When Napoleon Was About to Declare a Jewish State in Palestine

There are signs that had Napoleon conquered Acre in 1799, he would have gone to Jerusalem and declared that the Jews have a right to an independent state in their ancestral homeland

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Napoleon's Siege of Acre (1799). Painter unknown.
Napoleon's Siege of Acre (1799). Painter unknown. Credit: The Napoleon Museum, Ile d’Aix, France.Josse/Leemage/AFP
shlomo ben ami
Shlomo Ben Ami
shlomo ben ami
Shlomo Ben Ami

Napoleon conquered Egypt in July and August of 1798, and by February of the next year he embarked on his campaigns through Palestine, or should we say Syria, as his officers described the political geography of the area.

The alliance between Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire threatened Napoleon’s dreams of eastward expansion. In his typical fashion, Napoleon struck quickly, denying his enemies the chance to organize and embarking on a preemptive war to destroy their capabilities.

The marching orders read: “We will march into Syria, punish Ahmad Jazzar [the governor on behalf of the sultan], destroy any preparations for an invasion of Egypt… and return to Egypt quickly, in time to strike at the maritime invasion forces.”

About 13,000 soldiers set out toward Israel with the lightest possible equipment, as the mission’s success depended on its speedy conclusion. Napoleon left Cairo on February 9, and within four days his armies were deep within the Sinai Peninsula. Napoleon captured El Arish on the 18th, and Gaza one week later. On February 26, he arrived in Ashdod and in Ramle two days later.

A statue of a French commander in Jaffa. In January 1799, at the head of an army of 13,000 soldiers, Napoleon captured Jaffa within two days and advanced up the coast towards Acre. Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP

On March 7, Jaffa fell after a short siege and cruel massacre of the local population. Qaqun, with its Mamluk fortress, was captured on March 15 and two days later the French forces were deployed on the slopes of Mount Carmel.

Napoleon was convinced that within a few weeks he would be able to march on Jerusalem, with all the religious and historical significance that entailed. But the campaign would soon be derailed and the dream of Jerusalem deferred.

A Jewish state?

On March 22, 1799, a day before he began his hasty retreat from Syria, the French Revolution’s newspaper Le Moniteur Universel published a notice that claimed that Napoleon’s campaign sought to reinstate Jewish independence referring to the Jews as the “legal heirs” of the Land of Israel.

Did Napoleon really intend to declare the Jews’ right to a state of their own with its capital in Jerusalem?

The Jewish question definitely preoccupied him. In 1791 revolutionary France granted full citizenship to its Jewish citizens. As emperor, Napoleon would upgrade their status as a collective as well, and in doing so he would also grant legitimacy to the process of their emancipation throughout the continent. Although Napoleon himself failed to mention the Le Moniteur Universal declaration in his Saint Helena memoirs, he typically emphasized the “abundance” that the Jews could bring to France if they were granted equal status.

What was the origin of the notice in the newspaper? Some claim that during the difficult hours of the siege of Acre Napoleon sought a way to attract Haim Farhi, the Jewish adviser to Ahmad Jazar, to his side. On the other hand, the facts prove that the Jews preoccupied him far less than the complex variety of ethnic groups he encountered during his stay in the Galilee. But the story about his intention to grant independence to the Jews became entrenched, and eventually became a component in the shaping of European awareness of the need to establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.

Over the two months that the French army spent in the Galilee, Napoleon spent most of his time opposite the walls of Acre. He left only for a few days in order to help decide the battle of Mount Tabor, where the French forces under the command of Gen. Kleber were surrounded by the forces of Ahmad Bashar al Jazzar.

An illustration of Napoleon Bonaparte in the "Napoleon Was Here!" exhibit at the National Library.Credit: National Library

On his way back to Acre, Napoleon spent one night in Nazareth. This direct product of the atheistic French Revolution couldn’t resist the opportunity to conduct a thanksgiving prayer in the Church of the Annunciation.

The storming of Acre was slated for March 28, and when it failed Napoleon imposed a hopeless siege on the city. Seeking to avoid battles with superior enemy forces while the siege was underway, he hoped to stave off enemies before they could reach his armies.

He therefore devised a plan to keep the enemy forces on the other side of the Jordan River. But the French soon discovered that the Jordan is not the mighty river they imagined from the Bible stories. Kleber embarked on a reconnaissance mission along the Jordan and reported that the river could be crossed at almost any point.

Napoleon deployed his limited forces in four arrays. One guarded Haifa, the Carmel and the Jezreel Valley; the second was stationed in Nazareth, and guarded the Jordan River crossings south of the Sea of Galilee; the third was stationed in Safed in order to control the Jordan crossings north of the Sea of Galilee; and the fourth guarded the access to the northern mountain chains with a forward force in Tyre.

Haifa, which was captured without firing a single shot, was under Napoleon’s direct responsibility. The city was crucial to the campaign, both as a rear base and because if it fell into enemy hands the French army would be left with no route of retreat to Egypt – the city was a central point on the route over land and the sea was completely controlled by the British Navy.

