‘The Lifetime Achievement of an Affirmative Jew’: Bernard-Henri Lévy Reflects on New Film, ‘The Will to See,’ Ahead of Jerusalem Premiere
In a passage of his new book “The Will to See,” a collection of dispatches and insights garnered from his travels in war zones around the world, the French Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy reflects on the challenges of being an internationalist in a world that has increasingly turned inwards upon itself.
“The desire to speak not to France alone, not to Europe alone, not to the United States alone, but to the world; the concern for justice, ideally applied not just to a given city that is ignoring its metics [the ancient Greek term for ‘foreigners’] within and without, but to all cities, as well as to that part of the world where people do not know what a city of citizens even means; the wish to be able to feel at home anywhere, even where tyrants are triumphant or the spirit of Nineveh reigns — none of that, I am well aware, comes easily,” Lévy writes.
Both the book and the accompanying film of the same title — which provides viewers with a raw glimpse of the human suffering produced by forgotten wars past and present, in Libya, Ukraine, Kurdistan, Afghanistan and Somalia among others — demonstrate Lévy’s lifelong commitment to these principles, as well as his efforts to give them energy and meaning in a world that has become, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, decidedly more parochial.
On Sunday, Lévy will be in Jerusalem for the premiere of “The Will to See” at the Jewish Film Festival in the Israeli capital, where he will receive the festival’s Achievement Award. The Algemeiner caught up with him by phone on Friday in advance of the event.
Many of the themes in your film — persecution because of one’s origin, the indifference of the outside world, trying to simply survive — resonate strongly with Jewish history. How do you think your film will be interpreted by an Israeli audience? What lasting impression do you wish to leave on them?
First of all, I am deeply honored to have been selected and given an award by this festival. To me, it means the world, really. Second, how would I want the film to be received in Israel? As the lifetime achievement of an affirmative Jew, of a Jew inhabiting his own being. The lifetime achievement of a Jew doing his best to give substance to the true Jewish commandments, orders and messages. And the children and grandchildren of Jews who were persecuted will hear an echo of that ageless persecution. When a Holocaust survivor, or the son or daughter of a Holocaust survivor, sees the martyrdom of a young woman in Nigeria, when they see the survivors of the mass atrocities committed against the Kurds, how can they not hear that echo? At the end of the film, the lyrics of my music composer Nicolas Ker — “On and On and On and On and On…” — also carry this echo. So if there is a place where I really expect a reply, a response, an emotion, it is in Israel and its capital, Jerusalem.
Your work has taken you to Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and many other places. Can you reflect on the position of a Jew who intervenes frequently on political and humanitarian questions in parts of the world where Muslims constitute the majority?
For me, it’s about what one of the ancient prophets of the Jewish people, Jonah, was ordered to do. Jonah was ordered to go to Nineveh, which is the modern-day city of Mosul in Iraq, but which could also be a metaphor for most of the places where I spent the year 2020 in order to make this film. Very humbly and very modestly, I tried to be faithful to the order that was given to Jonah — the prophet to whom I dedicated my 2017 book, “The Genius of Judaism.” That is, to go to the big city, or the remote city, or the city that might not be friendly in any way to my own people, the city that is full of sins and crimes — to go and try and help this city to walk along the path of its own redemption. This is the order that was given to Jonah for the city of Nineveh. For me, it is a thoroughly Jewish way of acting. Of course, it’s not the only way, but it is one of them, and in this film, it is mine.
You make the point in the film that Gaza was one location where you didn’t travel, which is all the more striking because we see you in so many of the comparatively forgotten war zones elsewhere in the world. Do you think the persistence of the Palestinian issue distracts public and media attention from these other causes and crises?
Of course, and I hope that this will be one of the lessons of the film. The world is focused on Gaza and the West Bank. In the meantime, we have wars that are real bloodbaths, where you have real mass crimes committed, where sometimes you are standing on the precipice of genocide. And so this focus on Gaza really overshadows these mass crimes which are the subject of my film. By the way, I have been to Gaza and the West Bank in the past. During the war in 2009, I was embedded with an elite unit of the IDF, and in 2002, I wrote about the Palestinian city of Jenin, where there were false reports presented in the Western press of a crime committed by the Israeli army unprecedented since World War II. What I saw was a heavy military battle, a few dozen dead on the Palestinian side, two dozen dead on the Israeli side, but no massacre, no mass crime. So I’ve never been reluctant to go on the ground there when I felt it necessary to tell the truth, to put a stop to the demonization and delegitimization of Israel. But this time, for this dive into the hell of forgotten wars and suffering, Gaza did not have its place, and I was content to skip it.
Finally, what are you working on now?
(Laughs) I think I’m working on something interesting, but for the time being, I’ll keep that to myself!
Bernard-Henri Lévy’s latest documentary film, “The Will to See,” is receiving its premiere in Israel at 8pm, Sunday Nov. 28, at the Jerusalem Cinematheque Hall 1, 11 Hebron Rd, Jerusalem.