1In 1916, Louis Massignon took part in the Franco-British negotiations which led to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, consisting in the division of the Ottoman Empire. Subsequently, he was one of the architects of the Faisal-Weizmann (January 1919) Agreement which favored, as per the Balfour Declaration, the creation of a Jewish national Home within a Kingdom promised to the Arabs in recompense for their revolt against the Ottomans. The Arab Kingdom would be given to Prince Faisal, son of the Sharif of Mecca. Ultimately and for various reasons, both the French and the British prevented the realization of the project. In any case, the Arabs and the Zionists were far from unanimous in their support of the agreement.
2In this context, of between-the-Wars, how did Louis Massignon position himself vis-à-vis the Jewish question? Did he have the approach of a “converter,” like many Christians (Zionist or not) who view the “return” of Jews to Palestine as a signal of the latter’s forthcoming conversion to Christianity? Or was he, in contrast, a “pioneer” who paved a dialogue between the cultures in the East, particularly in the Holy Land, the ultimate emblem of a potential site of co-existence between the Abrahamic religions?
3We shall attempt to present, in possibly a Manichean manner but as representative as possible, how Zionism was viewed by Orientalist Louis Massignon, whose personality was not lacking in complexity.
4Understanding the Zionist question is of fundamental necessity. For Massignon, it was an Eastern problem: a problem that concerned Eastern politics.
- 1 Lecture by Louis Massignon, “Zionism and Islam,” Paris Sociological Society. March 9, 1921, p. 2.
“We find, in Eastern Europe and in the countries that emerged from the Ottoman Empire, a series of question, which at times seem solely national, at times solely religious, and where the old religious concept has taken the name of nationality, while remaining extra-territorial.
The Zionists clearly spelt out that the problem was one of national politics, but the Zionist question has constantly to be reconsidered according to a religious point of view, for the officials of all Eastern politics, are also officials of religious politics, political officials who are extremely intertwined, since there is no city that does not contain, side by side, representatives of different religions who are obliged to manage to live together. This is precisely the important point regarding the Zionist problem: knowing how to live together: an administration as is presently constituted, with Zionist “councils” and a population with a Muslim majority and a strong Christian minority.”1
5On the Palestine question, Louis Massignon took up a position that went against the majority of French intellectuals, from 1917, date of the Balfour Declaration, until his death in 1962. He was, without doubt, a Zionist, as from 1917, the year when he met Chaim Weizmann, in Jerusalem. In 1920s, he was almost alone in taking an interest in the Jewish National Home.
- 2 Lecture by Louis Massignon, “Zionism and Islam.” Paris Sociological Society. March 9, 1921.
- 3 Renée Neher-Bernheim. “Rencontre de deux personnalités d’Eretz Israel vers 1900-1920 : Aaron Aaron (...)
- 4 Ibid., p. 13.
6This interest, even sympathy, for Zionism stemmed particularly from a decisive experience he underwent in Palestine, thanks to Aaron Aaronsohn. This fervent Zionist introduced Massignon, among many other important figures, to the agricultural achievements of Palestine and explained to him his vision of the renaissance of Israel on its land, as well as the goals of Zionism. The effect on Massignon was undeniable. We find proof of it in the long lecture given by Massignon, in March 1921, to the Paris Sociological Society2, in which he expressed his admiration for Weizmann, noting, however, that “in France, he is not popular in Jewish circles.”3 We know that, while Aaronsohn held a very critical view of most Zionist leaders (Sokolov in particular), he had a profound admiration and great respect for Weizmann. We also see this regarding Zionists who sought to re-interest the Jewish population in working on the land, when Massignon states that “one must give credit to these men who devote themselves so completely to their task.”4 It is clear that he was thinking of Aaronsohn, having seen him at work.
“The experiment is going to be all-out. Is this a deluding illusion? In many circles, it is seen as a fantasy that will not last. I disagree. In any case, one should not imagine that this fantasy should be treated lightly…”5
7When Massignon evokes, with regard to Israel, the question of the revival of the national conscience, he asks whether it is possible for Jews to become simple laborers again. Indeed, at a time when non-Jewish populations had no desire to work in the fields, can one suppose that a population, which has always worked in intellectual spheres and liberal professions, will agree to do so? Massignon’s answer clearly testifies once again to Aaronsohn’s influence over him:
- 6 Lecture by Louis Massignon. “Zionism and Islam.” Paris Sociological Society. March 9, 1921, p. 10.
“Indeed, I knew Aaronsohn (…) he sacrificed a lot for this [meaning, to work in agriculture], and he introduced me to people around him who were doing likewise. I visited a colony where I saw Jews who had sacrificed a future in the liberal professions in order to work on the land. Working the land is the foundation stone. If Jews are prepared to devote themselves to working on the land, Zionism will be established. I hope we will come to that.”6
8Subsequently, Massignon’s ideas would evolve in favor of his pro-Arabism. The disappearance of Aaronsohn certainly played a part in this new development, in the sense that he was no longer there to revive Massignon’s understanding of Zionism and the sympathy he had for it in 1921.
