On Philosopher Bernard Henri Lévy

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This past Saturday night I heard a lecture by French philosopher Bernard Henri Lévy about his new book The Genius of Judaism. I attended because he’s the most influential French intellectual alive today, and I wanted to hear his voice. I also went because I know that his Jewishness is more intellectual than religious, we were born in the same year — he in North Africa, I in South Africa — and because, apparently, we both still struggle to understand what it means to be Jewish in the modern world. I thought I might learn something.

It was also interesting timing for me. I’m currently preparing a talk on the rise and fall of apartheid, which can’t be done without bringing in the role of Jews in the anti-apartheid movement, periods of virulent anti-Semitism during apartheid, and the complex, multi-layered relationships among the apartheid government, the State of Israel, the PLO, and the African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela. It’s all very complicated and has forced me to grapple once again with these difficult issues.

When I arrived at Campbell Hall at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the auditorium was filled to capacity. There were only a handful of seats left at the back, which suited me fine. There was also no police presence in evidence, and I wondered whether this was the kind of event that Islamic terrorists or home grown alt-right extremists might visit.

My paranoia was wasted — nothing happened. But I did, indeed, learn something. I didn’t always agree with, or even fully understand his points, but here’s what I took away.

On Anti-Semitism: There are two kinds of anti-Semitism — both based on a hatred of Jews for having done something bad to some other weaker person or people. The first kind, the ancient one, is retribution for being “Christ killers,” with layers of unkind stereotypes added over time. Until the last several years, Lévy thought this kind was history, and that the second type — anti-Zionism, for the evils Jews commit against the Palestinian people — had taken hold.

Like most of us, he now recognizes that along with this modern version, the old stereotype is back, too. The pattern followed in these anti-Semitic stories is this: the Jew despises the Other; the Other responds in a way that shows him to be a bigger person, and bestows gifts on the Jew — which turn out to be poisonous. His example from America today: Donald Trump met with Jewish donors last December and told them he won’t ask for their contributions because he knows they won’t support him. Then when he’s elected, he offers a gift: the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. It’s a poison gift: while Trump doesn’t say it, others have pointed out that it will so enrage Muslim sensibilities that it could well give rise to the next intifada, or worse.

On Israel: Lévy may disagree with Israeli policy, but he loves the country — and not because of ancient history or religious belonging. Democracy doesn’t materialize out of nothing. When the USSR broke up and Eastern European countries became independent, there were glimmers of democracy, but they died. During the Arab Spring, there were glimmers of democracy, but they died. After 9/11, the Patriot Act suspended many of our own democratic norms, and the same thing has happened in France. But Israel, born out of sand and the dregs of the earth who came with nothing, somehow managed to create a democracy, and though it has been at war for 70 years, never in that time has Israel suspended the laws of its democracy. Some will take great issue with this statement, but I am simply the reporter, and we must all agree that there are many truths.

On the Holy Books: Christianity and Islam also read the Jewish Bible. There’s nothing about it that sets Judaism apart. What sets it apart are the Commentaries, which explore the questioning and the thought process of the Jewish sages throughout the ages.

On Being Jewish: The question facing the modern Jew is philosophical rather than religious. What is the Jewish way of being in the post-Holocaust world, Lévy asks, when the God of our forefathers, the God of the Old Testament, has turned His back and walked off to manage other parts of His universe? We are alone — trying to find God is not the answer. The answer, he says, is knowledge, and study, and questioning, to turn on an inner light. The answer is to go, as Jonah was instructed, to Nineveh, to the places of evil and hatred, and to bring a message of mercy and forgiveness. (In a twist of historic irony, the Ninevah of the Bible is the city of Mosul, Iraq. Can there be any doubt that history repeats itself?) My interpretation is that the only way to help ourselves is to focus on others.

What sticks with me most, and perhaps allows me to face my own sense of an absent, disappeared God with equanimity, is that this brilliant and thoughtful man has reached my conclusion. The God of ancient times is absent. We are alone. But perhaps we have always been alone. The goal is not to search for Him, but to search for ourselves.

Photo: Michaelagelo/Sistine Chapel/Wikimedia Commons