Why Does Everyone Hate Bernard-Henri Lévy?

The French playboy philosopher, who toppled Gaddafi, ponders the big questions. And fervently supports Israel.

(Photo: Emily Lembo)
French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy recently visited New York. (Photo: Emily Lembo)

Americans have Angelina Jolie to scold the United Nations member states on their lack of interest in the butchery going on in Syria, the French have the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy to go to Benghazi and single handedly topple Muammar Gaddafi. As old as the state of Israel, the gorgeous looks of the philosopher have now faded into those of a Baldassare Castiglione’s courtier, a crepuscular Lawrence of Arabia had the Brit been a ladies’ man. In New York for a speech at the French consulate on “The Future of the French and European Jewry,” Mr. Lévy was headlining a fundraising campaign for the David Gritz Scholarship that will enable young Israelis to study abroad. A Hamas bomb at the University of Jerusalem killed Gritz, an American from Massachusetts studying in Israel in 2002.

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“This scholarship is about fighting against divestments,” the intellectual insisted in a puzzling non sequitur.

For many in Europe, the rise of the politically engaged intellectual, a rare breed in the U.S., occurred at the end of the 19th century when writers, artists and philosophers stood up for Alfred Dreyfus, a victim of pervasive French anti-Semitism. This tradition perdured in the 20th century with André Malraux who joined the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and the fight between Jean-Paul Sartre, about whom Mr. Lévy wrote a remarkable book, and Albert Camus over the Algerian war for independence. But a better analogy for Mr. Levy’s destiny might very well be François-René de Chateaubriand, the author of the unforgettable Memoirs from Beyond the Grave who had a tumultuous relationship with the diminutive Napoleon and was instrumental in the 1823 French invasion of Spain that led to the restoration of Ferdinand VII. Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianity even inspired Mr. Levy to write a fascinating text The Genius of Judaism, treating Judaism not as a religion but as a philosophical system, a guide for living.

French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Levy speaks to the United Nations General Assembly at a meeting devoted to anti-Semitism on January 22, 2015 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Levy speaks to the United Nations General Assembly at a meeting devoted to anti-Semitism on January 22, 2015 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Mr. Lévy is France’s favorite punching bag. Legendary for wearing a black Christian Dior suit over an unbuttoned white shirt, the man who has had the ear of presidents since Francois Mitterand, no matter their political affiliations, was born into wealth and attended the best schools in Paris, getting his agrégation in philosophy. His counter-intuitive lightning rod 1977 book Barbarism With A Human Face was published at a time when the communist party was not only France’s main political opposition to the Gaullist right, that had been in power since World War II, but the main referent among intellectuals. In the eighties there was not one TV talk show producer who didn’t want to book the former Maoist and a few other of his friends, called the New Philosophers, such as Andre Glucksman and Pascal Bruckner. The new prime-time stars were eager to explain their sudden disdain of Marxism and full embrace of the crypto-fascist anti-USSR Tsarist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Mr. Lévy’s father, who had made his fortune with Becop, a corporation importing rare wood treated in exploitative plants from the Ivory Coast and Gabon, where subpar wages and mass deforestation were the norm, financed his short-lived daily L’Imprévu while he was dating models. As with many neocons in America who had a leftist past, this newfound anti-Marxist discourse, which occurred while the USSR was invading Afghanistan, resonated throughout Europe like a Tickle Me Elmo fire sale in a Columbus, Ohio suburb.

Pretty soon Mr. Lévy was in Sarajevo dodging snipers’ bullets and having tea with Ahmad Shah Massoud in the Panjshir Valley. When he got stuck in Bosnia under Serbian shells, unable to fly to Saint-Paul-de-Vence to marry Eric Rohmer’s égérie Arielle Dombasle, he had President Mitterand send an air force jet to bring him to Provence on time.

