Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), France’s dominant figure from the final years of World War II through the Cold War, led Free France, served as the head of the French Provisional Government, and founded the Fifth Republic, serving as its president for 11 years. To this day, he remains a revered figure in France whose political ideology, “Gaullism,” is highly influential in French politics.
At the birth of Israel, France and the new Jewish State maintained a warm relationship. On January 12, 1949, France recognized Israel and supported its admission to the United Nations as a member-state. With France fighting a bitter war to suppress Algerian rebellion, Israel (a major client of the French arms industry) shared a strategic interest in opposing militant Arab nationalism.
After planning joint military action with Israel against Egypt during the 1956 Suez Crisis, France played a key role in developing Israel’s nuclear weapons and – most ironically, given future events – supplied the advanced military aircraft, including the Mirage fighter, that later facilitated Israel’s miraculous victory in the Six-Day War. (Even more ironically, after France turned on Israel, it sold Mirage planes originally destined for Israel to Libya, which transferred them to Egypt, which used them against Israel in the Yom Kippur War.)
Initially, de Gaulle, who spoke of Ben-Gurion as one of the “greatest leaders in the West,” significantly strengthened the bonds between the two nations as he explicitly recognized the Jewish right to a “national home” as providing some “compensation for suffering endured through long ages.” The relationship, however, began to fray in the aftermath of the French war against Algeria when the Arab countries (except Lebanon) severed diplomatic relations with France, and de Gaulle sought to reestablish them. (Naturally, he also wanted access to Arab oil.)
The relationship essentially ended in the aftermath of the Six-Day War due to the French president’s petulance. Prior to the escalation of Egyptian hostilities against Israel in 1967, crowned by Nasser’s threat to close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, de Gaulle had warned Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban against Israel launching a pre-emptive strike against Egypt. De Gaulle, who arrogantly viewed himself the elder statesman who must be obeyed, felt marginalized when Israel presumed to reject his sage advice. After the war, he blamed Israel for the war and implemented hostile policies against it, including a broad regional arms embargo, which, as he knew well, adversely impacted only Israel.
At a November 27, 1967 press conference attended by over 1,000 French and foreign reporters, De Gaulle declared that Egypt’s actions and statements had merely “provided an excuse for those who were spoiling for a fight” and proclaimed that France had “freed itself” from its special and very close ties with Israel. Using anti-Semitic language, he referred to Israel as “the warrior state” and described the Jewish people, who dare to label themselves “the chosen people,” as “an elitist, self-confident and domineering people” who, once they had gathered in a homeland, were destined to show “burning and conquering ambition.”
Furthermore, he said, “Now [Israel] is organizing on the territories it has taken an occupation which necessarily involves oppression, repression and expulsions, and these are met with a resistance which it in turn calls terrorism…”
This speech by the much-venerated de Gaulle, which marked the first time in postwar Europe that a leader had publicly legitimized anti-Semitism, arguably opened the door to other such hateful pronouncements by other world leaders.
Some commentators contend that other factors, not anti-Semitism, underscored de Gaulle’s comments on Israel. First, as discussed above, he was distressed by Israel’s gall in rejecting his instruction not to initiate hostilities. Moreover, his essential political gestalt embraced wholly a view of the nation-state, particularly the French state, as inconsistent with dual loyalties. As such, he could not imagine support by French Jews for a foreign state (Israel) in other than traitorous terms, particularly when tens of thousands of French Jews were holding public protests against his Israel policies – which in his mind were policies synonymous with France’s best interests.
Even one of de Gaulle’s great supporters at the time, however, characterized his attitude as “infantile-psychological-senile.” And René Cassin, the eminent French judge who later won a Nobel Peace Prize for drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, perhaps said it best. Although he was a great de Gaulle supporter, he told the general to his face: “The word ‘domineering’ is used by propagandists hostile to Jews and, in particular, by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was not only a discriminatory word, but a murderous word.”
In a subsequent correspondence to David Ben-Gurion, de Gaulle asserted, entirely disingenuously, that he never intended to denigrate Israel; rather, he had merely been describing “admirable characteristics” manifested by the Jews that had enabled them to survive centuries of persecution. At a meeting with the French Chief Rabbi Jacob Kaplan, de Gaulle repeated that he had only intended to praise Israel at the press conference. However, when Rabbi Kaplan asked him to use his considerable influence to promote peace efforts in the Middle East, he responded with pique: “As to my authority, I have none; I asked Mr. Eban not to attack, and he attacked.”
On December 6, 1967, Ben-Gurion wrote a lengthy letter to de Gaulle regarding the French president’s press conference. This correspondence stands as one of the most brilliant and eloquent presentations of Jewish history, and perhaps the grandest exposition of the Zionist right to Eretz Yisrael, that I have ever seen. A virtual paradigm of Zionist thought and effective hasbara, it is unfortunately too lengthy to even attempt to meaningfully summarize here, and I urge readers to take the time to read it in its entirety. (It is easily accessible on-line.)
A correspondence subsequently developed between the two leaders and, at de Gaulle’s initiative, their exchanges were published in Israel and France. This led to criticism of Ben-Gurion by many Israeli leaders, most conspicuously Foreign Minister Abba Eban. In the historic and somewhat sharp January 16, 1968 handwritten letter exhibited here, Ben-Gurion writes from Sde Boker to the editors of the Haartez newspaper emphasizing his right as a free citizen of the State of Israel to conduct communications with whomever he chooses and without any fear of government censorship:
Foreign Minister Abba Eban displayed public resentment of me for having sent a letter to General De Gaulle without his or his staff’s knowledge. And since I appreciate the Foreign Minister’s work, I see it as a duty to explain to him that we do not live – at the present time in any case, and I hope also for the future – in a dictatorial, “communist,” or fascist country – and each person is allowed to converse and correspond with anyone he sees fit, without any censorship whatsoever. I took upon myself, for reasons that I will not state here, a single limitation: not to discuss the present government’s interest and policy with anyone who is not Israeli, even foreign Jews who come to visit me in Sde Boker, for my own reasons… anyone who has read my letter…knows that in this letter I only discussed De Gaulle’s unfortunate statements at the November 1967 press conference; the nature and ways of our people; the return to Zion and the areas of the land; and conversations I had with De Gaulle on these matters when I was prime minister. I do not think I need guidance or censorship on these matters from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or anyone else, though I know there are others who possess the talent and capability to write things that are more beautiful and intelligent. I did not show my last letter to De Gaulle to anyone – except for Paula [Ben Gurion’s wife] – until the letter reached the person to whom it was addressed. And I do not see the need to show anyone what I write to whom I write. The regime that was practiced over the past few years in Mapai does not obligate the state, and I hope that the citizen’s freedom will exist in the future in our country.
Ironically, France’s turning on Israel proved to be a blessing in disguise for Israel, which then turned to the United States and established the warm and important relationship between the two strong allies that continues to this day. Also continuing to this day are manifest difficulties in the Israeli-French relationship, with a new element added to the mix: Whereas in de Gaulle’s day, the French people were overwhelmingly supportive of Israel and their adverse reaction to his anti-Israel and anti-Semitic comments was broad, strong, and public, today, many ordinary Frenchmen have turned anti-Semitic themselves, leading to a massive exodus of Jews, with many making aliyah to Israel.