There is no American equivalent of Bernard-Henri Lévy. Known as “BHL,” he is among the last of a quintessentially French breed, the 20th century intellectuel engagé. As a “nouveau philosophe” disenchanted with Marxism, communism and the excesses of 1968, when civil unrest roiled France, Levy has enjoyed a long and theatrical career since the 1970s, embracing journalism, philosophy, film and an outspoken advocacy for human rights.
His latest book, however, returns to a subject that has animated him throughout his life: Judaism.
At its core, "L’Esprit du Judaïsme" is a reflection on the role of Judaism in the evolution of France, a passionate argument that places the former at the heart of the latter. The book, which will be published in English by Random House this September, ultimately appears amid a considerable anxiety. France is currently home to Europe’s largest Jewish community, but in an era of jihadism and an increasing anti-Semitism, many in that community have begun to question whether the country can truly sustain a robust and viable Jewish future. In 2015, for instance, a record number of French Jews — approximately 8,000 — emigrated to Israel, the latest installment in a recent trend. Anti-Semitic violence, such as an attack on the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in January 2015 and a machete assault on a Jewish teacher in Marseille last month — is on the rise.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Lévy defended the crucial role of Jews in France — past, present and future.
Your book is titled "L’Esprit du Judaïsme." To what extent does this topic have an urgency for the world — and especially for France — in 2016?
There is a state of emergency regarding Judaism today. In other words, there is a growing and increasingly strong anti-Semitism not only in France, not only in Europe, but all over the world, including America. The old plague that is anti-Semitism is clearly growing. What I believe is that the only way to face it is not to keep in the shadow but to express the values of Judaism in full light. Not to withdraw to a minimal Judaism compatible with a minimal Republican idea, but the opposite, a Judaism that accepts its own destiny, which is to complicate itself, to sharpen itself, and never to simplify. In the 1930s, there was a whole tendency in modernity for Jews to say ‘okay, let’s forget the whole of Jewish thought. Let’s keep the Torah because the Torah is accepted by the rest of the world, but that’s it.’ My belief is that the more minimal Judaism becomes, the more reduced it is, the more vulnerable and weak the Jews will be in the fight against anti-Semitism. The only way to confront anti-Semitism is to accept the destiny of Judaism, which is the exactly opposite of withdrawing and hiding.
One of the most provocative portions of your book is the chapter where you essentially reclaim the notion of “La France Juive” from Édouard Drumont, one of the most virulent anti-Semites of the 19th century. Jews, you argue, were fundamentally involved in the creation and consolidation of France as we know it today, and that’s something the French should be proud of. How would you describe the compatibility of Jewishness and Frenchness?
I don’t necessarily “reclaim” the notion of “La France Juive” — it’s something of a middle finger to Drumont and to all anti-Semites. My thesis in the book is that it's a glorious fact that France is interwoven with Jewish thought. The two are impossible to separate. The building of France, the construction of its spirit, the history of the French Revolution and of the ancien régime — all of this is closely linked to Jewish thought in a way that is profoundly underestimated in France, especially in the official narrative of French history. Few French know, for instance, that when their kings were crowned, it was in the name of King David and King Solomon. Few French know that the Collège de France, the country's highest institution of scholarship, was established in order to instill the proper teaching of Hebrew. The modern idea of the French Republic — born with Jean-Jacques Rousseau — would not have been built without the constant reference to the kingdom of the Hebrews in the Bible. So I try to make reappear all these Jewish traces lurking beneath the surface of French history. At the end of the day, this is what Manuel Valls, the prime minister of France, said after the Hyper Cacher attack last year. He said: “Sans les Juifs de France, la France ne serait pas la France.” [Without France's Jews, France would not be France.] He said this as a political slogan, but it had meaning beyond his own understanding. Actually Jews were among the key builders of France. And this is what I try to recall, to depict, and to demonstrate.
French secularism has a long history, but secularism as it operates in France today — laïcité — is largely a function of the 1905 law separating church and state, a law that emerged in the context of the Dreyfus Affair. If in some sense that law was meant to protect French Jews by removing religion from public life completely, do you believe that laïcité today can pose a challenge for Jews who might wish to live an observant religious life in France?
No, because Jews in France know that laïcité is historically their friend. Laïcité was a chance for the Jews, a way to defend against the constant stab of the anti-Semite. And they know that. My feeling is that if there were a practice of worshiping that were somehow hostile to laïcité, the Jews would adopt this practice. It’s absolutely doable, to be Jewish in France today. And French Jews, since the time of Napoleon, have erased from their body of thought all that could be in strong conflict with the law of their country. The Muslims have not done it yet. The Christians did it, but only very late. The depth of Judaism does not come into conflict with the idea of the French Republic.
Why is it important to remember what you call France's forgotten Jewish roots at this particular moment in time?
Because if France — Europe in general, but France in particular — decides to ignore this part of its memory, this part of its constitution, this ground in which all Frenchmen are rooted, it will be catastrophic. France will plunge into a sort of neo-paganism, a form of nihilism, a form of collective depression that would be a general disaster. Average French citizens don’t know to what an incredible extent they’re linked to this Jewish tradition, to what an extent they have a debt to the Jews. And to honor that debt is vital for France. If Jews were to go away, as some have started doing already, I think that France would lose a real part of its spirit and genius.
In 2015, approximately 8,000 Jews left France for Israel — the highest number in recent years. But in your book, you write that it’s not time for Jews to leave France. Why not?
Because I think that the Jews are stronger than they think in France. They are stronger than they think, and the anti-Semites are weaker than we believe. That’s one of the main theses of the book. This is a strength of spirit, a strength of values, and a strength of memory. And anti-Semites are weak because they are illiterate, because they are stupid, and because in France there is no equivalent of Maurice Barrès at the end of the 19th century or Louis-Ferdinand Céline in the 1930s, who were anti-Semitic monsters but who were also brilliant writers. We have no equivalent today. If one believes, as I do, in the power of ideas, the fact that the new anti-Semitic wave is unable to seduce any real thinker or intellectual represents a profound feebleness. They scream loudly, but it’s ultimately an empty scream. I’m more optimistic about the situation than the press, especially the American press. They’ve decided that it’s the end. For the moment, I’m much more optimistic.
What incentive would you say French Jews have to stay in France and not to leave for Israel or other places, with the climate as it is today?
Unfortunately, Jews are stabbed in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well. I’m not sure it’s safer to be a Jew in Israel than it is to be a Jew in France, but that’s another issue. There is a Zionist dream, a will to continue to build the state of Israel, and, for those who have this vocation, it has to be done. But France is also a vocation for the Jews. I remain in France because I believe there’s a metaphysical project — some would say “messianic” — to accomplish here, on this soil. To participate in the continued construction of France, and, now, in its redemption … this is a big task as well. There is a profound legitimacy in remaining in France. Those who would make aliyah [Jewish immigration to Israel] because they are Zionists, I respect that. Who knows if I wouldn’t be among them one day. But I would certainly not leave because of fear, because of melancholy, or because of despair.