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by Mitchell Abidor
Discussed in this essay: The Genius of Judaism by Bernard-Henri Lévy. Random House, 2017, 256 pages.
WHEN BERNARD-HENRI Lévy burst onto the philosophical scene in the late 1970s as the leading voice of repentant young leftists known as the New Philosophers, the phenomenon was something of a mystery here in the U.S. Anti-communism and anti-Marxism were hardly novel or daring notions here, not even from former militants. We had long since had our Louis Budenz, Whittaker Chambers, and James Burnham, so there was really nothing all that striking about fallen Maoists like Lévy, André Glucksmann, or Christian Jambet and their anti-communist jeremiads. Even in France, there was a long tradition of anti-communism and anti-Marxism, and of much higher a level than our own, or indeed that of the New Philosophers. Cornelius Castoriadis, Boris Souvarine, Victor Serge, Raymond Aron, all acutely analyzed and critiqued both Soviet communism and Marxism. They did so minus the bombast and the media support of the new group, and they were by any measure vastly superior to the New Philosophers, who were benefiting from the backlash against May ’68, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the ossification of the Soviet Union.
Despite his initial lionization, Lévy has often been the butt of ridicule that he has brought upon himself. Travelling to Afghanistan and dressing himself up as a mujahid, he wrote about the war there, unstintingly praising the Islamist warlords fighting the Soviets. His book L’Idéologie Française, which placed antisemitism at the heart of much of French political and intellectual life, was pilloried for its abuse of the conclusions of the great Israeli historian of the French far right, Ze’ev Sternhell, whose books he cribbed from mercilessly. Lévy’s foray into filmmaking, the pompous and empty Le Jour et la Nuit, was one of the worst-received films in French film history and was declared by the Cahiers du Cinéma to be the worst film produced in France since World War II. Lévy also covered himself in ridicule when, in his typically omniscient fashion, he cited the philosopher Jean-Christophe Botul’s lectures in Paraguay on Kant in his 2010 De la Guerre en Philosophie. Botul, unfortunately for Lévy, was a fictional philosopher invented by Frédéric Pagès, created to mock the pomposity of actual philosophers, like Lévy.
Yet despite the mockery, he has remained an important presence in French life, advising politicians and omnipresent in the media. Now, decades beyond his sell-by date, he has produced his second book dedicated to Judaism, The Genius of Judaism, a book so devoid of any intellectual value, so full of itself, that it leaves the reader stupefied.
Pierre-Vidal Naquet, the great historian of the classical world, one of the true heroes of post-World War II French political life, a man who courageously defended the Algerian cause and put his life at risk condemning French use of torture during the Algerian War, asked, after reading Lévy’s previous book on Judaism, Le Testament de Dieu: “How can a graduate of the Ecole Normale, with an advanced degree in philosophy… show such contempt for himself and his readers as to inflict such a ‘science’ on them?”
These words are not harsh enough for The Genius of Judaism.
Even Garrison Keillor saw fit to go after Lévy. He famously skewered Lévy’s book on America, American Vertigo, saying that Lévy “is a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore.” Though these words were written over a decade ago, in The Genius of Judaism, sophomoric is still as high as he can reach.
UNSUBSTANTIATED, erroneous, or simply hallucinatory assertions and interpretations flow ceaselessly through the pages of the book. The easiest fish to shoot in this barrel are his observations about America. According to Lévy “there were pogroms organized by black racists in Boston and, in August 1991, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.” I have no recollection of any pogrom in Boston, and have found no mention of one anywhere, so perhaps Lévy can enlighten us as to when it occurred. As for the events in Crown Heights, they were, in the first case, not a pogrom, which is a word Lévy uses all too lightly: no Black Hundreds stormed down Eastern Parkway. Nor, in fact, was it organized. It broke out after two black children were struck by a hasidic driver and word quickly spread that the Hatzoloh ambulance on the scene had left the black children, one of whom died, while taking the Jewish driver of the fatal vehicle to the hospital. The ugliness of the three days of rioting cannot be denied (I, in fact, worked at the time in the hospital where the Yankel Rosenbaum died when the resident physicians who treated him failed to notice stab wounds in his back, so I know saw just how bad it was), but to compare what happened in Crown Heights to Kishinev is an abuse of language.
