On April 20th, 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte became one of the first European leaders to encourage Jews to return to the holy land while claiming that Jews are the rightful heirs to the land he defined as Palestine. In July 1798, after successfully campaigning in Egypt against the Mamelukes, Napoleon Bonaparte succeeds in capturing both Cairo and Alexandria, the two main Egyptian cities.
Napoleon was hoping to end British control of trade that used Egypt as a gateway to the Indian Ocean and the Far East and open a French-controlled route to the east instead. The British Navy moved in, defeated the French fleet, and went as far as cutting Napoleon off from sea access back to France.
"Rightful heirs of Palestine!" - Napoleon's 'Proclamation to the Jews' (Jerusalem, 20 April 1799)— Tom Holland (@holland_tom) June 2, 2016
After several months of remaining semi-defeated in Cairo, in February of 1799, Napoleon again went on the offensive, this time against a different empire. While fully aware that an Ottoman force was preparing to move against him, Napoleon moved 13,000 of his troops from El-Arish in the Sinai desert to Gaza where he defeated the Ottoman forces. Following their swift victories both in Gaza and Jaffa, the French troops resumed their march northward toward Haifa and eventually Acre.
Reaching Acre on March 20th, Napoleon began his famous siege on the port city. The siege would last much longer than Napoleon had believed as the British aided the Ottomans in defending the strategic and historical city. As the costly siege stretched into April, he hoped to gain much-needed support from the Jewish community residing in the Ottoman-ruled region.
Napoleon was the root of the beginning of the movement to restore Israel to the Jews: https://t.co/ZlHvsQ2HjU pic.twitter.com/542NEpg9Nl— PJTN (@PJTN) October 3, 2021
On April 20th, he issued the proclamation intended for Jews in which he promised, “The great nation which does not trade in men and countries as did those which sold your ancestors unto all people herewith calls on you not indeed to conquer your patrimony; nay, only to take over that which has been conquered and, with that nation’s warranty and support, to remain master of it to maintain it against all comers.” In other words, Napoleon was trying to get the Jewish community of the holy land to join his forces under the notion that they would not be conquering a land, but simply taking back what is rightfully theirs in accordance with all historical and theological evidence and rights.
There’s a legend that Napoleon visited a shul on Tisha Baav & saw Jews mourning.— David/Dovid Bashevkin (@DBashIdeas) July 18, 2021
He asked why. “Our Temple was destroyed.”
He asked when. “1700 yrs ago.”
“If this people mourn their Temple after so long, such a people so attached to their history will surely see it rebuilt.”
Despite the promise made by Napoleon which was extremely uncharacteristic for antisemitic Europe at the time, there was much evidence that most Jews in Palestine, especially in Jerusalem, were fearful of the aggressive French army and assisted the Turks in fortifying the city. By June, Napoleon’s army was worn down due to sickness and he moved back to Egypt.