Bernard-Henri Lévy, France’s leading public intellectual, returns to the United States in January to promote his new book, The Genius of Judaism, perhaps the fullest expression yet of his commitment to the Jewish faith, Jewish culture, and the continued flourishing of the State of Israel. Newly-returned from the Iraqi city of Mosul, where he accompanied Kurdish peshmerga fighters combating ISIS, Lévy spoke by phone with Ben Cohen, senior editor of The Tower.
In your new book, The Genius of Judaism, you demonstrate the depth of your Jewish identity. How has that identity guided you in your writing and advocacy on behalf of those nations and communities, particularly in the Middle East, suffering from war, religious persecution and ethnic cleansing?
My relationship to Judaism is the most important thread of my life as a committed intellectual. When I report about the most forgotten wars, as I did a few years ago in Africa and elsewhere, when I commit myself, as I do these very days with the battle for Mosul, when I commit myself, as I did 25 years ago, with the people of Sarajevo besieged by the Serbs – when I do all of that, I am faithful to this obligation, this duty, of going to the other and embracing his otherness, which is at the heart of the Jewish identity as I conceive it in my book.
How do you see Israel’s regional position today, given the tumult around it?
In the turmoil of our time, in the earthquakes which are shaking the whole area, Israel appears more than ever as a pole of stability and of democracy. I always feel, and I say this in my book, it’s a model of democracy not only for the Middle East but for the world!
Look at how we French deal with terrorism. I saw how you Americans dealt after September 11, 2001, with a state of emergency. And I compare our two attitudes – American and French – with the attitude of Israel, which is in a state of emergency not just for two years, or fifteen years, but since the very day of its birth, 69 years ago. Israel, frankly, has an exemplary attitude, which is to deal with emergencies without giving up on democratic values.
I don’t see any other example in modern history of a country that has had to face a constant state of war, a constant state of emergency, having in its own space a very strong minority who might be tempted to take the path of the adversary, and yet sticks so firmly to its principles. Never forget that you have in Israel a number of Arab parliamentarians, which we in France don’t have. Don’t forget that the Arabic language is an official language of Israel. And don’t forget that even in the moment when you have some Arab cities inside Israel demonstrating against Israeli policy, as during the Gaza war, there was never any step towards what might be called a state of exception – depriving this part or that part of society of its democratic and civil rights. It never happened. This is a fact.
Another thing. See the debate in Europe about multi-ethnicity, about minorities. Even in America, this debate about minorities and civil rights was a huge deal in the sixties and apparently the battle is not completely over, as you see with the Black Lives Matter movement. Well, see this problem of multi-ethnicity in Israel! The Hebrew State can really be considered as model of dealing with this matter of multi-ethnicity. Because, at the end of the day, what is Israel? Israel is people coming from the west, from the east, from the south. People coming from Europe, people coming from Russia, people coming from the Arab world. People of every different possible ethnicity. And all of them made so quickly, nearly overnight, a nation! I don’t see any other examples of that. So Israel has a very peculiar place in the world.
Is that one reason why Israel is demonized? How much of the assault on Israel is down to, as you put it, its “peculiar place in the world”?
Let’s talk about those who go in the streets in Europe demonstrating for the memory of 2,000 or 3,000 Palestinian dead, during the war in Gaza – which I completely understand. What I don’t understand is that I never saw them in the same streets when Bashar al-Assad kills not 2,000 or 3,000 but 300,000 or 400,000 of his own citizens. I never saw them in the streets when a Muslim leader in Sudan killed, in South Sudan, 400,000 or 500,000 people. And same for the victims of Saddam Hussein. And same for the Palestinians killed, tortured, by other Palestinians. So it’s more than strange that those who cannot accept Israel waging a defensive war don’t feel upset or uncomfortable when an Arab leader kills one hundred times more Arab women and men.
This is the situation of today. There are some people in the West, and in America also, who care about lives only when Jews and Israel are involved in the story. If that’s not the case, then they don’t give a damn, they don’t demonstrate, they don’t care. What name do you give to that? Each one of us can choose. But for me, this way of saying that the victim is interesting only if she had to deal with the Jews, this is anti-Semitism.
