Bernard-Henri Lévy: A Rock Called Zion (EXCERPT)
The following is an excerpt from French philosopher and activist Bernard-Henri Lévy’s newly released book, The Genius of Judaism, which delves into the meaning of being a Jew — not in terms of religious observance, but rather from the point of view of Talmudic traditions of “struggle and study.” In the passage below, he defends Israel in this context.
There is Israel, of course.
Not just the general virtues of Israel, its value as an example, and so on, but the way in which its existence changed everything for every Jew.
We all have our own experience of this.
Mine begins with the Six-Day War and the unexpected moment when the de-Judaized Jew that I was at that time began to fear for a country that meant nothing to him and about which he knew only that it had recently attained a national form that he thought outmoded.
I was emerging from adolescence.
And I already had the taste for adventure that would soon take me to Bangladesh.
But in what led me, on that Friday, to appear at the Israeli consulate in Paris and offer to join the volunteers streaming in from all corners of the globe to lend a hand to the young nation assailed on all sides by Arab armies, in that step there was a spirit that, in retrospect, I believe, was not in the same category as the simple yen for adventure.
Even more inexplicable was the emotion that gripped me when, three days later (it was June 12), forty-eight hours too late to be able to take part, however symbolically, in Israel’s just war against a coalition of states in league to lend the finishing touch to the unfinished genocide of the Nazis, I set foot for the first time on soil that was both utterly foreign to me and yet strangely familiar.
At the time, I knew nothing about the Zionist adventure or its meaning.
I am from a family that embraced Heine’s famous saying that Judaism, Zionism included, was a source of “insults and pain” that one would not wish on one’s worst enemy.
If I had been aware of the then-burgeoning literature that sang of the redemption of the Jews through work and land, if I had had the slightest idea of the meaning, from the work of Theodor Herzl and Bernard Lazare down to Max Nordau’s Degeneration, of the ideology of the farmer-soldier arriving, out of fidelity to the religion of Moses, to plant olive trees in the dunes of the Negev, it would have seemed to me hopelessly Boy Scoutish and far less dignified than the contemporaneous ideology of the Chinese people’s communes.
Clearly my Judaism, supposing I really had any at the time, and my metaphysics, supposing I was aware of the collection of reflexes and concepts that would one day come together to form my brand of metaphysics, were much closer to Moses’ other big deed: the first one, when he “comes out toward his brothers,” as the Bible says, becomes their leader, and urges them, after the murder of the Egyptian, never to compromise either with politics or with any of the acts taught on the world-historical stage that he left behind in Egypt or (it follows) with the lashon hara, the “bad language” of mudslinging and betrayal that is the language of power. Had I then had the vaguest idea of the religion of Moses, “my” Moses would have been much closer to the inspired shepherd who brings all of Israel together to say to it, “You are as the sand,” echoing the announcement made to the patriarchs: “Your descendants shall be like the sand of the sea.”
Not olive trees but human beings were compared to sand, which is, of all solid substances, the most mobile, the most formless, mutable, shifting effortlessly, soundlessly, without altering the ground on which it lies, without any digging, with nothing more than the caress or slap of the wind, imperceptibly.
Not the earth and the buildings raised upon it but human dwellings summoned, ordained, urged, called upon to forget, since they are only sand, the boundary markers, the pilings, the stone, the mortar, the gilding, the stucco, the distended volumes of that enormous edifice known as social life, where everything is connected, where all is substance and consistency.
Was the lightness of sand soluble in Zionism?
Was my metaphysics soluble in that swarm of signifiers that swirled around the Jewish nation?
But metaphysics is one thing; life, often, is another.
And can’t the same individual be fluent in the two political languages, those of essence and expedience?
It is a fact that Zionism, which was, doctrinally, not my style, bowled me over when I encountered it.
It is clear that a link was forged then between that nation and me, a link that nothing could break.
I remember as if it were yesterday the customs officers at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, as if they were Guillaume Apollinaire’s angels at the gate to paradise.
I remember the lively disorder on Dizengoff, the calm euphoria that reigned in sidewalk cafés, and an air of camaraderie and celebration that I have encountered on just one other occasion: in Paris, a year later, in May ’68.
I remember Jaffa with its sinuous, climbing alleys, its blockhouses of emblazoned ochre stone, and, farther down, on the beach, a story that affected me as if a man I never knew had been my friend: the story of the assassination, fifteen years before the birth of the state of Israel, of Haim Arlosoroff, the prince of left-wing Zionism, the only one at the time preaching true dialogue with the Arabs, a figure now forgotten, though he was in his time the most valuable, bravest Zionist leader after David Ben-Gurion.
I remember Ben-Gurion at home at the Sde Boker kibbutz near Beersheba, recounting, in the midst of an interview designed to flesh out my very first article, his theory of redemption through the desert.