9In response to reservations expressed regarding Zionism, Massignon argued in favor of the Zionists. For example, with regard to the classic anti-Semitic criticism that Jews always sponged off the countries they lived in, intellectually or economically, as professional “Shylocks,” Massignon responded:
“It is because they did not live in their own country that they often assumed, towards strangers, a somewhat immoral attitude, which stemmed precisely from their expatriate status: an attitude which will ipso facto disappear when they will be among their own. The facts proved this, as in a Jewish colony (this was told to me by a Muslim) where, for some ten years… it was during the heroic period… women, renouncing their predilection for finery, had no jewels because there were no Jewish jewelers: the women preferred to make this sacrifice in order to enable Jewish industrialists and traders in their community to make a livelihood. This attitude is interesting for it hides, beneath the external semblance of a boycott, an element of internal cohesiveness between the Jews of these colonies which we should not overlook.”7
10Massignon refutes another argument unjustly leveled at Zionism: the right of return of Israel to Palestine outdated as a result of equipollence. “Under the pretext that the Jebusites could also wish to return here. There is not one madman in the world who claims to be Jebusite, while there are thousands of people who say they are Zionists and who did not forget their ancestors who were driven out of Palestine. They remember their dead and this is sufficient to create a right to return close to a tomb.”8
11Finally, on the so-called question of the “Delbruck law” thus formulated: is it admissible for a Jew to accumulate two nationalities, French and Palestinian, under the pretext that he supports Zionism? Certainly not, answers Massignon:
“this sophisticated hypothesis can be decided by a simple examination of conscience by the party concerned. What does he want to do in Palestine? Has he gone there with no intention of returning? If he has gone there simply for the refined pleasure of giving the illusion that he has two homelands, it is of no worth: if it is in order to devote himself completely to Zionism, it is of value, but those who wish to participate freely in the national life of Palestine must call themselves solely Palestinian. Let those who love Jerusalem choose Jerusalem. Whatever the case, and this is a point which seems to me capital for social relations in the East, Zionism is and must remain the loyalty of Jews towards the Nations. What struck, by surprise, the minds of Eastern nations, was that the one whom we called a wandering Jew, the one who hawked everywhere the negation of homelands, wishes to become a pilgrim again and is distraught if he cannot be in Jerusalem. This observation may be disagreeable to Eastern nations, certainly, but they cannot avoid making it. And it is up to us, Westerners, to arbitrate. Zionism has the right to demand external, international equality. But, on the other hand, we shall demand that it recognizes equality of internal treatment for Islam…”9
- 10 Massignon alludes to this fable: Sakadin felt, one day, the urge to extract money from his treasur (...)
12At the conclusion of his memorable lecture on “Islam and Zionism,” given at the Paris Sociological Society in March, 191, several extracts of which we have just cited, Massignon applied the old parable of the Three Rings10 to the threefold holy City:
- 11 L. Massignon. “Zionism and Islam.”, p. 16.
“it is only the deep affection for Jerusalem which can lead to reconciliation between these three antagonistic elements [Jewish-Christian-Muslim], which are first and foremost religious elements.”11
13In Massignon’s view, Zionism returns to Zion in its national form, because Israel no longer hopes to enter it any other way: but as long as Muslims reside there who love Jerusalem, because it is the City of Promises made to Abraham, it is permitted to explain to them what Zionism stands for: so that they will understand this loyalty, so fraternally similar to theirs, as other than a merciless competitor.
14In the same way, Christians, who – not being obliged to turn towards Jerusalem since they possess another comfort – turn, in a mental thanksgiving towards Zion, should understand and respect, in it, this mysterious sign which is like a royal ring: a ring which should not indefinitely make them quarrel like the three children in the parable. Particularly, since the three rings are not totally identical and contain within them three different marks.
15Massignon explains: the Muslim has the faith of Abraham, loyalty.
“The Muslim does not have much hope, does not display much charity, but he has frightening faith, and the mark of this ring, is Faith (….) You will not wrench Jerusalem away from Muslims because they believe too deeply that the Prophet was transported there in ecstasy, they believe too profoundly that they will be judged there. You are colliding here with a fundamental feeling and, by colliding with it, you exclude all possibility of a pact with them, because in Islam, the only faith that counts is based on Abraham’s oath.