“Don’t you think that’s why people hate you?” I asked him. “What was I supposed to do? Not get married?” he answered. “Mitterand owed me, I helped him save face in Bosnia. I did so much for the French government, in the name of the French government, that it was really the least they could do to help me fly there.”

Indeed, it was his idea to have the French president land unannounced at the Sarajevo airport in a show of force meant to calm the carnage taking place in the former Yugoslavia. Alas nothing came out of it, so grateful Mitterand was to the Serbs for their stance against Hitler during World War II and so helpless Europe thankfully is without an army. The slaughter kept on going in Europe’s backyard until President Clinton belatedly intervened and bombed Serbia.

Part prime-time buffoonery, part tourism diplomacy, Mr. Lévy was at least trying to end Sarajevo’s siege and help Massoud get international recognition and weapons. Never mind that people close to Massoud never heard of a meeting with Lévy and that a Bosniac TV crew staged an interview with the philosopher, replete with sniper soundtracks and faux dodgings.

“Democracies are not run by the truth,” Mr. Lévy told me.

“Maybe people hate you because you are this very rich, powerful, well-connected philosopher and you were always with women who weren’t intellectuals?” I asked him.

“How do you know when you look at a beautiful woman, if she’s not an intellectual?” The man who is now dating Daphne Guinness asked, “What does it mean, an intellectual woman? Does it mean a teacher of Ancient History? This is the most sexist thing I’ve heard”

Certainly his ardent support for the rapist Roman Polanski and Dominique Strauss Kahn, who in a court deposition a few months ago testified that he thought the prostitute he hurt during sex was enjoying the rough sex, doesn’t help. If Nietzsche, Mr. Lévy’s master, urged us at the peak of Modernity to philosophize with a hammer, it is very possible that Mr. Lévy’s C-4 brand of diplomacy is what is needed in a post-modern Middle East, where stateless factions and disconnected cells are capable of taking over entire swaths of land overlapping booby trapped borders left behind in haste by departing colonial powers in knowing disregard for tribes and ethnic integrities.

“What did you make of Jimmy Carter calling Israel an apartheid state?” I asked him.

“Old age,” Mr. Lévy answered instantly, “this is a deranged statement.”

Many in the Arab world are skeptical of his empathy for the oppressed and persecuted all over the world and see his indifference to the plight of the Palestinians as proof that he’s nothing more than Zionist pawn, a conspiracy theory that has the virtue of being preposterous.

“Were you disappointed by the reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu?” I asked him.

I would dream for Israel a leadership more daring, more optimistic. Netanyahu belongs to a tradition of Israeli leaders, which I know well, who believe at the end, that whatever they do, it will not change anything, a sort of historical, fundamental pessimism.

“Yes I was, I would have much preferred Herzog,” he said. “Herzog said nothing about the occupied territories though, his program was more focused on social justice,” I told him. “I’m not an Israeli but if I were, I would have been in favor of a more daring prime minister, who would take more well-calibrated political risks in the negotiations with Palestinians. I’m not saying that Netanyahu is an obstacle, I’m saying that maybe he is probably too pessimistic. I know him very well. I met him several times. He no longer believes in the will of peace of the Palestinians. Maybe he’s right, I don’t know…but you sometimes have to make peace with people who do not want it. You may oblige them, you may encourage them, compel them to wish what they don’t necessarily wish. I would dream for Israel a leadership more daring, more optimistic. Netanyahu belongs to a tradition of Israeli leaders, which I know well, who believe at the end, that whatever they do, it will not change anything, a sort of historical, fundamental pessimism. And the consequence of this pessimism is that you just have to be strong in order to prevail, to avoid being wiped out from the map. The problem is, and this is an old lesson we can get from Pericles: ‘You are never strong enough in order to be sure that you will always be the strongest.’ You are never strong enough to be sure you remain the strongest all the time. Never. It’s impossible. As strong as you are, you must feel the moment where you will not be strong enough and not the strongest. This is the real, not just political but meta-political mistake of Netanyahu, he believes in strength without apparently imagining that strength is not enough. You are not strong for eternity.”

