As told by Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of Tzfat
The Israeli embassy in France had prepared for the visit of the chief rabbi of Israel, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, who would make his presence at the Élysée Palace of the President of France. They knew about the strong opinions that the chief rabbi had concerning Eretz Yisroel, and they did what they could to ensure that the visit would pass peacefully.
At that time, the relationship between Israel and France was strained. The president of the time, Jacques Chirac, was not considered a friend of Israel and in general was considered a supporter of the Arab countries. He pressured Israel to give up portions of Eretz Yisroel—including Yerushalayim—for the good of the Arabs.
With this in mind, the concern that the embassy had regarding the official visit of Rav Eliyahu to the Élysée Palace was understandable. The rav was not accustomed to the art of diplomacy and was known to express his opinions outright. They were concerned that his words might exacerbate the tension between the countries.
Prior to the meeting with the president, the rav was invited for a special tour in the The Louvre, which held a display of the country’s history and culture.
During the tour, Rav Eliyahu listened to the explanations given and followed along throughout the various displays. When they reached the throne of Napoleon, the rav stopped and turned to those who were accompanying him. “When did Napoleon die?” the rav asked. The French officials hid their surprise at the rav’s question about this significant time in history and began to explain to Rav Eliyahu who Napoleon was and the time period in which he lived.
The rav continued to ask, “Is the throne for sale?” The members of the embassy did not know what to do with their embarrassment. The French officials answered that it obviously wasn’t. “This is a precious and historical treasure, and our historical treasures are not for sale,” they said.
From there they went on to show him other artifacts, until they arrived at the artifacts that belonged to King Louis XIV. Again the rav asked, “Who was Louis XIV?” As the rav’s wife Tzivia attempted to understand the meaning of her husband’s questions, he responded with a look that let her know that his words were said with a specific intent.
With utmost etiquette, the French escorts took the time to explain to him about King Louis XIV. The rav continued and asked, “Was the king ethical?” The attendants responded, “No, but this is our history, and we are proud of it and respect it.” The rav nodded his head and continued on.
The museum visit came to an end, and the group entered to greet the French prime minister. The emcee opened with greetings and blessings to the rav on the occasion of his visit. The rav was then invited to speak. Next to him stood an individual from the Israeli Embassy who translated his words into French.
In his opening remarks, he described his visit to the museum. The rav described the embarrassment of his hosts about his question about Napoleon’s throne, and whether it was for sale. All of those present burst into laughter. The rav then also related the answer that was given to him—the fact that historical artifacts are not for sale.
At that point, the rebbetzin realized that the translator was not being careful to translate the rav’s words precisely, and she discreetly brought this to her husband’s attention. With knowledge of this, the rav stopped his speech and announced that perhaps the translator was not accustomed to rabbinical jargon, and since it was important to him that the prime minister understand his words precisely, he therefore requested that the chief rabbi of France translate his words. From that point onward, his words were accurately translated by the chief rabbi.
Those who were present still did not yet understand what the rav was getting at. However, very quickly the room echoed with the rav’s fiery words,“I saw your respect towards the throne of Napoleon, who lived only 200 years ago, and I saw, as well, your regard in the way King Louis XIV’s name was mentioned, although his ethics were questionable.
This respect is justified, since this is your history, these are artifacts of your history, and you are proud of them and respect them. You expect, as well, that I should know and respect the history of France, even though I live in Israel.”
”However, my question is as follows: Is it not logical that we, too, the Jews in Israel, should know and respect our own history? Would it be an exaggeration to expect that you, too, should respect it? Our history teaches us that Moshe Rabeinu bequeathed to us the Land of Israel. This is our historical property. After Moshe Rabeinu lived King David and King Shlomo who ruled in Yerushalayim. Why must we respect your kings who lived two to three hundred years ago, yet you do not respect our kings who lived two to three thousand years ago?
“The chair of Napoleon you are not ready to sell. But we must sell Yerushalayim, which has served as the heart of the Jewish nation for thousands of years?”
The embassy members’ hearts began to flutter. They awaited the angry reactions from the prime minister and his cabinet. However, the response was surprising. When the rav finished his speech, the crowd stood up on their feet and gave a hearty applause.
The words of the rav made a tremendous impression on Prime Minister Chirac, and he grasped the rav’s hand with feeling and would not let go of it for a long time. At that moment, he turned to his assistants and whispered something in their ears. The Israeli Embassy members were shocked to hear that the president requested the rav to stay on a little while in the palace. No one knew the purpose of this delay until Chirac’s attendants returned with a small box in their hands.
The president of France explained that, although this had not been planned, after hearing the rav’s words—words like he had never heard before in his life—he had decided to bestow the rav with a prestigious golden medallion of honor that the government presented to state leaders. At the conclusion of his words, he presented Rav Eliyahu with the medallion, to the raised voices of approval from the guests who had just witnessed that true Jewish pride arouses respect and is valued even by a person who considered the Jews to be enemies.