war unexampled in the annals of history, waged in self-defense by a nation whose hereditary lands were regarded by its enemies as plunder to be divided, arbitrarily and at their convenience, by a stroke of the pen of Cabinets, avenges its own shame and the shame of the remotest nations, long forgotten under the yoke of slavery, and also, the almost two-thousand-year-old ignominy put upon you; and, while time and circumstances would seem to be least favorable to a restatement of your claims or even to their expression, indeed to be compelling their complete abandonment, it offers to you at this very time, and contrary to all expectations, Israel’s patrimony! …The young army with which Providence has sent me hither, led by justice and accompanied by victory, has made Jerusalem my head-quarters and will, within a few days, transfer them to Damascus, a proximity which is no longer terrifying to David’s city… Arise! Show that the former overwhelming might of your oppressors has but repressed the courage of the descendants of those heroes who alliance of brothers would have done honor even to Sparta and Rome but that the two thousand years of treatment as slaves have not succeeded in stifling it. Hasten! Now is the moment, which may not return for thousands of years, to claim the restoration of civic rights among the population of the universe which had been shamefully withheld from you for thousands of years, your political existence as a nation among the nations, and the unlimited natural right to worship Jehovah in accordance with your faith, publicly and most probably forever.

The text sheds a blinding light on a moment of revolutionary fervor, still burning brightly after the Terror, now come in contact with pre-modern political cultures. Napoleon sees himself, an emissary of providence, bearing the Enlightened ideal of freedom for all mankind – justice – to the whole world. Far from the incestuous confines of enlightened Paris, he cast his conqueror’s gaze upon the global horizons of a world filled with oppressed peoples, yearning for freedom for millennia. He performed on a stage of history – those “thousands of years” that “contemplated” his army’s inexorable march. A war “unexampled (inaudita!) in annals of history,” conducted by a “young army” whose commander was “sent by providence” fought for “justice,” and everywhere had “victory.”[11] The units of freedom that these epic horizons revealed to him, were not individuals, but peoples and nations, most of them without sovereignty.

In this world, when one put the generosity of the enlightened individual – no malice, no vengeance – to the task of freeing the world, it becomes self-evidently clear that the Jews deserve their own nation. They had survived despite everything  – “time and circumstances would seem to be least favorable to a restatement of your claims or even to their expression, indeed to be compelling their complete abandonment.” From an enlightened revolutionary point of view, if any entity in history had been “shamefully” deprived of sovereignty, it was the Jews.[12] Who more than they (and, of course, the French) deserved these “civic rights,” this “political existence as a nation among nations?” Here Napoleon had broken loose from the still zero-sum constraints of revolutionary philo-Judaism: that the Jews renounce their identities in order to be free. To Jews a nation, a separate and sovereign collective entity.

Nor was he alone. On June 8, 1798, less than a month after Bonaparte had sailed from Toulon for Egypt, the French newspaper, L’ami des lois published a “Lettre d’un juif à ses frères (traduite de l’italien),” the earliest “modern” Zionist manifesto, that sought to “reconcile the notion of a Jewish state with the secular and universalistic principles of the Age of Reason.”[13] In February of that year, probably upon hearing of Bonaparte’s victory of the Nile the previous summer (August 1, 1798), an Irish patriot who has served in the revolutionary army, wrote Paul Barras, one of the Directors, a letter urging the Revolutionary government to address the Jews in terms very similar to Napoleon’s appeal: “You are scattered over all the surface of the earth, nowhere as a nation, vilified, degraded by bigoted governments and insulted by the populaces… [and to learn from] “the armies of Bonaparte… that art in which you were formerly so distinguished, but from which you are at the moment excluded by all powers on earth.”[14] These sentiments united both the French revolutionaries and those, like Priestly in Philadelphia and William Blake in London to rejoice, and enthusiasts like William Reid “to return to their radical Christian roots.”[15]

Napoleon was of course light years ahead of his political contemporaries in both international relations and Zionism. Here he evanescently articulated a notion of global national sovereignties that constitute the founding principles of the UN. But in his own day it was still unthinkable; indeed it would take another century and a disastrous World War just to have one major figure – Woodrow Wilson – develop it as a policy-shaping principle of global peace. At the same time, Bonaparte here gives voice to a demotic millennial attitude of generosity towards the Jews, which had previously characterized only the strangest of visionaries and the most forward thinking of revolutionaries. Here we find a demotic concept of a messianic age, one in which Jews had their own identity: a world in which not only did “nation not lift up sword against nation” but among those nations living in peace, was a Jewish nation.

