The French Catholic Resistance Operative Who Married the Leader of an Ultra-Orthodox Sect and Helped Rescue Jews in Muslim Lands

October 2, 2023 | Allan Arkush
About the author: Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.

Born in France in 1920, Madeleine Lucette Ferraille was by all accounts both attractive and highly intelligent. During the last years of World War II, she saved a Jew from the Nazis, joined the Resistance, and infiltrated the SS. Thereafter her life took one of its many unexpected twists and turns, as recounted by Motti Inbari in his recent biography. Allan Arkush writes in his review:

After the war, Lucette fell into a deep depression and found that neither Christianity nor philosophy could help lift her out of it. “It was Judaism,” she later wrote, “which met my sense of universalism, my concept of unity, my need for a convincing theology, and, above all, an increasingly strong inner calling.” In 1950 a visiting Israeli academic named Ephraim Harpaz invited her to come to Israel and marry him. She loved Israel, but she didn’t marry Harpaz. Instead, she returned to France, where she converted to Judaism under the auspices of a Reform rabbi and adopted the name of Ruth Ben David.

By the end of the decade, Ben David had undergone a second, Orthodox, conversion and fallen in with the extreme anti-Zionist ḥaredi sect Neturei Karta. She went on to become a heroic figure in the movement, leading to her controversial marriage to its founder Rabbi Amram Blau (1894–1974). But this was hardly the end of her unusual career:

In January 1979, after the shah had fled Iran but before Ayatollah Khomeini had returned to the country, she wrangled a meeting with Khomeini in Paris and got him to promise that he would not punish Iranian Jews for [what were in her view] Israel’s mistakes. Leaders of Neturei Karta are infamous for courting Israel’s enemies, but Inbari presents evidence from a former Israeli spy named Ari Ben-Menashe that something more may have been going on. Khomeini, it seems, may have met with Blau because she was covertly representing the Israeli government. The message that Khomeini apparently delivered to Prime Minister Begin was a slightly reassuring one: “Don’t worry Israel. First, my agenda is to deal with my Arab enemies. Then, I will deal with Israel.”

Inbari also reports Ben-Menashe’s claim that Ruth met with Khomeini in Tehran in September 1979, at Begin’s behest, to propose an arms deal with Israel in exchange for the release of the American hostages. . . . The next year she traveled to Iran three times in an effort to save the life of Albert Danielpour, a wealthy Iranian Jew who was accused of being an Israeli and CIA asset. . . . Later she would head to Beirut to try to save the lives of Lebanese Jews held by Iranian-backed militias.

In her eagerness to help Jews in Muslim lands, Ruth went further than one might have thought an anti-Zionist could go.

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