For a philosopher known for having an opinion on virtually everything, Bernard-Henri Lévy can be surprisingly terse. Shrugging his shoulders and raising his hands as if to ask “isn’t it obvious,” Lévy responds to the question “why as such a staunch supporter of Israel did you put your name to the recent JCall petition,” with the answer “because I am a supporter of Israel.”
But, I put to him, the Right accuses JCall of being shortsighted, of not understanding history and of erroneously putting the onus on Israel when the formula of land for peace is dead and when it is incumbent on the Arabs to recognize Israel as a Jewish state for peace to be made.
The accusation seems to animate Lévy. ”There are two different things,” he explains as he leans forward across the table in the lounge of Tel Aviv’s chic Hotel Montefiore. “Israel recognized by the Arabs, of course. But Israel recognized as a Jewish state by the Arabs, why? The Arabs absolutely must recognize Israel. But the question of whether Israel is a Jewish state or a secular state or whatever is for Israel to decide, not for the Arabs.
“This [Binyamin] Netanyahu claim is absurd on an international level. You cannot ask anybody to recognize a state as a Jewish state or a Christian state or a Muslim state or a secular state. It’s not the problem of international law. International law supposes that the Arabs recognize, definitely, forever, clearly, the full legitimacy of Israel. This is clear on an international level. Recognize Israel as a Jewish state? This is not the problem of the Arabs. Not only do I not ask, I don’t even recognize [the right of] the Arabs to decide what Israel will be. Israel is what the Jewish people makes of it.”
Lévy pauses for a second before adding: “What I know is that I am more than anyone linked to this country, I am linked to this country with all my soul and flesh and I want the best for this country, and the best for this country is peace.”
THE AUTHOR of some 30 books, including a 2006 collection of essays on the US, American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, Who Killed Daniel Pearl? and Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism, Lévy, 61, was here last month for a Forum Israel - France debate titled “Democracy and Its Challenges” organized by the French embassy.
On that count, he considers Israel a miracle. “The miracle of Israel,” he says, “is that in spite of being constantly at war, it has kept its democratic characteristics and I don’t see many other examples in the world of that. My country, France, after six or seven years of war in Algeria had put in parenthesis, had frozen, quite a good number of freedoms and liberties and democratic rights. The vibrancy, the vitality, the solidity, the constancy of Israeli democracy is amazing. So many countries, nearly all of them, after 60 years of a constant state of war would have taken some liberties with liberty.
“There is Athens and Sparta. Athens for peace and Sparta for wartime. Israel has been at war for 60 years, but is is still not Sparta, it is Athens. This is great, this is amazing.”
Lévy has been writing for years on the dangers of modern anti-Semitism, an anti-Semitism where, he says, the time-worn cliches of the past are readapted, reintegrated and reformulated into a system where Israel has become a synonym for the worst of this world, where hatred of Jews has become associated with defense of the oppressed, where the Jew has been transformed into the executioner, the Jew-hater into the Jew, and where delegitimizing Israel has become a respectable synonym for an ancient scourge.
Demonization of Israel, warns Lévy, is a problem not only in France, not only in Europe, but increasingly in America, and that, he adds, is something that is underestimated both in Israel and in the Jewish world at large.
“America is not a complete paradise of pro-Israel feelings,” he states. “Today, there are strong currents developing inside America that are not so favorable for Israel. This is one of the reasons we are in a hurry to make peace. We cannot wait 10 more years.”
Lévy though harbors no illusions that peace will be a magic wand that will reverse the trend. The anti-Semite, he says, will always find a new means of justification.
“Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, which are often the same, will not be solved by a gesture of goodwill,” he says. “They are there. You will never uproot anti-Semitism. Those who hate Israel, if they have not one reason, they will find another one, but that’s not the point. The point is that Israel has the right to live in peace, and the duty toward its citizens to give them a normal life. Israel deserves this. What I say is that peace is more easy today than it will be in a few years.”
Lévy questions how long the US will remain Israel’s best and most faithful ally.
“Nothing is eternal in the history of human beings,” he says, “nothing lasts forever, things change. Politicians have a tendency to believe that the situation of the moment can be frozen for eternity. That is not the case.
“I don’t want to be a prophet of bad omen, but nothing grants that this miraculous friendship will last forever. I know that some say, and it is true, that there is a metaphysical link between Israel and America, that there is a common narrative, the founding fathers, new Jerusalem, etc., but you have also some countercurrents that unfortunately can be strong and we have to take care of that.
“You have some minorities organizing themselves in America who are not favorable to Israel at all. You have anti-Zionism and demonization of Israel in America too. The book of [Stephen] Walt and [John] Mearsheimer about the weight of the pro-Israeli lobby on the foreign policy of America has made some real damage in some weak minds in America. The denial of the Holocaust is not a French speciality. You have some sects on the West Coast of America that are very active on these grounds too.”
While he sees shifting trends in the US, Lévy believes there is now "a window of opportunity with an administration in America, that, whatever some say, is really favorable to Israel.”
HE DESCRIBES Barack Obama as a “goodwill guy” and commends him for being “the first president of America for a long time who did not wait until the last month of the last year of his mandate to try to help, to try to be an ambassador of goodwill.”
