Bernard-Henri Lévy

By | Nov 04, 2015

France’s public intellectual no.1 has become its number-one defender of Jews—and democratic intervention around the world.


Iis early July and I am in Marrakesh, seated across from Bernard-Henri Lévy: the most infamous man in France. As philosopher, essayist and man of action, Lévy wields outsized influence on French public life. He has been a ubiquitous fixture on television talk shows and in the press—from broadsheet newspapers to tabloid magazines—since the late 1970s. Even those who have not read any of his books know him by his three initials, B.H.L.—and have an opinion about him. A lightning rod of sorts, Lévy can be credited with, among other things, having helped pull the French left away from Marxism and toward the center, as well as having personally persuaded Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene in the Libyan civil war. We have much to discuss.

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We’re at the bar in La Mamounia, the luxurious Moroccan hotel located just inside the walls of the Old City and a brief jaunt from the souk—although at this low point in the tourist calendar, there can’t be more than eight people here, us included. Lévy is clad in the summer uniform that has become a part of his brand: a crisp white shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest, sunglasses perched within the V, his grey hair styled into its signature, magnificently constructed tri-part swoop. Lévy turned 67 in November, and the years have undoubtedly looked upon him with favor. He orders a sparkling water, followed by a mint tea, and snacks on whole roasted salted almonds continuously, occasionally spilling them down his shirt when  he sits back in his chair. He speaks in English and sometimes sounds as if he is translating literally from the French.

At the time of our encounter, Lévy is on vacation. When in Marrakesh, he stays at the house he acquired around 20 years ago from the French actor Alain Delon, who played the male lead in a 1997 movie that Lévy wrote and directed entitled Le jour et la nuit (Day and Night). (It also starred Lauren Bacall and Lévy’s wife, Arielle Dombasle, and was critically derided as one of the worst films in the history of French cinema.) This is something of a working holiday, since he is putting the finishing touches on his new book, Le génie du judaïsme (The Genius of Judaism), due out in France in January and in English translation later in 2016. The title is a play on that of an 1802 work by the Romantic writer François-René de Chateaubriand, Le génie du christianisme (The Genius of Christianity), penned as a defense of Christianity in post-revolutionary France. At a time of insecurity for the French Jewish community, Lévy’s Le génie du judaïsme will examine the humanism, ethics and politics of Judaism, as well as address the issues of Israel and anti-Semitism in France today.

Although France remains his home (he divides his time between Paris and the south of France), Lévy lives something of a wandering life. In the months following our meeting, he would pop up in Ukraine—hobnobbing with Shimon Peres and Tony Blair at a strategy conference in Kiev—and in Iraqi Kurdistan, in a show of solidarity with the resistance to Islamism, terrorism and barbarism. He is an intellectual wanderer as well, a man of words and ideas, feelings and compulsions, always awaiting the next argument or cause. “There are so many big issues in front of us today: in Syria, Libya, Greece, Ukraine. We are facing a world today very different from what it was 40 years ago,” Lévy tells me. “Forty years ago, 20 years ago, history was frozen. The Cold War meant a frozen history. Today, history is unfrozen with eruptions of tragedy—of possible tragedy—everywhere.”

Lévy has been engaged in an ongoing argument with France since he published Barbarism with a Human Face in 1977. It was not his first book—it came four years after Bangla Desh, nationalisme dans la Révolution, his firsthand account of Bangladesh’s first year of independence following its separation from Pakistan—but it is the one that made his name at the age of 28.

The late 1970s saw the emergence of a pugnacious gang of upstarts called les nouveaux philosophes, the New Philosophers, who sought to turn the tables on the French philosophical establishment. Les nouveaux philosophes were leftists who attacked the dogmas of the left and challenged the notion that Marxism must be the basis of all political and philosophical thought. Their urtext was André Glucksmann’s La Cuisinière et le Mangeur d’Hommes: Réflexions sur l’État, le marxisme et les camps de concentration, which drew parallels between Nazism and Soviet communism as forms of totalitarianism.