The strain of millennial generosity would develop over the next century primarily in demotic Anglo-Christian circles, where we find a new mutation in Christian millennial thinking. This one tried to defy the second law of apocalyptic dynamics, that one man’s messiah is another’s Antichrist. Rather than identify Jewish messianic aspirations as Antichrist’s army, Christians could look upon them with favor.[17] And both strains of this exceptionally premature, but prophetic political vision Napoleon here sketches with exalted hand, reached actual fruition only in the mid-20th century. Then, after another, this time genocidal World War, enlightened and chastened West nations built the UN, which then (barely) saw fit to grant the Jews that “civic right” to a “political existence as a nation among nations.”

Nor was Bonaparte speaking only to himself. Such language fed into Jewish messianic dreams of a new Cyrus, the imperial liberator.[18] It coincided with his plans to raise armies of liberated peoples – the Arabs, Greeks and Armenians to finish off the Turks. In so doing, he played on both Jewish messianic hopes and philo-Judaic revolutionary tendencies, admitting a principle that the more Eurocentric revolutionaries would not have contemplated – a Jewish nation. But for Napoleon, for Alexander, for Cyrus the Great, the messianic appeal of the liberating emperor is that his largesse extends to all, even the Jews.[19] For Jews, Cyrus represents the very type of the gentile messiah, and for Napoleon, nothing better suited his most extravagant pretensions.[20] The covering letter, written by a Jew, Aaron, son of Levi, rabbi of Jerusalem, burns with messianic ardor at the daring of “high enlightened Commander-in-Chief of the French armies in Africa.” For him, “Here is the sword of the Lord and of Bonaparte!”[21]

Rather than dismiss the document as an aberrant anomaly, it yields far more insight and texture if one approaches it as a “white hot” apocalyptic document, especially rare in that it comes before – just before – the acknowledgment that the millennial dream has failed. It gives us a window into the fevered brain of a conquering messiah.

[1] On the view of Napoleon as Messiah (and Antichrist), see Michael Pesenson, “Napoleon Bonaparte and Apocalyptic Discourse in Early Nineteenth-Century Russia,” The Russian Review, 65:3 (2006): 373-392; Katia Sainson, “‘Le Regenerateur de la France’: Literary Accounts of Napoleonic Regeneration 1799-1805,” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 30 (2001): 9-25; Joseph J. Shulim, “Napoleon I as the Jewish Messiah: Some Contemporary Conceptions in Virginia,” Jewish Social Studies, 7:3 (1945): 275-280 [http://www.jstor.org/stable/4615236 March 10, 2010].

[2] Wayne Hanley, Genesis of Napoleonic Propaganda, 1796-99 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002) [http://www.gutenberg-e.org/haw01/index.html March 10, 2010].

[3] Bloch, The Royal Touch, tr. J.E. Anderson (New York: Dorset Press, 1989). See also Gros’ portrayal of Napoleon attempting to heal the sick in his painting The Plague Stricken of Jaffa (1804), Edgar Munhall, “Portraits of Napoleon”, Yale French Studies 26 (1960): 7-8; Walter Friedlander, “Napoleon as Roi Thaumaturge”, Journal of the Warburg and Cortauld Institute 4 (1941); for a different interpretation of this event see Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, “Rumor, Contagion and Colonization in Gros’ Plague-Stricken of Jaffa (1804)”, Representations 51 (Summer, 1995): 8-11.

[4] Napoleon Bonaparte, “On Religions,” in The Mind of Napoleon: A Selection from His Written and Spoken Words, ed. J. Christopher Herold (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955), p. 49.