The 1804 painting "Bonaparte Visits the Plague Stricken in Jaffa" commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte from Antoine-Jean Gros.Credit: Musée du Louvre

Despite the constant tumult, the French officers were impressed by the landscapes of the Holy Land. Gen. Joachim Murat, who later became the King of Naples and the Two Sicilies after taking control of Safed and subduing a force of Mughrabis, expressed his admiration for the fortress that guarded the city. He found it similar to “those Gothic buildings that we see in France.” The road from Acre to Safed also aroused his admiration, as did the flora in the area of the Hula Lake and the route of the Jordan up to the Naharayim Bridge.

‘I am good to my friends’

But the beautiful landscapes were forgotten when a large hostile force from Damascus crossed the Jordan at Daughters of Jacob Bridge and deployed in the area of the hills of Lubia, today’s Kibbutz Lavi. The forces planned to move in the direction of Haifa and to divert Napoleon from the siege of Acre.

It was one of the most difficult hours of the campaign. Of the 13,000 soldiers who embarked from Cairo, about 1,000 died or were wounded in the battles of El Arish, Gaza and Jaffa, another 1,000 lay in the hospitals of Ramle and Jaffa. About 2,000 remained as garrisons in the occupied cities and about 5,000 were harnessed to the effort opposite the walls of Acre. Only some 4,000 soldiers remained to confront the army from Damascus. And still Gen. Junot was able to defeat them in Lubia. Napoleon called the event “the battle of Nazareth.”

At the same time Murat waged battles against other forces in his sector, and later pursued them beyond the Jordan river to the Quneitra region. On April 17, Murat conquered Tiberias without any special effort. Apparently the French advantage also relied on the disparity in motivation, and to a considerable extent on the soldiers’ enthusiasm for looting.

Women walk past a statue of Napoleon Bonaparte with a sign marking the area as a historical site in the old city of Jaffa.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP

Additional battles to guard Napoleon’s flanks in Acre were waged at around the same dates in the area of Sejarah, Kafr Kana and Mount Tabor (which turned out to be the most difficult battle in the Galilee). However, Napoleon ordered his generals “to behave properly with the inhabitants who are our friends and Jazzar’s enemies … promise them understanding and friendship. Tell them that we will pay for all the supplies that they provide to our army … Cause them to love us, and to feel better with us than under the rule of Jazzar.”

Napoleon, too, adopted this approach toward the inhabitants of the Galilee. He addressed them with alternating compassion and intimidation: “God is forgiving and gracious. God bestows victory on his favorites. … God, who sooner or later punishes the tyrants, has decided that Jazzar’s rule is over… Jazzar dared to challenge me to war, I responded to him, but I do not wish to impose the horrors of war upon you… I promise peace and security to all… You must know that all human efforts are hopeless against me, as every venture I undertake must succeed. Those who see themselves as my enemies must die. The example of Gaza and Jaffa must convince you that I am a threat to my enemies, I am good to my friends, and above all, merciful and compassionate toward the poor.”

The Galilee residents did not rush to answer Napoleon’s call. Only the Maronites who lived in south Lebanon followed him unconditionally. Both groups were persecuted by Ahmad Jazzar and saw Napoleon as a savior, and his brilliant victory at Mount Tabor only strengthened their belief in the French messiah.

In his memoirs, Napoleon speaks effusively about his encounter with the Christians of the Holy Land. He describes how “the masses of Nazareth … the Christian residents of Shfaram, Safed and more [expressed] their happiness… after hundreds of years of oppression, they can finally see people of their own religion.”

‘On condition that it continues’

Ultimately, Napoleon was forced to retreat from Acre. The plague claimed hundreds of victims in the French camp. As the British Navy maintained complete control of the sea, French ships could not anchor at Tantura Beach to collect the hundreds of sick and wounded, leaving them to be dragged back to Egypt over land. When they arrived in Jaffa, Napoleon ordered his armies to kill anyone who was unable to withstand the vicissitudes of the journey.

Napoleon grants freedom to the Jews, 1806, artist unknown.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The British Navy in alliance with the sultan’s forces and the local Mamluks retook Egypt in May of 1801, exactly two years after defeating Napoleon in Acre. In late 1799, Napoleon rushed back to France where he conducted the Coup of 18 Brumaire (November 10, 1799). This would be followed by a campaign of dizzying military successes that changed the face of Europe, France included.

When her son controlled all of Europe, the emperor’s mother declared in her thick Corsican accent that all was good “on condition that it continues.” But it didn’t continue, of course. At the end of his failed campaign in Syria awaited the retreat from snow-covered Russia and the defeat at Waterloo at the hands of the British nemeses, followed by exile to Saint Helena. Napoleon met the kind of tragedy that often accompanied the final days of many great leaders throughout history.

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