This group, of which Lévy was a charter member, drew their inspiration from Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his seminal book, The Gulag Archipelago, which was published in Russian in France in late 1973 and translated shortly thereafter. The revelation of systemic Soviet brutality was part of the broader context out of which les nouveaux philosophes were born. The crushing of the Prague Spring of 1968; the re-Stalinization of the Soviet state under Leonid Brezhnev; the 1976 founding of the Helsinki Committees for Human Rights; and the struggles of the refuseniks and the Movement to Free Soviet Jewry all added to the growing awareness of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. In Barbarism with a Human Face, Lévy wrote of the “duty to protest against Marxism,” which he resisted both as a system of “formidably ordered” thought and in its practical application by the state. He famously warned, “Apply Marxism in any country you want, you will always find Gulag in the end.”

Barbarism with a Human Face, along with his other early interjections into the French national conversation—such as The French Ideology (1981), which examined the French predilection for fascism—pushed France to confront the relationship between Marxism, fascism and totalitarianism. But Lévy and the other nouveaux philosophes were criticized then, as they still are today, for seeking to overturn the established order while offering no system of thought to replace it.

Lévy “was instrumental in killing the legacy of May 1968,” Jade Lindgaard, co-author of the polemic The Impostor: BHL in Wonderland, tells me, referring to the month of student protests in France. That social unrest was anarchistic and collectivist, anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist, and opposed to Charles de Gaulle, the Catholic Church and the French right. In Lindgaard’s view, Lévy “took advantage of its spirit, its freedom, that younger intellectuals could raise their voices and be heard, but defended ideas opposed to this revolt and rebellion.” 

These early books established the causes that would come to define Lévy’s life—not only an opposition to authoritarianism but also a defense of liberal and democratic ideals. In War, Evil, and the End of History (2004), for example, Lévy used his increasingly visible profile to highlight neglected conflicts, put-upon peoples, and forms of barbarism in other parts of the world. From Bosnia to Darfur, Libya to Syria, Lévy has proposed that the French military be used as a humanitarian tool to uphold international law and certain universal ideals, and not merely as a neo-colonialist instrument with which to intervene in the affairs of former territories.

“I still worship some ideas which I have been faithful to for 40 years: justice, equality, universality of mankind, the fact that there is no cursed people who have to be out of democracy forever,” Lévy tells me. “It’s very difficult for me to understand a leftist who feels close to feudal Saudis, corrupted Palestinian leaders, partisans of Sharia in Sudan, genocidal people in Sudan against Darfur. If being a leftist means to be in solidarity with these people, then I don’t understand.”

Lévy “has kept alive the centrality of democracy and democratization as an essential pillar of a liberal state’s foreign policy,” his friend Leon Wieseltier, the former literary editor of The New Republic and currently a contributing editor at The Atlantic, tells me. “He’s been enormously important in that way and genuinely believes in democracy as a cause, not just as a concept. I guess that’s one of the reasons I admire my friend: He’s a man not just of concepts but also of causes.”

Lévy “has made a positive impact on French policy and French thinking. Saying terrible things are terrible in a loud and convincing way is more than a lot of people do,” says Steven Erlanger, who was The New York Times’ Paris bureau chief from 2008 to 2013, “and he deserves a lot of credit for that.”

Bernard-Henri Lévy was born on November 5, 1948, in Béni Saf, a port town on the northwestern coast of Algeria. As a young child, he moved with his family first to Morocco and then to the western Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. He would eventually attend the École normale supérieure, one of France’s grandes écoles, known as a breeding ground for philosopher-kings. (Its list of luminary alumni is too long to summarize, but Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone Weil and Michel Foucault are among them.) In an account of his childhood from Public Enemies, an exchange of letters between Lévy and the novelist Michel Houellebecq published in 2011, Lévy describes his father, André Lévy, as having been born into a kind of poverty that he’s “not sure that any French person today, even in the most deprived housing estate, can even begin to imagine.”

