The celebrity polemicist on the resurgence of anti-Semitism, an Arab brand of fascism, and how the election of Obama could reconstitute the grand alliance of Jews and African Americans.
Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism appeared in September, and—as with his previous book, American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville—the nastiest reviews tend to come from Lévy’s fellow leftists. Not quite a memoir and not quite a manifesto, Left in Dark Times maps out in broad swaths the territory that Lévy insists the left in both America and France should take up together. The brothers in democracy, along with others particularly in Europe, must avoid the gaping pitfalls that lie before them: anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and anti-interventionism. Particularly where fascism appears among Islamists or elsewhere, it must be denounced and attacked. If fascism, or for that matter brutality of any sort, appears in the developing world, anti-imperialism must not interfere with the denunciations or immediate calls to intervene, as Lévy believes has happened in Darfur.
Left in Dark Times, then, is a meditation on the soul of the left, bursting at its margins with nostalgia for a left that never lived up to its ideals. One particularly notable section is Lévy’s deconstruction of anti-Semitism, which the New York Times Book Review’s Sam Tanenhaus called a most elegant summary. What makes anti-Semitism so insidious and persistent, Lévy writes, is that it always piggy-backs on some other tendency, one that is socially admired, such as anti-imperialism. It is also supported by the notion that when two groups are suffering, one must get the greater share of sympathy—e.g. Palestinians over Israelis. Lévy calls this “competition between victims.”
A particularly contemptible example of this to Lévy, as we discuss below, was when Jimmy Carter published his tome, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, and met with senior Hamas leaders on the thirty-year anniversary of his hailed Camp David Accords. Lévy denounced the visit in the Wall Street Journal as Jimmy Carter’s “sad end.” “The problem,” Lévy wrote, was not that Carter met with Hamas, but “the spectacular and useless embrace he exchanged with the senior Hamas dignitary, Nasser Shaer, in Ramallah.” As he notes below, when it comes to meeting with contentious groups like Hamas, “there are ways, and there are ways.”
Denunciations like these are where Lévy differs most starkly with the American left, which sees military campaigns by powerful states like Israel as critical to understanding the causes of conflict, tyranny, and terrorism, and supports fewer exceptions to international law from democracies, whether to stem the spread of communism or terrorism. Here’s Scott McLemee discussing Left in Dark Times in The Nation: “We witness a historical re-enactment of the New Philosophical argument that Pol Pot’s regime was the logical culmination of the Marxist revolutionary vision at its purest. Here, the benighted American leftist reader may want to interrupt—to ask if, say, the destabilization of Cambodia by years of carpet bombing during the Vietnam War might be just as germane to understanding the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power as even the most nuanced appreciation of Louis Althusser’s structuralism.”
The question of when and how to meet with the “enemy” of your ally is one not isolated to the work of Lévy; it has been an area of contention in the U.S. presidential election as well. Likewise the question of when and how to use military power. It is precisely his proximity to power that may explain the stark differences between his view and the greater left’s, which is much more habitually suspicious of power, particularly hard power. Left in Dark Times even begins with Lévy taking a call from candidate Nicolas Sarkozy seeking Lévy’s endorsement, with him trying to understand his “reflex” to continue to vote with a left that seems, at times, to revile him. The left, says Lévy, is still his family. Thus, he is still a liberal, but…
When we sat down to speak this summer at the Carlyle, Lévy was wearing one of his expensive white shirts open to the belly button. I began with his family, about which he rarely speaks. He was very reticent, almost whispering his answers. On his childhood? “I never talk about it. I have very few memories of that period.” Why? “It does not interest me. It is repressed. Not repressed… remote. I never think about it. I don’t cultivate it. I was born in a place I did not know till [I was] forty-five years old.” Where? “Algeria. I have a strange memory. And it’s ok. I think the peculiarity of a writer is that he’s born twice or maybe three times. I was born once—which was my [actual] birth, which is not so important. And I was born a second time when I began to write [at twenty-four]. And I will be born a third time when I die, when my books continue on.”
Was his childhood difficult? “No, no. Easy. Gifted. Blessed. With nearly all that you can desire in life.” When did his consciousness of politics arise? “Vietnam War.” His father? “When he was seventeen, he involved himself in the Republican camp of the Spanish [Civil] War. Then, when he was eighteen, he volunteered for the French Army at the beginning of the anti-Nazi war. Then he came, after the defeat of the Free French (Forces Françaises Libres)… and all this time, he was close to the Communist Parties in Algeria and France. In Spain, all these young guys who went to Barcelona were close to the Communists. My father as well.” On whether he regrets this: “No. Number one, it is his business, not mine. Number two, he did not remain so close. He withdrew just after the war. Maybe when I was born, ’48, ’49. But he kept a liberal-leftist sensibility all his life; even when he became a wealthy man, he kept this philosophy.”
