The French philosopher looks at the Kurds’ plight, emerging Jerusalem-Ankara ties, America’s global role and Israel’s momentous new relations with Morocco and the Gulf.
It began with a phone call. Bernard-Henri Lévy and I were speaking while I sat in my car, returning from getting hummus in central Jerusalem. The pandemic was raging and winter weather was beginning in Jerusalem. He wanted to speak about the recent war in Armenia and the Kurds.
The last time I’d seen the French philosopher, who is also a filmmaker, activist and the author of more than 30 books, was in Erbil in 2017 during the Kurdistan region’s referendum. Tall and impeccably dressed, he was at the Rotana Hotel there during the first voting in the momentous attempt by the Kurdish region to offer its people a chance at independence.
Much has changed now. Turkey has prodded Azerbaijan into a war with the Armenians in Nagorna-Karabakh and Ankara has occupied the Kurdish region of Afrin in Syria. Israel has made a far-reaching peace with two Gulf Arab states, Sudan and Morocco (with even Pakistan reportedly considering it). Morocco is dear to Lévy’s heart. Lévy’s work as an intellectual and writer is uniquely intertwined with humanitarian activism. His books include The Virus in the Age of Madness (2020), The Empire and the Five Kings (2019) and American Vertigo: Traveling America in the footsteps of Tocqueville (2005). In June 1992, Lévy convinced French president François Mitterrand to make his surprise-journey to Sarajevo. Lévy was appointed by French president Jacques Chirac to head a state mission to Afghanistan and he supported the intervention by France and the US in Libya in 2011. Since 2015, Lévy has been supportive of the Kurds, first in the fight against ISIS and later through his documentary film, Peshmerga, which premiered as an official selection of the Cannes Film Festival.
In 2018, following the abandonment of the West after the 2017 Kurdish referendum and the Turkish attack on Afrin, Lévy co-founded with environmentalist and philanthropist Thomas Kaplan the US-based nonprofit Justice for Kurds (JFK), of which Kaplan is the chairman and Lévy is president. Since its creation, JFK is the main base of Mr. Lévy’s humanitarian commitments.
Bernard-Henri Lévy has always been a devoted Zionist, he says. His book The Genius of Judaism (2017) looks at the exceptionalism of Israel and Jewish thought. His recent reporting has been published in The Wall Street Journal and in European outlets such as Der Stern, La Repubblica, L’Espresso, Kathimerini, Novoe Vremya and Paris-Match.
I spoke to Lévy about a variety of regional issues. Given his background and knowledge of Morocco, Israel, the Kurdish regions and the great changes in the region and the world, his responses provide a critical window into the issues affecting the Middle East and the West today.
We’ve just witnessed a war in the Caucasus fueled by Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan. How do you see the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and its effect on the region?
I see it as a victory of the two bad guys who are currently challenging the influence of the West: Putin and Erdogan. The same can be seen in Syria and Libya. All represent one of the most terrifying aspects of the state of affairs in the world: the retreat of America; the eclipse of Europe; and the subsequent surge of the great “revisionist” powers – Russia and Turkey, yes, but also China and Iran – which, because political nature abhors a vacuum, are slowly filling the spaces we are vacating.
Western countries did almost nothing to restrain attacks on Armenians and the conflict. Do you think the Western world has abandoned the liberal international order of the 1990s and given up on ceasefires and trying to do anything to stop wars?
The West has returned to the spirit of appeasement – the religion of the ceasefire, the idolatry of peace at any cost. In dealing with two warmongers like Russia and Turkey, it has only one obsession: to gain time. The new West’s noninterventionism dates from the 1990s, when, for three years running, we looked the other way during the shelling of Sarajevo. But then, at least, there was a sort of awakening. And, as you know, the West eventually launched air strikes against the Serb militias that were terrorizing Bosnia.
Today? Nothing of the sort. We have let Erdogan send his militias after Afrin. Not only have we not budged, but the US chose that moment to announce and set in motion its retreat from Syria. And we have allowed the Armenians, the victims of the first genocide of the 20th century, to be tied up and defeated in Nagorno-Karabakh. It’s heartbreaking. Stupid. Disgraceful.
Minority groups like the Armenians and Kurds increasingly seem to be subjected to ethnic cleansing in places like Afrin. What do you think should be done about these incidents?
The natural place of the West – and, for that matter, of Israel – is at the side of these persecuted peoples. Jan Patocka, a Czech philosopher who was close to Vaclav Havel [the first president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003], spoke of the “solidarity of the shaken.” He dreamed of a fraternal chain linking peoples haunted by a genocidal past. That is my own dream for Israel. I am convinced that support for afflicted people is part of the vocation of Zionism.
And that is exactly what happened when, in 2017, Jerusalem was the only capital in the world to support the referendum of self-determination in Iraqi Kurdistan. I was in Erbil that day. And on the evening when the results of the vote were announced, I was gratified to see Israeli flags among the Kurdish flags hailing the success of the referendum.
The Kurdistan region in Iraq has many challenges, and the US role in eastern Syria’s Rojava region is tenuous. Do you think these two Kurdish areas can be shored up and made stable?
Yes, of course. That is just what I am saying. And it is, moreover, the whole purpose of Justice for Kurds, an organization that I founded with American conservationist and philanthropist Thomas Kaplan. I’ll tell you right now, JFK is very focused on this issue. We favor explicit support for both these Kurdish peoples, and even for a third contingent (if you include Iran’s Kurds) and a fourth (if you pull in Turkey’s). We also favor – in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere – the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.