The latest wars in Gaza did not look very good for Israel and some of the statements made at the time by the Israeli leadership, not to say anything of the Mossad, seemed to betray a certain unease at the top. “I was in Gaza during the last war,” Mr. Lévy said, “and I saw how careful the Israeli army was with the civilian population, how gentle they were with Palestinians, how cautious they were before entering a house.”

“Were you embedded with a military unit?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “That’s not serious reporting,” I told him.

“I know,” he answered, “but I’ve made enough war reports in my life to know when I’m being duped. The unit with whom I was with was not acting out a play for me. They did not even know who I was, I was just another journalist…I went through Gaza City and saw the importance of the devastation and what I can say is that it was a terrible war but a war with targets. It was not a war of annihilation. A specific house was targeted and not another, one flat and not the other, one street and the next one was completely intact. They were targeting the rocket launchers. On the other side Hezbollah and Hamas with their bad weapons had no targets. How do you qualify your war without any war targets? In a war, you have the war and the goal of the war. What is the goal of the war of Hamas? What about Hezbollah? The goal of the Israeli War is clear, it is not to annihilate the people of Gaza, it is not to take Gaza again. The goal of the war for Israel was to suppress the rocket launchers. What is the goal of the war of Hamas when the rockets are out, what is it? You know what it is, it’s what they say in their charter- to obtain by killing the liquidation, annihilation of Israel. This is called in the history of the wars, total war. What is the goal of Hezbollah? PLO in old times had a goal, which was a Palestinian state. Did they want it sincerely or not it was a debate, but it was a goal. It was a normal war. There is a reason why the Goldstone report was later rescinded.”

The newspaper Haaretz wrote extensively about what made Richard Goldstone retract his findings down to his rabbi forbidding him to attend his son’s bar mitzvah. “I have seen the inhuman checkpoints,” I told him, “the sick elderlies having to wait for hours to reach a hospital, the highways for Jews only, the Gaza blockade, the kids on the beaches and the refugee centers bombed,the tall walls cutting through villages and olive tree fields, the illegal, or illegitimate as State calls them, settlements spurting up all over the west bank the millions of refugees cramping dirty camps in Jordan…the discriminations imposed on Arab Israelis to lease land, the ban on Jewish men marrying Muslim women. Even the State Department says that Israeli Arabs face ‘institutional, legal, and societal discrimination’ and are ‘underrepresented in most fields of employment’ or the Orr Commission that says that ‘government handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory’ and since they are not allowed to join the national service they are denied housing and educational benefits… it is probably why divestment is so widespread now on American campuses…there is no question that the PLO, Hamas and Hezbollah are lunatic organizations but what about the asymmetrical warfare, the people who end up being oppressed by both the Israeli army and their own leaders?”

“They voted for them,” the Pangloss of the Middle East said. “They elected Hamas…they have to elect better governments and accept that Israel is here to stay.” Unfortunately, he is right, even if earlier he had told me that he doesn’t believe in divestment because “divestments were legitimate in South Africa where the government was not elected by the population but Israel is a democracy. You can’t divest against a democracy.” It sounds like something Chance from Being There would say but it is unfortunately a powerful argument. “As long as Gaza will be under the rule of one party that now even refuses to go to the ballots, an organization that tolerates, encourages or organizes the bombings of Israel, wars will occur. No rockets, no blockade- this is my line. The day the rockets stop, really, not just for a cease-fire, the day that Hamas recognizes Israel, I would be the first one to ask to stop the blockade. It’s as simple as that.”

No wonder that Mr. Lévy, a son of the Enlightenment, sees Voltaire as the light at the end of the tunnel. “My relationship to powers has always been the same,” he said, “I act as a real citizen, a citizen is somebody who considers that the power is at his service. They are here to serve us. We are users of the powers, they belong to us. We elect them we have the right to use them and when they act bad we have the right and the duty to disdain them.”

