Bernard-Henri Lévy on the power of goodwill and courage

The French writer, filmmaker and philosopher is in Jerusalem to receive an award for his new film 'The Will To See' at the Jerusalem Cinematheque-Jewish Film Festival.

 French writer, philosopher and filmmaker Bernard-Henri Lévy. (photo credit: COURTESY)
French writer, philosopher and filmmaker Bernard-Henri Lévy.
(photo credit: COURTESY)

“I believe in the power of goodwill and courage,” says the French writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. “The spark of hope could start anywhere,” he believes. He spent last year covering conflicts and tragedies all over the world, from Libya to Nigeria, from the Kurds to Ukraine, where people are facing tremendous threats and hardships.

These range from what Lévy terms a bloodbath in Nigeria, where innocent Christian peasants are being massacred by Boko haram, to the women of Afghanistan.

“I saw the glimpse of liberty among so many women and did not know what would happen next. I came back to France and was close to despair,” he recalls. But he is not one for despair and he is was in Jerusalem this week to talk about his recent film The Will to See and his experiences that are contained in a recent book by the same name.  

On Sunday, the film will be shown at The Jerusalem Cinematheque-Jewish Film Festival, where the filmmaker and author received the festival’s Achievement Award. While Lévy had written over 40 books and made other films, including a work covering the Kurdish Peshmerga, he says this film is about his life.

“It’s half diary and half memoir. It’s my diary of 2020, and in the course of this diary, there are some souvenirs of the very remote past that come back to my mind. It’s a mix of all of that. It was a strange and unexpected chemistry. It was not planned.”

 Poster of the film 'The Will to See' directed by Bernard Henri-Levy. (credit: Courtesy)
Poster of the film 'The Will to See' directed by Bernard Henri-Levy. (credit: Courtesy)

The last time Lévy was in Israel was prior to the pandemic. Now he arrives just as a new worrying variant of COVID has been found and the airport is closing to foreign arrivals. He says he is excited to be back in Jerusalem.

“Over the last 55 years, I have come very often to Israel, dozens of times... and it has always been an experience unto itself. I came for the first time in June 1967, on the seventh day of the war of Six Days. And now it is more than half a century later. And I feel the same way. My heart beats the same way when I have my first look at the hills of Jerusalem – unwavering emotion.”

He describes the recent film as an illustration of the embodiment of what it means for him to be Jewish.

“When I say that I feel and think and act as a Jew, this film is it. Judaism as universalism is my conception. To care for other people. To care and be concerned for the suffering and afflicted. This is my way. For me, one of the most important sayings of Rashi and Talmud is that to be a Jew means to read the Torah as if each of its verses and each of its letters had 70 faces. Why 70? Because it is the number of the nations. Yes, to be a Jew means to be faithful to a book which has 70 faces, the faces of the 70 nations, the rest of the world, the rest of the sons of Noah. This is what I do with this film. I try to see and to act as if the 70 faces of humanity could be revealed to themselves. This, for me, is being a Jew.”

IN THE WILL to See, Lévy looks back at the adventurers, fighters, writers, explorers, philosophers and activists of old whom he sketches out like a pantheon leading to the present day. Here are the International Brigades who fought fascism in Spain, including the “cohorts of dreams and amateurs” who made up units like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He writes about the desire to go to various forgotten conflicts around the world and tell the story of the people there.

“It is with enthusiasm amplified by the internationalist demand of justice and brotherhood that I defy the new egoists, and thus the new reactionaries, who see the voyager – Ulysses and Aeneas alike – as selfish and smug,” he writes.

I ask him if he draws inspiration from both Jewish sources and writers like Hemingway.

“In my personal pantheon, there are great Jews. Great French and German philosophers. But there are also some women and men who saw and acted, who made their deeds to match with their words. Political adventurers, if you prefer. You can quote Byron, Hemingway, but also Malraux. Writers who did not fear to confront the most difficult situations, to go to the proper things, to take risks, intellectual and physical, these sorts of writers are also my patrons since I was young.”