And do you know why? First because we owe it to them. The Kurds fought for us, and we have no right to betray them. But also because we believe, Kaplan and I, that the existence of a Kurdish state would be a factor not of instability but rather of greater stability in the region. Nothing is more unstable than dictatorships of the Syrian stripe or failed states such as Iraq. Conversely, nothing is more favorable to stability than democratic states practicing the rule of law, civil liberties and the right to express oneself as one sees fit. And that would be the case with an independent Kurdistan.
Israel has made new peace deals with at least four countries now. Do you see this as a singular turning point or a process that was bound to happen?
Nothing is ever “bound to happen.” That is the most important lesson I have drawn from many years spent studying the philosophy of history. History does not move in any particular direction. Nothing in it is foreordained. Everything depends on people’s will. And rarely will that law be as well borne out than by this series of peace deals, where everything hinged on the will and the resolve of a handful of individuals. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI and his adviser, Fouad Ali El Himma. In the Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed and his ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba. In Israel, diplomats of high caliber, some of whom I know personally. And I can tell you, paraphrasing Churchill, rarely have so many owed so much to the will, the resolve and the vision of so few.
The Morocco normalization announcement builds on years of limited ties with Israel. What is your assessment of Rabat-Jerusalem relations? Will they grow or will there be challenges?
What is certain is that this agreement crowns decades of less visible but nevertheless solid accords. And it also is consistent with the long tradition of protection of the Jewish community established by Morocco’s rulers. We must never forget that Mohammed V refused to have his Jewish subjects wear the yellow star and that he supported General [Charles] de Gaulle. Nor can we forget that when his grandson, Mohammed VI, the present king, chose someone to plead the cause of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, he chose a man named Serge Berdugo, who happened to be the leader of Morocco’s Jewish community.
The US is moving from the Trump era of transactional diplomacy and tough-on-Iran approach, to a new Biden administration. What do you think Biden’s team should do regarding the Middle East?
The first thing should be to avoid tossing overboard the tiny bit of good done by the Trump administration, which, as it happens, was done in the Middle East. In other words, preserve the invaluable peace accords with Abu Dhabi and Bahrain. Continue the more-or-less secret talks initiated with the Saudis. And cherish the fine agreement reached with Morocco. Trump was a pure disaster: except here!
But, honestly, I am not too worried on this score. Because Biden’s team here is essentially Tony Blinken [Obama administration official nominated for secretary of state], with whom I have some acquaintance. I know where he’s coming from. And I knew Samuel Pisar, the admirable man and Holocaust survivor who was Blinken’s stepfather and, I believe, influenced him considerably. I cannot imagine Blinken turning his back on that legacy. And I am thoroughly convinced that, in this respect, we need not fear any unpleasant surprises.
Do you think the US is on an inevitable path of global decline, or can it retain its global leadership role, and if so what would you suggest that role should look like?
America began to pull back, alas, well before Trump. A large part of the world, notably Europe, has had to begin making arrangements as if America did not exist. And for that reason, I believe, we have begun to return to a sort of pre-Columbian world that is both confusing and terrifying. Which is to say, I hope for just one thing from America: that it renounce the suicidal mirage of America First and reconnect with its exceptionalism.
France has been slandered by an Ankara that looks to be increasingly pushing extremism…
Increasingly? You think? For me, that has been true for a long time. Ankara supports Hamas. It provides a sanctuary for the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2015, during the battle for Kobani, it provided logistical support for the most hardened elements of ISIS. And, by the way, it has vilified Israel for years, underscoring the enormous error Israel would be making if it were to fall into the trap of the supposed “normalization” that [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is dangling before it. No form of normalization is possible with Erdogan. No durable peace can be had with a Turkey that is in full agreement with the Muslim Brotherhood.
So, what is your assessment of the recent France-Turkey tensions and where might this conflagration lead?
I believe that [French President Emmanuel] Macron is right. He is the only Western leader to state things clearly. Specifically, that Erdogan is an imperialist, an enemy of the West and a fascist. The only good news is that Turkey is weaker than we thought. The neo-Ottoman ideology that Erdogan invokes is a weak one, a cardboard cutout, a zombie ideology. I am convinced that if we dealt firmly with the proponents of that ideology, if we refused to yield to them, and if more leaders in the Near East and Europe expressed their support for Macron, there would be no conflagration at all – just a collapse of the house of cards that is the neo-Ottoman subculture.
Do you think western European countries or NATO will ever confront Turkey’s regime?
The most important thing is to expel Turkey from NATO. It no longer has any place in a military alliance whose purpose is to protect Europe. And Justice for Kurds is committed to raising awareness of the dangers of Turkey’s regime. We reinforced this message when Kaplan and I published a statement in The New York Times, “It’s Time to Break with Erdogan,” on the one-year anniversary of the Turkish invasion of Rojava.
Do you think Turkey or Iran are greater threats today, or are they part of the same threat?
They are historical enemies, of course. And both are aware of the secular rivalry between the elements in their country who are nostalgic for the Persian or Ottoman empire. But today the two countries are closer than we think. Especially in the face of a common enemy, whether that enemy is Israel, the Kurds or the West.
Think back to the fall of 2017, in the aftermath of the Kurdish referendum and the tactical alliance between [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani and Erdogan. Recall Erdogan, on the eve of a visit to Paris, insisting that the popular demonstrations against the regime in Mashhad, Dorud and Najafabad were Iran’s “internal affair” and that it was regrettable that “people from outside” had come to add “provocation” to “sedition.” And then in August 2018, with the value of the Turkish currency plummeting, to Iran (along with China, Russia and Qatar) reflecting on how the world could escape the “dictatorship of the dollar.” And in April of the same year, to the extraordinary family photo of Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani posing shamelessly, despite their divergent interests and historic rivalries, on the eve of a summit on Syria.
We must not kid ourselves. The next “grand alliance” might be one between Turkey and Iran.