Nor will you wrench from the heart of Israel the Hope which, every Passover, revives in it the souvenir of Jerusalem, which is the mark of Israel’s ring. If so many Jews were involved in all the revolutions of the West, it was not out of the pleasure of taking revenge over Christians as the anti-Semites claim, but it is because the Jews have always nurtured, in the depths of their hearts, a crazy, invincible hope, of which Christians do not possess enough. A Jew has indefinite hope, it is intellectual, even financial, speculation pushed to the last degree. He hopes for and against everything. But while saying he hopes “to be, next year, in Jerusalem,” he gives himself a comprehensible goal. And it is not by tricking this hope of Israel through skeptical ironies that you will resolve the Eastern problem. On the contrary, it is by maintaining and organizing this social hope according to equitable conventions and admissible bases that you will bring about an accord and peace in the East.
Finally, the mark of the ring which Christians claim to possess, is Charity… others call it “solidarity,” a word which implies the idea of a collective debt that must be paid. Let us, Christians, know how to pay it by understanding the last hope which sustains Israel, if the mark of our ring, of our face turned towards Jerusalem, is truly the burning charity that burnt in the heart of Christianity, for 1900 years, towards the God of Israel, whom Pascal invoked, one day, when he cried out: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob!”
- 12 L. Massignon. “Zionism and Islam.”, pp. 16-17.
16Indeed, the unique God, the only one whom one can venerate in Jerusalem, which is his exclusive city, is not any divinity as in Llassa or Benares: it is the jealous God of Israel. It is the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, the legislator of the Jewish nation, and Zion is the only city in the world where Israel can be reborn. This is true, it is right, and we Christians know why, because it is the city of the Resurrection, the resurrection of a Jewish man, who died for Israel, on whom our entire life is founded.”12
17At the conclusion of the speech, Jacques Calmy, former director of the Zionist press bureau in Jerusalem, who was among the audience at this lecture, did not hesitate to express his emotion “at having seen this fervently Christian heart incline with sympathy over Jewish suffering and aspirations.” He concluded the event by saying:
“it is truly a French joy to observe with what pain of precision and admirable loyalty a young French scholar such as Mr. Massignon tackles a problem as delicate as it is thorny.”13
18Indeed, Massignon saw in Zionism a reality exceptionally worthy of attention and interest. A national rather than a religious movement, eminently idealistic, which accounts for its strength and its weakness at the same time. And it is undeniable that the interpretation of this parable is incontestably laudatory and always loving towards the Jewish people.
- 14 Grandson of Meir Belkind, killed by the Turks in 1917.
19Well before the first world war, thus even before the Balfour Declaration of 1917, personal relations existed between the Maritain home and Aaron Aaronsohn’s disciple, Avshalom Feinberg,14 who was completing his medical studies in Paris and lodged with his aunt Sonia Belkind: this also led to sympathy on the part of Maritain for the Jewish National Home in Palestine, and subsequently for the State of Israel. In spite of the contacts Maritain still maintained then with l’Action française, he received, on August 4, 1925, Dr. Jacobson, Paris delegate of the Executive Committee of the Zionist organization in Europe. He viewed this event so important that it resulted, that same year, in the drafting of a (confidential) “Report on Zionism,” addressed to Pius XI, and drafted jointly by Maritain and Massignon. Thus, paradoxically, the spiritual ties which enabled the entry of “new converts” into the Church, led, at the same time, to the opening of their homes to different aspects of the Jewish question, contacts with the pioneers of Eretz Israel, and even hospitality to members of their families arriving unexpectedly in France. The meeting, in August 1925, between Maritain and Jacobson had been preceded by a close correspondence between Massignon and Jacobson (with copies to Dr. Weizmann) dealing with the terms of an eventual involvement of Catholics of Jewish origin in the reconstitution of the Jewish National Home in Palestine. Massignon believed, then, that the question of Catholic participation in a philo-Zionist campaign should not be difficult: that it depended solely on two things: first of all:
- 15 Letter by Massignon to Jacobson, May 15. 1925. Massignon family archives (AFM).
“a theoretical declaration by the Zionist Executive – stating that no one would be excluded from this reconstitution call and that Catholics of Jewish origin would be admitted, on equal terms, to participate in the common task of the resurrection of Israel, by being authorized to enter, according to their abilities, Palestinian colonization units and, eventually, even the Zionist administration: secondly, the creation of a “Catholic philo-Zionist” group that would work with Dr. Jacobson, based on a defined program – which held that every Catholic who joined the campaign of Dr. Jacobson without the mandate of his church, would be as unproductive for the latter as for the Catholics.”15
- 16 Letter by Massignon to Jacobson, August 1, 1925. AFM.
20This correspondence shows us also that Massignon’s attitude towards these projects was not simply one of “kindly neutrality,” for he said: “everything that contributes to the renaissance of Israel is especially dear to me.”16 He, therefore, did not formulate any exclusive principle regarding France-Palestine, Dr. Jacobson’s organization, except to further define his position:
- 17 Letter by Massignon to Jacobson, August 1, 1925. AFM.
