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May 11, 2011 3:16 pm

Bernard Henri Levy and Israel (part 2)

avatar by Laurent David Samama

In my first blog post, you learnt about Bernard Henri Levy’s lifelong pro-Israel comitment. As the Jewish State turns 63 and faces new major challenges, let’s focus on the philosopher’s recent efforts to ensure Israel’s peace and safety.

A Reflexion On Israel and the Universe

Bernard-Henri Levy in conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Bernard-Henri Lévy’s detractors too often reduce his commitment to Israel to an unnuanced and Manichaean pro-israel enterprise. Apart from the facts of the Israeli-Palestinian situation and apart from considerations of identity that may account for the philosopher’s interest in Israel and its fate, it is important to acknowledge a crucial aspect of his thinking on the subject: that of universalism. When Bernard-Henri Lévy thinks about Israel, he is also thinking about the world as a whole. And when he takes a position on Bosnia, Georgia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, or anywhere else in the world, that position is shaped by his thinking about Israel. Without Israel, there would be no “Dangerous Purity,” no “Reflections on War, Evil, and the End of History.” The fate of the Jewish state underpins and explains the evolution of Lévy’s thought, so that when local feuds flare up, he thinks not only about the world as it is but also draws the lessons of history. The “never again” attitude that won Jews over to the idea of a Jewish state after the holocaust has its parallels in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. It is not an accident that Bernard-Henri Lévy received Bosnia’s highest honor for his aid to the resistance mounted by the inhabitants of Sarajevo. Here is a crucial question to ask : Is there any use in caring about the fate of Israel and the Jews if that care is insular, autarkic, closed in upon itself? Not at all! To build a reflexion on Israel, you have to consider the Universe. That, in the end, is what the writings of Bernard-Henri Lévy are trying to tell us.”¨My dear readers, this is an invitation to reshape your thoughts on the question : What if Zionism was Universalism ?

Lévy’s thinking about Israel led the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to award him an honorary doctorate in 2008. In his remarks on that occasion, already quoted elsewhere in this article, Lévy paid tribute to his mentor, Jacques Derrida, and to Jean-Paul Sartre. The two men had already received the same honor, bestowed by a university conceived by Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. For your interest, the French philosopher Sartre—who during his career refused many prizes and awards, including the Nobel prize for literature— accepted the one offered by the Hebrew University…

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Tireless Efforts For Peace and Safety

The latest developments in Bernard-Henri Lévy’s lifelong commitment to Israel are as follows. In “Stop Demonizing Israel” (October 2009) he reviewed criticisms leveled at Israel and debunked them one by one. This is true and effective Hasbara ! In 2003, he participated in the Geneva Initiative, an alternative peace plan that offered—that still offers !—the opportunity for a cooperative resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of that initiative he observed:

Because it sidesteps no pitfalls, leaves nothing for tomorrow or the day after, doesn’t say that’s too volatile, too complicated, or “we’ll see at the end,” because it breaks with the idea of “steps” and “process” that was at the center of the Oslo mindset, because it is presented as a whole—take it or leave it—this plan shrinks as far as possible the space available for ruses, double speak, and maneuvering. It allows no party to say, “OK, I’ll sign and begin the process, but I know that I’ll bail out at step X or Y.” It’s a plan without escape hatches, a plan with no room for subtexts. It’s a new kind of plan that, were it to be put into action, would have the effect of defusing the mines that continue to be planted along the road to peace.

The plan includes joint sovereignty over Jerusalem, limits on the right of return for Palestinian refugees, Israel’s evacuation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and a guarantee of the Jewishness of the state of Israel. The plan, proposed by Yossi Beillin and Yasser Abd Rabbo, has been greeted with enthusiasm around the world. Bernard Henri-Lévy is promoting it, along with the likes of Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela, and Mikhail Gorbachev. Even if Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon rejected it, the Geneva Initiative remains at the top of the list of realistic solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”¨ Following the Geneva Initiative came more articles, speeches, and conferences. Prominent among these were two events. The first was Lévy’s impassioned defense of Gilad Shalit, a young French-Israeli citizen captured by Hamas on June 26, 2006, during his military service. Lévy has worked tirelessly for his release. On June 22, 2010, he delivered an address in Paris in front of the momument dedicated to Human Rights before an audience of 15,000. Gilad’s fate was central to his remarks. That event was followed several days later by an article entitled “Why We Must Save Soldier Shalit.””¨The second event was Lévy’s support for the Jcall Initiative, an appeal by European Jews for the creation of a “European movement capable of making the voice of reason heard” on the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The goal of the appeal was “to work for the survival of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state, a goal that depends on the establishment of a viable, sovereign Palestinian state.” Jcall’s Appeal to Reason was answered by another call, known as « Be Reasonable ». The ensuing debate has divided the French Jewish community.”¨Why did Lévy take the position he did? First because it is a logical extension of his thinking about Israel. As a socially and politically engaged intellectual, Lévy supports Israel vigorously but exercises his role as citizen watchdog by speaking frankly to his friends in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. While objecting to the use of the expression “moral failure” to describe some Israeli attitudes, he nevertheless believes that the Appeal to Reason is a positive initiative. Alain Finkielkraut, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Elie Barnavi are among those who agree with him on that score.

It is fitting to conclude this review of Lévy’s relationship with Israel by quoting his Bloc-Notes column in Le Point of May 6, 2010. With specific reference to Jcall, he evokes the courage that is necessary in order to achieve peace:

I have fought all my life against the delegitimization of Israel. I have defended the legitimacy of its position in all of the wars into which it has been pushed since I came of age. Even now, I never land in Tel Aviv without taking the time to visit my friends in Sderot, the southern city that lives under the threat of Hamas’s rockets. It is in the same spirit that I address Israel’s leaders today and implore them to reclaim the inspiration of their illustrious predecessors: David Ben Gurion in 1948, ratifying the partition plan of the United Nations; Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, more than three decades later, taking the risk of the Oslo Accords; and even the young Ehud Barak, who offered to Arafat, almost exactly 10 years ago, a treaty that the latter did not want but whose principles, indeed whose very terms, were immaculate. It takes two to make peace, of course. But who says that one party can’t take a step, even a decisive one?

Circumstances are as stubborn as Bernard-Henri Lévy is constant but reasoned in his defense of the Jewish state. Because he has experienced more than enough war in the course of his many visits, Lévy can now suggest a line of thought that is distinctive, original, and above all progressive. If one had to reduce the philosopher’s commitment to Israel to a single element, it would be his willingness to imagine democracy and pacifism in situations where, if we aren’t careful, evil and passion will carry the day.

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