George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, says Lévy, waited until it was too late. “Camp David and Taba might have been achieved if it they were undertaken two years before,” he asserts. “It was too late with Clinton racing for his own legacy... the clock was ticking down and [Yasser] Arafat took advantage of that and he played tricks with Ehud Barak, who was incredibly brave and courageous and offering all that could be reasonably offered.”
Does Lévy then, as a signatory to JCall, believe that Obama is pursuing the right policy, that Israel needs to be pushed to make peace?
“You may call it pressure from Obama,” he retorts, “but it is a fact; it is not toughness, it is in the interest of Israel. There was a book by Amos Oz called Help Us to Divorce [also published as How to Cure a Fanatic]. Sometimes between two people you have to have an ambassador of goodwill, you have to have someone helping you to divorce, to make peace and so on. Obama can be this guy.”
Lévy is aware that the divorce is unlikely to be amicable and says that Israel should concentrate on its own interests and not concern itself with how its partner – the Arab world – will conduct itself once the split is complete.
“You, me, the political class in Israel, we can deal only with the decisions of Israel. What can happen in Gaza, what can happen in Syria, is for a big part out of our reach,” he says. “So let’s solve the parts of the problem which are within our reach, which we can solve... I will not be the one and you will not be the one and Bibi Netanyahu will not be the one to solve the problems of the Arab world.”
What happens then if the divorce turns nasty, if Israel makes an agreement with a regime today that is replaced by a hostile regime tomorrow?
Lévy is stoic. “This is the progression of history,” he says. “Today you will deal with Mahmoud Abbas and Mahmoud Abbas can be replaced tomorrow by a Hamas-style regime. If you have to take a worst case scenario, I prefer a real war against a real army than this state of occupation with civilians and maybe tomorrow a third intifada and so on.”
If Obama is the divorce counselor, does Lévy believe Netanyahu is ready for a settlement. In his previous term as prime minister, Netanyahu was the subject of stinging criticism from Lévy who called him a “danger to Israel.” Now though, he says that Netanyahu has “changed a lot and learned a lot.”
“We had two meaningful discussions recently and from what I understand he is not the same Netanyahu,” Lévy observes. “My feeling is that he is clever enough to have the temptation to leave a mark on the history of his people, and I hope so for him and for Israel and for the Jewish people. But I believe he has matured and he has learned a lot. Opposition is often a good laboratory where you can learn about your own mistakes, where one can see things from above. This is what I thought. I may be wrong.”
Lévy, a committed secularist, describes himself as belonging to a “strong Jewish current that ranges from Emmanuel Levinas to Martin Buber to Franz Rosenzweig to Gershom Scholem.” These figures, he says, are the “beating hearts of secular Judaism,” a Judaism that he adds is “as Jewish as the religious one.” At the same time, though, Lévy notes that he has what he calls a “profound, speculative, metaphysical interest in the Jewish texts” and reveals that of late he has become more involved in Jewish studies “but in a secular way.”
Despite his liberal philosophy and perhaps because of his deep secularism, Lévy has come out in support of controversial recent proposals in France to ban the burka.
HE SEES no contradiction between his liberal stance and his support for the ban. “The burka is not a religious but a political emblem,” he explains. ”Politically it means the occupation and humiliation of women. I am attached all over the world to the key principle of equality between sexes, secularism, to men and women being equal. The burka is just a humiliation. If it was in the holy text, were it a proscription by Islam, I would not be involved. Except that even then I would say all holy texts are adapted to the era.
“But that is not the case, it is not in the holy texts. All the serious
scholars of Islam admit today that it does not belong to the body of
principles of Islam. It is just a political way in Europe, No. 1, to
humiliate women and, No. 2, to test the capacity of resistance of
democracy, and democracies must resist that even if there is only one
[burka]. People sometimes say, ‘Okay, but we have only a few hundred
burkas,’ but when you deal with constitutional principles, even one
exception is too much. You cannot say I’m not going to forbid a crime
because there are only a few. To impose inequality on women in France
is a crime, so even if there are only a few dozen, you need a law.”
The encounter between Islam and the West and radical Islam are issues
that Lévy has investigated intensively. Asked how he explains the
phenomenon of Western-born Muslims who have committed terrorist
attacks, he replies: “This encounter can produce the best and sometimes
can produce the worst. They are the worst product of this encounter and
they are the symptom of this encounter when it fails. Thank God they
are only a minority, although a minority that does a lot of damage.”
What then is the right model for integration, multiculturalism or the
melting pot? Lévy would choose the middle way. “There is probably an
excess in France of republicanism, which is that we ask probably too
much from our citizens of non-Western origins in terms of abandoning
their roots and identity. On the other hand in England they ask and
demand too little. I believe that the good path is in between.”
Once again, Lévy has words of praise for Israel on how it has handled
its own encounter with its Arab citizens. “The fact that in spite of 60
years of war, in spite of this propaganda from outside on some citizens
of Israel, the model of Haifa still works is a miracle. In France it
would be already a non-law area with riots, not a few days like five or
six years ago, but all year around, so it’s a miracle, a democratic
miracle. In Israel you have a pattern of citizenship which works well
in times of war, strangely well, and which will work amazingly well in
times of peace. You will see, having achieved what has been done in
times of war, what will be done in times of peace.”