French-Jewish celebrity intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy was in Israel recently for a whirlwind of events which included the promotion of his new book on Judaism and the presentation of a new documentary on the Iraqi city of Mosul.
A prominent philosopher, a man of big ideas and causes, a confidant of presidents who sees himself as a modern-day biblical prophet Jonah — sometimes mocked, but always heard — Henri-Levy is a powerful persona in France and beyond.
Hundreds of people attended his talk last month on the release of his book “The Genius of Judaism” at Bar-Ilan University, which also bestowed on him an honorary degree. Later that evening, on May 22, he presented a new documentary — “The Battle for Mosul” — at the annual Tel Aviv film festival DocAviv.
The Times of Israel caught up with Henri-Levy at a conference he was hosting to discuss a range of topics, including his support of new French President Emmanuel Macron, the turbulence in President Donald Trump’s administration, his dispatches from Iraq, and his recent re-connection, as a non-observant Jew, with Judaism, the subject of his most recent book.
Pierre-Simon Assouline: Why does the paradoxical Hebrew prophet, Jonah, figure so prominently in your book “The Genius of Judaism”?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: I have always been fascinated by this figure. Jonah’s distinctive story, as you know, is that he bears a prophecy that is not addressed to the members of the Kingdom of Israel but to an idolatrous society — and an enemy society at that, in Nineveh [the ancient Assyrian city and the capital of the Assyrian Empire].
And I’ve always found it simultaneously very enigmatic, very beautiful and very shocking for the soul to go speak to an enemy whom you know does not want to speak to you. There’s a desire for redemption [there] from the other. It is a theme in Jewish history that I am very passionate about.
In the book, I write about the important moments in my life where I had the Book of Jonah with me. When I retraced the steps 15 years ago of [Jewish-American Wall Street Journal journalist] Daniel Pearl, spending a month in Pakistan, I felt like I was in Nineveh. [Pearl was kidnapped and later executed by Pakistani terrorists in 2002.]
And when I went, on behalf of the French government, on a mission to assess reconstruction efforts for Afghanistan after the death of commander [Ahmad Shah] Massoud [a political and military leader who was a key resistance fighter of the Soviet occupation, assassinated in 2001, two days before 9/11]. There, too, I had a feeling of being in Nineveh. In Libya too [where Henri-Levy engaged in talks with Libyan rebels in Benghazi in 2011], it was a sort of Nineveh.
Jonah is an ambivalent figure because he refuses to accept his mission.
It’s not that he didn’t feel like going, it’s that he doesn’t believe in the mission. He finds it quite frankly shocking. And he hides because he feels that God was putting him to the test, because he feels that it’s a trick the Almighty is playing on him, and because he’s facing a tough choice between the need to obey [God] and saving his own people.
For him, what’s important is that one day, Nineveh will seek to destroy his people. Nevertheless, he ends up understanding that there is an irrefutable order to things. Coming to the aid of the other is an unconditional commandment.
In the book, you defend “Jewish affirmation” as a way of more proudly sporting a Jewish identity. Critics have accused you of abandoning universalism and humanism in favor of Jewish particularism. To promote this book, you have visited a number of Jewish communities in Paris and elsewhere. Do you return to the Jewish community today with a motive in mind?
It is not a return. When you spend your life dealing with the rest of the world, I feel it is legitimate at a certain time, [like] for the occasion of this book, to speak to the Jews in France.
It is not just another chapter between Kurdistan, Pakistan and your next trip?
No, this book is a big deal for me, truly. It’s a book where I express myself fully, where I reveal the keys to my journey and those of what’s to come. But it is not a withdrawal [into the community].
Why bring up the idea of withdrawal? Could it be a particular type of dialogue that would signal a return toward the Jewish community?
It is not a return. This return toward Judaism, I did it in 1979. My t’shuva [a return to Judaism in the observant sense] began in 1979. I have been working on this book since then, alongside what other projects I was able to take on.
While I was writing about Sartre, about art, about Libya and so on, there was always this background work that led me to the “Genius of Judaism.” This book brought me face to face with Judaism. Today I am more knowledgeable than I was 10 or 20 years ago. [This isn’t about] the community with which I have always felt close.
With whom do you study the texts of the Torah?
No one knows that, no one knows him. I can tell you that he is an American, liberal in the American sense of the word [meaning a Reform Jew].
After having visited the different French Jewish communities, and given the close relationship you enjoy with them, what is your assessment of the current state of French Jewry?