That wealth came from a lumber business called Becob; when his father died, Lévy managed the business for a brief period. When it sold in 1997, it earned a reported 750 million francs. Enormous wealth, open shirts, his marriage to the actress Arielle Dombasle, his keenness to challenge the left—what he calls a reflex—often in ways that happen to sound slightly right-wing to his leftist comrades, all add up to a stature that goes beyond writer, past polemicist, past celebrity.
—Joel Whitney for Guernica
Guernica: One of the darknesses you look at in Left in Dark Times is anti-Semitism. What is the state of anti-Semitism today? Is it coming? Going away? Doing both at the same time?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: It’s doing both at the same time. Going away in its old shape. And coming back in its new shape. As always. Anti-Semitism has no fixed pattern; it does not present itself always in the same form. It’s like a virus which changes. What are the workings of its changes, what is its logic is tied, simply, to what is acceptable. It is as if anti-Semitism—without giving it an intelligence, which it doesn’t have—is searching for the precise words or intellectual schemes for allowing itself to be heard, to be supported by the most people. It is as if it were searching for the words which might help it advance, not under the flag of pure evil, but under the flag of an evil aiming sort of in a good direction.
When the Christians were anti-Semitic, they did not just say, We hate Jews. They said, We hate Jews because, unfortunately, they committed the great crime, which was to kill Christ. When Voltaire was anti-Semitic, he did not say, I hate Jews because there is something in their essence which deserves hate; he said, I hate them because they invented Christ.
And this is the sort of tricky way of assembling a big number of people around the speech of hatred. Barring that, you would have very few anti-Semites. So today, all the old processes of legitimacy are dying, are more or less dead. Not so many Christians really think that I killed Christ. Not so many followers of Voltaire really think I am guilty of having invented Christianity. Fewer and fewer believe in the racist identity of the Jews, of which people like me would be the bearers.
But we are facing the installment of a new scheme, with new arguments, new reasons, new logic, trying to make anti-Semitism again acceptable, relatively, according to the general mood of the times. In the chapter you allude to, I try to identify the words with which anti-Semitism must express itself in order to gather under its flag a reasonable number of people, which is a real danger, of course.
Guernica: What are some of those ways?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: There are three: which are denial of the Holocaust, the competition of victimhood, and the demonization of Israel. If you put the three together, you have the portrait of a people, a community, who are guilty of three crimes. Which is the crime of being crooks, moral crooks, inventing or exaggerating their own martyrdom, doing that in order to overshadow others’ martyrdom, and the whole thing in the interest of an illegitimate and deeply guilty state, which is Israel. If you can put it into the brain of some people that Jews are people who exaggerate their martyrdom, who therefore [minimize] the martyrdom of other people, all this with the sole selfish aim of saving Israel, you give to some people some new motives, arguments, reasons for feeding the old hatred.
Guernica: We’ve certainly seen at least one leader in the Middle East, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, attempting to deny or voice doubts about the Holocaust. Are you finding denials of the Holocaust in the United States and in Europe?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: Of course.
Guernica: In relatively mainstream places?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: Mainstream, no. Fortunately, it’s not mainstream. But you have either denial or minimization or banalization. You have some pseudo-scientific historical studies in California, Paris, and London, which say that the gas chambers didn’t exist. And so, yes, you have that in America. The godfathers of this delirium were French, but the focus of the generalization is probably California today, the biggest source of that.
Guernica: The state of California today is the biggest source of…
Bernard-Henri Lévy: Not the [whole] state—you have some little sects, little groups, in California, in Los Angeles; I name them in the book—who are the most efficient sources of popularization of this stupid idea.
Guernica: Is this what Ahmadinejad drew on for his Holocaust deniers conference last year?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: Ahmadinejad relied on some of these people. So you have this in America. Competition of victimhood: we are fed up with the Holocaust; please, there are other things to think [about]. This idea exists in Europe. Of course, it is what Palestinians say. What a lot of people in the Arab world say. And you have that in America and in France. If you listen to some of the radical groups, the African-American groups like that of Farrakhan, it is more or less what they say. Competition of victimhood. You have to choose, Jews or Blacks. You cannot support both. You have to choose your victims. You have to choose your cause.
