One of the things I did after the slaughter of the Jews in the kosher supermarket in France is re-read the correspondence between David Ben-Gurion and Charles de Gaulle. For it strikes me that for France to get itself in a winning position in the war it has just declared (“against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islamism, against everything that is intended to break fraternity, liberty, solidarity"), it is going to have to disentangle itself from errors that occurred toward the end of the first decade of the Fifth Republic. That’s when France turned away from Israel and set about its entente with the Arabs.
It’s not my purpose here to suggest that France is to blame for the attacks it has just suffered – or for the fate that befell the Jews slain in the Hyper Cacher. That blame attaches only to our common enemies. It is my purpose to suggest that France is not going to be able to win this war by maintaining the distance that De Gaulle put between France and the Jewish state. And that neither Israel nor America need feel any need for hesitation and apology on the point.
It was not, after all, Benjamin Netanyahu or Naftali Bennett who precipitated De Gaulle’s break with Israel. What galled de Gaulle were actions of the Alignment led by Levi Eshkol. It was not the expansion of settlement blocks that irked De Gaulle. It was the idea that Israel had laid claim to Jerusalem in the first place. That led De Gaulle to suggest that Israelis were an “elite and domineering” people and to fret, in the wake of the Six-Day War, about their intentions.
This infuriated Ben-Gurion, who wrote to the president of the Fifth Republic in December 1968. Though Ben-Gurion was no longer in power, they’d just had a friendly encounter at the funeral of Konrad Adenauer. The letter started with the atheistical Ben-Gurion boasting that the Jews were the “first people in the world to hold to the faith in one God” (“The Greeks called us a ‘godless people’ because they found no statues of the gods in our settlements,” he wrote. “The Romans accused us of idleness because we did not work one day of the week.”)
Then he asserted that the Balfour Declaration’s reference to a homeland was meant to refer to both sides of the Jordan. He blamed Churchill for excluding Transjordan “from the territory mandated to be the ‘national home’ of the Jewish People.” At this point Ben-Gurion was only 1,200 words into a tornado of 16,000 words, in which, among other things, he credited French Jews under Adolphe Cremieux with taking the first step toward a modern, Jewish state.
Anyhow, he reprised the whole history. He called France’s granting of rights to the Jews after the French revolution “one of the great moments of the French people” (a point on which French Prime Minister Manuel Valls boasted to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic in an interview published Sunday). Ben-Gurion’s most pointed paragraph to De Gaulle was the one in which he acknowledged that there were not only Christians but Jews who believed the Jewish nation had “ceased to exist.”
“We feel sorry for such Jews and we pity them, but we bear them no grudge,” Ben-Gurion wrote to the lanky general. “If they wish to cease being Jews, that is their business. But they do not speak in our name, just as it was not [Philippe] Pétain who spoke in the name of the French people during its great sorrow, but rather Charles de Gaulle, though he stood practically rejected and alone.”
Ben-Gurion noted that when he was preparing to declare Israel’s independence, he’d rejected advice to name its borders. “Did the American people announce what its borders were when it declared its independence?” he asked. He suggested that the failure of the United Nations to protect Israel excused Israel from being bounded by its pettifogging. Among the authorities he cited were Genesis, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Nehemiah. The “ask” in the letter was for military support.
The letter cut no ice with De Gaulle. He replied with expressions of personal affection but asserted that he remained “convinced” that by ignoring France’s warnings and “taking possession of Jerusalem and of many Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian territories by force of arms” and “by exercising repression and expulsions there” Israel was “overstepping the bounds of moderation.” And so France flipped to the Arab side.
No wonder Jews have been leaving France. Manuel Valls is now telling Jeffrey Goldberg that “if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.” That’s some statement in view of the rate at which the Jews of France have been departing. It strikes me that if he and French President Francois Hollande want to end the crisis, the smart thing would be to address Ben-Gurion’s long-ago critique and repudiate the course set by De Gaulle and set up a proper alliance with an aim to win the war.
Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.
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