In France, people either love him or hate him. Among the latter, many resent his ongoing support for Israel, but philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy says his love for the country and for the Jews gives him the right to offer criticism – which he does in this special, wide-ranging interview.
« Let’s meet on Friday in Paris, at the Hotel Raphael. When you arrive, go to the concierge and ask him to call me. » The e-mail Bernard-Henri Levy sends from his phone in New York leaves no room for doubt. There are things about him that simply don’t change. The meeting with the best-known French philosopher in the world will take place at one of the most exclusive hotels in Paris, and it is hard to think of a more suitable setting for a conversation with a thinker who has the air of a rock star.
At the designated time, however, it isn’t the concierge who greets me at the hotel entrance, but Bernard-Henri Levy himself. And he too is dressed in his regular uniform: a dazzling, perfectly ironed white shirt, whose three top buttons are, as always, open.
We go to the hotel bar and already on the table is a pot of green tea, another habit Levy does not forgo. He sits down on the red velvet sofa and invites the guest to take the armchair next to him. However, even before the first question is asked a far grimmer reality bursts on to this luxurious scene.
Levy gets a phone call. His face becomes serious and he apologizes that he needs to stop the interview even before it has begun. We resume the interview 10 minutes later. The call is from the liaison people with the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran, where the well-known Iranian film director Jafar Panahi (« The Circle, » 2000, about women in the Islamic Republic ) is incarcerated. Panahi had been scheduled to serve as a jury member at the glittering Cannes film festival on the French Riviera earlier this month. The mullahs’ regime, however, thought differently and arrested him at the beginning of March.
In a very circuitous way, Bernard-Henri Levy has managed to get a piece written by Panahi out of the prison, due to be published on the philosopher’s website the following day. Now, at the Hotel Raphael bar, he is working to ensure that the piece will have the maximum impact and will somehow help the imprisoned director. (Since then, on Tuesday, Panahi was released from prison.)
Thus, one hand is extended to the opponent of the Iranian regime who is suffering torture in prison, and the other is grasping the silver-plated teapot in the bar. This is Bernard-Henri Levy. The French call people of his type « socially engaged intellectuals. » Jean-Paul Sartre was one, and so was his companion Simone de Beauvoir. Levy belongs to this tradition, but has his own way of doing things – i.e. articulately and precisely, but often with more than a dash of exhibitionism.
« They don’t attack me for my ideas, they attack me for my personality, » says Levy, who adds that yet another biography about him is forthcoming, and notes that most of its predecessors have defamed him.
For more than three decades now, Levy, 61, has been present on all fronts: in Georgia and in Afghanistan, in the Gaza Strip and in Bosnia. And despite all the risks he has taken and continues to take around the globe, it sometimes seems his most bitter enemies are at home, in France. There is perhaps only one thing of greater magnitude than his fame in France and that is the loathing some feel for Levy. In the Latin Quarter of Paris, there are bookshops that do not display his works in the philosophy section, but rather in the « current affairs » section. This is a small but significant detail in French terms.
Upon the publication of his newest book « Pieces d’identite, » a collection of essays written during the past five years, there was someone who took the trouble to discover he had quoted from a book about « Immanuel Kant’s sex life. » The book, which Levy attributed to a philosopher called Jean-Baptiste Botul, was in fact written by a satiric journalist as a sort of intellectual spoof. Levy owned up to the mistake like a good sport and added that the contents of the book by the fictional Botul were definitely « worthy, » and therefore he had quoted it.
The media carnival surrounding that error, which appears on page 122 of the volume’s 1,335 pages, is symptomatic of the reservations about Levy both on the right and on the left. Does this bother him?
« Perhaps this is surprising, but it does not interest me, » he asserts. He thinks for a moment and then hedges his response. « In fact, it does, a bit. It’s a sensitivity of mine that people should listen to me. And if there are obstacles to my words, it bothers me. But beyond that, it doesn’t worry me at all. »
Apparently at least some of the strong reactions the well-publicized philosopher arouses have to do with the fact that Bernard-Henri Levy is a wealthy man, who inherited a great deal of money from his father. Levy’s friend French author Philippe Sollers once said: « Bernard’s freedom comes first and foremost from his culture and then his money, which protects him. »
Do you accept this formula about the money protecting you?
Levy: « This is not a fair statement. What does money protect you from? »
From doing things you don’t want to do, for example.
He ponders this and then agrees: « Money is privilege. It protects people. It makes one free. That I do not deny. »
Levy is convinced that the negative obsession some have with him derives to some extent from his consistent support for Israel. This weekend he arrives 0arrive in Israel for the umpteenth time to participate in a conference entitled « Democracy and its Challenges, » organized by the French Embassy in Israel in cooperation with Haaretz.
