At Israel’s side
Much has been said and written about Bernard-Henri Lévy’s relation to Israel. For more than 40 years, the philosopher has never shied away from bold thinking about the future of the Jewish state. Whatever his detractors say, his is a unique voice on the Middle East, a progressive and innovative voice, one heard and respected by Israelis and Palestinians alike.
At a very young age, Bernard-Henri Lévy begins a steady practice of standing by Israel in good times and bad, including during the armed conflicts that too often buffet the Jewish state. In 1967, as he finishes a preparatory course for the École Normale Supérieure he makes his first trip to Israel. Back in Paris just as the Six Day War breaks out in June, he rushes to Israel’s consulate in Paris, hoping to enlist in the forces that soon sweep away the coalition of Arab nations. The brevity of the conflict does not allow him to take part, but his eagerness reveals an early interest in questions involving the Middle East, an intellectual interest that will never wane.
The young Lévy pens an article entitled “Zionisms in Palestine” that delves into philosophical and political themes that will prove equally enduring in his thought, starting with his unconditional support for the existence of the state of Israel. The second theme is his desire for peace with the Palestinians, consistent with his attachment to the essential idea of Israel and to the noble element in Zionism—namely, that it gives the Jewish message a renewed positivity despite the terrible suffering of the Jews in recent centuries, especially the twentieth. He expresses the imperative of creating a sovereign Palestinian state, for reasons both ethical and political, a state that would function alongside Israel and at peace with it.
In the course of his career, Bernard-Henri Lévy travels often to Israel. In May 2002, he is awarded an honorary doctorate by Tel Aviv University. The speech he delivers on that occasion is memorable: “Never has Israel seemed so alone. […] To that Israel, to the Israel that is stigmatized, satanized, and Nazified; to the Israel that is flawed, as all nations at war are flawed, but that deserves neither this torrent of hate nor this outpouring of hysteria, I am happy to be able to express once more, as ever, my solidarity as a Jew and as a citizen of France.” That constancy will lead the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to grant the philosopher another honorary doctorate in 2008.
Unfailingly present whenever Israel is in danger, Bernard-Henri Lévy has rolled up his sleeves since the 1970s to find peaceful solutions. In 1979 he is in Jerusalem with Menachem Begin, then prime minister. The following year, he addresses the general assembly of B’nai B’rith. In 1981 he covers the first war in Lebanon for the Paris daily Le Monde. (He will return there in 2006 during the second war between Israel and Lebanon.) During the 1991 Scud missile crisis initiated by Saddam Hussein, Lévy obtains an unprecedented interview with Yitzhak Shamir. Soon enough, Israel recognizes Lévy as one its greatest thinkers. In 2000, with Alain Finkielkraut and Sartre’s former secretary, Benny Lévy, he establishes the Institute of Levinassian Studies in Jerusalem as a site of philosophical reflection designed to preserve and extend the heritage of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.
There will be other encounters—with Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert, and Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as with Palestinian democratic leaders in Gaza and the West Bank. For BHL, the Palestinian question is “an open wound” that must be closed.
But when the philosopher thinks about Israel, he is also thinking about the entire world. And when he becomes involved in Bosnia, Georgia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, or Afghanistan that involvement reflects his thinking about Israel. Without Israel, there would be no Pureté Dangereuse (1994), no War, Evil, and the End of History (2005), because the fate of the Jewish state shapes his thinking. Drawing on the lessons of history, the post-Holocaust principle of “Never Again” inhabits his words and deeds with respect to places as disparate as Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.
In 2003 he participates in the Geneva Initiative, an alternative peace plan that opens an opportunity for a concerted resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the agenda are shared control of Jerusalem, the end of the right of return for Palestinian refugees, Israeli evacuation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and preservation of the Jewish nature of the state of Israel. BHL helps promote the plan in the company of Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela, and Mikhail Gorbachev. In an influential article entitled “Stop Demonizing Israel,” BHL reviews the charges leveled at the Jewish state and methodically dismantles them.
After the Geneva Initiative come more articles, speeches, conferences, and advocacy. Two stand out. First, Lévy’s defense of the case of Gilad Shalit, a young French and Israeli binational captured by Hamas on June 26, 2006, while performing his military service. BHL works unceasingly to secure Shalit’s release. The second is the JCall initiative, a call to reason launched by Jewish figures in Europe that squares with the philosopher’s thinking about Israel. As a committed intellectual, Lévy supports Israel vigorously; no less vigorously does he exercise his role as a citizen monitor, speaking the plain truth to his friends in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. While challenging JCall’s use of the term “moral failing” to describe certain Israeli stances, he continues to view the initiative in a positive light.
Because of his all-too-extensive experience with war in the course of his travels, Bernard-Henri Lévy has striven for four decades to offer his readers an alternative, innovative, and above all progressive line of thought. If there were but one take-away from his history of engagement with Israel, it would be his constant emphasis on democracy and pacifism under circumstances where dark passions might take hold—if we allowed them to do so.