Lévy also tirelessly and tiresomely hammers away at the presence of Holocaust denial here -- a marginal presence at best -- and misleadingly uses the present tense when writing that the “United States has the dubious privilege of hosting the Institute for Historical Review,” the center of Holocaust denial that imploded several years ago and exists as a mere rump organization, lacking the means to publish a journal or host international conferences.
It goes without saying that for Lévy the crimes and misdeeds of the BDS movement are proof of the evil eating away at America, bending our country’s life to its will. In fact, it is a movement that one could only wish had the power Lévy grants it. That thirteen states have bills banning it, that the Senate has passed a clearly unconstitutional law -– under cover of attacking antisemitism -– banning anti-Israeli speech and activities like BDS, are unknown to M. Lévy. To top it off, based on a statistical sample of a handful of conversations, he believes that Americans are clamoring for an end to U.S. support for Israel. Ever the condescending know-it-all, Lévy feels obliged to remind our misguided selves “that the country might have a strategic interest in defending the island of stability in the Middle East that is Israel.” As if the overwhelming majority of politicians, commentators, and people in America don’t feel the same -- and as if this defense of Israel were something novel.
RASHI, the medieval French sage, is honored for, “ennobling the French language and making possible, a century later, the Perceval and Lancelot of an author whose first name was Christian but who was probably Jewish.” Rashi, I need not remind readers, wrote in Hebrew, but “ennobled” French by including terms current in the French of the 12th century in his commentaries -- and so was, says Lévy, was a source of French literature, although Rashi wrote in a language that few of his countrymen could have read. As for the “Christian” in question, the writer Chrétien de Troyes, Lévy says he was likely a Jew because his name once appears as “Chretien li Gois,” which Levy accepts as meaning “the goy,” i.e., a convert (don’t ask me about the supposed the connection between goy and convert), but which is more likely a variant spelling of a town in the region. Chrétien would have been a strange Jew, having described Jews in his Grail as “criminals who should be killed like dogs.” The Genius of Judaism has no footnotes, however, so we are left wondering which “whole school of medievalists … asserted he was a member of the powerful Jewish community of Troyes.” Certainly many converts have surrendered to antisemitism, but it takes quite a refined mind to then turn the antisemitic convert into a Jewish courier of a nation’s culture.
Let us not omit Lévy’s insistence that the source of the French republic was not the inspiration of the Romans and the Greeks, but rather the Hebrew Bible, a claim that Lévy bases on the writings of a couple of minor figures whole ignoring the omnipresence of Roman ideals, characters, images, and even names among the men of the French Revolution. For Lévy, in his fantastic universe, the occultation of the Hebrew roots of the Republic was nothing but “deceit, carried out by every light of French republicanism, be they Gambetta, De Gaulle, or the Jew Mendes France.” One can only wonder if Lévy, for all his vaporing, ever read the Bible -- for a man who can assert that the ancient Hebrews set the French a “calmer and gentler” example than the Greco-Romans has missed huge chunks of the catalogue of slaughters that is the Hebrew Bible.
In his attempt to salvage his absurd idea of the Jewish Biblical roots of French politics, he speaks of how the French royal houses “never ceased to affirm their kinship with David.” Is Lévy not aware that Jesus is supposed to have descended from David? When Kings Clovis and Pepin traced their roots to David, it was not to boast of Jewish ties or out of philosemitism, but rather to connect themselves to the royal blood that flowed in Jesus’ veins.
Lévy’s twisted vision of French history even has him attacking Napoleon I for assembling the Great Sanhedrin, where, as he puts it, Napoleon, “has the nerve to ask the seventy-one rabbis and Jewish notables…if the law of the republic is compatible with theirs.” There is certainly an ambiguity in this, but it was done to finally put to rest any lingering suspicions about the newly emancipated Jews. That Bonaparte emancipated the Jews in every country he conquered doesn’t fit Lévy’s narrative, so it is omitted.
I COULD CONTINUE almost endlessly, and a thorough critique of everything wrong in The Genius of Judaism would require a book as long as the original. There’s a dubious statement on almost every page.
