Plague and politics, then and now


Bonaparte visits the plague-striken

Antoine-Jean Gros, Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa

“The appearance of Bonaparte in Palestine was only like the passing of a terrible meteor, which, after causing much devastation, again disappears.”

This was the verdict of the great Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz in volume 11 of his monumental Geschichte der Juden (History of the Jews, 1870). He was referring to Napoleon Bonaparte’s short-lived invasion of Palestine in 1799.

Borrowing Graetz’s metaphor, the Zionist leader Nahum Sokolow (in his History of Zionism, 1919) thought it a pity that the meteor should have disappeared so quickly. Had Napoleon actually managed to establish an eastern empire including Palestine, wrote Sokolow,

perhaps he would have assigned a share in his government to members of the Jewish nation upon whom the French could rely . . . as having indisputable historical claims on the Holy Land and Jerusalem.

In this scenario of Sokolow’s, Zionism might have had a century’s head start. But, as he himself wryly concludes, “no Jew seriously believed in the success of Bonaparte’s ambitious designs or in the possibility of his victory.”

One possible reason for Napoleon’s failure was the plague. On Passover, Jews mark the exodus of the chosen people, launched at last on their journey toward the Land of Israel, from an Egypt that had been visited by ten plagues. Napoleon was a chosen person who proceeded from Egypt to invade the Land of Israel, only to be thwarted there by a plague. It’s a reminder—as if we needed one at this moment—that politics and plagues are inseparable.

The ancient story, the one about the Jews, is preserved in sacred texts; the modern one, about Napoleon, is preserved in an immortal painting. Prominently displayed in the Louvre in Paris, it depicts an event that took place in Jaffa, now a part of Tel Aviv. Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa was painted by Antoine-Jean Gros in 1804. At the time, it was a sensation; today it remains the subject of enduring fascination.

The date is March 11, 1799, in the midst of the French invasion of Ottoman Palestine. At the center of the painting is the twenty-nine-year-old Napoleon (then still known modestly as General Bonaparte), who the previous year had seized Egypt as part of a plan to checkmate Great Britain, then at war with France and soon to be allied with Ottoman Turkey. A British fleet had cut off Napoleon’s force; to escape the closing noose, he marched across the Sinai and invaded Palestine.

Reaching Jaffa, the French army overcame resistance by the local Ottoman garrison and conquered the town by storm, pillaging left and right and, on Napoleon’s order, massacring several thousand Muslim war prisoners. (This butchery inspired a 1934 play, Bonaparte in Jaffa, by the German-Jewish novelist and playwright Arnold Zweig.) In the aftermath of the mayhem, many dozens of French troops fell ill with the bubonic plague, which had been endemic in their ranks even in Egypt.

This is the point at which the painting, a huge neoclassical masterpiece, comes in. Napoleon, in uniform and accompanied by his aides, is visiting a makeshift ward of desperately ill French soldiers. It is a scene of abject misery and physical suffering. A shaft of light illuminates the general as he fearlessly extends his bare hand to touch a bubo (an inflamed lymph node) of an infected soldier. Behind him, an officer holds a handkerchief to his nose, to block the stench or to protect against contagion. But Napoleon himself is undeterred.

The scene is loosely based on a real event reported by the French army’s chief medical officer:

The general visited the hospital and its annex, spoke to almost all of the soldiers who were conscious enough to hear him, and, for one hour and a half, with the greatest calm, busied himself with the details of administration. While in a very small and crowded ward, he helped to lift, or rather to carry, the hideous corpse of a soldier whose tattered uniform was soiled by the spontaneous bursting of an enormous abscessed bubo.

The effect of the painting, to anyone who’s viewed it in the Louvre, is searing. Not only is the image of Napoleon himself unforgettable, but the rest of the canvas, which measures roughly 23 x 17 feet, painstakingly depicts each horrifying stage of the plague’s afflictions while also offering an ethnographic rendition of the “Orientals” on the scene.

Still, as unforgettable as is the artistic achievement, it’s been a long time since the event depicted by it has spoken to contemporary concerns. Perhaps now, however, it does. In what follows, I’ll restrict myself to five aspects that may have escaped notice in the past but that resonate in this COVID-19 moment. I’ll then conclude with a rumination on a question never asked before: by some twist of historical logic, could the event captured by Gros have been good for the Jews?

Read the rest here at Mosaic Magazine.

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