“That’s naïve what you just said,” I told him. Naïve but remarkably efficient. In 2011 Mr. Lévy went to Benghazi, camera in tow, when Gaddafi was about to squash a growing rebellion with mass killing at a time when Libya was already parceled out to tribes and warlords out of Tripoli’s grip. He sat down the first loudmouth he crossed paths with at the newly established Transitional Counsel, a guy named Mansour Saif al-Nasr, stood close to him to be on frame on camera and dialed president Nicolas Sarkozy, famous for wearing compensated shoes. A week later this traveling circus was at the Elysée Palace on Mr. Lévy’s own dime and in a month, after Sarkozy had convinced David Cameron and Barack Obama to join forces, French jets were pounding Gaddafi’s troops. Three months later Gaddafi was dead.

Today Libya is the most dangerous place on earth, a failed state, with ISIS free to set up shop in the north. The chaos is such that women and children from all over Africa jump by the hundreds on derelict boats and go drown in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Eldorado Europe. “You knew that there were people in the Transitional Counsel that were former Gaddafi henchmen like Mustapha Abdeljalil who was his butcher in chief as minister of justice.” I told him, “It didn’t make you pause? Wasn’t the writing on the wall?”

I was against the war in Iraq because no Iraqi asked Bush for help, to come in and topple Saddam. In Libya a vast part of the population was begging for our help. The chaos is a necessary step unfortunately in the birth of democracy.

“That’s not how power works. You don’t go around telling people the truth. People don’t vote for just the truth. If only it were that simple…You would tell them the truth and everything would get figured out. That’s not how people vote. They usually vote for the lies. They vote for economical reasons as Marx said, for very personal reasons as Freud said or because it suits their view of the world as Nietzsche said. I see these leaders I deal with and ask to intervene in some situations, all of them, as cards in my hand. With power things happen surgically, by piecemeal, one-time deals as Michel Foucault said. I was against the war in Iraq because no Iraqi asked Bush for help, to come in and topple Saddam. In Libya a vast part of the population was begging for our help. The chaos is a necessary step unfortunately in the birth of democracy. In the great scheme of things, 40 years is nothing for people to build a democratic constitution. We are not slaves to power, we can vote, we can take it.”

“You are a little bit like Plato going to Sicily to advise Dionysus,” I said to him, “but remember that it didn’t end well. He was thrown in jail and twice expelled from the island.”

“No,” replied Bernard-Henri Lévy. “Because Plato put himself like he mentioned in the Seventh Letter at the service of power. I never did that.”

Many French people think Mr. Sarkozy used Mr. Lévy as a smoke screen and the decision to destroy Mr. Gaddafi’s power as a preemptive strike because the Guide was about to make public the tens of millions of dollars he had given to Mr. Sarkozy’s campaign for the presidency in 2007. Others point to the fact that his foreign minister at the time, and probable next French president, Alain Juppe, had already sent emissaries to Benghazi to reach out to the Transitional Counsel. Meanwhile as a result of the West’s intervention in Libya, mercenaries and weapons looted from Gaddafi’s military bases poured into the Islamist tribes’ hands in neighboring northern Mali and they all started marching on the capital Bamako in the south. President Hollande, who defeated Mr. Sarkozy in the meantime, sent troops to Mali to protect the Christian south and while he was at it to CAR, all of it according to The New York Times to get access to primary resources.

The New York Times was wrong,” Mr. Lévy said. “There is nothing to grab in these countries and if this were the goal we would do what the Chinese are doing… come in slow and steady with a lot of cash and no weapons.” But the Chinese are sitting on half of the world’s currency debt and France is broke as Job. All of a sudden, while there is growing talk of a European military force, France is back all over northern and Sub-Saharan Africa with boots on the ground battling the same foe it tamed during its colonial past: Islam. Simultaneously, fascist parties are on the rise in every country across Europe and in some places like France and England they arrived first in the recent European elections. Colonial powers never run on liberal fuel. But what is the exact meaning of an expansionistic Europe in the age of verticality and globalization? England, one of the rare European countries growing out of recession, pulled back its troops from Afghanistan and refused to help France pay for its African folly. “Hollande was right to intervene in Mali and CAR,” Mr. Lévy said, “he had to fight terrorism there.” Wasn’t this one of Bush’s rationales to enter Baghdad? Wasn’t another one democracy export?

