On June 18, 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte suffered his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. While it was the end of an era, it was an era that had already changed the entire course of history.

Although Napoleon came from a somewhat privileged background (his father was Corsica’s representative to the Court of Louis XVI of France), he sided with the republicans during the French Revolution and adopted their goals of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.”

As part of his goal to grant freedom to everyone, he threw open the doors of the ghetto and gave Jews equal citizenship. The equality Napoleon sought was one in which there were no differences. He himself said, in reaction to anti-Semitic articles calling for banishing the Jews, that “It takes weakness to chase them [the Jews] out of the country, but it takes strength to assimilate them.”

In 1806, Napoleon convened an assembly of 71 Jews, which he called “the Sanhedrin” after the ancient Jewish high court. Napoleon presented the Sanhedrin with a series of questions, hoping to establish that Jewish law would not prevent Jews from being loyal French citizens. In their statement, the gathered Jewish representatives stressed that they were Frenchmen in their hearts who would gladly take up arms for France, and that Jewish law categorically forbade deceptiveness in business dealings.

Napoleon, however, was not impervious to the frequent anti-Semitic grumbling about him. In 1808, he limited the freedom that he had given to the Jews with new restrictive orders and forgave all debts owed to Jews, which nearly bankrupted the community. After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, many countries reverted to their pre-Napoleon status on Jewish issues.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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