Joaquin Phoenix

Nate Bloom blogs on this week's Jews in the News.


Napoleon, the movie, & Napoleon and the Jews, More


"Napoleon", a big budget film about Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1861), opened in theaters on Nov. 22. Advance publicity says it is “primarily” about his rise to power and his relationship with Josephine, his first wife.

I imagine the “bookends” of his life will be covered quickly. The first “bookend”, I assume, is his youth on the island of Corsica. The Bonaparte family were of Italian nobility ancestry and were vehemently opposed to the King of France’s take-over (1769) of Corsica. So, it’s no surprise that Napoleon was an early supporter of the French Revolution (1789).

The other bookend: the end of Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine (1810) in favor of a wife who could ‘give him’ an heir and the military losses (1812 on) that ended with Napoleon’s permanent exile (1815) from France.

Before 1812, Napoleon was a phenomenon. He trained at a French military school and was only 15 when he became an artillery officer. In 1793,  he placed cannon on “just the right” hill and blasted British ships out of a major French harbor. This clever tactic put him on the map—but he became really “big” when, with his cannons, he put down a major royalist counter-revolution in Paris in 1795.

The same year, he began seeing Josephine, a widow who was six years older than Napoleon. In 1796, he was named the head of the new “Army of Italy”. I’ll return, below, to the Army of Italy and Napoleon, because it is important, to this day, to Jewish history.

From 1796 to 1812, Napoleon’s career had few setbacks. France did lose important naval battles. But, on land, Napoleon’s brilliant tactics defeated all his enemies: Britian, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and others. By 1810, he controlled, directly or indirectly, most of Europe.  In 1799, he became the de facto dictator of France. In 1803, he crowned himself as Emperor of the French and he crowned Josephine as his Empress.


JOAQUIN PHOENIX, 49, plays Napoleon. Over the years, Phoenix has established himself as one of the leading actors of his generation. He has earned 5 Oscar nominations, winning once ("The Joker").

Joaquin’s mother was Jewish. His father was not. When he was a child, his parents were members of a Christian cult. He’s been secular as an adult and, a few years ago, Joaquin described himself as a "secular Jew".

Now for the Jewish angle:   In 1796, Austria, a monarchy that was at war with the new French republic, controlled much of northern Italy. There were also some smallish Italian states. The Pope, himself, controlled a big slice of central Italy.

Napoleon and his Army of Italy defeated them all (including the Pope) and he proceeded to implement two major principles of the French revolution: all men were equal and all religions were to be tolerated.  

He tore down the walled ghettoes Italian Jews had lived in for centuries, and he made Jews legally equal to Christians. Prior to Napoleon, Jews had to live in crowded, often fetid walled-in neighborhoods (ghettoes). Jews had to return to the ghetto at night, and they were barred from working in most jobs.

Napoleon tore down the ghetto walls in every other place that he later conquered and he made Jews “equals”. He “emancipated” Jews across Europe and, while emancipation often didn’t outlast Napoleon’s downfall, it never ended in France, itself.

Scholars say that Napoleon said some “unkind” remarks about Jews in private. But, overall, he was a friend of the Jews. Go to Youtube and search these words: “Napoleon and the Jews”. There are several videos on this topic. But one stands out: its entitled "Napoleon and the Sanhedrin". It’s a 30-minute gem that weaves together ‘Napoleon and the Jews’ with the “big picture” about European emancipation. It’s simply terrific—folksy and scholarly.

This video inspired me to write a lot about Jews and Napoleon. As I write this column, the first reviews of “Napoleon” are appearing. The reviews are mixed—but they all say that the film has many short scenes that cover a “defined” moment in Napoleon’s life. I hope the film worked in a short scene of ghetto walls coming down.


In my Nov. 9 column, I wrote that the Israeli series "Bros" would premiere on Netflix on Nov. 9. That date was in many good media sources. "Bros" is currently not streaming on Netflix and I am trying to find out why.


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