When our teacher, Rav Eliyahu, ob”m, was the chief rabbi of Israel, he traveled to France for an official visit. France, as usual, was not with us. As always, she exerted pressure on Israel to abandon sections of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel for the benefit of the Arabs. During that period, the pressure was quite strong.After his translation (link), Reuven adds, "I tell this story because it’s not just a story about Rav Eliyahu. It’s a story about ourselves. This is a story of life training. It’s a story of faith – for if we are strong in faith, we will prevail."
The visit schedule included a state reception in the presence of French President Jacque Chirac. Before the official reception the Rav had to follow the accepted tour route, including the State Museum which contains cultural treasures of the French people.
During the visit they showed the Rav a throne upon which Napoleon sat. “When did Napoleon live?” the Rav asked. The hosts were embarrassed by the question, and “explained” to the Rav when Napoleon lived. The Rav then asked, “Is the throne of Napoleon for sale?” An awkward silence hung over the room. “No,” the hosts finally answered, “This is a very important item. We don’t sell historic heirlooms.”
They continued the visit and arrived at the section which described the French monarchy. They showed him the room of Louis XIV: “Who was Louis XIV?” the Rav asked. “What did he contribute to the world? Was he ethical?”
“No,” the hosts answered honestly. “The entire monarchy was not that ethical, but this is our history, and we’re proud of it and honored by it.”
At the state reception with the French president, before a large crowd, the Rav spoke about his visit to the museum. He told the guests how embarrassed his hosts felt that a rabbi from Israel would not know who Louis XIV was. After all, these are very important historical figures.
“I asked them whether they were ethical people and they hemmed and hawed, but they told me that this is their history, and they’re proud of it.”
The Rav said to the crowd, which included the president of France and some of his cabinet: “You expect me to know and honor French history, despite the fact that I’m not a citizen of France. Am I, as an Israeli, not supposed to know and honor my own history? Do the French not have to honor the Bible which has made such a great contribution to the world? Am I able to dishonor the words of Moses that told us not to place the Land of Israel into the hands of strangers? Why must we honor your kings, who lived two or three hundred years ago, but dishonor a chain of our own kings who lived long before them?”
The Israeli translator from the embassy was not so bold as to translate the Rav’s words exactly.
The rebbetzin signaled to the Rav – who wasn’t intimidated by anyone, and stopped in the middle of his talk, and said, “I understand that my translator does not exactly recognize the rabbinic mode of speech. I ask the Chief Rabbi of France to translate my words.”
He had no choice. The Rabbi of France rose to translate the Rav’s talk. The Rav explained that he tried to find out the price of Napoleon’s throne. “I wanted to buy it.” The audience burst out laughing. He explained how they “explained” to him, in all seriousness in the museum that the effects from Napoleon are very important, and not for sale. “These are historical items, and we don’t sell our history.”
“Napoleon lived two hundred years ago,” the Rav answered, “and you respect him and refuse to sell his throne. Now I ask: must we sell Jerusalem, a city that has belonged to the Nation of Israel for 2,800 years?”
The entire audience was moved, stood up and began to applaud. Even the President of France stood up, approached the Rav, shook his hand firmly and said to him, “I have never heard words like these.”
The French President turned to the invited guests and said, “We would like to bestow upon the Rabbi a precious golden medallion that we give only to heads of state. When we arranged this reception we did not think to give it to the rabbi. But the instructive words of Rabbi Eliyahu were a ‘once in a lifetime experience.’ We would like to express our appreciation to him with this state medallion.”