In his chapter on “How Modern Judaism Abolished the Idea of Revolution,” he presents the Jews and philosemites among his fellow New Philosophers as proof that Jews and Judaism put an end to the foolish messianism of revolution. But for every Glucksmann, Lévy and Finkielkraut, there is an Alain Krivine or Daniel Cohn-Bendit who has stayed the course. He quotes Michel Foucault as saying in 1977, “You know that it is the very desirability of revolution that is the problem today… [i]n the form that we desired it, it has become an impossibility; in the form that turned out to be possible in China and Cambodia it is no longer desirable.” Conveniently omitted is any mention of the fact that within a year Foucault would famously support the Iranian revolution of Khomeini.
Lévy dishonorably attempts to enlist for his religious cause the uncompromising revolutionary Pierre Goldman, who Lévy asserts was returning to Judaism at the time of his assassination in 1979, when in fact he never ceased being a Jew. What return is needed for a man who titled his autobiography Dim Memories of a Polish Jew Born in France? Lévy also speaks dishonestly of how the former leader of French Maoism Robert Linhart “chose” silence. He “chose” silence if a mutism resulting from having gone mad is a choice.
That Lévy is acting in bad faith is proved in large ways and small. His insistence that Proust’s writing is “kabbalistic” is so divorced from reality as to be worrisome. That Proust’s prose is complex and ornate is undeniable, but it is utterly gratuitous to tack the word “kabbalistic” on to it. As proof of the influence –- not of his Jewishness, which is undeniable, but of Judaism on Proust’s masterpiece -- Lévy quotes a letter from the rabid Jew-hater and Proust’s competitor as France’s great 20th century writer, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who asserted that In Search of Lost Time “is ‘designed’ and ‘built’ like a Talmud.” Céline hated Proust’s writing, and his Jew-hatred was so severe that he even insisted the pope was really a Dutch Jew. Hating Proust, there could be no worse curse he could find for him than to describe his writing as Talmudic, hence nonsensical. Playing fast and loose with his sources, as Lévy is so often wont, he omits this little caveat.
Perhaps most egregiously, Lévy writes that “in all of the world’s democracies, there is a limit condition that, when encountered, appears to cause them to lean toward declaring a state of emergency… That limit… is war.” In Israel, on the other hand, “[f]reedom of opinion and assembly [are] scrupulously respected even in time of war.” In this case only one word is possible to describe Lévy, and that’s khutspe. Lévy is a vocal defender of the state of emergency in France that, among other things, bans demonstrations. He advocates it, and then mocks France for not being like Israel, which has not imposed such a ban (at least for Jews). He is the boy who kills his parents and then asks for mercy since he’s an orphan.
LEVY IDEALIZES Israel, and after speaking of the failures of assimilation in the U.S. and France dares to say that “I know a country that has found a solution to the problem of multiethnicity, not a perfect solution but better than in France or the United States.” The answer, of course, for Lévy is Israel, “where citizens of Arab origin may openly advocate the disappearance of the very state that guarantees them a life that three quarters of them… would not trade at any price for a life in a neighboring state.” Does Lévy truly believe that Israeli Arabs are anything but second-class citizens? And why travel to Israel to find a successful multi-ethnic state? Why does no one ever mention Canada, where for several years the official opposition party was the Parti Québécois, which had as its goal Quebec’s separation from Canada? Canada, which, with little opposition and great warmth, has welcomed refugees from Syria and Iraq.
I’ve not even begun to critique the religious section of this book, full of pretentious folderol from a man who neither reads Hebrew nor is a practicing Jew. It is little but bombast and self-promotion. Indeed, The Genius of Judaism is the work of a man lost in love for his own voice, for his own self, whose media success has enabled him to delude himself that he has something valid to say and, even more, is a providential figure to whom the world needs to pay heed. If the words “I” and “me” were erased from his vocabulary he would be reduced to silence. He is the Donald Trump of philosophy.
Somewhere in the middle of the book, Lévy makes the absolutely groundless assertion =– one among thousands –- that “I do not know of a single Jew in the world for whom the presence of Israel is not a promise –- perhaps a promise deferred, but a promise nonetheless.” I look forward to the day I meet BHL, so that he will not only know of, but know a Jew for whom Israel is not a promise. If he’d like, I can provide him with a list of Jews of my acquaintance who also deny Israel is a land of promise. Let him speak for and embarrass himself, but leave the mass of Jews out of it.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books include Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society. His translations of the poetry of Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems and Others, published by NYRB Poetry.
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.