Ever since he could think for himself, Levy has made no secret of his support for Israel: « In June of 1967, I went to the Israeli Embassy in Paris and tried to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. But that was on the fifth day of the war, which ended the following day. » Israel lost a peerless fighter, perhaps, but gained an intellectual who since then has not been afraid to defend it.
When the Second Lebanon War erupted four years ago, Levy stood under the barrage of rockets « to be with the inhabitants on the border. » During Operation Cast Lead, a year and a half ago, he was among the first to go into the Gaza Strip along with IDF soldiers – and wrote about this afterward. He was subjected to harsh criticism for this support of Israel in wartime as well as peacetime, but he is comfortable with this. He insists, however, that this support has to have advantages as well, such as the right to voice his opinion to the Israelis, even when it is not to their liking: « I am sufficiently a friend of Israel for them to allow me to state my opinion. Whether they listen to me or not is a different question. »
Levy voiced his opinion about a month ago, as part of the « call for reason » by European Jewish intellectuals who gathered together under the banner of JCall (an echo of the name of the American organization J Street, which sees itself as a left-wing alternative to the established American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby ). The JCall letter, which has thus far garnered more than 5,000 signatures, urges Europe and the United States to pressure Israel to reach a solution along the lines of « two states for two peoples. » It has also provoked criticism among Jews in Israel and Europe.
« I rarely sign group texts, » explains Levy, who did have reservations about two formulations that appeared in the final version, one of them calling Israeli construction in East Jerusalem a « moral error. »
« I don’t like the use of the word morality, » he says, but adds nonetheless that he is « happy I signed the text. » After all, « if you believe in Zionism, Israel is a question that concerns every Jew in the world. It is impossible to tell Jews their word is crucial only when they agree with the government. In that case only supporters of the Likud around the world would have the right to speak.
« I don’t think Israel’s friends, headed by the United States, need to wait for the last year of the American president’s term in office before they turn to dealing with the question of peace, » he notes, with regard to the petition.
Levy, incidentally, definitely considers U.S. President Barack Obama a true friend of Israel.
« I met him in the summer of 2004, before he was a candidate for president. We spent half a day together and we spoke especially about Israel. I am saying clearly: The man I spoke with is informed and knows what Israel is. It is not like other countries for him. He loves this unique country. »
To Bernard-Henri Levy’s way of thinking, anyone who loves this « unique country » must understand that « its existence is in danger, » in part because of « the occupation and the continued settlements, » and « also in East Jerusalem, » as stated in the JCall document. He believes « each side will have to give up a part of its utopia, part of its dream. The Palestinians who left Jaffa or Haifa – the key they are holding onto so carefully will not open the door of their home. It is necessary to tell them it will serve only as a memento. On the Israeli side, it is necessary to give up greater Israel, Jericho, Nablus, Hebron. It is also necessary to discuss Jerusalem and I am not saying this isn’t painful to me. It makes me sick. But it must be discussed. »
During his first term in office, you called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a « catastrophe. » Since he has once again become prime minister has he, in your opinion, again become a catastrophe?
« I remember writing that. Netanyahu has changed since then. He has matured. And when people change, I am not dogmatic about them. Today I would not say he is a catastrophe. In the West they hardly listened at all to Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech. He did, after all, say two states for two peoples. It came out of his mouth with difficulty, yet he did say it. »
And therefore Bernard-Henri Levy still believes Netanyahu might well surprise, « like [Menachem] Begin, who evacuated Sinai, and [Ariel] Sharon, who evacuated Gaza and perhaps might have done more had he not left the public arena. One can also imagine Netanyahu acting that way. » At the moment, however, Levy admits, it does not look as though Netanyahu « is taking this path. »
« Even though he has changed, he does not have the courage to lead in the face of the small parties in his coalition. There are few politicians who say to themselves that it is better to make history than to maintain the majority that is maintaining them in power. Sharon was one. » Levy’s impression of Netanyahu is that he isn’t one of those politicians, at least not yet.
Levy and Netanyahu met twice for conversations during the past two years. The first time was during a visit to Paris by the Likud chair when he was still head of the opposition; the second time was in Israel, after his election.
