War correspondent, philosopher, activist, TV star: Bernard-Henri Lévy is among the world’s most prominent — and controversial — public intellectuals. He’s searched for Daniel Pearl’s killers, followed in the footsteps of diplomat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, staunchly defended Israel. His latest, “The Empire and the Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World,” takes on the implications of 21st-century American Isolationism. David Suissa, the Journal’s publisher and editor-in-chief, spoke with Lévy for his “Suissa” podcast, from which this interview was condensed. 

Jewish Journal: I’ve been fascinated by your journey. You studied philosophy and you end up going for the adventure. You’ve been in so many places in the world where they had conflicts and wars. At which point did you realize that you were not just going to be a person of the mind?

Bernard-Henri Lévy: Immediately. I decided since the very start that the best thought is the thought which can be proved by experience; and the best way, the most honest way to speak and to make philosophy is to go and check with your own eyes. 

JJ: It nourishes the philosophy, the more experience you have on the ground?

BHL: Of course it does. You have to live as you think and you have to think as you live. There cannot be separation between the two. You have to act. That’s why each time in my lifetime Israel was under attack and the war, I was on the ground. I was with my Israeli sisters and brothers during the Lebanon War. In Gaza, I was the only foreigner to be authorized to go with an Israeli special unit inside Gaza to be a witness of what was happening. I wrote about this war. I wrote about the question if Israel was turning its back to the true creed of Zionism. And my opinion was no, it does not turn its back. Israel was keeping faithfulness to the ideal of Zionism. But I wanted to see first. I’m not a philosopher of propaganda. I’m not a philosopher of just ideas. I like to see first, and then my words are more outspoken and, I think, just more true. 

JJ: I think one of the reasons we’ve seen such a schism between the Jews of Israel and Jews of America is there’s a lack of appreciation here for the facts on the ground and the reality that Israelis go through. 

BHL: This is one of the reasons for this schism. But the main point for me, this schism has to be overcome. If the jury in Israel and the jury in the West, and especially in America, divorce, really, it is the start of a war — a moral, intellectual war — between Jews that will be dramatic for all of us. Israel without a Diaspora would be another Israel. The Diaspora without Israel would be another Diaspora. They feed each other. 

JJ: I wonder if one of the problems here is that we elevate certain values and character traits above others; curiosity is way, way down at the bottom of the list. When you don’t have that — Israel is just an idea, an abstract idea. 

BHL: There is a lack of curiosity, but there is a lack also of Jewish thinking and Jewish intelligence. The certainty that you are right and that the other one is wrong, this is not a Jewish attitude. The Jewish attitude taught by the Talmud teaches that truth is always uncertain. To be a Jew means to have the conversation indefinitely open. You know how the Talmud works. It is an endless chain of paradoxes, of replies: Who creates a new question, which creates a new reply, and so on and so on. 

JJ: I wonder if here in America, when you hear so much criticism of Israel, as a philosopher, do you think there’s some merit to that?

BHL: As a philosopher, I can tell you that the very creation of Israel was a secular miracle, that it was, and it is, an everlasting exception to all the political rules. It never happened in the history of mankind that people decide overnight to make a state and to make it democratic, and that it works.

JJ: After the darkest moment in our history, when we had every excuse to wallow in victimhood for decades.

BHL: After the darkest moment of our history, with people coming from all over the countries with people that never knew what democracy meant. There was this miracle of a democracy built overnight. It was not even dreamt by the philosophers of the political thing. It is renewing itself every day. 

JJ: And still vibrant. 

BHL: You can agree or not agree with the policy of a government. I’m not very comfortable myself with the current policy of the current government, but what I must say is that I know very few democracies in the world as strong as the Israeli democracy. Israel should be considered as an example for every democracy in the world, including the French one or the American one. I said that recently to a group of young partisans of the [boycott, divestment and sanctions] BDS movement. I told them, from the point of view of your liberal values, Israel, far from being despised, should be praised: the multi-ethnicity, the tolerance to the other, the transparency, the fight. Israel is one of the most shining examples of what liberal democracy can mean, and I try to say each time I can when I go on a campus of an American university.

JJ: I wonder sometimes whether a certain amount of anti-Semitism is just the price we have to pay for not becoming pathetic victims who just fail in life, you know.

BHL: Some anti-Semitism is probably inevitable. Alas, I don’t believe in a world without anti-Semitism. The question is, shall we contain it or let it expand? We have to contain it by our force of intelligence, force of the spirit, force of the study, and force of the organization. 

My theory in my book — and not only in my book — is that there is a battle going on. There is a struggle going on. It’s very harsh, very fierce. It may be lost, it may be won, and I am well decided to win. 

JJ: That’s the Jewish way.

BHL: That’s the Jewish way.

More content on these subjects