Lévy believes today’s generation is one that can still find inspiration in these deeds of the past.

“I feel that there are many people in the young generation who feel like me and have the same nostalgia for grandeur and greatness, of doing good and repairing the world. I was surprised by this in the last weeks and months. I was surprised by the reaction of many young people.” He describes today’s crisis of leadership in Europe and the United States as a new “Munich moment,” referring to the appeasement era of the late 1930s.

 French writer, philosopher and filmmaker Bernard-Henri Lévy. (credit: Courtesy)
French writer, philosopher and filmmaker Bernard-Henri Lévy. (credit: Courtesy)

“What happened in Afghanistan for example has no reasonable explanation. What happened in Syrian Kurdistan and what might be happening in the coming days has no reasonable explanation. What happened in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017 when we abandoned the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] after the referendum and let the Iraqi state helped by Iran to take the wealthy part of the territory, has no explanation. And when I say no explanation, I mean cowardice, irresponsibility, turning our back to our creed, principles and interests. We are weakening our allies and reinforcing our enemies.” At each crossroad Western leaders, whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden, have chosen the wrong path so far, he says.  

Young people could surprise us in their commitment to causes.

“Yes, we might be surprised. I see the mobilization of young people, for example, in support of the Uyghurs. I saw, when I did my previous movie, Peshmerga, how the very word “Peshmerga” became popular and started to mean a lot for youngsters. The young generation might not think like the leadership.”

He has harsh words for the Western leadership that has abandoned places like Afghanistan. He does not believe there are just cynical choices.

“Stupid, not just cynical. See!” Lévy emphasizes. “The US had 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan engaged in a non-combat mission with no military losses for many months. This was a dozen times fewer soldiers than in South Korea or Japan. And it was enough to secure a strategic country. What happened? America decided to break that and to give on a silver plate this secured strategic country to al-Qaeda, to Iran and Russia, to Pakistan, which is the most rogue state we can see today. So it’s a stupid decision.”

THIS RAISES the question of why Western countries seem to feel the need to leave places like Afghanistan to concentrate on various domestic policy slogans, such as “Build Back Better,” while adversaries such as China, Russia, Turkey or Iran gladly fill the vacuum. Lévy says it is a lack of confidence, lack of creed and self-hatred.

“It’s fatigue. Lack of belief. It’s not cynicism. If it was cynicism then [it is a] bad calculation and that could be corrected. But it is fatigue. Western countries are in the situation they were in the 1930s. In that time, those who were not fascist or Stalinist just thought democracy was dead.” He points out that while the citizens in democracies did not actively embrace fascism or communism, “They thought, in their Hegelian thinking of history, that democracy was a dead pattern. That was the mood of the ‘30s and that is why fascism and communism progressed so much. It is, in a way, the situation we face today. Biden is not pro-Pakistan, Trump was not pro-Putin, Obama was not pro-Iran. But there is a sense of fatigue.”

The fatigue in the West is matched today not by rising revolutionary or fascist ideologies, but rather by authoritarian regimes, slowly gobbling up parts of the world. Lévy calls them weak ideologies or ghost ideologies.

“These new revisionist powers have an imperialist will. They want to rebuild their dead empire. But it is a zombie empire. It is zombie imperialism. What we have to confront are a ghost and a zombie. When you look at the Palace that Erdogan built in Ankara, it is pasteboard, it is fake. When you look at what Xi Jinping is building, his new monuments of the past, it is all fake. When you look at the ayatollah trying to revive the past it is like Persepolis of the last Shah, it is fake dreams, ghost empires and zombie ideologies.”

He points to a discussion he had with Alexander Dugin, who he says is an inspirer of Putinism.

“I discussed seriously. But I was intimately laughing at this hodgepodge, this patchwork, this accumulation of pieces coming from ghost theories, vaguely assembled. It was not difficult to dismantle the whole thing. He was a plain racist and antisemitic. He was officially homophobic. And really fascist. All the green lights of fascism were switched on. It was like a bazaar where you could find all the worst of European ideologies of the 20th century.” In a sense then, these modern authoritarian regimes are grasping at the past, but they are like the late Roman Empire trying to pretend they can revive the grandeur of the first century. Lévy compares these regimes, such as the pro-Erdogan mouthpieces in Turkey, digging up old ideologies like skeletons.  