“Socially, as a Catholic, I expect a formal assurance by the Zionist Executive to Catholics of pro-Zionist Jewish origins – an assurance which, alone, will enable all philo-Zionist Catholics in France or elsewhere to contribute usefully to France-Palestine, or to any other similar group. Professionally, as an Islamist, I would like a formula of true, sincere conciliation to be found and applied in order to resolve the relations between Judaism and Islam in the Holy Land. Since 1917, I have been searching for its realization on a linguistic and cultural level. It is difficult, but it is not impossible! And, here too, the initiative for a preliminary declaration is up to the Zionist Executive.”17
- 18 This letter is dated probably October 1925. The non-dated draft manuscript is preserved in Kolbshe (...)
- 19 “Report on Zionism addressed to Pius XI (1925).” Letter by J. Maritain to Pere Hugon. Cahiers Jacq (...)
- 20 Ibid., p. 26.
- 21 Ibid., p. 27.
21A few months later, Maritain made a point of adding to the “Report on Zionism” a letter addressed to Pere Hugon,18 asking him, “if he found the project opportune, and in the general interests of the Church,”19 to communicate it to the Holy Father. He insisted on the importance of not engaging in any activity regarding Zionism, without the prior blessing of Rome, and particularly of the Holy Father whose “sole opinion counts.” In his letter, Maritain states, on the one hand, that “it appears difficult to deny the legitimacy of this national renaissance” and, on the other hand, that “it is vital for Christians to know whether this new ethnic formation will be absolutely closed or not from the beginning to all penetration by the faith of Christ.”20 He also describes his meeting with Dr. Jacobson, whose aim was to establish a “Catholic-Zionist friendship” and affirms with this regard that “a Catholic demonstration of sympathy for Zionism would have a major influence on a good number of young Jews, moved by the grace of God and who would be prepared to ask for Baptism if they did not see this as rejecting the interests of their race and their nationality.”21 More precisely, it was a question of joining a Palestinian Friendship project (preferably by the creation of a special pro-Zionist Catholic group rather than by joining the existing Franco-Palestinian Friendship Committee, which comprised figures such as Herriot, Painlevé, Blum, etc.). Maritain stressed the dangerous nature of abstaining in this matter and the need for the possibility, recognized by law, of a baptized Jew working, like others, on an equal footing, for the Zionist cause.
- 22 “Report on Zionism addressed to Pius XI (1925)”. Cahiers Jacques Maritain. n° 23. Regard sur Israë (...)
- 23 Ibid., p. 30.
22Further on, Maritain describes the “terms” which he and Massignon judged appropriate to propose to Dr. Jacobson in exchange for their eventual adhesion (the eventual engagement on the part of Christians committed to the Zionist cause, an engagement subordinated to the tacit agreement of the top hierarchy of the Church towards this activity). These “terms,” which were clearly laid out in the Report submitted to Pius XI, dealt with three precise points: the Holy Places, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the eventual reception in Palestine of a Jew who wished to work for the Zionist cause, but who had converted to Catholicism. With regard to the first point, Dr. Jacobson answered that “the Zionists, assuming they will enjoy one day political power, were ready to give every assurance to the Christian faiths and accepted in advance the modus Vivendi which they would propose”: with regard to the second point, he stated that “the University of Jerusalem would not become a home of anti-Christian propaganda and that Catholic scholars could teach there like others.”: as for the last point, he stated that, in principle “Zionism was a national movement, not a religious one, and that a Jew of the Catholic religion should have, in the Palestinian colonies, the same rights as other Jews,” but that “it would be rather difficult, because of the Jewish masses, to find the formula guaranteeing these rights.”22 On this, Maritain added in his report that “if the rights of Catholic Jews were officially recognized by the Zionist leaders, this would be of the major importance due to possibilities open in the future. Without doubt, Catholic Jews who go to live in Palestine will risk a lot of persecution. But their suffering would be a precious semen before God.”23
23Despite Maritain’s efforts, this affair ended quickly, without a major result: Pere Hugon transmitted the report to Pius XI, commenting on it in the course of a private audience of one hour, on November 15, 1925. The following day, he communicated the reply to Jacques Maritain: “the Pope fears that Catholics and the Holy See may be used for the triumph of the Zionist cause, and without making any prohibition, he advises caution. For the moment, he leaves it to your discretion, while advising caution. It is understandable that, in these conditions, a visit by Dr. Jacobson to the Vatican does not seem appropriate that, while the Pope does not intend to absolutely refuse an audience, he prefers it not be requested.”24 As for the Zionist authorities in London, they informed Jacobson that Catholic Zionists could eventually teach Mathematics at the University of Jerusalem, but not history or philosophy.
