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A Conversation with Bernard-Henri Lévy

Mitchell Abidor
January 17, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

Shortly after undertaking my review of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s The Genius of Judaism, but before completing it, I was able to interview Lévy before his conversation at the 92 Street Y ( January 11). He arrived late, so the interview, which was conducted in French, was brief. —M.A.

Q: In 1968, during the May events, did your Jewishness say anything to you?

A: Yes, it said something to me, something obscure, indistinct, but strong, since in 1967, during the Six Day War, I went to the Israeli consulate to enlist in Tsahal. I reached Israel a few hours too late, since the war had ended. I’d been gripped by this irrepressible desire. I reached Israel the last day of the war and remained there all summer. Even though my Jewishness was formless, in Israel I felt I was on familiar ground. Something subterranean spoke to me in a surprising way. It was in that way that I was always a Jew.

Q: When the events began in May you participated, right?

A: Yes.

Q: And when the people chanted “We Are all German Jews,” did that touch you?

A: Of course. But what I never chanted was “Palestine Will Win.” Never.

Q: But no one chanted that during May.

A: Yes they did. They chanted it... There was a newspaper at the time La Cause du Peuple . . . [1]

Q: From the Maoist group led by Pierre Victor. . . [2]

A: Pierre Victor, and he later recounted as Benny Lévy [his original name] that there was a North African who sold the paper by shouting, “Buy La Cause du Peuple, the leading antisemitic newspaper in France.” Benny Lévy told him we were anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic.

Q: Any idea why there were so many Jews among the leaders of the events?

A: Of course. Because in Jewish universalism something, when diverted and denatured, opens onto revolutionism.

Q: The other week you wrote in the Times that if you could have a literary gathering you would include Levinas, Rashi, and Chaim of Volozhin. What do these men bring you that someone like Baudelaire, about whom you wrote a novel, doesn’t? Let’s talk about Chaim of Volozhin.

A: A hypothesis about the end of the world. A hypothesis about de-creation, that the world can be de-created every bit as much as it can be created. Chaim of Volozhin gives an analysis of the final possible stage, when the divine goes to the furthest end of its dark forces.

Q: Baudelaire isn’t dark enough?

A: No, I think what’s lacking is precisely that Jewish element that would allow him to understand nihilism.

Q: In The Genius of Judaism, it’s clear that the religion is an essential part of your humanitarian activities. And yet, the Jews who actually read Chaim of Volozhin, who read Rashi, are people we can hardly call humanitarian politically.

A: It depends on which ones.

Q: Let me give you an example: in my neighborhood, largely Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox, they voted almost 80 percent for Trump.

A: Where do you live?

Q: In the depths of Brooklyn

A: I don’t know.

Q: What I mean is that they’re not necessarily a part of Judaism, those humanitarian ideas.

A: I think they are. I think Judaism is as much a relation to the other as it is to oneself. I think it’s more a relation to nations than to the community. It’s not a matter of identity, but of alterity.

Q: In your book you speak about BDS, of its strength here, and how it’s a sign of the growing force of antisemitism. Do you know that thirteen states have passed anti-BDS laws, that the Senate has decreed it a form of antisemitism?

A: That’s good.

Q: But if there are these laws, I don’t think we can expect a wave of antisemitism to unfurl over the country.

A: All it means is that the U.S. is awakening and realizes it is threatened by an antisemitic wave. That it’s not only Europe that’s threatened by antisemitism. It’s all to the good if the U.S. has realized that here, on this land, there is also this virulent seed.

Q: You also speak in your book of the “indifference” in France to antisemitic attacks. Really? Despite the enormous march in January 2015?

A: I don’t think there would have been the same march had there only been the attack on Hypercacher (the kosher supermarket attacked in Paris). There was also Charlie Hebdo, but had there only been Hypercacher there never would have been that monster demo. I was struck by how everyone celebrated and honored the victims at Charlie Hebdo -– and this was good, I was the first to do so -– but there was a difficulty in even naming the victims at Hypercacher, in giving their names. That was of much less interest to people.

Q: In the book you speak of the medieval writer Chretien de Troye, who, you speculate, might have been a convert from Judaism, and importance in French literature. The fact is, though, that he was ferociously antisemitic. [3]

A: I know nothing about that. But the fact that a Jew can be antisemitic… it’s a well-known historical fact, certainly for converted Jews like him. But this is an entirely plausible hypothesis about Chretien de Troyes.

Q: Yes, but when you say that it’s as a Jew that he played his role…

A: I don’t say that.

Q: Well, on one page you say it’s possible he was a Jew, and then a couple of pages later you say he was probably a Jew.

A: It’s Rashi, I say, who influenced the French language as a Jew.

Q: Rashi, too: You speak of how important he was in preserving the French language of his time. But he wrote in Hebrew, which Christian Frenchmen certainly didn’t read. How could he have exerted an influence?

A: The only trace we have of the original French of the early second millennium is in Rashi.[4] His commentaries are the conservatory, the memorial of French.

Q: But how did it influence non-Jews who couldn’t read his commentaries?

A: In the two centuries that followed Rashi, there was an interpenetration of abbots, priors, and learned Jews. They spoke to each other, they were in constant conversation. Those who wrote Latin wrote Hebrew, those who wrote Hebrew wrote Latin…

Q: You speak of Proust’s Talmudism and in support of it you cite the anti-Semitic novelist and pamphleteer Céline, who hated Proust’s style, which he considered needlessly ornate and complicated. He called it Talmudic as an insult.

A: Of course

Q: It’s difficult to take Céline as a reliable source for saying Proust was Talmudic.

A: Of course, I give the complete translation about Céline’s feelings about Proust’s style, but all that means is that within his rabid antisemitism he perceived the Talmudic nature of Proust’s writing. To condemn it, but he noticed it.

Q: You say that there isn’t one single Jew who doesn’t think of Israel as an eventual asylum. Well, you’re sitting across from someone who doesn’t, so it’s not all Jews.

A: You don’t think so. I say there’s not a Jew who doesn’t think so, even if he refuses to speak as Jew or refuses the least bond with Israel. He can claim as much as he wants to be foreign to that idea, but Israel’s existence, in the shadows, silently, has him stand upright in the clearing of being. Even those most hostile to Judaism. Unbeknownst to them, this is what occurs.

Q: So even if I don’t know it…

A: Yes. There are so many things that animate us that we don’t know about, that act all unknown to us. Humans aren’t aware of all that animates them, al that weakens them, and all that makes them stronger. The insurrection of your Jewish name makes you stand more solidly in being.…

(Lévy and I clearly did not hit it off. Nevertheless, I handed him my copy of his book Le Siècle de Sartre and asked him to autograph it. He took the trouble to write something personal, which surprised me. The second half was illegible, but it began, “A Mitch Abidor, Plus juif qu’il ne le pense: To Mitch Abidor, more Jewish than he thinks.” I know precisely how Jewish I am; that it doesn’t fit Monsieur Lévy’s definition changes nothing in that.)

[1] In fact, La Cause du Peuple became the newspaper of the Maoists of the Gauche Prolétarienne months after the events of May 1968.

[2] Pierre Victor (1945-2003) was born and later returned to his original name of Benny Lévy. After being the most important Maoist leader in France, he was Sartre’s secretary and ended his days as an ultra-Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem.

[3] The French Wikipedia page for Chrétien de Troyes includes the following quote about Jews, that they are “”felons who must be killed like dogs.”

[4] Rashi’s writings include translations of some 2,000 Hebrew and Aramaic words, mostly into the Old French of his time.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.