In contrast to the zombie ideologies and the fatigue in the West, there is a new group of countries ironing out agreements that may transform this century. These include the Abraham Accords members, and new Israeli ties with Morocco, Greece, India and other places.

“It is the best news for the world, not just the region,” the philosopher says. “These Abraham Accords, it is a profane miracle. I know Morocco well. It’s a great country with brave leadership. On the question of terrorism and radical Islam, they are exemplary,” he says.

He pointed out that a few years ago, Mohamed VI pronounced an annual royal speech to the nation on these topics.

“It was a real manifesto of resistance against obscurantism, radicalism and terrorism. It was very brave. So what is happening today between Israel and Morocco is huge news. And the same with the Emiratis. The handful of men and women who made that possible are political heroes, as great as Sadat and Begin. Maybe more. We will see.”

LÉVY HAS hopes for the moderate Arab countries and support for groups like the Kurds who have suffered at the hands of what he terms neo-Ottoman and neo-Persian imperialism. He is still shocked by the failure to unseat the Assad regime in Syria after the 2011 rebellion that was fueled by the Arab Spring.

“The real shame, the true guiltiness which I will have to my mind to the end of my days, is Syria. It is not the place where we intervened [Libya] but where we did not intervene [Syria]. It is incomparable. You can say what you want about Libya, it is not comparable to the disaster of Syria. In numbers of the dead and refugees. In general collapse. What obliges us to leave the seat to Turks and Putin in Libya? Cowardliness. We were brave in 2011 when the West decided with the Arab League to support the people against the tyrant. We were brave, but the braveness stopped very quickly. We left the ground to Wagner [Russian military contractors] and Syrian proxies of Erdogan. This is a mistake. It’s a mistake to clear the ground and then again to give it on a silver plate.”  

The betrayal of the Syrian people is compounded by further mistakes, such as the US decision to leave part of Syria in October 2019 and enable Turkey and Turkish-backed militias to attack Kurds who had been fighting ISIS.

“It was heartbreaking to see these young ladies who are in the film, and they make me think of the young ladies of the IDF, left alone with nearly no weaponry against an army of thugs and gangsters and killers. It broke my heart. That is the real melancholy of the film,” he says.

Hasn’t all this made the philosopher pessimistic? No.

“There are two ways of defining history which I don’t like. One is blind progressivism. I think it is a false theory which says that whatever we do, it will go in the right direction: We can sit on the back seat and the train is heading to the lights. But symmetrically, I hate exactly as much the blind decline, pessimism, [like] Oswald Spengler, I don’t believe in the necessary and unstoppable decline. I believe that history is much more chaotic and unexpected; that very often a few men such as in Abraham Accords, a handful can change the course of history.” Despite spending last year covering massacres in places like Nigeria and seeing Afghanistan before the fall to the Taliban, he believes in the spark of hope that can start anywhere.  

That leaves us with the other cloud that continues to sit over most of the world: COVID.

“I thought Covid is making all of us blind and deaf to the rest of the world, the other plagues and evils, the other sources of disaster that were bleeding everywhere. We were deaf and blind. I also did this film to remind us of that. [With] COVID, I don’t underestimate the illness, I am three times vaccinated, but I know that there is a risk for a French, European or Israeli to die is 0.4% if you get ill. This virus made us crazy, particularly in the West. It’s absurd. It made us crazy, blind deaf and created false solidarity, accelerated some of our tendencies to egoism and self-confinement,” he says.

“Tomorrow I will be in this great cinematheque of Jerusalem, we will see how many will be there. People have been so accustomed now to cocoon in front of Netflix. Will they have the thrill of going to a real theater with collective emotion again? COVID might have, and will probably have collateral moral effects which will not be good at all,” he says.