24In conclusion, we note the cautious silence of Pope Pius XI on this question of the “racial character” of an eventual Jewish state, while he had very clearly condemned, in official encyclicals, Fascism, Nazism and Communism.
- 25 La Revue juive. 1925. Chroniques. P. 242.
25Massignon’s sympathy for the establishment of a Jewish National Home was in no doubt. Indeed, through his professional activities and friendships, he was at the center of a network of Jewish intellectuals whose affiliations extended from the strictest Orthodox to those who sympathized with Catholicism, to the point of converting. As we have just shown and as La Revue juive reminds us: “to the courageous defense of the rights of Israel, we add a testimony [that of Massignon] which is all the more valuable as it comes from a Catholic believer and a devoted friend of the Muslim cause.”25
26Similarly, when the European representative of the Zionist Executive Committee, Dr. Jacobson, wanted to attract Catholic Jews to the new colonies, he consulted Massignon. The elevated idea which Massignon held about this “return” even led him to envisage a Hebrew liturgy in Jerusalem. Thus, when a “Judeo-Catholic movement” was founded in Paris, in the course of the year 1935-1936, Massignon was one of its leading members. The goal of this movement of rapprochement and not of conversion, as its autonomy vis-à-vis the hierarchy, made him fully at ease:
- 26 Françoise Jacquin. “Louis Massignon et le Groupe Judeo-Catholique (1936-1938).” P. 1. AFM.
“enable Christians to know the Jewish sources of their Christian faith: show them Jews and Judaism as they truly are: arouse their desire to repair the sins of Christian anti-Semitism: restore the importance of the Bible, call on Jews to end their indifference towards Jesus: restore to converts their awareness of their Jewish roots, of their duties towards their people… are constant preoccupations of Massignon who was not embarrassed to express them in a fiery manner with the passion he is known for.”26
- 27 Dealing, for example, with “collaboration between Jews and Christians to save human thought and fr (...)
- 28 See Opera Minora III. “Compatientes.” P. 770-771 and several letters by Louis Massignon to Monchan (...)
- 29 Françoise Jaquin. “Louis Massignon et le Groupe Judéo-Catholique (1936-1938), ” pp. 1-2. AFM.
27Françoise Jacquin, in her article on “Massignon and the Judeo-Catholic Group,” evokes the life of this coterie: “general lectures,”27 joint readings of the Bible, reviewing the monthly meetings which take place in the university parish of the rue d’Assas. Elizabeth Belenson, a converted Ukrainian Jew and godmother of the Glasberg brothers, is the moderator of the group, placing her apartment on rue Froidevaux at the disposal of everyone. Abbot Monchanin, priest of Lyon, whom Massignon greatly admired,28 participated now and then in the meetings.”29
- 30 L’Amitié Judéo-Chrétienne, December 1949, “Louis Massignon et les Juifs,” signed by Pere Paul Dema (...)
- 31 Letter of March 30, 1950 transmitted by Daniel Massignon. André Chouraqui, a great friend of Abbot (...)
28We feel that it is pertinent to mention Massignon’s commitment to Jews at this time, because of the importance which he himself accorded to it: when in 1950, he was suspected of anti-Judaism in an article in the Bulletin of L’Amitié judéo-chrétienne, (Judeo-Christian Friendship),30 he reminded its co-founder André Chouraqui of his own engagement in the Judeo-Catholic Group31:
- 32 Elizabeth Belenson deliberately destroyed papers relating to the activities of this group and aske (...)
- 33 Indeed, Louis Massignon, who was vice-president of this group, had in his possession the list of a (...)
- 34 Françoise Jacquin, “Louis Massignon et le Groupe Judéo-Catholique (1936-1938),” pp. 7-8. AFM.
“You know that, having been alone among the directors of L’Amitié judéo-chrétienne, to remain in Paris, I owed salvation solely to the courage of its secretary, Elizabeth Belenson,32 who refused to give my name during the searches she was subjected to before going into hiding near la Salette.33 Could you not have told them that anti-Judaism cannot not be associated with my name? I never wanted to dismiss the Jews from the Holy Land. Weizmann knows this well, as do several Jewish families whom I helped return there in 1919-1920, and my friend Ariel Bension whose body I helped transport there.”34
29Indeed, Louis Massignon and many of this friends – such as Claudel, Maritain, Mauriac, Garric and his staff, Fumet and Mounier, editors of the journals Temps present and Esprit– first began to host German Catholic refugees, then poor Jews, since the better off were immediately welcomed in London or New York. Massignon received more than a dozen Jews a week at this time, between 1935 and 1938, and was able to send to Palestine at least two families, according to his son.
30To conclude this chapter, as Françoise Jacquin stresses,
- 35 Françoise Jacquin, “Louis Massignon et le Groupe Judéo-Catholique (1936-1938),” p. 8. AFM.