“What do you make of the Iranian deal that Obama reached in Lausanne?” I asked him.

“This and healthcare reform will become the defining legacy of his two terms. I just hope he’s right and he trusts his judgment when time comes to evaluate the mullahs’ commitment to reason,” he said.

“Do you think that a French kid in school can find in a history book a detailed explanation of the general involvement, not just of the state, but of the population in the mass deportation of French and foreign Jews to the death camps and of the Code of the Indigenous imposed in French colonies that made forced labor and conscription the law of the land?” I asked him.

“Yes it’s there,” he lied, “every country went through this, look at what happened here with the native populations and slavery, I wrote a book about this,” he said, “French Ideology, explaining how fascism wasn’t just the prerogative of the few in pre-World War II France, but ingrained in the majority of the state and population. It created a huge scandal and it is probably held against me to this day.” But president Sarkozy, with whom Mr. Levy’s goes skiing, gave a speech a few years ago in Dakar, Senegal in which he praised colonization and listed the good that came out of it—bridges, schools, hospitals, roads—before explaining that the African misery was that the African Man didn’t enter into History enough, that the African peasant, living with the seasons didn’t adapt to progress and never thought of escaping repetition and inventing his own destiny.

“Do you think that the US should move the seventh fleet from Bahrain after it violently suppressed, with the help of Saudi Arabia, its population uprising?” I asked him.

“The UN can criticize Israel all they want,” he said, “but they sat silently while genocides were taking place in Sri Lanka, East Timor, Rwanda, Angola, Burundi, Colombia, South Sudan and in the case of Bosnia they stood by Serbia, in East Timor they withdrew right before Indonesia started its genocide.

“I believe that America should uphold its creed and support democratically elected governments and the oppressed,” he solemnly said, strangely not willing to acknowledge that Washington has been propping up dictators from the Shah to Pinochet, Mubarak, Suharto, Ceaușescu, Marcos all the way to recently with Hernandez under Hillary Clinton at State in Honduras. He has said in the past that criticizing the U.S. is being anti-Semitic. But the UN, which this week released a probe on last summer Israeli bombing of Gaza finding that Israel bombed UN facilities sheltering only civilians even after their GPS coordinates had been provided to the Israeli forces, are fair game.

“The UN can criticize Israel all they want,” he said, “but they sat silently while genocides were taking place in Sri Lanka, East Timor, Rwanda, Angola, Burundi, Colombia, South Sudan and in the case of Bosnia they stood by Serbia, in East Timor they withdrew right before Indonesia started its genocide. The UN did nothing to prevent the genocide in Darfur. In how many cases did the UN fail due to bad analysis and bias? The UN did not move one finger to prevent the Sri Lankan Civil War and let it last 35 years. They made empty resolutions.”

“Would you agree,” I asked him, “that the expansion of territories into the West Bank renders the creation of a Palestinian state a moot point? And that this is actually the goal?”

“No,” he answered, “this is not the first time that a country under attack, as Israel was in the 60s and 70s, defends itself by occupying buffer territories as a plan of defense. Israel never annexed them, Israel always kept them as a way of leverage in order to negotiate its own existence with its neighbors. They would be very easy to annex but it was never done. When Germany after 1870 won the war they annexed parts of France. Many people have known the experience of longing for a nation. Israel waited centuries before having a state. I have wished since 1967, and that’s when my first article was published, for a Palestinian state on the West Bank. But so many countries waited centuries for a nation and the desire of sovereignty did not decrease.”