His father hated his native Algeria, and “had the strongest possible French identity,” Lévy says, “which consisted of having risked his life for France.” During the Second World War, he was a young officer in the Forces françaises libres. He fought in “the battle for Tunisia, the battle for Italy. He was decorated in Monte Cassino. This is not a bad way to be French.” After the war, André Lévy made his fortune in the timber industry, founding Becob, a company that was eventually sold to the conglomerate Pinault-Printemps-Redoute in 1997.

“My father was a Jew in the sense of Sartre, a Jew only because he was considered a Jew by the look of anti-Semites,” Lévy tells me. His father’s Judaism was not the scared, assimilated Judaism that was prevalent among the French bourgeoisie before the war, but a Judaism in which religion had been lost completely. In the home the young Bernard-Henri shared with his father, his mother (who came from a line of Algerian rabbis) and two siblings, Shabbat was not observed and the festivals went unmarked. Until he was 25 or 30 years old, Lévy did not set foot inside a synagogue; he possessed no knowledge of the Bible or Talmud.

Lévy supposes that this erasure of Judaic practice was a reaction to the Holocaust. “In some of the French Jewish families, there was the common feeling that Judaism is mainly a source of exclusion, maybe malediction, after the Holocaust, and there was this idea that Jews should forget as much as possible this terrible history of Judaism. They were wrong, of course, but it was the tendency,” he says.

Even so, his parents were suspicious of those whom Lévy calls shameful Jews, Jews who did everything possible to escape their origins, including his father’s older brother, Armand, who after the war married a Christian blonde “with milky-white skin,” as Lévy describes her in Public Enemies, as much for her surname and access as for her beauty. Armand Lévy “was a juif de négation,” Lévy says, invoking the term first used by Jean-Claude Milner in his book Le juif de savoir to denote an assimilated Western Jew who “barely touches the surface of his Judaism.” With “my father, it was more subtle. He was indifferent to Judaism but he had no hatred for Judaism—and no shame. If somebody happened to use his Judaism as a weapon against him, he would probably face it. This uncle, he’d probably escape.”

Lévy did not experience the feeling of being a Jew until he was 18. In June 1967, at the outbreak of the Six-Day War, Lévy felt “an immediate, impossible-to-control feeling of solidarity with the State of Israel.” Such was his strength of sentiment that, two or three days before the end of the war, he went to the Israeli consulate in Paris to attempt to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. The army did not want him, and the war was soon over, but it was the end of the school year and Lévy already had a plane ticket. The antithesis of the France of Lévy’s childhood, Israel was the perfect, and perhaps only, environment where a French Algerian Jew like him could have experienced an awakening of identity—and indeed he did.

This trip was also the first time he visited the West Bank. “I remember on this first trip, I went to Jericho, in July 1967, and it was clear for me that this would never be Israel, so there were two options: to give it back to Jordan—but would Jordan want it? Obviously not. We know today that they did not. Or, to build something there. But annexation was not a real option, either,” Lévy says. As early as 1969, Lévy believed in the necessity of the two-state solution. Then as today, “justice for the other embodied by the Palestinians and self-interest for Israel” motivated him.

After completing Barbarism with a Human Face in 1977, Lévy had writer’s block. In the French, German and Greek philosophical traditions, he could not find the tools or elements to reply to the book’s unanswered questions. Then he met French-Lithuanian Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose philosophy was suffused with the religious language of Judaism and who was the author of many Judaic studies and Talmudic commentaries. Lévy threw himself into Levinas’s work, and from there went “step by step to old texts of the tradition”—Rashi, Maimonides, pieces of the Talmud—and “suddenly it appeared, rather crystal clear, that the elements for the reply, the missing pieces, were there.”

This adventure of thought resulted in his 1979 book, The Testament of God. The way to “concretely oppose and reject” barbarism with a human face, Lévy proposed, was to be found in the Torah, within which “there lies an immense legacy, an invaluable document whose vital contemporary importance is just beginning to be discovered.” It provides “a concrete ethics, a celebration of Law, a pledge on the Universal, a miracle of Reason, whose impossible figure is perhaps the surest and the last recourse against the dangers of voluntary surrender and submission.” The Testament of God should in no way be read as an invitation to return to religion, spirituality or godliness. Rather, Lévy suggests that revisiting Jewish and Christian thought—demystifying the Bible and examining it philosophically—can relax the grip of new barbaric thought.