« He is intelligent, logical and sober, » Levy explains. « He accepts the idea that Israel has no choice and has to act, » in order to end the occupation. Levy’s impression is that « in Paris he understands these things, but in Jerusalem this ends. He again becomes a petty politician. »
Curse of politics
Bernard-Henri Levy is not scheduled to meet with the prime minister during his current visit to Israel. He is, however, planning a public, face-to-face encounter with opposition head Kadima MK Tzipi Livni. As part of the conference next week, at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv, besides delivering the opening speech, Levy will conduct open conversations in front of the audience, one with Culture Minister Limor Livnat (on Monday ) and the other with Livni (on Tuesday ).
Will you tell Livni she was wrong not to have joined the government alongside Netanyahu?
« I will not tell her she made a mistake. I will tell her it is a pity. In a democracy there are of course questions of political tactics. Perhaps it would have been better had she joined when the government was formed, and perhaps it is better for her to keep herself outside, for the future. I don’t know. But I will still tell her it is a pity. Perhaps with Livni in the government, they would not have given [U.S. Vice President Joe] Biden that slap they gave him. »
Netanyahu and Livni aside, however, Levy muses that perhaps the problem is bigger than the people, great and small, who make up the Israeli political class.
« There is an almost metaphysical problem, » he says, « with the political class in Israel. You have tremendous thinkers, some of the greatest writers in the world, admirable poets, wonderful journalists and engineers but the political rank is truly awful. It is made up of individually brilliant people, but when they join together, in politics, they are zeroes! »
He has no compunctions about giving as an example one of the people in Israel to whom he is closest: President Shimon Peres. « He is my friend. I admire him. He has had great moments, but there were others when he was a shadow of himself – and yet he is one of the good ones, » he says unhesitatingly. « Today of course he is once again a man of vision, but this is happening, alas, only when he isn’t in a political role, but rather in a symbolic position. »
The more he thinks about it, the more nearly convinced Levy is that « a bad spell has been cast on the political rank in Israel. » There is no dearth of examples, and not only from the right. « Maybe there is something about Jewish history – it’s necessary to force the shepherd to become king. This is Israel’s greatness, its suspicion of politics, but it is also a weakness. Politics does not earn respect. The figures are wonderful: King David, Solomon. They became sinners when they bore the burden of rule. In the Jewish tradition, there is a kind of curse on politics. »
This analysis is particularly discouraging in the context of the praises which Levy doesn’t hesitate to heap on Israeli democracy. For him, « Israeli democracy is a model democracy. A great democracy, one of the most vibrant in the world. The one that has faced the largest number of tests, in situations of war and peace, when it is not confronted by democracies on the other side. »
A great democracy, but small politicians.
Nor does Levy hesitate to bestow a citation of honor on Israeli democracy for dealing with particularly controversial issues. For example, there is the call by Israeli academics to colleagues abroad to boycott Israel: « There is no reason the phenomenon of the self-hating Jew should not also afflict the Israeli Jews. It can be said that masochism knows no limits, but Israel’s honor lies in democracy, in the freedom of expression. And if it agrees to hear such absurd and even monstrous calls, that is wonderful. Many states would not agree to tolerate that. »
Anti-Semitism and Depardieu
Make no mistake about Bernard-Henri Levy. Despite his somewhat cynical praise of the freedom of expression inside Israel, he is definitely worried about things he hears concerning Israel in Europe, from the accelerated processes of the delegitimization of Israel throughout the world.
« It started, » he says, « with the war in Lebanon, with the demonization of Israel and the reversal of roles between the hangman and the victim. »
He views with concern how criticism of the Jews’ state has become a legitimate fast lane for people who want to express anti-Semitic positions.
« Hatred of Israel has become the only way to express hatred of Jews. It is no longer possible to say you hate Jews because they killed Christ, or invented Christ. Even the issue of Jews and money, even if it exists, no longer has mass appeal. But the Jew as the friend of a criminal state – that works. »
Levy sums this up with an untranslatable play on words: The « sale juif » (dirty Jew ) has become the « tzahal juif » (IDF Jew ) – the IDF being the army, because of whose actions a Jew who identifies with Israel has to pay the price of being a Jew. « You are hostages of an affair as old as the world, anti-Semitism, » he sighs.
In France he has recently waged a publicized battle – yet another such battle – against a prominent leader of the Socialist Party, Georges Freche, who butted heads with another top person in the party, former prime minister Laurent Fabius, who has Jewish origins. « He has a non-Catholic face, » said Freche of Fabius, and was booted from the party. Yet despite his remarks and his expulsion from the party, in the elections in his district (Languedoc-Roussillon in southwestern France ), Freche was reelected with a sweeping majority. Freche also won support from a number of celebrities, among them the most famous and beloved French actor in the world, Gerard Depardieu.
