The Rabbinic Debate over Napoleon

When Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces marched through Germany and Italy, they tore down the walls of the ghettos in which Jews had been forced to live—symbols, to Revolutionary French eyes, of the worldly power of the Catholic Church in the old regime. Some French Jews even wrote Hebrew panegyrics in Napoleon’s honor. When the emperor was poised to invade Russia, many prominent rabbis prayed for his victory, seeing French rule as clearly more beneficent than that of the tsars. But Shneyer Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of the ḥasidic movement, disagreed. Dovid Margolin writes:

Shneyer Zalman’s s stark rejection of Napoleon was on the surface not an easy or obvious position to take. It placed him in direct opposition to other great contemporary Polish ḥasidic leaders, including Rabbi Yisroel Hopstein—known as the maggid (preacher) of Kozhnitz—and Rabbi Mendel of Ryminov, who insisted that the liberation promised by Napoleon would be preferable to Russia’s oppression of its Jews. After all, “[i]t was the ideology of the French Revolution, incarnated in Napoleon, that liberated European Jewry from confinement in the ghetto,” as Irving Kristol observed in a 1988 Commentary essay.

Rabbi Shneyer Zalman maintained his loyalty to the tsar despite his imprisonment by Russian police on false charges of sedition. In the final year of his life, he authored a homily about Sennacherib—the Assyrian king who sent the ten tribes of Israel into exile in 721 BCE—that Margolin reads as a veiled critique of Napoleon:

Unlike the other idolatrous kings of his time, [the rebbe wrote], who recognized the idea of a God of gods, Sennacherib rejected the very existence of a Creator. Shneyer Zalman alludes to the tradition that the [the founder of ḥasidism], Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, refused to travel in a wagon driven by a Gentile who did not make the sign of the cross while passing a church along the road: “There is more [possibility for redemption] for a non-Jewish believer than for a heretic,” Shneyer Zalman explained in the discourse. And so the lines were drawn: on one hand, there was Tsar Alexander’s religious faith in the one Master of the Universe who created and controls the world, and on the other hand was Napoleon’s [secularism].

Read more at Tablet

More about: Chabad, Hasidism, Napoleon Bonaparte, Russian, Russian Jewry


Only Hamas’s Defeat Can Pave the Path to Peace

Opponents of the IDF’s campaign in Gaza often appeal to two related arguments: that Hamas is rooted in a set of ideas and thus cannot be defeated militarily, and that the destruction in Gaza only further radicalizes Palestinians, thus increasing the threat to Israel. Rejecting both lines of thinking, Ghaith al-Omar writes:

What makes Hamas and similar militant organizations effective is not their ideologies but their ability to act on them. For Hamas, the sustained capacity to use violence was key to helping it build political power. Back in the 1990s, Hamas’s popularity was at its lowest point, as most Palestinians believed that liberation could be achieved by peaceful and diplomatic means. Its use of violence derailed that concept, but it established Hamas as a political alternative.

Ever since, the use of force and violence has been an integral part of Hamas’s strategy. . . . Indeed, one lesson from October 7 is that while Hamas maintains its military and violent capabilities, it will remain capable of shaping the political reality. To be defeated, Hamas must be denied that. This can only be done through the use of force.

Any illusions that Palestinian and Israeli societies can now trust one another or even develop a level of coexistence anytime soon should be laid to rest. If it can ever be reached, such an outcome is at best a generational endeavor. . . . Hamas triggered war and still insists that it would do it all again given the chance, so it will be hard-pressed to garner a following from Palestinians in Gaza who suffered so horribly for its decision.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict