Charles de Gaulle and David Ben Gurion’s Defense of Israel
One of the most passionate and eloquent cases for the State of Israel is virtually unknown. Prior to the Six Day War, France had been Israel’s ally, selling her advanced weaponry. After the war, French President Charles de Gaulle decided that it would be in France’s interest to befriend the Arab world instead.
At a press conference on November 27, 1967, he turned on Israel, calling it a “warrior state” and an “elitist, domineering people” with a “burning and conquering ambition.”
This shocking about-face by the difficult and arrogant leader resulted in a very lengthy letter to de Gaulle dated December 6, 1967 from David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister.
The letter was diplomatic and deeply respectful of de Gaulle’s outsized ego and France’s former role in Israel’s defense. Nevertheless, it powerfully presented Israel’s case in great detail. Ben Gurion benefited from his personal relationship and knowledge of de Gaulle, as well as his intimate acquaintance with the development of the State of Israel from his arrival in Palestine in 1906.
What is remarkable about the letter is the striking sweep of history, especially regarding Jewish-Christian relations, demonstrated by Ben Gurion, as well as his knowledge — from an avowedly secular Jew — of Jewish source texts including the Torah and the Prophets. In addition, his language is bold and assertive, and he reveals secret meetings he held with the highest Arab authorities before the declaration of the Jewish state in an attempt to forestall conflict.
As for world history, Ben Gurion gratefully acknowledges all that France had done “for the cultural and social advancement of the human race from the time of the French Revolution down to the present.” But he then made the point that the Christian world has little knowledge of the Jewish experience, “which is unique and unparalleled in the history of humanity.”
Ben Gurion then declares it to be his “moral duty” to explain the “true intentions and practical course” of the State of Israel. He writes of the Jews as the first people to recognize the existence of one God, i.e. monotheism. He also notes the Greek and Roman, and later Christian and Muslim, contempt for the Jewish people due to the Jews’ unwillingness to accept the supremacy of those civilizations.
As for Israel, he states that “this land was never the sole and unique homeland of any people in the world except the Jewish people” and there is not “a single generation in which Jews did not attempt to return to their land.” He writes that the creation of the State of Israel cannot be counted as the result of the Holocaust, because its modern founding dates back to 1870 with the establishment by French Jews of Mikveh Israel, the first Jewish agricultural school. When Ben Gurion arrived in Palestine in 1906, he found less than 10 percent of the country inhabited.
David Ben Gurion was a secular Jew, but throughout his letter he quotes the Torah and the Prophets concerning the Jewish links to Israel dating back to Biblical times. “It is this psychic link to the Book of Books that constitutes the secret of our continued existence,” he wrote. He states emphatically that it “was from the Bible that we drew the strength to withstand a hostile world and to perpetuate our faith that we would one day return to our land and that peace would reign in the world.”
His passionate assertiveness in defense of Israel is eloquent and moving, and his sensitivity to Arab concerns is striking. In spite of the fact that the Arabs possessed a bloc of countries totalling 11.8 million square kilometers — and Palestine was less than half of 1% of Arab territories — he concedes that Palestine was “not uninhabited” and that the Arab residents “deserved all the rights that any citizen of a democratic country should lay claim to.” He adds, “nor was a Jewish state imaginable in any other form than that of a democracy.”
Ben Gurion mentions Jewish refugees from Arab lands that had to be absorbed into Israel with great sacrifice, the toll taken by war on the young state, and the “creative pioneering” that led to its stunning development. “When I first came to Palestine, the place where Tel Aviv now stands was a wilderness of sand dunes, without trees, without grass, without wild life,” he wrote.
In his conclusion, he assures de Gaulle that “we have always and will always continue to devote ourselves to the ideals of peace, human brotherhood, justice, and truth as we were commanded to do by our prophets.”
The most surprising and revealing part of the letter pertains to secret negotiations that Ben Gurion undertook with Arab leaders. Late in 1933, after his election to the Zionist leadership, he met with Muslim and Christian Arab leaders in Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. The deal concluded was that the Jews would “help the Arab people to gain their independence and unite in a single Arab federation” if the Arabs would assist the Jews “in establishing a Jewish State in Palestine on both sides of the Jordan.”
The major part of the negotiations was carried out with Musa Alami, a confidant of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. An agreement was reached. The Mufti insisted that Ben Gurion attend a meeting of the Syrian-Palestinian Arab Committee. If they agreed, there would be a meeting of the kings of Arab countries in order to sign an agreement with the Zionist leadership that would be presented to the British Mandate government.
Tragically, it was not to be. Toward the end of 1944, the British Labour party did adopt a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan, which also stated that Arab countries would be granted independence. At the end of the war, however, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin and Prime Minister Clement Attlee refused to carry out their party’s decision and handed the question of Palestine over to the United Nations, which led to the quagmire we have today.
Ben Gurion’s extraordinary letter has received little attention. It is a “behind the scenes” look at history unfolding and allows us to imagine what could have happened if the agreement between the Arabs and Ben Gurion had come to fruition with British cooperation. As the historian H.R. Trevor-Roper wrote: “History is not merely what happened — it is what happened in the context of what might have happened.”
To view the entire letter, click here.
Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Waterloo.