50 Years to the End of the French-Israel Love Affair

Israelis were riveted by news about Yves Montand that wasn't even reported in France. Many American songs were translated into Hebrew only after French-language cover versions were issued – that is, until the Six-Day War

Moshe Dayan and Marie-Pierre Kœnig attend an IDF parade, less than a month before the Six-Day War.
Moshe Milner / GPO

1.

This week we could have also marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the great romance between France and Israel, a story of disillusioned love such as only the French could have conceived – lacking in any logic from the outset, shattering conventions, sensual and boundless, and ending with a sudden, unequivocal announcement that leaves in its wake feelings of rage, frustration and retribution that will carry on long after the romance itself has ended.

The Israel Defense Forces followed French guidelines in the Sinai Campaign of 1956, and that same year Moshe Dayan featured on more French magazine covers than Brigitte Bardot. Even prior to that, the Hebrew press would report on goings-on in France in greater detail than it did on what was happening in Israel itself.

It is astounding to see that on the eve of the November 29, 1947, United Nations vote on the partition plan, the Hebrew newspapers chose not to devote the entire front page to the story, so that could devote a respectable number of column inches to a news item about the general strike in the Paris Metro. Israeli schoolchildren were able to declaim the clear connection between their country and the Republique, which would invariably begin with an entirely fanciful version of Herzl’s response to the Dreyfus case.

In the 1950s more books were being translated into Hebrew than from all other languages combined, and the following decade, more artists from Israel were appearing in Paris than from any other country. The French press published articles about every Israeli theater troupe, every plastic artist, every singer; a popular TV show even aired a parody of an Israeli song in gibberish about the directorial and singing styles of the Yarkon Bridge Trio and its like. There were several Israelis who became bigger stars in France than they were in Israel, from the author David Shahar to singer Rika Zara, from artist Yaacov Agam to sculptor Absalon (Meir Eshel), from journalist Uri Dan to historian Michael Bar-Zohar.

Israelis were riveted by news items about Yves Montand that were never even reported in France, and heatedly argued over them. Numerous American songs were translated into Hebrew only after having been first issued as French-language cover versions, just as “The City of New Orleans” by Steve Goodman became, in the words of Yehoram Gaon, “Shalom lach eretz nehederet,” only on the heels of “Salut les amoureux” by the French singer Joe Dassin.

A Rika Zarai album
French parody of an Israeli song (1964) YouTube

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This peculiar anomaly ended, as we know, with the embargo declared by President Charles de Gaulle on arms sales to the entire Middle East following the outbreak of the Six-Day War. All of a sudden, France remembered the Arabs; all of a sudden, Israel remembered the Holocaust. De Gaulle’s letter to David Ben-Gurion did not succeed in mending the rift, and was never intended to do so.

3.

This year, cultural exchanges between Israel and France are expected to be held within the framework of the “Israeli Season” in Paris, and the gap between the cultural directions of the two countries has never been clearer. Censorship of nude performances? Seriously?

When the Spanish play that alarmed Miri Regev – “And What Will I Do with This Sword?” by veteran provocateur Angélica Liddell – was staged in France in July 2016, then-Minister of Culture Audrey Azoulay elected not to watch it. The press savaged the performance (“Ridiculous trash” “Guaranteed backaches for viewers from squirming uncomfortably in their seats for four hours straight” “Outdated and boring” “Camouflaged and un-camouflaged misogyny” “Have mercy on the dancers and on the spectators alike,” etc.), the viewers up and left in the middle, and an avant-garde theater troupe staged a counter-parody performance. What was there for the French culture minister to meddle in?

A Rika Zarai album

Had the French minister reacted to every cultural provocation that she funds, she would not have been left with time to read, and reading is important. We should mention that the culture minister who replaced Azoulay in office, Fleur Pellerin, was fired after admitting on air that she had not read a single book of Nobel Prize-winner Patrick Modiano, whereas the Israeli culture minister came into office declaring that she had never read Chekhov.

4.

And yet, France is nevertheless poised to hold a debate on censorship of nudity. Deborah De Robertis, an artist of Italian descent who resides in Luxembourg, is in the habit of stripping naked in museums in Paris as an act of protest that she then fully documents. She has removed her clothes in four museums to date, most recently in front of Manet’s “Olympia,” in the Musée d’Orsay. When a guard asked her to put her clothes back on, she refused and demanded to speak with the curator. The (female) curator arrived and when they could not reach concord (the curator argued that the feminine nudity on the wall is a masterpiece, whereas De Robertis stripping in front of it is anecdotal; the artist argued that the work of art on the wall perpetuates the male perspective on the feminine body) – the museum called in the police.

Last month, De Robertis was acquitted of all charges. The prosecution had already backed down from its charge of “public indecency,” which has not been enforced by the courts for many years, but asked to impose a 2,000-euro fine on her for having executed “a nude performance in a public space without taking into account the feelings of the viewing public.” The court determined that the prosecution failed to prove that the public was harmed by the artist’s nudity, whereas the defense introduced as witnesses numerous spectators who were in fact pleased by it, including a tourist from Texas.

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The most under-reported exhibition in the world is now taking place in Iran. After a blackout lasting 47 years, the Teheran Museum of Contemporary Art has been permitted to showcase its collection of modern art, which includes masterworks by artists ranging from Paul Gauguin to Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon to Pablo Picasso, and James Ensor to Andy Warhol, who famously said – about Tehran (not the museum): “It reminded me of Beverly Hills, except that they had Persian carpets by their pools.”

Iranian Culture Minister Ali Jannati (2nd from R) looks at US artist Jackson Pollock's "Mural on Indian Red Ground" (1950) during the opening ceremony of an exhibition of modern art at Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art (TMOCA) in the capital, on November 20, 2015. Some of the world's most expensive and rarely seen modern art, including works by the Americans Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, which are part of a collection bought in the 1970s by dealers acting for Farah, the wife of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who fled into exile in 1979, heralding the country's Islamic revolution later that year, went on display in a major exhibition in Iran. AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE, MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION, TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION == / AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE
IRAN-CULTURE-ART
STF
ATTA KENARE / AFP

No one knows what prompted the regime of the ayatollahs to suddenly take these works of art out of the cellars. At first, Iran tried to get rid of the collection: In 1994, a Willem de Kooning painting, “Woman III” (1952), was sold to the American producer David Geffen for $20 million. When Geffen resold the painting a decade later for $137 million, the Iranians realized they needed a lesson or two about art collecting. The museum boasts 200 contemporary masterpieces that were personally acquired by the wife of the shah of Iran, Empress Farah Pahlavi, whose massive art-buying spree began in the early 1970s, went on for six years and, incidentally, raised the prices of modern art in the West, particularly in France.

“A museum for whom and for what?” angrily queried André Fermigier, the art critic of Le Monde at the time. He wondered where the link was between an Iranian child and a Picasso or a Pollock. With the passage of time, it seems that even the Islamic regime has found the connection.