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NAPOLEON BONAPARTE:

Emperor of the French; born in Ajaccio, Corsica, Aug. 15, 1769; died at St. Helena in 1821. Only those incidents in his career need be noticed here that have direct bearing upon the history of the Jews. His first recorded utterances on this subject were in connectionwith the question of the treatment of the Alsace Jews and their debtors raised in the Imperial Council on April 30, 1806. He declared it dangerous to allow so large a preponderance of the Jews, who constituted a state within a state, in a part of the French empire bordering upon the territories of its enemies. A week later, however, he had reached a milder view, and in the same assembly declared against any persecution of them. Meanwhile he determined on a moratorium of a year for all debts incurred to the Jews in the Rhine provinces of the empire. By the same decree, issued May 30, 1806, he summoned an Assembly of Notables which should consult with him as to the best means of opening upto the Jews honorable means of livelihood. This Assembly of Notables was held, and led to the establishment of the French Sanhedrin in 1807, for the proceedings of which see Sanhedrin.

It would appear that one of Napoleon's main objects in his Jewish policy was to promote assimilation by intermarriage (see "Arch. Isr." 1841, p. 40). Napoleon throughout made a great distinction between Jews of the Rhine provinces and the "New Christians" of Bordeaux and southern France, and it was considered a special privilege to the Jews of Paris that they were declared to belong to the latter class. For the purpose of his policy he divided the Jews of the empire into consistories, each of which should have its representative (See Consistory). The arrangement made by Napoleon in the celebrated Madrid decree of 1812 is still effective in the lands which at that time constituted the French empire.

But Napoleon's indirect influence on the fate of the Jews was even more powerful than any of the decrees recorded in his name. By breaking up the feudal trammels of mid-Europe and introducing the equality of the French Revolution he effected more for Jewish emancipation than had been accomplished during the three preceding centuries. The consistory of Westphalia became a model for other German provinces until after the fall of Napoleon, and the condition of the Jews in the Rhine provinces was permanently improved as a consequence of their subjection to Napoleon or his representatives. Heine and Börne both record their sense of obligation to the liberality of Napoleon's principles of action, and the German Jews in particular have always regarded Napoleon as one of the chief forerunners of emancipation in Germany. When Jews were selecting surnames, some of them are said to have expressed their gratitude by taking the name of "Schöntheil," a translation of "Bonaparte," and legends grew up about Napoleon's activity in the Jewish ghetto (see "Sippurim," ii. 193-196).

Bibliography:
  • Jost, Gesch. x. 108 et passim;
  • Grätz, Gesch. xi. 214 et seq., and note 6;
  • J. Reiner, in Ost und West, ii. 403-408;
  • W. D. Sloane, Napoleon Bonaparte a History, iii. 62-64, New York, 1896;
  • Requête Adressée au Roi Par le Consistoire Central des Israélites, Paris, 1807.
E. C. J.
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