Guernica: Let me read one quote from your manuscript for Left in Dark Times (page 188). You were writing that Jews had nowhere to go during the Holocaust since Nazis wanted to wipe the very trace of them from the earth. You go on to write, on the other hand, that “a Cambodian could, theoretically at least, flee Cambodia; a Tutsi could flee Rwanda, and outside Rwanda, at least ideally, would be out of the range of the machetes; the Armenians who managed to escape the forces of the Young Turk government were only rarely chased all the way to Paris, Budapest, Rome, Warsaw.” Does that not verge on competition of victimhood?
Competition of victimhood means there is limited space in your brain or mine available for sorrow, and therefore if you use it for the Palestinians, there is nothing left for the Jews, if you use it for the Tutsis, there is nothing left for the Cambodians, and so on.
Bernard-Henri Lévy: No. Of course not. It verges simply on trying to understand the specificity of historical events. What is the peculiarity of one event, the singularity of another one, what allows the comparison, what is out of the comparison. It’s the task of the intellectual, of the historian. I hate competition of victimhood. But I also hate the idea of a big, huge, and empty concept of suffering, one in which you would put an accident, the Holocaust, the genocide of the Tutsis, a murder across the street, an accident on the road, all in the same bag.
Guernica: So at some point, we do have to compare degrees of the victims?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: You have to compare different things. So the Cambodian genocide is different from the Tutsi genocide, which is different from the Armenian, which is different from the Holocaust.
Guernica: But in terms of limited government resources, limited NATO resources, limited UN resources, in a way we do have to spend some time thinking about where the crisis is worst in the world?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: Yes.
Guernica: And that sometimes involves just counting the dead?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: Oui. That’s true.
Guernica: How is that different from competition of victimhood?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: It’s true that in terms of military resources, it is true that the democrats cannot intervene, cannot help all the victims of all the atrocities of the world. This is a truism. It is not competition of victims; it is realism. You cannot—America, France, Germany, Spain, the few democracies in the world—cannot help at the same time the Burmese, the Chinese, Darfuris, and so on. It’s policy. Policy is the art of the possible, what is doable, and so on. Nothing to do with competition of victims.
Competition of victims says something else. Competition of victims relies on the idea that what is scarce is not a scarcity of resources but is the scarcity of the ability of mankind to cry, to sympathize, and to have sorrow. The theory of the competition of victimhood means there is limited space in your brain or mine available for sorrow, and therefore if you use it for the Palestinians, there is nothing left for the Jews, if you use it for the Tutsis, there is nothing left for the Cambodians, and so on.
And this is completely untrue; it is the contrary. The military resource, that—of course—you are probably right. But the capacity for sorrow, the pity capital, these work in a different way. The more you feel sorrow for the Tutsis, the more you will be able to feel for the Jews. The more for this, the more for that. The proof of that is that it is always the same; those who mobilize themselves for Darfur, those who get immediately what is happening in Rwanda, those who see the red light in Burundi, they are always—no exception—those who know exactly what happened with the Holocaust.
I see it in myself. I would probably not have become aware so quickly of what was happening in Bosnia if I didn’t have the memory—and more than the memory: the concern—of what happened in the Holocaust. It’s true. I know that it would have taken me much more time to catch what was going on in Darfur if I’d never had Bosnia, Rwanda, and the Jewish experience in mind. So it is not this or that. It is that because of this. This is why this argument of competition of victims is just untrue and stupid.
This theory of competition of victimhood is running slowly through America, too. And one of the reasons I am so much in favor of [Senator Barack] Obama is that his election might be, will be—because I think he will be elected—a real end to this tide of competition of victimhood, and especially on the specific ground of the two communities, Jews and African Americans, who were so close in the 1960s. And some parts of them have felt the need to separate. The Obama election would reconstitute the grand alliance. And this is the duty of our generation.
Guernica: Do you suppose this is partly why some right wingers have tried to smear Obama’s record on Israel?
Bernard-Henri Levy: Probably. You have some strong forces in America in favor of the rupture of the grand alliance, of blacks and Jews and other minorities. You have some forces with an interest in the war of communities, in the war of memories, in the conflict of victimhood—you have some forces. They go from Osama bin Laden to some anti-black racists, to some anti-Semites, and those want McCain. Those try to do what you said: [smear] Obama’s commitment to Israel.
Guernica: Which you looked into when you were traveling in Chicago for American Vertigo?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: I’m not a cop. I didn’t make any investigation, but it’s obvious.