Lévy “has no significant place in modern Jewish thought,” says Wieseltier. “He’s influenced by Levinas in some ways, but the Levinas who influenced him was not the Levinas who interpreted the Talmud but rather the theorist of the ethical responsibility to the other. Lévy cites certain Jewish inspirations, but his deepest influences are liberal and democratic ones.” The Holocaust “is one of his central reference points, but so, for that matter, is the Gulag,” Wieseltier adds, arguing that Lévy is not “primarily motivated by Jewish ideas” and is a “univeralist.”

Upon its publication, The Testament of God evoked a sharp rebuke from the French Jewish historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet as “teeming” with “gross errors, false citations, and delirious affirmations,” accusing Lévy of a “shocking ignorance” of Greek, Jewish and biblical history in a letter published in the weekly newsmagazine Nouvel Observateur. It was not the first time Lévy was attacked for his misunderstanding of sources, nor would it be the last time he was embarrassed by it. In his 2010 On War in Philosophy, Lévy cited the work of French philosopher Jean-Baptiste Botul in a critique of Kant. Botul was, in fact, a spoof, the fictional creation of Frédéric Pagès, who wrote for the French satirical weekly newspaper Le Canard enchaîné.

The Cold War meant a frozen history. Today, history is unfrozen with eruptions of tragedy, of possible tragedy, everywhere.

Facing down barbarism has taken Lévy to all four corners of the earth. “There’s a romantic tradition of writers going to war scenes or scenes of catastrophe and writing about them,” says Lindgaard. “He wanted to be in the history of this legacy—it’s a romantic vision.” Lindgaard also believes that this way of life was advantageous for Lévy, since he was one of the only philosophers in France doing this work.

After the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl in February 2002, Lévy spent a year investigating what happened, ultimately publishing the controversial book, Who Killed Daniel Pearl? The research took Lévy from Pakistan to Afghanistan to Dubai. “Nobody else bothered to investigate and go to the places where Danny went and do the work that he did,” says Ruth Pearl, Daniel’s mother. When I ask why she thought Lévy did this, she says, “My impression is he was touched and felt some kinship” with Daniel.

“I thought it was good work,” she continues. “We didn’t like the portion where he is imagining what Danny was feeling or thinking. I felt that was not his prerogative to do that. He took the liberty of assuming he knew what Danny felt,” she says, referring to a controversial section of Lévy’s book that imagines Daniel’s interior monologue in the lead-up to his death, an aspect of the book Daniel’s wife Mariane Pearl also disapproved of. But since the book’s publication, Lévy and the Pearls have remained friends.

Lévy’s knack for publicity has become a form of diplomacy. This was evident most recently in Libya, where during the revolution in 2011, Lévy ended up as a point man between the French presidency and what would become the de facto Libyan government, the National Transitional Council. It is not simply buying into Lévy’s own narrative, propagated in his diaries and his 2012 documentary The Oath of Tobruk, to say that he was instrumental through Nicolas Sarkozy in bringing France into that conflict on the side of the rebels. Sarkozy’s stand pushed NATO—and the UN—to also support the Libyan resistance. “It’s entirely possible that, with the UN resolution having come in time to save at least some vestiges of Libya’s heroic resistance, Lévy’s timely intervention may indeed have been the decisive accelerant to action,” Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker in March 2011.

In Libya, Lévy saw a revolt under way that he believed the West could aid and felt a responsibility to protect the people of Benghazi from possible extermination. The question was “should we support the dictator or should we support the people or should we, the West, be neutral? And neutral was to support the dictator. This was the choice,” he tells me. “Once the revolt began, once the wave inflated, the wave, the wish for freedom, the only choice was support or oppose. I thought that, once in its lifetime, the West had to support the people and not the terror.”

I ask Lévy whether, given all that has happened in Libya since the fall of Qaddafi—including the breakdown of the Libyan state and the emergence of ISIS in the territory surrounding Sirte—he had any regrets. “No, for me there is no regret of any sort. I’m sad that we did not do more in Libya,” he says. “My only regret is not to have been able to convince the current and next president to continue, to help nation-building, to support the people who stemmed the chaos. This was our mistake. Intervention was not the mistake.”

