A Conversation with Bernard-Henri Lévy

January 18, 2017   •   By Ann Louise Bardach

BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY, or BHL as he’s known in France, is a public intellectual who is also a crusader. He campaigned for Bangladesh independence when he was just 20, has been a staunch and steadfast ally of the Kurds (enshrined in his documentary Peshmerga), and single-handedly instigated France’s intervention in Libya — or so many believe. A former socialist — even briefly a Maoist — he pivoted 180 degrees by 1976 as a founder of the “Nouveaux Philosophes” movement, engendering the everlasting enmity of the far left.

Born to wealthy Algerian Jewish parents who raised their family in Paris, Lévy — even at 68 — is a telegenic, agile, combative debater on matters great and small. “The truth is that one can now be anti-Semitic,” he gamely declaims in his new book, “only by being anti-Zionist.”

The Genius of Judaism, Lévy’s engaging retort to Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianity, pays homage to the world’s first monotheistic faith while chronicling the origins and myriad incarnations of anti-Semitism. It is also his most personal work, documenting his epiphanies through the discovery of the Talmud, his friendships with the writer Benny Lévy, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, critics Jacques Derrida and André Glucksmann — and his falling out with his former comrade, the Maoist-existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre.

Lévy is compelling when tracing the origins of French thought to a series of Jewish philosophers and thinkers — from the 11th-century Talmudic scholar Rashi (whom Lévy credits with nothing less than “the invention of France”), the physician-writer Maimonides, Marcel Proust — mais oui — philosopher Louis Althusser, along with the inventor of 20-minute psychiatry, Jacques Lacan, among others.

This is mostly riveting stuff — though Lévy cannot resist the occasional inside-baseball pissing contest. One vaguely senses in some chapters that scores are being settled or prior wounding attacks avenged — an exercise that is fatiguing for anyone other than diehard existentialists or aging logical positivists. The book is strongest when documenting Judaic thought and the ceaseless persecution of Jews (who knew that playwright Jean Giraudoux was as complicit with the Nazis as Céline!).

I heard from Bernard-Henri Lévy in early January — literally from the battle of Mosul, where he has been with the Kurds during the ongoing siege to recapture the city from ISIS.

Mosul is of more than casual import to Lévy, being formerly the city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire. A legendary city — and an enduring metaphor of good versus evil — Nineveh figures in more than two chapters in the book, originally published in France last year. (Nineveh also can be found in the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 10:11, and the fall of storied Nineveh is the subject of the Book of Jonah.) Mosul synthesizes two of Lévy’s passions: Jewish history and the quixotic pursuit of the Kurds for a homeland. “I will go back,” he writes. “I will enter Nineveh if and when the Peshmerga does. That is another oath.”

This week, however, he is in New York — and on January 14, he speaks at UC Santa Barbara’s Campbell Hall, and the next night at Los Angeles’s Wilshire Boulevard Temple, then on to San Francisco.

But he was still on the banks of the Tigris when we discussed The Genius of Judaism — a work of prescient timeliness on anti-Semitism in the age of Trump, Brexit, and the BDS movement — the perils of Islamic extremism, not to mention, the existence of God.


ANN LOUISE BARDACH: Chateaubriand wrote The Genius of Christianity in response, in part, to the rejection of Enlightenment philosophers — like Voltaire — of religion, or really, faith. How much is The Genius of Judaism your response to the godless intellectualism of the socialists/Marxists and how much to the anti-Semitism seemingly woven into French society?

BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY: Both are important. “Theophobia,” on the one hand, and, on the other, the struggle against anti-Semitism, not only in France but also in the rest of the world, notably the United States, where, I believe, it is expanding at a fast rate. But I would not have set out on this long adventure, would not have devoted so many years to it, solely to advance two essentially negative arguments. The heart of the book is in the affirmation of the values of Jewish thought, in the articulation of a truly affirmational Judaism. It is in the defense and illustration of what I call the glory and strength of the Jews — both terms I intend in the spiritual rather than the trivial sense. Therein lies the purpose of my undertaking.

You cite the history and origins of anti-Semitism and point out its current incarnations. Is fundamentalist/extremist Islam the most dangerous form of it today? Or is anti-Semitism, as you discuss, dressed up as anti-Zionism, more pernicious?

Well, Islamic extremism is indeed fundamentally anti-Semitic for the simple reason that it rejects Islam’s debt to Judaism and nurses the illusion of a spontaneously created Islam. In the course of this delusion about its own origins, it has to deal with Judaism, which is the origin par excellence, the beginning of the beginnings, the body of thought to which all monotheistic religions, Islam included, are inextricably indebted. Islamic extremists do not want to hear about this debt or any other. Which is why they harbor the same hatred for Christianity, to which Islam is also indebted. Parenthetically, that is one of the reasons for today’s new alliance of Christians and Jews: they face a common and violent enemy.

That said, I do believe that the principal fuel of the new anti-Semitism, a fuel capable of stirring people up and rekindling the pogromist urge, is anti-Zionism. Anti-Semitism in the Arab-Muslim world, as in the rest of the world, needs a grievance: “I feel hate; I need something to pin it on.” And the most convenient grievance, the one that has not yet been completely undermined by the actual history of actual massacres, is Israel’s existence and the support it receives from many Jews around the world. That is why anti-Zionism is the only “presentable” modern form of anti-Semitism.

While the BDS movement is pervasive in Europe and its universities, it is also gaining popularity in the United States, even at UC Santa Barbara. It seems to have become for some millennials their Vietnam. In your view, what are BDS’s most grievous flaws? And how has it conflated anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism into a tidy package of Israel-targeted sanctions?

The situation that you describe is clearly very distressing. The Vietnam generation was fighting for and in the name of freedom, rights, and democracy. The BDS generation is fighting for exactly the opposite. We should never forget that the first people in the modern era to have called for sanctions against Israel, then in its embryonic state, were former Nazis living in exile in the Middle East after World War II. We should not forget that the figures behind BDS are on record opposing the two-state solution and thus peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Nor should we forget that the Palestinian movements that BDS supports are bigoted, intolerant, authoritarian, and hostile to women and minorities.

You write a good deal of Christianity’s and Islam’s debt to Judaism, but seem not to mention that Jesus (and most all the disciples) were Jews. Did I miss that? Or was it a deliberate omission?

I do not dwell on that because it’s obvious. Christianity and Islam owe much more than that to Judaism. Their relationship with faith and law, for example. Their definition of the other. Their idea of love. And the very idea of loving one’s neighbor as it appears in the Gospels — which, as I show in the book, is already present in almost the same terms in Jewish texts, contrary to the views of the uninformed. But The Genius of Judaism doesn’t stop there. It goes beyond pointing out similarities to deal with differences and divergences. It tries to revive the best of the dialogues and the disputes among the three traditions. I prefer confrontation to ecumenism!

You speak of an addiction to name and fame or what you call the “idolatry of the great and the loud, relationships with powerful people, carried on without illusions but cultivated all the same.” How does one — or you — “leave the path of arrogant men”?

By moving still further into study. By that I mean the study of Jewish texts and the wisdom they contain. That moment will come. And when it does I will leave the path of arrogant men forever.

Is it possible that Islam is in the midst of its own Reformation of sorts — and will, in time, reject extremism? Or is that just the wishful thinking of liberals?

Yes, I believe that will happen. Moreover, I believe that the process has begun. When it will culminate, no one can say. But the true question indeed lies there. That contemporary Islam is passing through and even being torn apart by a contradiction — of that I have no doubt. There is only one clash of civilizations today. And it is the clash within Islam, the clash between Islam and Islam, the confrontation in the Islamic world between democratic civilization and uncivilized totalitarianism.

How do Brexit, Farage, Le Pen, and now Trump figure into the surfeit of anti-Semitism? There are a host of contradictions within these movements in respect to Jews, Israel, et cetera.

True. Take Trump, for example. Until very recently he made statements strongly tinged with anti-Semitism (as when he said to a group of Jewish Republicans, “You’re not going to vote for me because you know I don’t want your money”). On the other hand, he sets himself up as a friend of Israel who wants to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and so on. The question in a case like that is, where is his sincerity? Which of the two poses is the real one? Which will win out? I very much hope that I’m wrong, but I tend to believe that any love for Israel that is not based on a sincere appreciation of the Jewish people and their traditions of thought will not last and, instead, will end up exploding and give way to cynicism.

