The French writer and intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy has this month published a new book, The Genius of Judaism. His recent film Peshmerga, a documentary about the Kurds who are fighting ISIS, has won critical acclaim. A new documentary, to be released this spring, will take that story forward to the siege of Mosul. He spoke with the Hive about Libya and Syria, events in northern Iraq, his understanding of Judaism, and God.
The Hive: You’re just back from Mosul. What is the city like? What do people who live there say about what they have lived through?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: The city looks like an exhausted city, without electricity, without water. Full of despair. Emptiness. The feelings of the people are very hard to know, to what extent they feel liberated or to what extent they felt oppressed by Daesh [ISIS]. Very hard to say. I made a lot of interviews with people in liberated areas. It is very dIfficult to say clearly if they were Daesh or not Daesh.
What about the level of destruction?
There is a lot of destruction as a result of hand-to-hand fighting, but the big difference with—I suppose—Aleppo, is that the strikes are rare, and cautious, to avoid civilians. I did not go to Aleppo, but I know cities that have been bombed, and it is something else. This one is not a destroyed city. It is a ghost city, because it is a city that has lost its life and its blood, but it is not a city that has been destroyed by bombing, by heavy rocketing, and so on.
As you know, Christopher Hitchens had a special place in his heart for the Kurds and Kurdistan—he wore a pin with the flag of Kurdistan in his lapel. What was your experience of the Kurds after spending so much time among them?
They are the salt of this earth. Because they are valiant. Because they are secular. And because they are open to, protectors of, all minorities. I saw peshmerga, their military forces, climbing the walls of churches to put a cross back. I saw peshmerga making a huge detour to show me a Jewish trace of which they were proud. It is the only place in this area where they can show you the birth house—the birthplace—of a relatively obscure former minister of defense of Israel as if it were a national monument. In most of this world, alas, when you have a birthplace of a big Israeli, it is a thing to forget. Here, the Kurds have a tendency to promote, to be proud of it. So the bravery, the secularism, the status of women, the willingness to protect “the other”—these are the things that, when I think of my friend Christopher Hitchens, make me realize that he was right to have the Kurds so close to his heart. I have spent a lot of the past months in Kurdistan, and have had Christopher often in my mind because of that.
Can you imagine people in Algeria, where you were born, saying, “There is the birthplace of Bernard-Henri Lévy”?
They would be embarrassed! I did visit the place of my birth, once, 20 years ago. I went for the first time to the village where I was born, but left a few days afterward. The authorities were so embarrassed—they would far prefer to forget that, and they were praying for me to not make too much communication about the fact that I was born there. All of which helps you understand the Kurdish exception.
Let’s turn to your new book, which was published in France earlier this year and has just been published here. Why do you call it The Genius of Judaism?
In homage to Chateaubriand, who wrote The Genius of Christianity, and who was one of the rare, great French writers who was not anti-Semitic. In homage to this aristocrat who, when he saw the poor Jews of Jerusalem, made an identification with his own aristocratic family thrown into the roads of Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution. This moves me deeply, and the book is an homage to this writer.
The image of Nineveh comes up frequently in your book. It may be no coincidence that the ruins of that ancient city lie just across the Tigris from Mosul. What does Nineveh mean as a metaphor?
Absolute “otherness.” Nineveh comes up because the core of my book is a meditation on the Book of Jonah—an incredible story of a prophet who is ordered by God to go and speak to the capital of Assyria, the very place from which will come the worst enemies of Israel. In spite all of that, he is ordered to go and save Nineveh. And this, for me, is a metaphor of what, for me, is the genius of Judaism. Judaism, if it is just a communitarian life, it does not interest me. If it is just a relationship of oneself and other Jews, it is not exactly my story. If it is an expression of identity, I don’t know what that means. If it is a question of bringing a certain message, a certain quality of values, to other people—and not only other but foreign, and not only foreign but enemies—then Judaism is worth being lived and praised and practiced. So this is what Judaism is for me. And it is not by chance that I was, as I say in the book, meditating on the story of Jonah at the same time as I was in the mountains above Mosul. And some of the pages—I can write anywhere, I can write in a taxi, I can write in my home, I can write at night with a lamp in a hut in a military camp in the Zartik mountains, on the front line facing Mosul—some of the pages which I devoted to the book of Jonah were written there, in the Mosul area, in some places which were not very far from the very hut of Jonah. This is, for me, the meaning of Nineveh.
