Gisele Littman had always wanted to write a novel. For years, the potential characters danced around inside her head. Instead, turbulent events in her life threw her in quite a different direction. Born in Cairo, she was forced to flee Egypt with her family after Nasser’s mass expulsion of Jews in 1956. As a result, she immersed herself in politics and dedicated her writing talents to the study of the volatile relationship between Jews and Muslims. Her best-known work is ‘The Dhimmi’: an account of the subjugated status of defeated non-Muslims as a by-product of jihad. She has also championed the cause of Middle Eastern Christians. More recently, she coined the term Eurabia for the anti-Zionist strategic ‘alliance’ between the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the European Community.
Gisele and David met in London as students and fell in love. They were an unlikely couple – she the francophone, shy, diminutive and destitute Jewish refugee from Egypt, he the tall, confident, patrician product of a British public school and scion of a wealthy family.
Gisele and David Littman settled near Lake Geneva and forged a remarkable partnership during his lifetime, which ended in 2012.
Wading through the mountains of documents and letters which David kept scattered in the office of their Swiss home, Gisele Littman has now written her political autobiography (in French).
David meticulously checked her work and translated her books into English. He had a prodigious memory for facts, answered the ‘phone for her and made all her arrangements. No manuscript could go to a publisher until he had been through it with a fine toothcomb. David shielded her from hostile critics. Sparks did fly between these two strong characters, but her book is in many ways, an elegant, and absorbing, tribute to David: ‘L’amour est plus fort que la mort.’
It is a measure of her courage, so soon after she had fled another Arab country, that Bat Ye’or ( a pseudonym meaning ‘Daughter of the Nile’, adopted by Gisele for security reasons) consented to accompany her husband to Morocco in 1961. In a covert Mossad operation posing as an Anglican gentleman, David risked his life to help smuggle out over 500 Jewish children to Israel via Switzerland in ‘Operation Mural’. (He bitterly refused to visit Israel until his work had been officially recognised). In the 1970s, the couple were among the founders of the World Organisation of Jews from Arab Countries. David was a lifelong human rights activist, a lobbyist at the United Nations and a historian.
They had a circle of academic admirers and like-minded friends – Paul Fenton, Robert Wistrich, Leon Poliakov. But Bat Yeor’s work set on her on a collision course with the doyens of the politically-correct, the interfaith mavens and the revisionists, who accused her of everything from insanity to feeding the Islamophobia of the far-right. In one memorable vignette, she found herself seated at a Geneva dinner party next to Professor George Steiner, a man with fashionable pro-Palestinian views. She told him that Jews in the Maghreb could not leave their quarters with their shoes on. ” I don’t believe a word you say,” he shot back. Between the cheese and the dessert, a fierce argument erupted between George Steiner and David Littman, always fearlessly outspoken in defence of his wife. It ended with Steiner storming out of the dinner party.
Personal tragedy cast a shadow over David and Gisele’s life – their daughter Diana was born mentally handicapped and their son Daniel committed suicide. Nevertheless, Bat Ye’or soldiered on in her mission. She will go down in history as one of the major contributors to the understanding of political Islam and its treatment of religious minorities. She may never get to write her novel. Fiction’s loss is scholarship’s gain.
‘Autobiographie Politique: De la découverte du dhimmi à Eurabia’ by Bat Ye’or: ( 24 Euros, Les Provinciales, 2017)