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April 24, 2011 7:53 pm

Bernard-Henri Levy and Israel (Part 1)

avatar by Laurent David Samama

A few months after touring the US while participating at the 2008 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, I met with French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy in Paris. This meeting can be considered a turning point in my young life : high hopes and expectations began to become reality.

As I’m starting to write this blog on the Algemeiner website, it appeared to be important to state who I am and more than that, who I’m partnering with on matters relating to a crucial issue for all of The Algemeiner readers; Israel.

Much has been said and written about Bernard-Henri Lévy’s relation to Israel. Very much indeed—and much of it inaccurate. One has only to wander the vast landscape of the Internet and visit a few websites, forums, and blogs to get the idea. Even when Israel is not the topic of discussion, even when Lévy is talking about something entirely different, commentators look for a way to bring it up. Constantly… One finds it in the online pages of the French newspaper Libération, in YouTube videos, when Levy is on CNN and even on the site of La Règle du Jeu, the review Lévy founded 20 years ago.”¨Israel is always present, it is one of those subjects that stirs up passions, sours the atmosphere in a room, and causes major clashes among friends. Remember Caran d’Ache’s famous drawing in the Figaro during the Dreyfus Affair? A happy family is seated around a table ; over the caption : “We shall not talk about the Dreyfus Affair!” In the next panel the table is a shambles; fists and forks are flying. The caption explains: “They talked about it, the Dreyfus Affair !” And so it is with Israel. Yet for the last 40 years or more Bernard-Henri Lévy has not shied away from offering his thoughts on the future of the Jewish state.”¨Whatever his detractors say, the philosopher offers a unique voice on the Middle East and Israel. That voice—progressive, independent, and original—is listened to by Israelis and Palestinians alike. This voice is what I trust to be a clever way to influence Israel’s future and to help acheive peace between Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors.

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Standing firmly beside Israel in times of joy and trial, being there in the uncertainty of the armed conflicts that too often shake the Jewish state, this has been a constant for Bernard-Henri Lévy since he was a young man. In 1967, when Lévy was preparing for the Ecole Normal Supérieure at the Lycée Louis le Grand, before his encounters with Louis Althusser and Jacques Derrida he made his first trip to Israel. Once back in Paris, when the Six-Day War broke out, Lévy rushed down to Israel’s consulate in Paris to join the Israeli forces that were pushing back the Arab coalition. The conflict ended before Lévy could serve, but his interest in the Middle East had been pricked. Deeply moved by his first experience of the region, young Lévy was one of the authors of an article entitled “Zionisms in Palestine” that ran in Éléments, the review of Clara and Marek Halter, with whom Lévy had already formed a bond. Collaborators in the article included great minds of the time : Vladimir Jankélévitch and Jean-François Revel.

From now on, Lévy’s interest in the issue will never disappear. And even if very young, we find in his first texts a set of principles still guiding Levy’s action regarding Israel. One of these is unconditional support for the existence of the Hebrew State. The second is a desire for peace between Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors. That desire is fueled by the powerful idea that Israel, and Zionism, have the potential to make the message of Judaism a positive one despite the horrible fate of so many millions of Jews through History. “Zionisms in Palestine” remains Lévy’s line in the sand: unconditional support for Israel’s security and its right to exist, accompanied by equally steadfast support, underpinned by ethical and political reasoning, for a sovereign Palestinian state thriving peacefully alongside Israel.”¨Bernard-Henri Lévy has returned to Israel many times since his first encounter. In May 2002, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Tel Aviv. On that occasion he gave an account of his many visits. The full text of that address constitutes the preface of his “Sionisme explique à nos potes” (Zionism speaks to its friends). An excerpt:

« I came to Israel for the first time at the end of the Six-Day War. I came again in 1973. I was here during the war with Lebanon and again when the Scuds were flying. I am here today as you face yet another war—the longest of them all, the most costly in terms of Jewish lives, the ugliest in Israel’s history, the most ruinous for the nation’s image and moral credibility. Never, it seems to me, has Israel been so alone; never so much the wild outcast from the restless community of nations, as prophesied in our sacred texts. To that Israel, stigmatized as satanic, as Nazi-like; to an Israel flawed, of course, as is every nation at war, but that in no way deserves the torrents or hate and hysteria directed against it—to that Israel I am happy to declare once again, as many times before, my solidarity as a Jew and a French citizen. »


Bernard-Henri Lévy’s experience in Israel is one of encounters and discoveries. On the scene whenever Israel has been threatened, he has rolled up his sleeves to search for peaceful solutions since the 1970s. In 1979 his meeting in Jerusalem with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin was captured in a photo of a youthful and sanguine Lévy alongside the Israeli statesman. The picture is fascinating. Begin was born in Jewish Brest-Litovsk, he faced a sentence of eight years in the gulag, was a militant in the Irgun, and received the Nobel peace prize. Facing him, our young French comrade.  What did they tell each other ? That is a secret of history…