The Kurds appear to be the best friend the West has ever known — though never treated as such. What do you see as their future, given a potential Turkish/Russian/Trump alliance? And what is their disposition toward Israel in a post-Brexit world?

I made a documentary entitled Peshmerga that was filmed along the 600-mile front between Daesh [ISIS] and the Kurds. One of the many things that I took away from that effort was the deep respect of the Kurds for Jewish memory and, in particular, for the part of that memory that occurred on their land. I filmed many examples of that respect, which is as rare (in the region) as it is moving. Set against that you have the ingratitude of the international community toward the Kurds, an ingratitude that is not going to be resolved or improved by a Russo-Turko-Trumpist alliance. Will the Kurds be the fall guys once again? Will the world perpetuate the historic injustice that for a century has left the Kurds without the state that is rightfully theirs? Or will the world finally recognize that a state of their own is the least we owe them for the blood they have shed in the battle against Daesh? That is the major question posed in my documentary.

So Jews being called “the chosen people” in your view is a huge and woeful semantic error. But it is unclear to me what you regard as the accurate translation.

The “treasured people,” the depository of a treasure, a treasure that belongs not only to them but to all … humanity. The Jews, in other words, have a responsibility to and for the world. To be a Jew is to be in a relationship not with oneself but with others. And this relationship is called messianism. That is what the phrase “chosen people” means. It is very far from the ideas of moral superiority and privilege that are generally attached to that phrase.

You say in your book that there is no country in the Middle East other than Israel that affords Arabs and Muslims certain freedoms — and you write that 75 percent of them would not trade their life in Israel “at any price for a life in a neighboring Arab country.” Explain this to those who will find it a stunning declaration.

I say 75 percent to be conservative. But in fact I believe that the entire Arab population of Israel knows that they enjoy, in Israel, civil and human rights and freedoms that they would not enjoy elsewhere in the Arab world. Where does one find the freest Arabic-language newspapers? In Israel. Where do Arab workers have an absolute right to protest, demonstrate, and unionize? In Israel. Where can they count on defending their rights in court, even up to the highest court of the land, when they are wronged? In Israel. Where are they most free to obtain medical care, pursue their education, and to travel? In Israel. That’s a fact.

I have one last question that nagged at me while reading your book: you speak a good deal about “affirmational Judaism” and its ethical, cultural, and historical values. But you do not speak much about faith — the actual belief in God or about the presence of the divine. In the United States, we have tens of thousands of what we call “JewBus” — Jewish converts to Buddhism (Ram Dass, Norman Fischer, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Natalie Goldberg, Sharon Salzberg, et al). My explanation has been that the Holocaust destroyed belief in God for Jews, and Buddhism provided a lifestyle and faith — and very conveniently one without a God! This has worked for many, though other Jews, like J. D. Salinger, abandoned Zen for Vedantic Hinduism — where there is the consolation of God.

Do you have a personal faith? And how does Judaism rekindle that among its brethren?

No, I don’t “believe” in God. And, to be frank, I am not so sure that “to believe or not” is so much the question. It is a question for Christians. It is a question for Buddhists. But is it a question for Jews who always said that Judaism is matter of “study” more than of “belief”? To be a Jew means to be intelligent, not to be extatique [ecstatic]. What is required is to question, doubt, and understand the world, not to lose oneself in the warmth of a supposed communion. Talmud, not a Pascalian wager! [“God is, or He is not,” Pascal writes in his Pensées … “Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”]

When Gaon of Vilnius had to choose between a lazy student who believes and an ardent, vibrant student who doubts, he says that he prefers the second. So do I.


Ann Louise Bardach is a PEN Award–winning journalist and author who has interviewed a wide array of world leaders and thinkers, including Fidel Castro, Benazir Bhutto, Shimon Peres, William Burroughs, E. Howard Hunt, and Johnny Rotten and has written for Politico, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and others.