What is your view of the emerging Shi’a crescent in the Middle East – Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, with some Russian involvement as well?
I think it is a real concern. I’ve seen that very closely in the last few months, on the ground in Kurdistan. The Kurds, who are the best friends in the area of the democratic values and of the Western world, they have to fight on two frontlines. The first one is the Sunni ISIS, and the second one, it’s completely clear, is the Shi’a axis going from Tehran to Baghdad through Damascus and through the Hezbollah militia fighting in Syria. So for a democrat today, for someone attached to human rights and Western values, there are two dangers: ISIS under the Sunni flag, and the Shi’a totalitarians under the Iranian leadership.
How does the nuclear deal negotiated with the Iranians in 2015 influence these dangers?
My view of the deal is that, after having let the Iranians go so far in the process, there was no longer a good solution. There were only solutions a little less worse than the others. The agreement which Kerry and Obama, with the support of President Hollande, reached was the less bad, considering the situation, considering the level of danger which we were facing, considering how close the Iranians were to breakout. The agreement made by Obama was, I would not say the best, but the least bad. That’s why, without enthusiasm, without illusions, without naïveté, I supported it. At least it delays the threat. And also, it bets on the positive momentum of Iranian civil society, the virtuous contamination of democratic values. So it’s a bet. But in front of this bet, what was there? Hell. So it was hell or a bet. I prefer a bet.
It’s striking that many of the countries that have profoundly impacted your experience and thinking – Bosnia, Bangladesh, Kurdistan – are all Muslim countries that have rejected the path of Islamism. What is it that’s different about those societies?
The most important political and ideological battle of our time is inside Islam, between Islamism and democracy. If there is a clash of civilizations, it is inside the Muslim world, between the democratic civilization and the fanatical non-civilization. This is the question of today. For all of us – Americans, Europeans, people all over the world and, of course, inside the Muslim world – this battle inside Islam, between Islam and Islam, is absolutely crucial. Therefore, for the last 20, 30, 40 years, I try to deal with that. I am looking for the light in the darkness. I am looking for the sparks of democracy, for the sparks of human rights, in a world that has also a strong inclination towards fanaticism – I mean by that the Muslim world.
One of the common points of all my commitments you just quoted is to stand at the side of those who, inside the Muslim world, fight for democracy, fight for tolerance, fight for the values of civilization. They might be the minority, they might be very lonely, but they are the salt of the earth. And as a man and as a Jew, I feel the duty to extend them my hand.
When I was 20 years old, I stood with the first President of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. I remember as if it were today the day when he decided to name the young ladies who had been raped by Pakistani soldiers [during the 1971 Bangladesh independence war] and who gave birth to babies, he decided to name them not cursed women, but “Daughters of the Nation,” as if to give them back their dignity.
I remember the Muslims of Sarajevo, under the bombs. Abandoned by the Western world. And refusing the help of some of the most fanatical Muslim states in the world, in spite of the fact that they needed help, they preferred to endanger themselves then to lose their dignity and identity.
And I see today the Kurds, the peshmerga. I just returned from Mosul, I saw in all the cities of the Nineveh Plain, how the Muslim peshmerga protect the Christians, how they protect the Yazidis, how they protect the traces and the remnants of the Jewish presence in that region. Again, it’s an example of enlightened Islam, an Islam of the light.
So these are three examples. In one, I was 20, the other one I was 40, today I am 68. All of my life, I have been struck by these moments of light, these moments of enlightenment, in this world of Islam which is fighting against intolerance and obscurity. I’ve always felt that, as an intellectual, my duty is to support that. All my life I stood for that. It is not the only commitment of my life. I have other commitments, of course. For my own country, France. For Israel. For human rights in general. But this fight against the third fascism of our modernity, this fight for democratic Islam and against jihadism, is more than crucial.
Bernard-Henri Lévy’s new book, The Genius of Judaism, will be published on January 10, 2017 by Random House. Tickets are now available for his January 11 discussion with Charlie Rose, “Why Judaism Matters,” at the 92nd St Y in New York City.
[Photo: Bernard-Henri Lévy]