Any attack on the State of Israel would be as intolerable as the resumption of the crematory ovens and gas chambers of Auschwitz, in front of Notre-Dame.... 1
Such was the emotion expressed by Jewish writer Manès Sperber on the eve of the Six-Day War. Lest this appear to be the intemperate outburst of one Jew, buried in a Jewish community journal, or hysteria confined to the opinion pages of national newspapers, Richard Nollier’s cover story in Le Monde’s 3 June 1967 edition made palpable the acute anxiety of many Jews and non-Jews across France. History, Nollier ironized, “seems fond of bitter repetitions.” But, he pointed out, “the repetition is only superficial. Twenty-two years ago, they massacred defenseless people. Today, the survivors have tanks, rockets and a national flag. The difference is appreciable. It has to do essentially with the way of dying.” And further:
The fact remains that for the first time, the Jews as Jews have their territory, their citizenry and their paratroopers. After centuries in the ghetto, after Auschwitz, they know what they represent. They also know that if they lose Israel, it will never return (çela ne se reproduira pas). [End Page 104]
It is Auschwitz that will return (qui se reproduira). Because they will be defenseless once again. And because man does not change. He is partial toward attacking that which is defenseless.
That is why Israel is much more than the dwarf-like country we have trouble finding on a map. It is the insurance policy of a good thirty million people—Jews, half-Jews, spouses of Jews—who have begun again throughout the world. A policy that guarantees them that we (on) 2 will not make fertilizer of their parents’ bones and soap of their children’s flesh, while the universe discreetly turns its head, as it so recently did.
For such a guarantee, what isn’t one prepared to do?
That the nation was suddenly riveted to the Middle East was remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the scant and unexceptional coverage of Arab-Israeli friction earlier in the year. There was no crescendo, only an explosion in May 1967 of voluminous and often frenzied public debate that catapulted events surrounding the Six-Day War to the front pages of all major newspapers and magazines in France. While the war was yet another tense moment in an already long and continuing history of Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East, it was the first chapter in the post-World War II story of the Holocaust in France, or the beginning of a certain Holocaust consciousness in French public discourse. 3 This story of the Holocaust, most often cast in terms of Holocaust “memory,” assumed increasing importance in the years following the Middle East conflict. As of the late 1970s and continuing through the 1997–1998 trial of Maurice Papon, myriad controversies concerning the Holocaust were at the center of French public discourse. It was in debates surrounding the 1967 war that a narrative map for this discourse began to take shape. 4
Few in France were prepared for the Six-Day War, at least by view of the nation’s major press. There had been no indication through April that events in the Middle East would become a crisis in May, and few in mid-May had suspected that a full-scale war would erupt in June. Major newspapers in France, including Le Figaro, Le Monde and L’Humanité, had reported periodic border skirmishes between Israel and Jordan and Syria in the early months of 1967, but they had devoted little interpretive attention, such as editorial space, to what they largely viewed as a [End Page 105] continuation of the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict, or the unpleasant reality of interminable small-scale violence in the Middle East. 5 The Jewish press seemed equally unconcerned. 6 If the explosion of war on 5 June was something of a universal surprise, even less expected was the tenor of...