French Morning had the opportunity to interview French writer and thinker Bernard-Henri Lévy.
Lévy’s latest book, “The Genius of Judaism”, comes out in English on January 10th, 2017.
French Morning: You’ve devoted the first part of your novel to contemporary antisemitism, which you have called “the new global religion”, but isn’t the context different here in the US than it is in France?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: No, I don’t believe so. Increasingly, it’s the same situation. In the book, I identify the three strands of contemporary antisemitism. 1/ Anti-Zionism—the belief that Jews are friends of an “Assassin State” 2/ Holocaust Denial—the belief that Jews are “memory traffickers”, presenting themselves as martyrs for the purpose of intimidating the rest of the world, and 3/ Competitive Victimhood—the belief that Jews monopolise global capital of compassion by forbidding empathy for other victims of genocide.
Today, the US is where these three strands are most concretely observed. The Mecca of Holocaust Denial is found in the so-called scientific institutions of the west coast. Competitive Victimhood is found in the US, expressed with great vehemence (Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, etc); and Anti-Zionism is fervently felt on American campuses, and perpetuated by the “BDS” movement, which calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israeli imports.
In short, the situation of Jews in the US is just as problematic as that of Jews in Europe.
But French Jews frequently talk about leaving the country. In the US, it’s possible to live uninhibited with the wider community, which is reassuring to American Jews.
Yes, but anti-semitism in the US is equally uninhibited. Consider Trump’s speech before the Jewish Republican Coalition in December 2015, in which he stated “You didn’t vote for me because I don’t need your money”. That kind of statement would be inconceivable in France.
But isn’t there truth to the fact that one can openly practice Judaism within American society?
It’s also possible to live and practice openly in France. But that’s not what concerns me. Judaism—and this is what I’ll be discussing in my talk at 92nd St Y—is not about communitarianism (a policy that promotes ties, subjectivities and community values). It’s not about “between oneself”, it’s the contrary! Judaism is about its relationship to others. Take Jonah and the Whale. It is when Jonah goes to Nineveh that he is closest to his message. It is in places of otherness that he succeeds in his prophetic mission. The Talmud has nothing else to say on the metaphor of the tribes of Israel leaving Egypt; nothing against the scattering of riches in foreign lands. By omission, the word is to spread out, and to scatter those riches. That is how Judaism will impact history. To be Jewish is to preserve the world first and foremost, and to rebuild it in a richer, greater sense.
Of the three strands of anti-semitism you describe, competitive victimhood is the newest, and perhaps the most efficient in that it opposes the legitimacy of their victims.
It is all stupidity and lies. I discuss this in my book, and will repeat it at 92nd St. Y, that we mobilize best by uniting against the harm done to all men and women, than we do by remembering wrong done to “us” in the past. It is with hearts heavy in remembrance of the Shoah that we stand against genocide, and denounce the politicians of Sarajevo, Darfur, Rwanda. And conversely, it has always been the case in forty years that Holocaust deniers are the first, and the most outspoken deniers of new crimes against humanity.
As you describe global antisemitism, you also offer a surprisingly optimistic view that France is “a reason not to give up hope”. Do you think that this positive outlook on France and Jews is heard through the United States?
I don’t care! What I say is that yes, French culture is full of antisemitism. But as I see it, there are two major differences from past history: First, the elite have finally learned, and there is no antisemitism in the French State. Second, Jews in France used to keep a low profile, but today they are outspoken. They stand up. They understand finally that by hiding, they are weakened. They are stronger for speaking out.
But isn’t France transitioning into a post-identity age? Can we celebrate the wearing of kippah (a head covering worn by Jewish males), when we suppress the wearing of other outward religious symbols?
First, the kippah is not essential for Judaism. It’s much more important to study, and to observe. Secondly, the kippah is not an “ostentatious” symbol. It’s scandalous to compare it with, for example, the full-body veil forced on women by radical Islam. Finally, I’ll repeat: Judaism is not an identity, it’s an “otherness”, and a way to relate to the universal.
Has there been therefore a difference in nature between the affirmation of Jewish religion, and the affirmation of other religions?
My thesis is that Judaism isn’t a religion.
Would you consider Secularism a policy that is specific to France, and unknown in the US?
Not at all. America is also a secular country. Except that the US practices a secularism that is inverse to French laïcite. In the US, churches are protected from legistature of the state. In France, the state organization can not be affected by religion.
In your opinion, do you consider it impossible to be both French and Jewish?
I know that many of my fellow citizens are asking themselves if they should leave France. My belief is that it’s not their responsibility to leave, but rather antisemites—those “skinheads”—who should leave.
Bernard-Henri Lévy with Charlie Rose: Why Judaism MattersWednesday, January 11, 7:30 pm
92 Y, Lexington Avenue at 92nd St, New York