I’d like to return to this in a moment—to Nineveh, and Jonah—with respect to what you have written and argued about Libya. But to pursue the subject of Judaism a little further: If someone were to ask you directly the question, “What is a Jew?,” what would you say?
A Jew is someone who reads the Torah in a certain way, in a Jewish way. This is being Jew. Everybody reads the Bible—a Christian can read the Bible, a Muslim can read the Bible, even Voltaire read the Bible. A Jew is someone who reads the Bible in a certain way—in a way which I define. The masters of the Talmud often say—and I would endorse this—that to be a Jew is to read the Torah as if each of its verses had 70 faces. This is what Rashi, for example, says.
So what does that mean? It means, first, to read the Bible as if it was a living thing, as if the face was a physical face, as if the face could be caressed. The word for face that is used in Hebrew is the same word used for the face of a woman that is loved. So it means that the verses, the words, are a living body, not a dead letter. It means also that, if you understand the face properly, the reader finds his own face in the act of reading. To be a Jew means to find one’s face in the reading. But then comes the third thing. It is said that the Torah must be read as if the words had not only a face but 70 faces. And 70, as you know, is the number of nations, including those that have refused the Torah. This means that, to be a Jew, it is to believe that every person, in every nation, can find his subjectivity, his proper humanity, in the interpretation of the text.
I know that your children, reading your book, have asked you whether the idea of God has a place in your definition?
It has a place, but not the place of belief. A place, of course. God is mentioned on every page of the books of the Jews. What I reply to my children is that God is not necessarily a matter of belief. He is a matter of study. What is asked of a Jew is not to believe—he may believe—but it is not the central point. You can be a Jew without believing—if you study. And this, at the end of the day, is the case, as far as I know, for so many Jews in this country, who are fully Jews, but who would reply to the question of my children that they don’t believe—that God is not, for them, an existing being, that the essential question is not this one. Study, more than belief.
Coming back to Nineveh, and the idea of a moral imperative: talk about Libya, and why you continue to believe that intervention by the U.S., France, and others was the correct course, despite all that has happened since.
In my own mind—when I went to Sarkozy and others, when I spent so much time with Libyans, helping them to get weapons, helping them to sketch plans—in all this time I had in mind the book of Jonah. Of course, I knew that the Libyans were not all the best people on earth. I knew, as I wrote in my diaries at the time, which were published, that they might become my enemies afterward, and that they would not like the idea of being supported by a Frenchman and, moreover, by a Jew, but I also knew that I had to do it. And this is more or less the lesson of Jonah. What does Jonah do? When Jonah is in his hut, seeing the salvation of this city, of Nineveh—a city pretending to repent, and that he knows is not repenting sincerely—in a way, I have been in this situation all this time. But nevertheless, I thought this is what had to be done. I could not stand the idea of the big city, of Bengazi, being the object of a complete massacre. This idea was impossible.
And given the example of Libya, what do you say about Syria?
There were a lot of things that could have been done, and I think that all of us—at least me—will bear Syria as a huge guiltiness till the last whisper of my life. The fact that we could not prevent what happened is a matter of shame for a whole generation. This is, for me, the embodiment of cowardice and of failure. I will not have enough time to try to be forgiven for that, and I wish that others would be in the same state of mind, especially the responsible people in other countries who drew a red line—with nothing following.
You, we, could have made a no-fly zone. You, we, could have made a no-drive zone for heavy weaponry. You, we, could have made areas for protecting people. And so on. There were so many intermediary solutions between not doing anything and launching a large-scale war. Between “Iraq” and “nothing” there was a lot we could have tried. This is a huge stain on the legacy of Barack Obama. And I’m sorry, because he has been in other respects a great president, but that shame of his legacy will be this.
By Cullen Murphy