“Misunderstandings, suspicion, opportunism, good or malevolent, did not cease to deform the profound convictions of a man of faith, wounded by the terrible reality of the fratricidal hatred between the children of Abraham. It was appropriate to recall the raw state and foundation of these positions in order to measure their overwhelming complexity.”35
- 36 See the biography of Louis Massignon, le Cheikh admirable, by Christian Destremau and Jean Moncell (...)
- 37 At the beginning of 1938, an “anti-Semitic crisis” began for Massignon, with an accusation against (...)
31As Jean Moncelon acutely observes,36 the incomprehension which accompanied what was called, from 1948, Massignon’s “excessive statements,”37 derives from the fact that Zionism lost its legitimacy for this Orientalist, beginning in 1927, while it became legitimate and justified for the majority of French intellectuals after 1945. This is why Louis Massignon found himself alone, between 1936 and 1948, in denouncing the method adopted by the Zionists regarding the return of Israel to Palestine. These dates are important, for they enable us to situate, on the Zionist historical scale, Massignon’s positions in relation to what can be called, the evolution of events, from the time of the Balfour Declaration, which stipulated “that nothing would be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” to the establishment of the State of Israel, “by virtue of the natural and historical right of the Jewish people,” which drove out one million refugees from their land.
- 38 See for example: “La situation actuelle de l’Eglise catholique en Palestine,” (the present situati (...)
32In order to understand how Massignon evolved from enthusiastic support of Zionism to the most extreme anti-Zionism, one must return to his stay in Jerusalem, in 1917-1918. He had been appointed deputy to High Commissioner Georges-Picot, French signatory of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and his mission consisted in gathering information from certain selected figures – information which would enable him to write reports concerning the situation of the Catholic Church in Palestine at the demand of the Holy See38. It was in this way that he met Weizmann who convinced him of the legitimacy of the Zionist claim, and he let himself be persuaded that the Jewish Home offered the opportunity of an “inter-Semitic reconciliation between Arabs and Jews.” However, even though he expressed himself in favor of Zionism, he had no illusions regarding the difficulties that would emerge with the return of Israel to Palestine, difficulties which he sought to resolve, well before the problem arose:
- 39 “Zionism and Islam” lecture given on March 9, 1921 at the Paris Sociological Society. Extract from (...)
“the solution lies in an international agreement and a stabilizing element drawn from the religious consciences of Western Europe, within what I call Christianity in the broad meaning of the term.”39
- 40 Born approx. 857 (or 244 in the Hijri calendar), died on March 26, 922 (or 309 of the Hijri) in Ba (...)
- 41 Salman was born in a small town in Persia called Jiyye, near Isfahan, and was of Mazdean birth. Co (...)
33After beginning a brilliant university career at the Collège de France, directing the Revue des Etudes islamiques, 1927 was, for Massignon, a year of internal revolution whose impact was seen both in his research – where he moved from Mansur al-Hallâj,40 to whom he devoted his thesis, to Salman Pâk,41 companion of the prophet of Islam – as in his professional life where he, henceforth, strove to direct the work of his missions and official commissions “towards the legitimate claims of our Muslims.” It was logical that, henceforth, from 1927 precisely, he detached himself from Zionism:
- 42 Founder of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and supporter of bi-nationalism, like Hannah Arendt (...)
- 43 Letter of November 21, 1938, published in Les Nouveaux Cahiers, January 1939, p. 16.
“from 1917 to 1927, I passionately hoped, working on the spot for inter-Semitic reconciliation and telling myself like Judah Magnes,42 that the Hebrew University would be its cultural home. But instead of Eastern Sephardim speaking Arabic, it is Germanic Ashkenazim who are running the Palestinian affair, with the perfect, implacable technique of the most exasperating colonialists: pushing slowly back the indigenous Arabs towards the desert. Hence the murderous rage of the latter. Everything can still be saved if immigration is halted, in order to lay down the basis of an Arab-Jewish state.”43
34Later on, on November 21, 1938, a fundamental question was posed to him on the occasion of a discussion among the “Nouveaux Cahiers”group: can Palestine become the homeland of just one nation, Eretz Israel?
- 44 Letter of November 21, 1938, published in Les Nouveaux Cahiers, January 1939, p. 16.
“No, it is more than this: it has become an international country, supranational through its threefold religious vocation (…) Islam will never abandon it, for Islam is Arab by racial origin: the Arab race and Muslim canonical prayer say they descend from Abraham, and claim part of his heritage. If the founders of the League of Nations had understood that Islam would survive the division of the Ottoman Empire, they would have placed the headquarters of the League in Jerusalem: in a place where a united Christianity would arbitrate over the conflict.”44
35Massignon’s “anti-Semitic” fever would attain its height notably in the letters sent to Maritain, in 1938-1939. Indeed, these letters mark a total reversal, with regard to the actions he had formerly undertaken together with Maritain in support of the creation of a Jewish National Home.