It’s worried. Since the murders in Toulouse in 2012 [in which a terrorist attacked a Jewish school in the city, killing four people including three children] and since the attack at the Hyper Cacher [supermarket in January 2015, in which a terrorist killed four Jewish men and wounded others, days after the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris], it is quite worried.
Do you find French Jewry open to contemporary debate around the world, in touch with other streams of thought, knowledge, academia and so on? Notably with regard to the vibrancy, the sharp debates and the different opinions among members of American Jewry or Israeli Jewry?
Yes. I find French Jewry in good shape, more intense than 20 or 30 years ago and incomparable to what it must have been before World War II, since that is often the comparison.
It is incomparably more vibrant, more efficient. I am fascinated by the brilliance, and the education of young French Jews. There is a concern [pursuit] for education that did not exist with their parents, and was not prevalent in my time. When I wrote The Testament of God in 1979, I was almost alone [in the field].
Tonight you are presenting “Battle of Mosul” at DocAviv, after having made a previous documentary of the Peshmergas [Iraqi-Kurdish fighters]. You are familiar with the Kurds, which leads me to this question: Today, they are dispersed across four countries, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran and they appear more divided than ever given the political situation and the rival militias. In these conditions, what are their chances of ever becoming independent?
First, having different political and ideological streams is rather important. For a people not be reduced to an ethnicity is a good sign. The divisions across these lines do not surprise me.
As for independence, we must talk about the two Kurdistans that are emerging. The Syrian Kurds exists in a state of quasi-independence. In Iraqi Kurdistan, they have been autonomous for some time and I hope that, in recognition of the sacrifices they have had to make to defend modern civilization, I hope that the international community will help transform this autonomy to independence.
How did you conceive of “Battle of Mosul”?
It’s a film that focuses on the battle to retake Mosul [from the Islamic State group]. It’s a film where I show what it is to be at war, what it is to be in this war, and what it is to be in the midst of a decisive operation to liberate the world from Daesh, [the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.]. The idea is to show the battle for Mosul.
Did you have to comport yourself in a certain way, being Jewish?
In Kurdistan, the fact that I was Jewish — maybe this will surprise you — was not only not a problem, but also generated an added layer to my friendships there. Because in Iraqi Kurdistan, I felt time and again this nostalgia and pride for a time when the Kurds and the Jews lived together.
Iraqi Kurdistan is the only country in this region where the place of birth of a former Israeli [defense] minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, is marked — with pride even. In [the city of] Akre, it is a source of local pride. I know the Arab-Muslim world well, and I don’t know of another such example.
For the Iraqis, it’s more complicated. The counter-terror special forces treated me like a journalist, and in the first phase of the combat were interested in showing their contributions toward defending the civilized world against Daesh.
Since there were not that many journalists, I was among those “embedded” [with the forces]. Until the moment I finished filming in January, I was able to accompany them wherever they went, always on the front lines.
In an article published in la Règle du jeu (“The Rule of the Game,” a French literary journal founded in 1990 by Henri-Levy) you write that French President Emmanuel Macron is responsible for writing a “real national novel,” one that shows a France saved from its “sad passions” and decline. But this novel will surely also include what influence France will have abroad, against Russia, the United States. His stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also greatly awaited to see how he measures up. In your opinion, do you think he brings anything new to the table on this issue?
Macron’s advantage is that he doesn’t promise you the moon. It’s a mix of energy and modesty. Energy, in that he indicates he will do his best, and modesty, which indicates that there will be no miracles.
There may be some good surprises down the line, but no miracles. I hope that he will be an amicable president, a friend to Israel and a friend to peace. I think he will be.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, US President Donald Trump said after his meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in early May that the resolution of the conflict “is not as difficult as people have thought over the years.” There were also mixed messages: a possible relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, an official visit to the Western Wall but a refusal to be accompanied by an Israeli official.
I’m already worried enough when I hear the president of the most powerful country in the world say “it’s not that difficult.” It’s not true, it is extremely difficult.
If it were easy, it would have been solved 50 years ago. It’s absurd, it’s one of the more difficult conflicts to resolve where there are political, geopolitical and religious consideration and anti-Semitism; there are so many factors, how can you say it’s not that hard, that’s absurd. I’m very skeptical.
As a last question, how do you feel about the persona you have, of a celebrity philosopher, an intellectual star, a thinker on the ground but also in the papers, on TV, a consultant to politicians.
It’s a normal life [he laughs]. There are other French intellectuals who share these characteristics. I can name a few: Alain Finkielkraut, Régis Debray, Pascal Bruckner, for example. Three [people] who are very different from me. Some of them are adversaries. I am in disagreement with two of them, Finkielkraut and Debray, almost all the time. But I hold them in high regard.