Back home in France, Lévy’s latest struggle is against the new anti-Semitism. In 2007’s Left in Dark Times, Lévy outlined what he thought this plague would look like. “For the most part [it] will be a union of Holocaust denial, anti-Zionism, and competition among victims,” he writes. “It will have the same progressive, antifascist overtones, sympathetic to all the problems about which what is usually called the Left has made a career of caring.” In the figure of the controversial comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala—who in his work has used the grievances of French ethnic minorities for anti-Semitic purposes—Lévy has been proven correct.

While the situation for French Jews today seems grave, Lévy is keen to stress that France is not experiencing a return to the 1930s, for three reasons. First, there are no clear, strong voices articulating anti-Semitic feelings in France today; neither Dieudonné nor anti-Zionist essayist Alain Soral compares to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the French novelist who wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets in the run-up to World War II, after which he was imprisoned for collaboration. Second, the virus of anti-Semitism has not infected the executive branch or the legislature. Third, Lévy sees “a strong Jewish affirmation in the Jewish community of France, especially among the young” in contrast to the Judaism of negation of the prewar period, which Jews believed would protect them but in fact disarmed them. “I think there is still time to resist, to fight, not to give ground. Jews have a right to France. They contributed to build it. At very crucial moments in the history of France, Jews were here and were key,” says Lévy. “Jews cannot leave France just like that, just because Monsieur Dieudonné or Monsieur Soral—who are stupid, illiterate, ignorant—say they hate them.”

Roger Cukierman, president of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France, an umbrella organization of French Jewish organizations, says that Lévy is always willing to participate in a meeting or to speak when asked. During this time of difficulty for French Jewry, “Lévy has expressed himself strongly on many occasions against all our enemies,” including at an anniversary event in Paris marking the 2012 massacre of Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse, says Cukierman. “He is committed to the defense of French Jewry, very much so.”

Indeed, there is something significant about a Jewish leftist willing to stand up for Israel when much of Europe’s left has  turned against Zionism and the French Jewish community is increasingly unsure of itself and its future. “Anti-Semitism is, of course, dangerous because it can kill, but Jews today are stronger than anti-Semitism,” Lévy tells me. “I deeply believe that. Anti-Semitism does not reach anything of my being. It does not reach me. It can kill me, of course, but it can’t reach, it can’t scratch, it can’t make me change. It has no leverage on me. So I’m not really afraid of anti-Semitism. I just fight it.” Lévy does not believe in a world without anti-Semitism—only one where it is limited and contained.

Lévy’s courage is central to his habit of shining a light on neglected conflicts and shouting fire when countries such as Bosnia, Sudan and Libya ignite. “The Shoah is an incomparable, absolutely singular, unique crime,” Lévy says to me, “but sometimes it operates as a sort of warning signal, and I had the warning signal a few times in my head in my life. I had it in Bangladesh when I was 23, 24. I had it in Israel when it was attacked in 1967, in 1973, and later on. I had it in Darfur. I had it in Bosnia, and I had it in Libya. A warning signal, not of a possible Holocaust, and not even of genocide, but of a possible huge mass murder.”

In reading The Testament of God, it is evident that the story of the Jewish people inspires him as a narrative of resistance and perseverance. “Can it have been so soon forgotten that even in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, at the farthest reaches of suffering, there were those who revolted, stood by themselves, and said no to the inevitable?” he writes. It is thanks to them, he continues, that “the works of freedom have maintained a meaning and urgency that a vagabond century has quite blithely given up.”

Lévy describes the Jewish people as indomitable, a civilization “whose perseverance in existing remains one of the deepest mysteries confronting contemporary consciousness. A community of wandering but also of light and confidence which, carried by fate to the very limits of sorrow, never surrendered the simple pride of being human. Without ambiguity,” he concludes, “I recognize myself in that community. Ardently, proudly, I choose to carry and exalt its colors.”