There is one advantage of the desert, he explained to me in the garden of the farm to which he had retired like a modern Cincinnatus, a place reached at the end of a long drive through a landscape of rock and megaliths that appeared to have been furrowed by the very finger of God. In the desert, he continued, it is not nature that is generous with man but the other way around: Man augments nature with his prodigious intelligence. Listening to him, I had the feeling that whole new perspectives of thought were opening before me, to which I had only, one day, to give philosophical form.
I remember another kibbutz, Degania, on the Sea of Galilee, and my insistence on going to reflect, without knowing exactly why, in the little military cemetery in which lay sixty-seven heroes of the war of independence, who had fallen there under fire from Syrian invaders.
Farther north along the shore of the Sea of Galilee is the kibbutz that Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir had visited three months earlier, at the invitation of my friend Ely Bengal. I remember a miraculous moment there, in which I was hypnotized by a gray line that I thought was the shoreline before being informed that it was the boundary between the sky and a horizon that stretched out beyond the clouds.
I remember high deserts and seas that lay below sea level.
I remember stony landscapes in which I sensed the mysterious imprint left by eyes that had looked on them for centuries upon centuries before me.
And I remember the strange feelings that overtook me when I came in contact with the wall in Jerusalem. I had told myself it would have no particular effect on me, but then I could not resist touching it, like the soldiers who, automatic weapons slung over their shoulders, eyes closed before the stone of the wall, drank in the so-often- imagined symbol, now suddenly real, for which they had just risked their lives.
I remember all of that.
I remember a country where everything whispered to my soul in its soft native tongue.
And the truth is that, though I was then so tepidly Jewish, there I found the most unexpected of inner homelands, a rock on which I knew immediately that I would lean from that point forward.
The rock has two faces, of course. And since the existence of Israel is not the least of what fuels the new anti-Semitism, danger also emanates from the rock itself, completing a vicious circle that is central to the tragic aspect of Jewish destiny today.
It is also complex. And the unique experience of Israel, the responsibility of a certain number of Jews over a land to which they have long been tied by memory, prayer, and longing, the embrace of politics and policy that they were paradoxically spared by ostracism and by the usurping kings that kept them in exile — all that constitutes one of the hardest and ultimately riskiest trials that the Jewish people have ever had to endure. And no one today can predict what will come of it. No one can say whether the Jews, for having embarked on this path, will have to bear the blame placed by Samuel on those who submitted to Saul, or whether they will remain Moses’ pupils; whether they will build a new Babel or, as the founding fathers intended, a new kind of kingdom; whether this national gestation — the longest, bumpiest, and most chaotic in all human history — will produce an ordinary state or a return to Jacob, the man who earned the nickname Israel because he had struggled (with God and men) to ensure a place under the tent for all those who chose to share his name and who, in so choosing, made that tent not only the symbol of the sad fragility of the nomad, defenseless against the winds of heaven and the arrows of enemies, but the mark of a people who, seeing themselves as “Men,” preferred as protection the fine cloth of words and the flimsy parasol of commentaries to the granite walls within which bodies that are always too heavy gather to bury themselves. In short, no one can predict whether or not Israel will turn from a fascinating country into an admirable or sublime one.
But one thing was apparent to me from that first trip, some part of which I have never let go.
Hate being what it is, in its present form or a former one, the fact and the idea of Israel contain precious blessings.
The fact: If dark times, truly dark times, were to return, if the supposed “Jewish question” were to be presented again with new but just as terrifying answers, there would be, for imperiled and defenseless Jews, not a “solution” but a way out, which they so tragically lacked before. Even if vulnerable and under threat, even at the risk of pulling the front line of persecution closer to home, Israel would provide a providential fallback.
The idea: The very fact that this might be possible, the awareness, however vague, of the existence of this country of refuge, the feeling of premonition, even among those Jews most reluctant to acknowledge or discuss their Jewishness or, even worse, to have a Jewish word spoken in their name, that if the world were to become uninhabitable for the Jews there would remain this habitat here — that idea, that awareness, is, even for Jews of that stripe, a reassuring and happy thought in the back of one’s mind, a bit of knowledge only dimly known that may not ever or often come to consciousness, an assurance of pride, of having a grip on life, an assurance of dignity. Oh, those self-shaming Jews! Those reluctant Jews whose mistrust regarding the subject of Israel is the correlate of the will to know nothing about outmoded Judaism, that residue of the ancient exiles, that remainder in the calculus of nations on an upward arc to victory, or the will to melt into the sort of world citizenship practiced in my family and, later, more radically, in the revolutionary circles of my youth. Well, even they prove the rule! Even for them the idea of Israel functions as the shelter I have described! I do not know of a single Jew in the world for whom the presence of Israel is not a promise — perhaps a promise deferred, but a promise nonetheless.
The Genius of Judaism was published in English by Random House and translated by Steven B. Kennedy.