36Even though, at this precise moment, he was deeply aware of the pain Maritain must have felt at the injustices and suffering endured, at that time, by Israel in central Europe, he did not hesitate to write to him thus:
- 45 Letter by L. Massignon to J. Maritain, December 8, 1938, p. 1. AFM.
“Here, in France, the persecution of the Jews of central Europe poses a problem which risks becoming the counterpart of the Palestinian problem: if, in order to help the refugees suffer less, renew their lives and prosper, France will see its national future compromised or deviated by massive naturalizations or by selected infiltration into positions of authority, in an administration which is blighted by lethargy, you will guess that – as a descendant, by my father, of French peasants in the Vexin, from the 16th century, and, by my mother, of Flemish weavers, resident in Flanders from the 15th century – a legitimate instinct reacts in me against this pressure, whose preparation and strength are marked by too many signs (…) If I did not have children, I could perhaps envisage this gradual death of my country, but I have children and (…) I cannot betray my ascendants and my compatriots by rejoicing at the prospect of an injection of immigrant blood which seems to me not to possess any normal tonicity, but certain toxicity. How is it that, for forty years, the Great Seal of France at the Ministry of Justice, on which naturalizations depend, has been in the hands of co-believers of these refugees? Why is it that, everywhere around us, at this moment when these unfortunates are suffering, we see, with a discipline elsewhere admirable, their parents already installed in France, taking care of their immediate needs and preparing their careers?”45
- 46 After those of Sodom and Ishmael.
37Massignon’s statements, here, are clearly in complete contradiction with the morality he always promoted and defended: a Christian morality defining itself primarily and essentially by a deep understanding of “Abrahamic hospitality,” and implying, in that, by necessity the “sacred nature of the right of asylum” and “respect for the Stranger.” But what is even more paradoxical is the concomitant character of his “anti-Semitic writings” and the Trois prières d’Abraham (Three Prayers of Abraham) which hold prime of place in his work. Indeed, at this time, Massignon was engaged in writing his third and last prayer of Abraham, that of Israel.46 In May, 1939, he wrote to Maritain:
- 47 Letter by L. Massignon to J. Maritain, Paris, May 30, 1939, p. 1. AFM.
“for the last two years, I have become convinced, more and more fervently, that permitting Israel to persist in its attempt to re-create a racial State in Palestine is a veritable heresy and dereliction of its supreme vocation. It is, in this sense, that I am continuing to pen my “third prayer,” clearly the most difficult.”47
- 48 Massignon’s own term in his letter of December 8, 1938 to Maritain.
- 49 Letter by L. Massignon to J. Maritain, Paris, May 30, 1939.
38Following this “bitter meditation”48 on the toxic nature of Israel, one can wonder at the nature of the future which Massignon envisaged ultimately for the Jewish people, for this people whom he condemned as much, when it sought refuge in exile, as when it fought for the “reconstruction” of a Jewish State. As a possible response, here is how he concludes his famous letter sent to Maritain49:
- 50 Letter by L. Massignon to J. Maritain, December 8, 1938.
“Is it truly salvation for Israel to come and seek, for want of Palestine, in France, Paradise? It seems to me, in contrast, that more than ever, Israel should understand the word of Christ: my Kingdom is not of this world; it is, in this, that Jesus was not Jewish, as Klausner so bitterly reproached him for.”50
39For Massignon, the eternal hope of returning to Palestine, correlative to the age-old vocation of the Jewish people in Exile, had been diverted, de-messianized, secularized in the 19th century and had become essentially economic. This fundamental alteration affected primarily the Ashkenazim, who spoke Yiddish, at the opposite extreme of the Palestinian oriental mentality, which the Sephardim were much closer to.
- 51 Massignon, Opera Minora III, “La Palestine et la paix dans la justice,” p. 465.
“Certainly [writing about the Ashkenazim], these newcomers were courageous pioneers, methodic land-clearers, but it was already the atmosphere of colonization which they brought, with the harshness of the immigrant who had been driven away by hate: this return to the land was, according to Herzl’s thought, a remedy against despair, without any resort to God (…) In order to succeed, Zionism relies on profane methods, and this is what Magnes Biblically calls the “idolatry” which will inevitably launch the catastrophe.”51
- 52 Report of the information mission sent to the refugees of Bethlehem in the Holy Land by the Cathol (...)
- 53 “These pertain less to the crude calumnies of Sefer Toldoth Jeschu (and their Talmudic echo), than (...)