Editor Tina Brown, who helped bring Lévy to a wider American audience at The Daily Beast, calls Lévy an “incredibly provocative public intellectual who has an incredible amount to say” and a “brilliant opinion journalist” who is “original and counterintuitive.” “People who take risks are always hated,” she says, comparing Lévy to Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, “those who generate strong feeling because they don’t care about courting favoritism.” Lévy, she continues, is someone who “doesn’t hold back and doesn’t care” what others think.

But as historian Vidal-Naquet spotted as early as The Testament of God, there is a legitimate critique to be made of his work, methods and presentation. Lévy “is a new kind of character,” Lindgaard tells me, “the so-called intellectual who looks good on TV, talks very well, and gives the media the stories they want to hear. He is no philosopher, he is no reporter, but he’s very good at turning reality into a big show.” When you look back at his work, “it’s an extraordinary mess on all subjects,” he says.

“He’s made himself seem ridiculous to a number of people by his love of celebrity and his courting of the powerful,” says Steven Erlanger. “There’s something slightly ridiculous to many people, including to me, about an intellectual with a fashion uniform, who unbuttons too many buttons on his shirt. These are not the attributes of a deep thinker. He’s opened himself up to ridicule and has no one to blame but himself.”

There is also much to envy. Lévy is fabulously wealthy on account of the fortune he inherited from his father. He has never had to struggle for anything, especially not in the search for women or love. He has been married three times, presently to Dombasle, the actress. (His daughter by his first marriage, Justine Lévy, is a successful, award-winning novelist.) He is a man for whom the word jouissance—an ecstasy or delight in both physical and intellectual pleasure—was conceived. “What I know from the years I have known him is he tells the truth as he finds it, he fights for what he believes is right, he thinks very deeply and goes to extreme lengths to find out the truth. He is on the side of humanity,” says his mistress the artist Daphne Guinness. “Whether people like his methods or not, let’s face it, I don’t see anyone else putting their life at risk to the extent he does. He could do nothing. He is doing this because he believes he can make a difference, and he does.”

Lévy is also astoundingly well connected. Left in Dark Times opens with an anecdote told nonchalantly about then-candidate Sarkozy calling him at his home in an attempt to court him. Of France’s presidents, Lévy was closest to François Mitterrand, who once sent an air force jet to Bosnia to fly him back to France so that Lévy could make it to his own wedding.

There is good reason to treat Lévy with skepticism; there is good reason to envy him. But taking into consideration the elements at play here—wealth, power and sexual potency—and given Lévy’s status as the most public of the Jewish intellectuals, one must consider how much of the animus within France toward Lévy derives from anti-Semitism. His status as Algerian by extraction certainly puts him in the position of being an interloper in the gaze of the far right, in their eyes open to the accusation that he is somehow not quite French or fully understanding of France.

“For anti-Semites, he is a symbol of the type of Jew they want to hate,” Cukierman proposes to me. “He received at his birth all the things people would like to have, like beauty, wealth, beautiful women, self-confidence, and this enables people to hate him.”

Back at the bar in La Mamounia, my time with Lévy is running out and the waiters are ushering away our empties. “Don’t you lament the fact that every time you release a new book, a movie, go on television, it’s met by these nasty verbal attacks and criticism?” I ask him.

He shrugs.

“But doesn’t it get tiring?”

“It’s tiring for them but not for me. For me, what is the burden?”

“People like to be liked,” I venture.

“There is no point, for me, to be liked, not by the crowd. I like to be liked by the people who read my books, who follow me when I am on TV, who whatever. Yes, of course, but not by everybody. The will to be loved by everybody is a typically hysterical attitude,” he says.

I am reminded that earlier in our conversation, Lévy told me that he was not the sociologist of his own story. Lévy looks ever forward, never backward, with little room for introspection. His mind is very much on the next argument, not the one that preceded it, and when Le génie du judaïsme comes out, his ongoing debate with France will resume once more.

“I think it’s always difficult to know what would have happened if you had not taken this stand or that one,” Lévy says to me when I inquire about his legacy. “My feeling is that I have not done a bad job.”

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