“What do you make of Mahmoud Abbas’ move to obtain UN and parliamentary recognition all over the world for the state of Palestine? It was implied that Israeli leaders could then be indicted at the ICC.”

“I thought it was a nonevent,” he answered, “because the recognition of a Palestinian state has been a fact since 1948. The fact that European parliaments, like the French one, were asked to vote on the recognition of the Palestinian state, this was the event. I was against that because there were two solutions: Either it was useless because it was just the repetition of 1948, a reminder; or it meant it was something else and in this case it meant that for the French parliament the underlying idea was that the only obstacle to peace was Israel, which is not true. You have two obstacles to peace: Israel and the Palestinians. You have two actors at play here, not one. Palestinians stop rocketing, Israel stops building. Palestinians stop sending human bombs, Israel stops keeping the part of the tax they collect on PLO money. The path to peace is found by pressuring both actors, not just one. This initiative of the French, the Swedish and others had the underlying meaning of thinking that the Palestinians were 100% right and Israelis were 100% guilty of the blockage of the process. It’s not just unfair, it’s inefficient because you cannot achieve peace this way.”

France, with no legitimacy or credibility regarding Jews and Muslims, is preparing to sponsor peace talks between Israel and the PLO that will require for Tel Aviv to vacate the occupied territories in the West Bank. Many believe that President Obama could be a partner in these talks.

“Why not establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in France similar to the ones in South Africa and Rwanda?” I asked him. “Putting everything out in the open: neighbors delating their Jewish neighbors to the French police, the slavery in the colonies, if you were to stop ten people in the streets of Paris not one would know that until 1946 slavery was the law of the land in French colonies, not one in ten would know that the SNCF, the national railway still in place today, transported thousands of Jews to the death camps. But they all know that people are now demonstrating in the streets of Paris yelling death threats to the Jews and that the Muslim population in France is made of sons and daughters of immigrants from the French colonies. Wouldn’t this be the best way to stop the Front National’s seemingly unstoppable rise? To reconcile its large population of children of the colonies which feels ostracized, relegated to a second-class citizenry?”

(Photo: Emily Lembo)

“It’s a good idea, actually,” he said, “I might have to really think about this.”

“You often mention the truth and universality,” I told him. “Was your work as a philosopher contrasting with postmodernity?”

“Postmodernity doesn’t mean anything, it’s an American invention,” he answered. “You guys are putting together potatoes and cauliflowers.”

“So let’s talk about post-structuralism then,” I said.

“I was closer in my work to the reflection on power by Michel Foucault,” he answered, “I was able to separate Gilles Deleuze from Michel Foucault and I was closer to Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser then I was to Jacques Derrida. I wrote a book on the truth Les aventures de la vérité in which I explore the murkiness of the truth and my meaning of universality is actually closer to Foucault’s.”

In fact, Gilles Deleuze thought nothing of BHL as he’s known in France and of the New Philosophers that he thought were ‘useless’.

“What about Heidegger?” I said, “Do you see Being and Time as one of more important books of the 20th century?”

“Yes, of course,” he answered, “and this is one of the incomprehensible tragedies of philosophy that such a book could have been written by a card-carrying member of the Nazi party. I just gave a lecture at a symposium on Heidegger, it’s easily found on YouTube.” (Here it is, in French.)

“Did you call your literary review La Règle du Jeu in honor of the Jean Renoir movie?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied, “and also in honor of Michel Leiris. We actually just published an interview he gave me just before his death. Do you know him?”

“Yes,” I said, “he was against colonization but he had a past of beating up African porters during his trips there. It’s interesting because you are Marcel Dalio from the Renoir movie, a rich guy bored out of his mind.”

“Come with me to Libya and Darfur. I dare you to come, this is actually a lot of work,” he replied. As an admirer of Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, I will.

Additional reporting by Emily Lembo.

Why Does Everyone Hate Bernard-Henri Lévy?