In the following year, 1980, Lévy addressed the general assembly of the B’nai B’rith. He then moved to the war front, covering the first war in Lebanon in 1981 for French newspaper Le Monde. (He returned in 2006 at the time of the second conflict between Israel and Lebanon.) When Saddam Hussein began sending Scud missiles into Israel in 1991, Lévy obtained a rare interview with Yitzhak Shamir that was published in the fourth issue of Lévy’s review, La Règle du Jeu.”¨Israel soon recognized in Lévy a solid intellectual ally. Indeed, the philosopher makes a point of perpetuating the intellectual vitality that he finds in Israel. Consider his seminal support for the Institut d’Etudes Levinassiennes. It was in Jerusalem in 2000 that Benny Lévy (Sartre’s long-time secretary), Alain Finkielkraut, and Bernard-Henri Lévy made the decision to establish a center for philosophical reflection in memory of philosopher and Talmudic scholar Emmanuel Lévinas. They wrote of:”¨ « the possibility of a place and a language in which Jews, divided by the stances they take in the outside world, can coexist, contest, come to understand each other—and no doubt sometimes to misunderstand—while striving all the while to create the conditions in which well-chosen words can change minds. »”¨There would be many more encounters—with Rabin, Peres, Olmert, and Netanyahu—nearly everyone who at one time or another held the fate of the Jewish state in their hands. Encounters, too, in the Palestinian territories with democratic elements in Gaza and the West Bank. Thanks to the access provided by these experiences, Bernard-Henri Lévy became a keen observer of the vicissitudes of Israeli politics, as well as a trusted interlocutor of the nation’s leaders, as evidenced by the document that follows, an account of a meeting between Lévy and Ehud Barak, then Israel’s minister of defense. The text is reprinted from “Carnets de Guerre” published in the Journal du Dimanche on January 18, 2009. In it, Barak shared his intimate thoughts with the French philosopher.

Lévy writes:”¨ « At home with Ehud Barak. I saw him yesterday at Palmachim, surrounded by his generals. Today we meet in a very long room that seems to have been built around the two pianos that he plays like a virtuoso. Barak evokes the moral dilemma that his army faces. He describes the calculations of Hamas, which, precisely because it knows how the Israelis operate, stores arms in the courtyard of a school, in a hospital room, or under a mosque. “They win either way,” he explains to me in a tone in which I am sure I can detect the curiosity of a strategist faced with an unexpected tactic. “Either we know where the cache is located and don’t fire, in which case they’ve won, or we don’t know about the surrounding location and we fire. In that case they film the victims, send the pictures to the TV networks, and they win that way, too.” I prepare to ask him how the man who, at Camp David nine years ago, had offered Arafat the keys to a Palestinian state that Arafat did not want, how that man personally saw that dilemma. I want to say that Israel might not have found itself in the chain of missed occasions, missteps, and blind alleys of the governments that followed. But the telephone rings. It’s Condoleezza Rice calling to press him to call very quickly for a ceasefire. I ask, “Why very quickly, do you think?” The pianist minister smiled. “Because, depending on when it comes, it will either be Condi’s ceasefire or the other Barack’s (Obama), who will have stolen her ‘legacy.'”

In Jerusalem for the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of Israel, Bernard-Henri Lévy mingled with the greats: President Shimon Peres, legendary diplomat Henry Kissinger, author Amos Oz. Writing in Le Point’s edition of May 22, 2008, Lévy offered these impressions of the face of Israel:

« Israel is exemplary. You heard me right. All is not perfect there, of course. The Palestinian question, in particular, is an open wound, an oozing sore. But putting that aside for the moment, I cannot think of any other state that has emerged from the breakup of empire that has been able to create, as Israel has done, steady prosperity, a democracy worthy of the name, and a stance in which violence is never untethered from ethical considerations. In addition to those accomplishments, in addition to being the political and economic standout of what we used to like to call grandly the anticolonial revolution, I see Israel welcoming without discrimination Russians, Yemenis, Frenchmen, Ethiopians, North Africans, and Poles—not to mention the 20% of its population who are Palestinian Arabs. Like it or not, Israel is one of the most open societies in the world. Like it or not, one finds in Israel multiethnicity combined as nowhere else with a sense of national belonging, patriotism, and an amazingly solid sense of civic duty. The country offers a very powerful lesson that several powerful nations that find themselves in the same seemingly impossible circumstances—France and the United States among them—would do well to take to heart. »

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