France and the Jewish Heritage in Jerusalem

Article excerpt

A brass plaque rested for many years on the wall of an imposing stone building just inside the Lion's Gate in Jerusalem's Old City. Israeli troops came through this gate when they recaptured the Old City in the 1967 Six-Day War. The plaque read "Domaine National Francais Republique Francaise," French National Domain, French Republic. In other words, the French state has been claiming that certain real estate within Jerusalem is part of France. The label National Domain asserts that this is French sovereign territory. Un morceau de notre pays en Terre Sainte [a piece of our country in the Holy Land], as Jacques Chirac put it when he addressed an audience at the location, known as Saint Anne's Church, during his visit in 1996 (October 22). (1) Lionel Jospin, the socialist prime minister, met local Arab leader Faisal Husseini there in 2000 (February 25). He was meeting Husseini and other prominent Arabs on French soil--in French eyes at least--rather than at Husseini's Orient House headquarters, which might be considered a victory for Israeli diplomacy. On the other hand, Chirac had wanted to show Israel "that France was mistress 'in her own country' when ... on his official visit to Jerusalem," he "demanded that Israeli troops" guarding him at Saint Anne's "evacuate this national domain during his meeting with the Latin Patriarch." (2)

The site is not a consulate or embassy, and thus should not have diplomatic exterritoriality, if that was in anyone's mind. According to Christian tradition, Mary's parents' home was here, and this is where Mary was born. Be that as it may, the monks who administer the site on behalf of the French state have conscientiously excavated, so it seems, what were two massive pools built by Jews in Second Temple times, together called Beit Hisda (Bethesda).

Now, Saint Anne's is only one of four sites in and around Jerusalem claimed as French. Each one has its story of how it became Domaine National. Saint Anne's was a Crusader church 850 years ago, then a Muslim school. After the Crimean War (1854) in which Britain and France defended the Ottoman Empire against Russia, the sultan of the day gave the ruined Saint Anne's site as a reward to his European ally (1856).

Another site, however, has no Christian associations, and it came into the hands of the French state in a different manner. This is the Tomb of the Kings [Tombeau des Rois], believed by archeologists to be the tomb of Queen Helen of Adiabene in Kurdistan, and her family, converts to Judaism in the first century. The Talmud describes them as generous benefactors of the Temple and the Jerusalem poor. The tomb and the surrounding construction are impressive. Stone beautifully carved in floral and vegetal patterns--like that below the surface of the Temple Mount, and on some remnants outside the Mount--adorns the stage-like entryway to the tomb.

The tomb is unique too in its engineering. In fact, identification of the tomb as Helen's was made through a match between the hydraulic system for moving the round stone block that closed the entrance (not working today) and that described by the second century Greek Pausanias: "The Hebrews have a grave, that of Helen ... in the city of Jerusalem, which the Roman Emperor razed to the ground. There is a contrivance in the grave whereby ... the mechanism, unaided, opens the door ..." (Description of Greece [Loeb ed.], 8:16:4-5). The tomb's beauty was recognized long ago and has been depicted in eighteenth century etchings and often since. Regrettably, the sharpness and beauty of the stone carving is less today than then. The tomb goes down two levels below ground and contains dozens of burial niches.

Whereas Jerusalem Jews called the site Kalba Savua after the father-in-law of Rabbi Akiva, the traditional Arabic name was Qubur al-Mulk, meaning graves of the kings. Some investigators thought that the kings referred to were the House of David, increasing the site's importance in their eyes. …