A Century Before Herzl: The Gentile Who Preached Zionism Ahead of His Time

Charles-Joseph de Ligne, a Renaissance man from Brussels, was writing in 1801 that the Jews should petition the Ottoman sultan for self-government in Palestine

Charles-Joseph Antoine de Ligne
Roglo.eu via Wikipedia

It all started with a visit to an old inn called Saint-Gerie, in the little Wallonian town of Aubechies, one of the more authentic locations in the district, which serves its guests oven-baked chicken wrapped in dough alongside a tasty honey beer from a local brewery. It’s easy to find the place, located in a stone stable on a small 400-year-old farm, right behind the village’s church, which was built in 1077.

The concerned, curious and pleasant proprietress was interested in our afternoon plans, which at that point consisted of nothing other than returning to Brussels. She suggested that we visit the Beloeil castle, home to generations of the princely De Ligne family, which was only a five-minute drive from the inn. That’s how I came upon the fascinating, surprising story of Charles-Joseph de Ligne, the most famous member of the family – at least famous in terms of Wallonia and perhaps Belgium, but not so well known outside its borders – and his idea for a Jewish state in the Land of Israel more than 200 years ago.

The man who was to cross the length and breadth of Europe during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, who led armies and wrote 34 books, was born in Brussels in 1735, and was educated in the family castle in Beloeil, which overlooks an expansive park that reminds many people of the gardens of Versailles. Belgium didn’t exist yet; the area was part of the Austrian Low Countries that were ruled from Vienna by the Kaisers of the Habsburg Empire.

Precocious writer

He was a handsome, bright young man, and at 16 wrote his first book, on the art of warfare. His father brought him to Vienna to present him to Emperor Francis I and his wife, Maria Theresa. The emperor’s wife took a liking to him and took him as one of her chambermen, making use of him until he turned 20, when she married him to one of her protégés, Princess Franziska Xaveria Maria of Liechtenstein, who bore him seven children.

Beloeil castle, home to generations of the princely De Ligne family
Shlomo Papirblat

Meanwhile he developed a military career, excelled in battle during the Seven Years War and climbed the ranks to colonel. After the battles he returned to his castle in Beloeil, was appointed ruler of the region, was sent on diplomatic missions for Vienna, and maintained friendships and corresponded extensively with Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Goethe, while also maintaining a very close friendship with Giacomo Casanova, the legendary womanizer. The two enjoyed talking about women and both were very close to Queen Marie Antoinette (daughter of Maria Theresa), who arranged a very lucrative job for Casanova as manager of the French lottery. In one of the rooms of the castle one can see a large decorative clock on the mantle over the fireplace, a gift to Prince Charles-Joseph from Marie Antoinette.

In 1792, in retaliation against the Austrian military coalition that attacked revolutionary France, the French conquered Wallonia and confiscated De Ligne’s castle and property, forcing him into exile. He made his way to Russia, to the court of the woman who was soon to become an important patron, Catherine the Great, who was 63 at the time but still robust. For his services she granted him the title of field marshal of the Russian army and granted him lands on the Crimean Peninsula.

His life ended with great diplomatic fanfare. It was at the Congress of Vienna, where representatives of the European powers who had defeated Napoleon were gathered to redraw the continent’s borders. Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, France’s representative to the congress, one of its most prominent personalities and a good friend of De Ligne’s, gave him a special role: as maitre des plaisirs – in charge of the congress’ cultural and culinary activity. De Ligne was 79 at the time. Only a few weeks after the congress began, in December 1814, he felt ill and lost his strength, but not his special sense of humor. In a statement he issued two days before his death, he wrote, “There’s one social event I have yet to organize for the congress participants – the funeral of a field marshal. I will take care of that myself ”

'Thoughts About the Jews'

Despite his friendship with the philosopher Voltaire, a patent anti-Semite who claimed that “Jews are the most imbecile people on the face of the earth,” Prince Charles-Joseph thought otherwise and with a little daring one could even call him a Zionist. Among his many works was a volume published in 1801 entitled “Memoire sur les Juifs” (“Thoughts About the Jews”). The book was republished in 2007 by the Belgian publisher Bernard Gilson, whose editor, Jean-Pierre Pisetta, wrote an introduction for it.

The clock on the mantle over the fireplace, a gift to Prince Charles-Joseph from Marie Antoinette.
Shlomo Papirblat

Here is an enlightening quote from the introduction: “Charles-Joseph de Ligne was one of the fathers of world Zionism. In his book he develops the idea of contacting the sultan of the Ottoman Empire and persuading him to grant the Jews self-government in their ancient land. Did Theodor Herzl, who in 1896 published his proposal for a modern solution to the Jewish problem entitled ‘The Jewish State’ ever encounter ‘Thoughts About the Jews?’ Either way, 200 years after its appearance, it’s time to stop ignoring this text that raises a brilliant idea, a vision, that had it become reality then would have taken the wind out of the sails of 19th-century anti-Semitism and prevented the Holocaust in the 20th century.”

To this surprising story there’s also a surprising epilogue. A year ago, in July 2016, President Reuven Rivlin hosted Michel de Ligne, a descendent of Charles-Joseph and the current prince, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. In a moving ceremony, Rivlin presented the prince with a citation honoring his grandfather and grandmother, Eugene and Philippine de Ligne, who hid Jewish children from the Nazis in the castle at Beloeil. Six of the 44 children hidden in the castle attended the ceremony.