Bernard Henri-Lévy is an inviting target for mockery. With his trademark white shirts open past his chest, his movie-star wife, and his overly rich prose style, he is the caricature of the Parisienne intellectual made flesh. Garrison Keillor took him to the woodshed in his infamous New York Times review of American Vertigo. (The last laugh is on Keillor, though, as the review actually demonstrated that he had failed to grasp the central point of the book.) But we should resist the temptation to poke fun at BHL because he is a genuinely deep thinker. When I interviewed him for FP, I was struck by how much he really cared about ideas.
Anyway, that last paragraph was a rather long-winded prelude to urging you to read BHL’s essay about the war between Israel and Hezbollah in the New York Times magazine this Sunday. It is an intensely empathetic account of how Israelis feel about the war. He also gives the lie to two accusations common in European discourse. First, if Olmert was spoiling for this fight, why did he appoint the trade unionist and peace activist Amir Peretz as his defense minister? Second, why on earth would Israel deliberately target civilians? “[D]istressed as we may be by the suffering of the Lebanese civilian population, the terrible deaths of hundreds, you cannot conclude that the Israelis have the strategic intention or the will to harm civilians.” Indeed, the fact that the claimed civilian death toll of 40 from this morning’s Israeli air strike turned out to be 1 should remind us that there is a propaganda war going on and that all too often, as the saying goes, the lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.
BHL is at his most eloquent, though, when he explains why Israel went to war and why the Israeli public—including many who are normally dovish—are so supportive of it:
Israel did not go to war because its borders had been violated. It did not send its planes over southern Lebanon for the pleasure of punishing a country that permitted Hezbollah to construct its state-within-a-state. It reacted with such vigor because the Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be wiped off the map and his drive for a nuclear weapon came simultaneously with the provocations of Hamas and Hezbollah. The conjunction, for the first time, of a clearly annihilating will with the weapons to go with it created a new situation. We should listen to the Israelis when they tell us they had no other choice anymore.