Guernica: You told me in January that you asked around in Chicago about Obama, as you did about all the candidates and players in the 2004 election, when you were traveling for that book.
Bernard-Henri Lévy: Absolutely. Of course. Chicago is one of the cities where I feel very comfortable in America. I go there from time to time. I have some friends in the Jewish circles in Chicago. They have no doubt; they know Obama well. They have no doubt about his commitment, his record. And myself, I just do what you have to do as far as a politician is concerned. I listen. I read what he says. I cannot find a single sentence where he goes against Israel. And the more recent declarations should fill us with joy when he says he is a supporter of Israel.
Guernica: To go from the present (and perhaps future) of the Democratic party to its past: Jimmy Carter is a different story for you. You’ve strongly condemned his recent trips to the Middle East.
Bernard-Henri Lévy: Jimmy Carter is precisely this type of person who believes that if you have sorrow for one, you can’t have sorrow for the other…
Guernica: Are you saying he meets with Palestinians, but not with Israelis?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: No, but he belongs to this category of people who believe that you have a capital of sorrow, and to have sorrow for the Palestinians means there is nothing left for Israel. He is guilty of—there is no other name for it—fascism when he says that Hamas…
(His wife comes; she is leaving for the airport. He introduces her, walks her out, and returns shortly.)
Bernard-Henri Lévy: Where were we?
Guernica: Jimmy Carter.
Democracy—which has some vibrant elements in the Muslim world, among women, intellectuals, the young generations—needs this work of mourning, this work of sorrow, this work of truth, about the past.
Bernard-Henri Lévy: For forty years, I’ve been in favor of the Palestinian state. A sovereign one. I wrote that for the first time in 1969, forty years ago. But, I am able to recognize, and one should be able to see differences among Palestinians (as among any people) between the democrats and the fascists. The problem with Jimmy Carter is that he is unable to do that. When he treats Hamas as responsible people, Hezbollah as respectable people—both as regular interlocutors—he is just blinding himself and trying to blind us to this main difference, without which we are in dark times. Hamas is a fascist party. They rely on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, they believe in it, they have it in their chart, they have a cult of martyrdom, they have a religion of the blood, a conception of the race and anti-Semitism, by the way, which are the components of a new form of fascism, a new version, which just by its being Arab does not make it innocent. You can have a French fascism and an American fascism; you can have an Arab fascism.
Guernica: I suspect there are still many American liberals who aren’t aware that certain Arab nationalist groups (like the Baath Party) and Muslim groups (like the Muslim Brotherhood) are fascist movements with ties to European fascism. Paul Berman, of course, writes about this here in the U.S. You have written about it, too.
Bernard-Henri Lévy: We Frenchmen know that such a tradition can be vibrant as long as it is not acknowledged, criticized, or mourned. As long as we did not acknowledge the depth of our fascist temptation, it was living in our unconsciousness. It’s a long process. It’s painful. It’s difficult. A people, a nation has to do it. You are criticized when you do it. I was shot down, morally speaking, when I wrote The French Ideology, the thesis of which was that France’s problem was not that it was occupied by a foreign army, but that it held homemade fascism, which was our specialty. We did that. You in America, it took you one century to acknowledge that you have in the depths of your history a very dark side. Segregation. Racism. The Ku Klux Klan. You had to engage in a quasi-revolution in language to get rid of all that. It’s a huge task. Every nation has to do that.
It’s the same for the Arab world. They have the same task. They have to look in their memory. They have to look in their past. They have to mourn their dark temptation. To tell them fairy tales, to help them blind themselves is the worst we can do for them. Democracy—which has some vibrant elements in the Muslim world, among women, intellectuals, the young generations—needs this work of mourning, this work of sorrow, this work of truth, about the past. By which territorial, by which providential privilege would the Arab world be immune to or out of reach of fascism? No way. You had fascism in Japan. You had fascism in Europe. You had fascism in people like Lindberg in America. You had fascism in Latin America and in the Arab world.
Guernica: The problem may be that some Americans hear “Islamo-fascism” for the first time from partisans with a very right-wing agenda. What your book does, what Paul Berman does, and what others have done is to point out that this is a very concrete tie.
Bernard-Henri Lévy: It is not a slogan. It’s a concept.
Guernica: It’s a fact, according to your book, according to Berman.
