Stéphane Hessel was involved in all the great humanist causes. He was a faithful companion of the Ligue de l’enseignement and one of the founders of the Cercles Condorcet. Véronique de Keyser, president of the Centre d’Action laïque, professor emeritus at the University of Liège, and former MEP (2001-2014) shared many of his struggles. She tells about her meeting:
“I met Stéphane Hessel in 2004, at a debate where we were both speaking on peace in the Middle East, at the Caen Memorial. He was accompanied by his wife. He was world-famous and I had hardly any achievements to my credit that he had not quickly reviewed. I must have been totally uninteresting to him. As an academic and an MEP since 2001, I had not yet led the EU’s electoral mission to Palestine in 2005 – which had seen the recongition of Hamas’ victory. But peace and justice in the Middle East were my obsessions, as well as Stéphane’s. These were the issues that cemented our friendship, which lasted until his death. And beyond.
I went to his house in mid-February 2013, to record the end of the book we had decided to publish together at Fayard “Palestine, la trahison européenne” (Palestine – the European treason). He welcomed me sitting in his armchair and wearing slippers. With a mischievous smile, he said: ‘I know that this is not how you receive a lady!’ I recorded what he still wanted to complete in the book and he left me to look for more testimonies from young people – “We don’t have enough young people in this book, Véronique. We need to reach young people!” He died about ten days later. I attended his state funeral at Les Invalides, accompanied by Leila Chahid. President Hollande’s eulogy went off without a hitch, until a little sentence slipped into his speech in which he said he distanced himself from Stéphane Hessel’s position on the Palestinian question. Leila and I exchanged a look full of sadness and anger: “Him too? At the Invalides! The minimum would have been to say nothing.”
When Hannah Arendt went to Palestine for the first time during the war, because she was working in Paris in a Zionist association, she was already worried about future relations between Jews and Arabs: what form of state, what peace? And she too was called an anti-Semite. Stéphane Hessel’s obsession with international law and justice provoked the same misunderstanding. The humanist universalism he defended was seen by some nationalists as anti-Semitism in disguise. And yet today, in Israel, citizens are marching in the streets. They are concerned about the betrayal of the democratic ideals that led to the creation of the country. History is definitely stuttering.
The foreword to the book is the part recorded just before his death. In it, he reiterates his love of Israel and his faith in the UN “For it was the UN that was the basis for the creation of Israel, giving it rights and responsibilities. And it is through the UN that we must understand Palestine. (…) I, who am older than Véronique and have lived through all these events, am in exactly the same state of mind as when Israel was created. I remain committed to international law: I have not changed. I was in New York at that time and I was working at the United Nations. They were trying to find a formula that would provide an answer to the drama that we Jews had just experienced. We had a very strong feeling. We had lived through total destruction, the Shoah. (…) We said to ourselves: the Jews of the whole world finally have the right to have a state, which they have not had for 2000 years. (…) We thought then that this state would be a state for the Jews and that consequently, there had to be another state for the Arabs.’ (p 9-11) Hessel was in favour of the two-state solution. But he saw them both as secular and said: ‘As for the secularity of these states, it is central. It was not believed that European secularism was the conquest of modern states – the Treaty of Westphalia dates from 1648. We generally think that this is a particular problem for Islam and we tend to see Islam as a religion and a policy. We do not easily imagine states that are both Muslim and secular. We are wrong’ (p.13) And Stéphane Hessel cited the example of Indonesia and wondered about the evolution of the Maghreb countries, after the Arab Spring.
Until his death, Stéphane Hessel never stopped defending a universal peace model – in the Middle East as everywhere in the world – based on international law, the democracy of states and their secularism – and considering religions as a private matter. This was his testament. Ten years after his death, his message is still the same. But we can see how far the trajectory of the world has moved away from it and in a completely different direction. So would have said Stéphane: ‘Time for Outrage!’ (his 2010 book). So would have said this great Resistance fighter involved in the Council of the Resistance – “Engagez-vous” (his 2011 book, not translated into English). And he ends Indignez-vous with this message: ‘To those who will make the 21st century, we say with our affection: To create is to resist. To resist is to create’. Received 5 out of 5, dear Stéphane’.