In France, where intellectuals are as likely as singers and actors to become celebrities, Bernard-Henri Lévy has the kind of fame reserved for British royals and pop stars with one-name monikers, like Prince, Madonna, or Cher. It seems appropriate, then, that everyone refers to the philosopher simply as BHL.
Considered one of the most significant public intellectuals in France since the death of Jean-Paul Sartre in 1980, Lévy was born to a wealthy French Jewish family in Algeria. They moved to Paris when he was just a few months old. A journalist, philosopher, novelist, and filmmaker, the 68-year-old Lévy has published more than 25 major works touching on philosophy, poetics, ethics, religion, art history, politics, and international relations.
His latest book, The Genius of Judaism, revisits some of Lévy’s earliest concerns about the moral responsibility Jews have to the world in an era marked by a rising tide of Islamist terrorism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism. While he is a committed Zionist and extols the virtues of Israel as a model of democracy, Lévy argues that Jews’ ethical duty is not confined to the needs of fellow Jews or their allies, but also must be turned toward the non-Jew, even to Israel’s most hateful enemies.
Lévy will discuss The Genius of Judaism with Carlin Romano, critic-at-large at the Chronicle of Higher Education, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia. (The event is sold out, but it will be streamed live at https://livestream.com/flp.)
Lévy’s deep concern with Jewish scripture seems to belie his image as a dandy and a celebrity. A fixture on French TV and radio, he has earned quite a cadre of enemies who delight in lambasting him.
Maybe they hate Lévy for his immense wealth – heir to a timber empire founded by his father, Lévy is worth more than $215 million. Or perhaps they can’t stand him because he makes the gossip columns as often as the book section, showing up at the most exclusive soirees with socialites, heiresses, pop singers, and movie stars on his arm. Twice divorced, he is currently married to French actress and singer Arielle Dombasle.
Yet if Lévy is a jet-setter, it’s of a very special sort. He travels regularly to the world’s most dangerous war zones and shares his findings with world leaders, several of whom he counts as personal friends, from France and Germany to Israel.
Trained as a philosopher, Lévy spent much of his youth as a war correspondent, covering hot spots in the Islamic world, including the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War against Pakistan, an experience that led to his first book, Bangladesh: Nationalism in the Revolution. He has reported from Bosnia, Kurdistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
He traveled across Pakistan for his best known book in America, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, a best-selling account of Lévy’s dogged search for the Islamist terrorists who murdered the Wall Street Journal reporter in 2002.
“Lévy is unusually brave for a philosopher,” said Romano, adding that unlike run-of-the-mill intellectuals who make pronouncements about world affairs from the safety of academia, Lévy continues to report firsthand. His 2016 documentary film, Peshmerga, was shot over a six-month period, during which Lévy traveled across hundreds of miles along Kurdistan’s frontier with Iraq.
“He literally puts his money where his mouth is,” said Romano, a former Inquirer book critic.
The Genius of Judaism, due out Tuesday from Random House, “argues for a moral sense of Judaism as an ethical system that stands up for the other,” said Romano.
An impassioned work written with a fluid, poetic prose that’s deeply affecting, Lévy’s book is divided into two parts. In the first, he provides a powerful critique of modern anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, which often parade in the guise of a liberal commitment to the human rights of Palestinians.
He engages Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites who accuse Jews of being obsessed only with their own historical suffering.
Lévy defends the absolute right of Israel as a political state while never losing sight of various ways Israeli leaders have not lived up to their own promise.
“If you put aside the policies … and mistakes of this government or that government, the democratic structure of Israel can serve as a model of democracy for the whole world,” Lévy said in a phone interview from his home in Paris.
He went on to qualify that statement. “It does not mean that [current Israeli leader Benjamin] Netanyahu is a good prime minister. He is not. It does not mean the policy of [building Jewish] settlements [in occupied Palestinian territory] is a good policy. It is a bad policy and a mistake. And it does not mean that the Israel of today is doing its best to achieve peace. It is not.”
Slowing down his heavily accented machine-gun English for emphasis, Lévy said: “But the structure, the bones, the inner bones of Israeli society is one of the most powerful democracies and can be a model not only in the Middle East but the whole world.”
Yet Lévy does not define Jewish identity in terms of Jews’ responsibility to their own people or to Israel.
The second half of The Genius of Judaism argues that to be a Jew is to have a moral duty to the other, to the stranger, to the enemy.
It is therefore a moral duty, Lévy said on the phone, for Jews to make a Palestinian homeland a reality.
“A two-state solution is the right of the Palestinian other,” he said, “because to be a Jew means to let yourself be inhabited by the concerns of the other.”
He added that “one of the most effective ways to destroy Israel is to oppose the two-state solution. Without it, Israel will no longer be a democratic state committed to equal rights. First, it will be a state where the Jews are a minority, and second, this minority will maintain power by accepting a double standard of citizenship” in which Palestinians are treated as second-class citizens.
“That is the very opposite of the dream of the founders of Israel,” said Lévy.
While he continues to support strong, rigorous military response to Islamist terrorists, Lévy insists it’s the duty of all Jews to be in the service of non-Jews.
“That is the lesson of [the Book of] Jonah,” said Lévy. “In the story, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell them, unless they repent” their sinful way of life, God will overthrow or destroy the city.
Nineveh, an ancient Assyrian city of Upper Mesopotamia, near modern-day Mosul, was an enemy city, as Jonah points out. While the other prophets were sent to preach to fellow Jews throughout the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, God orders Jonah into enemy territory.
That’s the genius of the story, said Lévy — and the deeply radical nature of its moral message.
“Even as a child, I remember I was fascinated by the Book of Jonah,” Lévy said. “The idea of a man ordered to go into absolute otherness, to be compelled to go into the mouth of the enemy and help them. This idea has always seemed to me to be the most mysterious and most noble that can be proposed to a human mind, and the Jewish mind in particular.”
In the story, Jonah is dissatisfied with the way his message is received in Nineveh. Everywhere he sees falsity. He believes the city’s people falsely pretend to repent merely to be spared the wrath of God.
“The text says, even if they don’t repent, nevertheless, it’s Jonah’s duty to deliver the message," he said. “Even if he’s 99 percent certain the repentance is false, the attempt must be made.”
For Lévy, the lesson of Jonah must be heeded in the way we must respond to the Islamic world: “Modern manifestations of Nineveh include the new Ukraine, which is trying to get rid of the burden of the old anti-Semitism. It is Libya and Syria. And Jews are obligated to help” pro-democracy movements.
“We must help a country like Libya become free from dictatorship, even if we know that it will once again become an enemy of Israel,” said Lévy. “The future is unpredictable, and to be a Jew means to give a chance to people who at least are trying, at least attempting to find a way in the world that may lead to humanity and universality, to democracy.”
Bernard-Henri Lévy, "The Genius of Judaism"
In conversation with Carlin Romano. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library, 1901 Vine St. Event is sold out, but will be streamed live at https://livestream.com/flp.