Bernard-Henri Lévy: It’s a fact. I gave all the historical evidence on one side, ideological evidence on the other, of this tie. It is not a fatal tie. I don’t believe in eminent guiltiness. I don’t believe that there are blessed people or damned people. No angels and no beasts. You have in Islam, like in France, like in Europe, a battle, a very fierce fight, between those who want equality for women, anti-racism, the triumph of human rights, and those who want the values which have been built and popularized by the fascists. It’s a battle.
When I was a very young man, I was told, You should not criticize the Soviet Union because the French Right does it, too. So what. I’m going to bless the killings of millions of people in concentration camps on the frivolous motive that I have some stupid right-wing Frenchman who agrees with me? He will be forgotten. Bush is the same. Bush is nothing. I take rendezvous with you in two years, and nobody will care about Bush. I take rendezvous, and Bush will be opening his library. You will see, it will be a non-event. So I’m not going to sacrifice, I’m not going to let die, I’m not going to betray all these heroic women, courageous young men who fight for democracy because Bush seems to want to help them also. Maybe he does, by the way. I don’t care. Bush is nothing. He was something. He is nothing now.
Guernica: Here’s what Carter said, “If you sponsor an election or promote democracy and freedom around the world, then when people make their own decision about their leaders, I think that all the governments should recognize that administration and let them form their government.” He said later that, to show their good faith, no terrorist acts have been claimed by, committed by, or attributed to Hamas since August 2004. He also said careful engagement could help them become peaceful. But, even if you disagree, how do you fix the long-standing problem in the area without engaging Palestine’s elected leaders?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: Number one: not committed terrorists acts? What about shelling Sderot? I visited Sderot, which is a city near Gaza, a ghost city, [and it was] shelled and bombed all day long by Hamas. Shells and rockets thrown by Hamas-controlled patrols every day. Number one.
Number two: To be elected is a proof of what? It is not a reason to treat them as reasonable people.
And number three, there are ways, and there are ways, to deal with people like Hamas. Ways which weaken them, or ways which reinforce them. You have ways to legitimize them, ways to de-legitimize them. As far as I know, the visit of Carter to the area did not make peace advance one foot. Hamas did not make one step in favor of recognition of Israel first.
Guernica: President Carter said on Charlie Rose that some high-level officials told him that Hamas would recognize Israel within the 1967 borders.
Bernard-Henri Lévy: The fact that Carter said it is not very interesting. I would like Mr. Meshaal, the chief of Hamas, to say that. And which borders? The return to the 1967 borders? Nearly everybody agrees with that. It is more or less the position of Israel.
Guernica: Carter was not alone in noting how the security wall, which goes outside those borders, outside Israeli borders into Palestine, means that it is not, in fact, the current position of Israel.
Obama said he will speak with enemies of the United States. That’s not a problem. Since war is such a horrible thing, it has to be the very last resort—so, of course, he should speak.
Bernard-Henri Lévy: No, no, the wall includes 6, 7, maybe 8%, maximum, of the Palestinian territory. It’s not so far. It’s a negotiation, as far as I know. Israel did not conquer the occupied territories—this is admitted by all historians. Israel was attacked and in the process of defending [themselves], they advanced and occupied the territories. Okay. They said they are ready to give back, let’s say, 90%. It’s a lot, as a basis of negotiation—with people who want your annihilation. It’s a lot. When Germany had Alsace-Lorraine—they said 0% [was what they would] give back. It had to be decided by force. Today, you are a state which was attacked, which—in the process of defending itself occupied a few kilometers… and which is already ready to give back most of it, frankly before negotiating—92, 93, let’s say 90%. Then the negotiation begins. The 92 may become 95%. There can be some exchange of territories, and so on and so on.
Guernica: One of the things that Obama has been criticized for by his opponents is for his statements that he would sit down with the United States’s “enemies” and do exactly what you warn against above—Carter with Hamas—and perhaps legitimize leaders now considered our enemies. Is this problematic for you?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: It’s not quite clear what Obama said on this topic, which is Iran, number one. Number two, going to Tehran, greeting Ahmadinejad, telling him he’s a great man, encouraging him to continue, [this] would be one thing. Going to Tehran, telling Ahmadinejad that he will be out of the [group of] civilized nations if he enriches his uranium, addressing oneself to the civil society of the Persian nation in order to separate them from the regime, [this] would be another thing. I don’t know what Obama will do. Obama said he will speak with enemies of the United States. That’s not a problem. Since war is such a horrible thing, it has to be the very last resort—so, of course, he should speak. But to say what? My feeling is that Obama is not the sort of man who would treat Ahmadinejad as a democrat. I may be wrong. I don’t think so.
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Photo by Alexis Duclos