"What couldn't be fulfilled under the rule of Napoleon I can be fulfilled by Wilhelm II," Theodor Herzl wrote in a letter to Kaiser Wilhelm II in March 1899.
Herzl's statements, quoted in a new book by an Israeli scholar, appear to support the claims of those who view Napoleon Bonaparte as the harbinger of the Zionist Movement. But Napoleon's Zionist notions met an untimely death, due, in no small part, to the English and Napoleon himself.
The brief romance took place during then French general's military campaign in the Middle East. In the summer of 1798, he conquered Egypt; and in the summer of the same year, he led 30,000 soldiers through the Sinai Peninsula and into the Land of Israel. On March 7, 1799, Napoleon took control of Jaffa, and then headed north to besiege Acre.
Napoleon intends "to restore to the Jews their Jerusalem," read a French report at the time, while another report claimed that "Bonaparte published a proclamation that calls on all the Jews of Africa and Asia to rally around his flag in order to reestablish ancient Jerusalem."
The proclamation itself has never been found, but a copy, translated into German, which was uncovered in 1939, has it addressed to "the Jewish nation from France's top general, Bonaparte, and Rabbi Aharon in Jerusalem," and reading: "Israelites, unique nation, France offers you at this very time... Israel's patrimony; take over what has been conquered and with that nation's warranty and support, maintain it against all comers."
Rabbi Aharon Ben-Levi of Jerusalem also adds his voice to the proclamation, calling on the Jews to enlist in Napoleon's army "to return to Zion as in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah" and rebuild the Temple.
"Napoleon was the first to see the Jews as a political force in the international arena," says Prof. Mordechai Gichon, a military historian and archaeologist from Tel Aviv University's Classical Studies department. Gichon's book, "Napoleon in the Holy Land," sums up almost 40 years of research on the subject. Most of the material comes from France's war archive, as well as journals and books written by soldiers in Napoleon's army.
Napoleon's idea to establish a national home for the Jews in the Land of Israel, Gichon says, stemmed primarily from political considerations. "It came to him on the backdrop of the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire and the competition for its spoils with England," Gichon says. "Napoleon believed the Jews would repay his favors by serving French interests in the region."
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 form of promoting the incorporation of the Jews into French society," Sternhell says.
Gichon concurs, noting that Napoleon's approach subsequently changed. "When he returned to France and became its ruler," he says, "Zionism was replaced by an approach according to which France is the country of the Jews."
The change in Napoleon's approach may have been brought about by the English, who decided the fate of the French general's Middle East campaign when they sunk his ships in Abu-Kir and forced him, on May 20, 1799, to lift the siege off Acre and return to Egypt to prepare for an English invasion.
"After returning to France, all he was interested in when it came to the Jews was how to use them to reinforce the French nation," Gichon says. "Therefore, he tried to conceal the Zionist chapter of his past."