The Man of Destiny: How Napoleon Bonaparte Embodied Zionism

By David Chernobylsky. Edited by Leora Matian. Illustration by Zohar Achiasaf.

The cool ominous winds of Acre billowed through his hair, each follicle rising as a separate entity apart from the rest. Yet, his eyes remained livid with anticipation. He knew of the unrest that would unravel on this very night inside the walls of Jaffa, or so he hoped.

Napoleon Bonaparte was waiting, patiently. He has just published a proclamation and had it sent to the ruler of Acre, Ahmed al Jazzar. But this proclamation was not intended to reach Ahmed at all. It was a secret message meant for Ahmed’s Jewish advisor, Haim Farhi. Haim was the true commander of the Acre’s defense forces on the field of battle. This proclamation was meant for him, alone. Poignant and concise, it read:

“I invite all Jews of Asia and Africa to gather under one flag to re-establish the ancient Jerusalem.”

Napoleon was no simple man. He had brought emancipation to thousands of Jews of France. He gave them the right to be full citizens, the right of a marriage certificate; of a birth certificate. He gave them rights they had not known for a thousand years. In return, he hoped for their support in his ideals of equality and freedom.

This is what he was hoping for now as he waited outside the walls of Acre in his long, flapping overcoat. Even as his generals stood by him, all equal in height to his average 5’7″ build, they paled in comparison to his great spirit. Yet, not even the generals where aware that all their waiting would be in vain.

It was Napoleon’s sincerest desire to establish a home where all Jews could call their own. Even those living under Ottoman rule deserved the freedom to return to their homeland as all their brethren Jews had prayed and dreamt about for so many years. He depended on the Jews to aid him in his conquest for the territory. It would be this error in judgment—in seeking aid where he would receive none—that would befall him again, in his fruitless pursuit to conquer Russia.

Yet, this was still the aspiring and glowing Napoleon Bonaparte who had not yet suffered a shattering defeat and who could not yet fathom any reason why anyone should not agree with his plans for equality and freedom in the new world. This night marked the first time that Napoleon fully understood that not everyone in the world cared for his vision for equality and freedom.

He realized that not everyone experienced true freedom and so he wished to sustain such an opportunity for everyone in the lands. But he could not have anticipated that the world encompassed individuals who neither knew nor wanted true freedom or emancipation.

This contentment with the way things were was the very missing link in Napoleon’s strategic mind. He never anticipated it—not in Acre and not in his failed attempted conquest in Russia. He understood the responsibility that was coupled with his influence over others people’s destinies, yet he could not comprehend that some people who were never exposed to such wonder could not and would not want it. It was too new, too different. He also never realized that when something is different or new in the world, people tend to fear that the change could be worse.

Napoleon would have to end his campaign in Acre without any victory, carrying along with him any hope of a true homeland for Jews in the near future. The State of Israel would remain a mere dream and prayer in the minds of millions of Jewish souls for almost another 150 years to come.