A new exhibition in Jerusalem's National Library of Israel reveals letters, maps and documents that documented Napoleon Bonaparte's trip to Israel at the very end of the 18th century.
The exhibition shows, among other things, a letter written to Napoleon's patron. The letter shows the first time when the idea to give the Jews their own country and military in Israel is discussed.
The letter may have later been brought to Napoleon himself, right at the start of his military conquests, as it is believed that he too contemplated the idea.
Dr. Milka Levy-Rubin, a curator at the National Library, spoke about the letter's history.
"(The letter) was written by an Irishman named Thomas Corbet, a devout protestant who rebelled against England and joined the French army together with his brother William. During his service, he wrote the letter to the leader of the French Directory, who at the time was Paul Barras, Napoleon's patron.
"In the letter he details, in slightly poor French, a proposal saying 'I recommend you, Napoleon, to call on the Jewish people to join your conquest in the East, to your mission to conquer the land of Israel.'
"It should be noted that this letter was written in February 1799, right at the time in which Napoleon ventured to Israel, and he offered him to request the Jews to join him.
"He said that they have a lot of money and would be happy to aid him, since they have been spread across the world and humiliated for 1800 years with no rights to speak of, and that nothing else can really help fix that problem aside from returning to their homeland and establishing a nation there."
This is a letter written almost 100 years before the assembly of the first Zionist Congress. "We see another kind of Zionism here, where the proposal (for a Jewish state) came not from the Jewish side, but from the Christian one, from millennialist Protestants who believed at the time that Napoleon will herald the great change, the biblical end of days which the Jews have an important part in," said Dr. Levy-Rubin.
"To their understanding," explained the doctor, "when the Jewish people returns to Israel the end of time will come and they will themselves convert to Christianity afterwards. This is the Christian angle, but it should be noted that many Jews at the time hoped for this kind of salvation, some even seeing Napoleon as the messiah. We have information from all over Europe, not only from this letter, that Jews were willing to enlist to Napoleon's army to come rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem."
The great mystery, though, is how Napoleon reacted to the letter. "We don't know if this letter ever made its way to Napoleon. There was a manifest though, which was discovered in 1940, which was Napoleon's call to the Jews to come join his journey to Israel and become a nation like any other nation. It called them to come worship their god there, in the Temple in Jerusalem which they will rebuild."
The exhibition, which was opened last week, displays several dozen original documents and letters, painting, maps, coins and other items out of the "Napoleon and his era" collection, which includes over a thousand historical items.
The collection was cataloged and scanned in detail, and will soon be accessible in the National Library's website for people around the world.
For further details on the exhibition, which will remain open until July, the National Library's website can be visited here.