« They should leave him to hell alone, » said Depardieu about the besieged politician. « He’s a lot more sympathetic than the secretary of the Socialist Party [who expelled him]. »
In his weekly column in the magazine Le Point, Levy attacked Depardieu, without mercy. He demonstrated how the statements of Freche, as well as those of Depardieu, are symptoms of the anti-Semitism that was flowing in the veins of French society even before World War II and has still not disappeared.
Was Depardieu hurt by what you wrote?
« Depardieu is a friend. But when a friend talks nonsense, I tell him so. An intellectual has to think more about truth than about friendships. »
The problem, or course, is far greater than Comrade Depardieu’s remarks.
« The climate in Europe is getting heavy, » says Levy. « Anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism, hatred of the elites. The fact that a figure like Freche can exist and that he wins an election despite everything is very troubling. To certain degree there is a return to Petainism. France isn’t feeling good. »
Do you share the sense that France of today has lost the ability to voice a sweeping universal message, the way it did in the past, and that it’s dealing instead with small, almost incidental questions?
Levy nods affirmatively. « That is true. On the question of human rights, [President Nicolas] Sarkozy promised a lot, and not a single promise has been kept. Not on the issue of China, not on the issue of Russia, not on the issue of the Arab world. Only very rarely has French foreign policy been more cynical than it is today, even though it is headed by a man who is a walking legend, [Foreign Minister] Bernard Kouchner. »
Kouchner, the founder of Doctors Without Borders, is Levy’s close friend, and the philosopher does not say a single bad word about him throughout the interview.
It also has to be said that Sarkozy’s ear is attentive to what Bernard-Henri Levy has to say. The men are not close, but they do meet from time to time. And yet Levy has no regrets about his support three years ago for the left’s candidate for the presidency, Segolene Royal. « He isn’t bad, » admits Levy grudgingly, « but she could have been a better president. »
Dreyfus and Polanski
Someone who by force of circumstance has become very close to Levy of late is the film director Roman Polanski. The Academy Award-winning Polanski, a French-Polish Jew, was arrested in Switzerland in September last year. The arrest came in the wake of an American extradition request concerning a 33-year-old charge that he committed statutory rape of a girl who was then 13 years old. Polanski originally pleaded guilty to the crime, but fled the U.S. before being sentenced, and was a fugitive until his arrest last fall. Since then he has been under house arrest and is conducting the fight against extradition from his vacation home in Gstadd. Since then, too, yet another charge regarding sex with a minor has surfaced.
Bernard-Henri Levy has pledged to help Polanski with all his might, even though the issue is definitely controversial.
« Polanski is not a friend of mine. I didn’t know him before, » Levy hastens to stress, « but this affair is monstrous. In a world in which the head of a European country is caught with minors and soccer players are caught with an underage prostitute, the only one who is being persecuted is a 77-year-old father, an artist who is not a pedophile. I feel a terrible injustice is being done here, » he says, noting that the son of Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi who was arrested in Switzerland on suspicion of abusing his servants was of course released, with a Swiss apology, after a very short time.
Levy: « Polanski’s case is a mirror of our times, and if we do not break it, we are heading for terrible things. There are moments when everything focuses on a single face. Dreyfus was one. Or the great dissidents in the former Soviet Union. The Polanski affair is of the same dimensions. This is a trial by the inflamed mob being conducted between two democracies, Switzerland and the United States. This is a dangerous perversion of democracy. »
You speak to Polanski and have visited him. Are you worried about his health?
« I am not worried. I find that he is fit. Determined to fight. »
Only in Israel
Perhaps, considering his fervent desire to have his say and also to be influential, the time has come for him to jump into politics? Bernard-Henri Levy was almost tempted, on one occasion, to do this: When he was totally caught up in being involved in helping Bosnia in its war against the Serbs, he established a list that was supposed to participate in the elections to the European Parliament in 1994. The public opinion polls gave him him nearly 15 percent of the vote, but he withdrew his candidacy when the other, main lists accepted the demands he had set forth in his party’s platform. Could he be tempted to do it again?
Not in France, but, says Levy, surprisingly, « in Israel it is worth the effort. The political rank in Israel is such a disaster that over there one would have, at least, something to say. »
I tell Levy that his colleague, philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, once told me he sometimes mulls the possibility of leaving France and settling on a kibbutz. « So maybe we would live on the same kibbutz, » laughs Levy.
He knows very well that in Israel you have to look for stray asses or herd sheep before you find a kingdom.
Bernard-Henri Levy will be participating in the conference « Democracy and its Challenges, » organized by the French Embassy in Israel in cooperation with Haaretz.