[5] On this document, see Franz Kobler, Napoleon and the Jews (New York: Schocken Books, 1976), pp. 55-7; Mordechai Gichon,נפוליאון בארץ־ישראל [Napoleon in the Holy Land] (Tel Aviv: Efi Meltser, 2003), pp. **-**; and Nathan Schur, Napoleon in The Holy Land (London: Greenhill Books, 1999), pp. 117-22.

[6] “Prof Ze’ev Sternhell of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, however, believes the entire story is nothing more than an oddity. ‘Napoleon’s big contribution came, in fact, in the form of promoting the incorporation of the Jews into French society,’ he argues” (“Napoleon was the first Zionist,” April 27, 2004 PTI) [http://www.rediff.com/news/2004/apr/27jew.htm March 10, 2010].

[7] Kobler notes that Bonaparte traveled with a printing press, and that he addressed letters of “liberation” and issued proclamations of “citizen’s rights” to many minorities, and even to women (p. 57). He notes the similarity of the “emotional vocabulary” as an example of a general Napoleonic type (p. 63-4), which Shur calls his “bogus eastern style” (Napoleon in the Holy Land, p. 118); see also R. B. Holtman, Napoleonic Propaganda (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1950), pp 187ff..

[8] “Bonaparte published a proclamation in which he invites all the Jews of Asia and Africa to rally to his banner in order to re-establish ancient Jerusalem. I has already armed a great number of them and their battalions threaten Aleppo” (Collection complète du Moniteur universel de Paris, [Paris: Adamant Media Corporation, 200*] vol. **, p. ***). See also, Weber, Apocalypses, p. 131 n.23.

[10] Discussion in Kobler, p. 65.

[11] On the Middle Eastern political culture (de longue durée) on which Bonaparte counted for his constantly growing success, see recently, Lee Smith, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (New York: Doubleday, 2010).

[12] Note here the typical inversion of modernity: what is honorable to a pre-modern Prinz (a potens in prime-divider societies), is shameful to a Mensch. Similar sentiments in Thomas Corbet: “degraded by bigoted governments and insulted by populaces… excluded [from sovereignty] by all the powers on earth.”

[13] Jeremy D. Popkin, “Zionism and the Enlightenment: The ‘Letter of a Jew to His Brethren,” Jewish Social Studies, 43:2 (1981): 113-120. Popkin considers it a “French government-inspired ‘disinformation’ campaign connected with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt.”

[14] English translation of the Corbet letter in Louis Hyman, The Jews of Ireland from Earliest Times to the Year 1910ˆ(Jewish Historical Society of England and Israel (London and Jerusalem: Jewish Historical Society of England and Israel Universities Press, 1972), pp. 237-40. Whether Corbet’s letter or the earlier “Open letter from a Jew” actually influenced Bonaparte is another matter: just their existence, even as “disinformation,” attests to the currency of the perceptions.

[15] Iain McCalman, “New Jerusalems: Prophecy, Dissent, and Radical Culture in England, 1787-1830,” in Enlightenment and Religion: Rational Dissent in Eighteenth-Century Britain, ed. Knud Haakonssen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 331.

[16] See also

[17] Pre-millennial dispensationalism.

[18] On the Jewish tradition about Cyrus see Lisabeth S. Fried, “Cyrus the Messiah? The Historical Background to Isaiah 45:1”, Harvard Theological Review 95:4 (2002), pp. 373-93 and Antti Laato, The servant of YHWH and Cyrus: a reinterpretation of the exilic messianic programme in Isaiah 40-55 (Stockholm : Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1992).

[19] While in Egypt, Napoleon legislated in favor of Coptic Christians and women’s rights, Steven Englund, Napoleon: A Political Life (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2005) p. 133.

[20] Note that Vernon Howell took the name David Koresh after his time spent in Israel (see James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher, Why Waco: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America [Berkeley, U. of California Press, 1995]). Had Napoleon won at Acre, we might have had an interesting case of “Jerusalem syndrome” with power.

[21] Letter discussed in Kobler, Napoleon and the Jews, pp. 58-60.

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