Régis Debray and Israel : the courage to speak truthfully

By Professor Bichara Khader
Scientific Advisor of the MEDEA Institute
CERMAC, Catholic University of Louvain


In October 2006, Jacques Chirac, then president of the French Republic, presented Régis Debray with a delicate mission: to conduct a field survey on the status of various ethno-religious communities in the Middle East. Four months later, on January 17, 2007, Debray submitted an initial « diplomatic » note regarding the situation in Palestine. A detailed report was then sent to French authorities. Debray appeared bitter and bewildered that this report was not made public: « Whatever you say about the Arab-Israeli conflict is real, » was the reply he received from high ranks, « but in France it is not possible to say publicly what you write ». This denial of truth thus led Régis Debray to publish two books: one published in 2008 entitled « Candide in the Holy Land, » and another published in 2010, entitled « An Israeli friend« .

I have carefully read both books, but I’ll spare you a long commentary on the first. It is more than the statement of a mission and more than an exploration of the past of the Middle East. It is a diary, thorough and relevant and a foray into the current burning of the Holy Land. Debray does not hide his love for Jews and his antipathy for Israeli policy. He is distressed by the humiliation of the Palestinian people that have nothing to do with the Holocaust. He admires Oriental Christians, light bearers and defenders of a secular Arabism. He wonders how long for will this insane double-weight and double-action policy be imposed on Muslims in the Near East.

It is on the second book that I would like to dwell: « A friend of Israel ». In 125 pages, Regis Debray offers the most scathing criticism of Israeli policies without a hint of anti-Semitism, this nauseating anti-Semitism that fuels wrong judgments by many false friends of Palestine. In this book, there are no diplomatic acrobatics, no circumlocution, no platitudes; he calls a « spade a spade » to « come to terms with himself, » as he says. Certainly, Debray knows he has set out along « a bristling bank of rocks » and that he will « fall out with half plus one of his best friends. » Too bad: he bears the risk taken. « Basically, » he said, « I got rid of a block of language: I did not want to die without doing so. » This books allows him to say things out loud to his  » Israeli friend » that many people do not dare to share.

With this book, Debray wants to get off his pedestal of a « wise and tidy philosopher ». He wants to regain his place as an engaged, disturbed, perhaps even angry philosopher in the face of so many lies about the Arab-Israeli conflict. But he never loses the compass: the idea is bright, the style refreshing, empathy, both for Jews and Palestinians, never fake.

I appreciated that his book was written in tribute to Daniel Barenboim, founder of the East-West Orchestra, which brings together Jewish, Arab and Western musicians. I naturally wished he had also associated in his honor, my late fellow Edward Said, the other founder of the Orchestra.

But who is this friend of Israel who is approached by Regis Debray? His name is Elie Barnavi, an Israeli historian and former Israeli ambassador to Paris, now a supporter of the two-state solution, and whom Debray describes as « a pro-Palestinian Zionist ». A description which would be disqualified by the man himself, who I happen to know well for having had some discussions with him.

What does Debray say to his friend? « I do not write to you without sympathy for what you were and dislike for what you do – or what is done in your name » (p.14). Later he warns against an « abuse of memory » (p.60), « Yes, Israel is the people of the transmission of memory. But, transmission supposes being put aside, standing out: it contains a dose of self-withdrawal, a possibility of autism and narcissism.  »

This phrase, by other writers, would have sparked an outcry. Let us remember the outcry raised, in his time, by the words of Charles de Gaulle, calling Israelis « people sure of themselves and domineering ». Debray seems not to care a bit of outraged reactions. He admits: « I know we’ll fall on me, but there is still the privilege of age: this is indifferent to me. » This is why he does not refrain himself.

Speaking of Palestinians humiliated at Israeli checkpoints, he writes: « at the checkpoint, where accumulates at dawn human cattle infinitely patient, infinitely subject, despite the frustration, I am ashamed. » This sad sight allows him to return to the « colonial character » of Israel. Given the age of Regis Debray and his intellectual curiosity, it is not unlikely that he had already read the seminal text on the issue of the French Jewish intellectual, Harry Sacher, published in 1967 in the magazine « Modern Times » and entitled: « Israel: a colonial fact « . Writing 43 years after Rodinson, Debray goes further: Not only does Israel become « a symbol of colonialism », but it is a « colonial state that continues to colonize, to expropriate, to uproot » (p.24). Regis Debray prepares an inventory with the precision of a metronome: 18,000 Palestinian homes destroyed, 750,000 Palestinians, since 1967, arrested at stage point or another, 11,000 inmates, 500-600 military checkpoints in the West Bank.

He then denounces this famous « law of return », which allows any Jew « coming from Mars, New York and Odessa, to treat indigenous Palestinians as foreigners, with the latter having then to beg permission to access the former’s field « (p.25) or pick their olives. And he adds on a somewhat irritated tone: « it was not written that the rediscovered pride of a people would one day mean the degradation, the methodical fragmentation of its neighbor, nor that to punish, frighten and humiliate, would become a right of entry »(p.25).

Why does the West, for which Israel calls itself « the citadel advanced », not do anything? Europe, writes Debray, is nothing more than a « soft shadow », « a sidekick on his toes » (p.104) an insignificance redoubled of kindness … « It made Israel its privileged partner, directly linked with its work and decisions, but then dug its head in the sand « (p.103). Israel thus became, according to Debray, a teen-king with « the look of a spoiled child » (p.99). The Western friend « has the right to provide weapons, funding, vetoes and immigrants making Aliyah, but has no right of scrutiny, much less of interference » (p.99).

The trial is severe. Is Europe not the first donor to the Palestinian Authority? Certainly, replied Debray, but by helping the Palestinians, Europe only covers « occupation costs » (p.105), thus relieving the budget of Israel. This is the thesis that I defended myself in my book « Europe and Palestine: from the Crusades to the Present” (1999).

As for America, do not count on it. « America » ‘, writes Debray, « is a greater Israel which succeeded. Israel is a small America that is struggling, but hoth have in common not to be accountable to anyone « (p.96). Enough said.

I have just summarized the first part of a courageous book, lucid, clear and clean. I read it with relish. This is probably one of my best reads of the summer. Next week, I promise to tell you more.