40It was perhaps the flaunted atheism of many Zionist leaders, this “perversion of the original message,” which most impacted on this man of faith, Massignon. Massignon mixed, with his anti-Zionist arguments, religious considerations which doubtlessly had even less chance of being understood. Indeed, he instantly purported that, in the Holy Land, it was impossible to separate the temporal from the spiritual and that the facts had to be understood in light of the events in religious history which took place since Abraham. He, thus, launched a battle over the fate attributed to the Virgin Mary in Jewish tradition and defended the sacred honor of a “young fifteen year-old Jewess who conceived the Salvation of the world.” Islam venerates the purity of the Virgin Mary, Miriam, in particular in Surat 19 of the Koran. Massignon went so far as to affirm that “…neither in Palestine, nor elsewhere, the world will not have peace in justice as long as Israel does not revise the trial of the Mother of Jesus.” And he did not hesitate to state with vehemence that “between a State of Israel which rejects the Messiah, suspects Jesus, questions the honor of His Mother, and Muslim fanaticism which punishes canonically the person who doubts the holiness of Jesus and the virginity of His Mother, my choice as a Christian is made.”52 The unexpected eruption of the Virgin in the issue of Israel is surprising. Carried away by a mystical zealousness, Massignon denounced, in 1948, in his Opera Minora, certain “negative positions” of the Jewish community of Nazareth regarding Marie, and gave them maximal symbolic importance.53 Already, in 1936, Zionist colonies, with the complicity of the British, tried to settle at the gates of Nazareth: a city, which for one thousand six hundred years, had prohibited those who doubted Mary to live within its walls:
- 54 Massignon, Opera Minora III, “Nazareth et nous, Nazaréens, Nasara." p. 493.
“for in Nazareth the insult of doubt is worse that in the Holy Sepulchre: for it is better, and more than a cradle, it is there where everything began: Christians are all natives of Nazareth, due to the Marian fiat of the Annunciation.”54
- 55 Thus, in 1948, he did not hesitate to condemn the capture of Nazareth by Zionist forces with parri (...)
41The recognition of the purity of Mary seemed to him to be the necessary condition for a Jewish acknowledgment in the spirit of Abraham and, even more, a precondition for any peace. It was for him a question of spiritual integrity: “honor thy father and thy mother, if you wish to live.” For Massignon, Israel was in the wrong in respect of this commandment of the Decalogue.55 Whatever the case, the mystic equation conceived by Massignon between the reality of Mary and the essence of Israel was at the heart of the problem. It was important for Israel, as for Islam and Christianity, not to bear witness against its own reality, against the mother of its being, in the Arab sense of an essence and perfection. It is, undoubtedly, in this sense that one has to understand what Massignon defines as the “outclassing“ of the State of Israel by Marie.
- 56 Professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar.
- 57 Louis Massinon au coeur de notre temps, edited by Jacques Keryell, article by Patrick Laude, “La J (...)
- 58 Ibid., p. 333.
42According to Patrick Laude,56 one will never understand the positions of Massignon concerning the nature of Israel and the question of Jerusalem unless one grasps the spiritual connection that unites “displacement” and “election.” For election calls for and demands acquiescence and there is no acquiescence except in and through the“de-centering” of the soul and its new “concentration” on God. For Massignon, Israel is “displaced” by definition. Chosen by God, it is commanded to abandon itself, to displace itself. This is how Massignon sees in Israel a holy manifestation of the spiritual archetype of consent. At its most elevated level, this reality is designated by the Scripture as the “virgin of Israel” (Amos 5, 2). As a Catholic, Massignon can but stress the fundamental Marian nature of the archetype Israel, as indicated in the Scriptural expression. For the Holy Virgin is also “displaced,” she renounces her own will in order to solely “the servant of the Lord.” She is “chosen among all women as Israel is among all the nations. Mary is the model of pure submission to God, a symbol of the perfect soul and model of passive, virginal, and feminine perfection. If Massignon sees, in the Immaculate Conception, the “Marian sign” for the rallying of the different religions of the Abrahamic family “it is because the virginity of a soul commanded to the divine fiat is the essence of Abrahamism, in the sense of consent to a sacrifice.”57 Massignon also envisages the “pre-decarnalization” fitting to the “Marian sign,” the supernatural, predestined purity of the Holy Virgin, as the place of a spiritual ecumenism “in the sense that it attenuates Christian incarnationism by super-naturalizing the “flesh,” thus leaving inaccessible the divine transcendence jealously guarded by Jews and Muslims.”58
43In conclusion, let us recall that Massignon always advocated conciliation in the Holy Land which, in his view, should not be an “an object to be shared among the privileged,” but the “seamless tunic of world reconciliation,” an intimate place of intimate interaction between everyone, and to begin with, between those who possess, in any case, in this place, more reasons to unite than to hate each other, Semites, Jews and Arabs, sons of Abraham, and spiritually Semite Christians, a prophetic formula which would be taken up again by Pius XI, on September 6, 1938. He would use it as an image to express his vision: the Holy Land must be the “kindergarten” of humanity.