Dirty Laundry: Revisiting Napoleon & the Jews

Last week I read an troubling story in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on a Jewish educator who lost her job at Westchester Reform Temple because she had written an article online espousing her “anti-Zionist worldview”. Based on her blog post, her beliefs go farther than just criticizing, questioning, or wrestling with Israel. She and her fellow blogger wrote, “We reject the notion that Zionism is a value of Judaism. Zionism is not equivalent to, or a necessary component of, Jewish identity.” The educator in question is suing her former employer in New York courts over wrongful termination. She claims that she was unlawfully discharged for expressing views during a “legal recreational activity” (blogging) that was conducted outside of work hours, off the employer’s premises, and without use of the employer’s equipment.

There are many disturbing elements of this story. As much as the educator has every right to be critical of Israel, is a blog the best forum? ( Yes , I do appreciate the irony of my writing this in a blog myself. )As much as the synagogue might not have been happy with her, was firing her their only recourse? This represents a larger tectonic generational shift. It is sad that our organizations, run by and largely for an older generation, and our Millennials are not aligned to work together, let alone disagree amicably. Another disturbing element of this story is how this internecine fighting is coming so close to the hostage situation in Colleyville Texas. Why do we always need to deal with anti-Semitism from outside and also hating each other within our community? And yet another element is that it is never fun having our dirty laundry aired in public.

All of this said, and yet none of this particularly noteworthy. It is all sad, but not surprising. What I find most troubling and newsworthy is the implications of the involvement of the court in this case. While we strive to move forward in history, in many ways this has the real potential of turning the clock back over 200 years ago.

The French Revolution abolished the different treatment of people according to religion or origin that had existed under the monarchy. Roman Catholicism had been the established state religion, closely tied historically to the monarchy, which represented both religious and political authority. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen guaranteed freedom of religion and free exercise of worship, provided that it did not contradict public order. That was all wonderful.

In the early 19th century, through his conquests in Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte spread the modernist ideas of revolutionary France: equality of citizens and the rule of law. Through his policies overall, Napoleon greatly improved the condition of the Jews in France and Europe, and they widely admired him. Starting in 1806, Napoleon passed a number of measures enhancing the position of the Jews in the French Empire. This all still seems great.

But there were still some unsettled issues for Napoleon and the Jews so he convened the Grand Sanhedrin as the representative group elected by the Jewish community as their representatives to the French government. The Grand Sanhedrin was to give legal sanction to the principles expressed by an Assembly of Jewish Notables in answer to the twelve questions submitted to it by the government. One of these questions was:

Do the Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and follow the directions of the civil code?

They sat and voted on the replies of the Assembly of Notables, and passed them as laws. The decisions of the Grand Sanhedrin was formulated in nine articles and drawn up in French and Hebrew. They declared that, by virtue of the right conferred upon it by ancient custom and law, it constituted, like the ancient Sanhedrin, a legal assembly vested with the power of passing ordinances in order to promote the welfare of Israel and inculcate obedience to the laws of the state. In response to this question from Napoleon they replied as follows:

That the Israelite is required to consider the land of his birth or adoption as his fatherland, and shall love and defend it when called upon.

In 1807, Napoleon designated Judaism as one of the official religions of France. And just like that the Jews in this domain were free, but at what cost? To be equal with their fellow Frenchmen, they had to give up their notion of being a nation of Jews living in diaspora from their ancestral homeland in Palestine. Giving up their own notion of a nation, they would have full access to society as Frenchmen who’s religion happen to be Judaism. With all of the rights and challenges the Jews were being assimilated into French culture.

So back to the case at hand. What would have happened if this educator had written on her blog that she did not believe in God or her religious practice was divergent from those of Westchester Reform Temple and she got fired? I serious doubt that the secular court would have anything to say. I have trouble imaging the “state” would want to be seen at dictating matters of faith for the “church”. This separation of church and state is the hallmark of the liberty we have enjoyed here in America. The case before the court is forcing the issue. In order to rule if she was wrongfully terminated from her job the court will need to determine if Zionism is legitimately part of the Jewish faith. The court needs to define if Zionism is a value of Judaism. What will the court say? Is Zionism equivalent to, or a necessary component of, Jewish identity?

This is an ironic reversal of roles. Over 200 years ago Napoleon forced the hand of the Grand Sanhedrin to disavow their “duel loyalties” and become full Frenchmen. Now a disgruntled employee is forcing the state court to define for the Jews if being loyal to Zionism is a legitimate faith claim of Judaism in America. While, I do believe that there is healthy debate to have on the subject, if history has taught us anything, it is best not to have the government involved in sorting out our dirty laundry.

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