Born into a Jewish family in Algeria in 1948, Bernard-Henri Lévy was raised in Paris, where he enrolled in the elite Ecole Normale in the embattled year of 1968. It was a dramatic historical moment. Revolutionary illusions and intellectual inflation filled the streets, while student uprisings were erupting from Japan to Germany, and from Berkeley to Harvard. That same year witnessed the crushing of the Prague Spring when the tanks of the Warsaw Pact rolled into Czechoslovakia, postponing the end of the Soviet Empire for two more melancholy decades. It was a time when rebellion and totalitarianism collided, and that experience ignited debates which defined French intellectual life for years to come.
Lévy has been a prominent member of that intellectual life for half a century. After a visit to Mexico in 1969, the precocious young author published an article in the legendary Les Temps Modernes, the journal edited by Jean-Paul Sartre. A book on Bangladesh followed in 1973, and in 1977 his Barbarism with a Human Face appeared, establishing him as one of the “New Philosophers,” those members of the radical student movement generation who broke with their Marxist past. Their demonstrative rejection of Soviet dictatorship, a French version of neo-conservatism, was a twist in the history of the Cold War. Still today, detractors on the left have not forgiven these new philosophers for their abandonment of the Communist utopia.
A career of enormous productivity ensued. Lévy’s French Wikipedia entry lists no fewer than forty-two books, ten films (acting in some, producing others), and two plays. Nor should one omit his extensive travels, and frequent and prominent participation in international affairs as a cultural diplomat in, for example, Pakistan, Bosnia, Mexico, Afghanistan, Israel, Libya, and Ukraine. His American Vertigo: In the Footsteps of Tocqueville, initially a series for the Atlantic, collected his impressions from a trip through the United States (Garrison Keillor reviewed it harshly in the New York Times, to which Christopher Hitchens responded by lambasting Keillor in Slate ).
BHL, as Lévy is known in France, is nothing if not well connected, a benefit no doubt of his education in the exclusive stratosphere of the French upper crust. His curriculum vitae reads like a list of the inhabitants of the Elysée Palace, the official residence of the presidents of France. As early as 1980, soon-to-be President Francois Mitterrand served as a witness to his second marriage. In 2002, Mitterrand’s successor, Jacques Chirac, sent him on a cultural mission to Afghanistan; in 2011, he advised Chirac’s successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, on French policy in Libya; and in 2016, he represented Francois Hollande at the memorial service for the Babi Yar massacre in Ukraine. He is as close as one can get to power in France without winning an election.
Yet for all this public prominence, he has not been spared criticism as an intellectual, for moving too quickly, treating ideas too lightly, and making connections too casually. His writing can seem facile, his assertions peremptory. Engaging with his work, one should distinguish these sorts of inadequacies, plausible targets of criticism, from ideologically driven condemnations of his principled anti-totalitarianism and advocacy for human rights. The judgment that his writing style is wrong does not make his political enemies right.
Lévy’s new book, The Genius of Judaism, is in various ways a symptomatic work, for better or worse. For the worse: the book is irritatingly characteristic of a genre—public intellectual writing as a vehicle for self-promotion. (The similar case of Slavoy Zizek’s writings comes to mind as a comparison.) It might have been better titled The Genius of BHL, for all of its autobiographical congratulation.
The reader is given snapshot accounts from the author’s lustrous bildungsroman, the memories of his family, the debates at the university, his famous friends, and his travels to the world’s troubled spots. But BHL refuses to linger long enough anywhere to let us examine his material carefully and complexly. Before a thought develops, we are whisked away to another important scene. The overheated prose, presumably well translated, makes matters worse, with run-on sentences punctuated with exclamatory outbursts, a style made up of half Thus Spake Zarathustra, and half Jacques Brel. Writing like this is what gave “French theory” a bad name. One wishes that Random House—or Grasset in Paris—had had the courage to insist that an editor plow through the manuscript with a bold read pen. The book reads as if it had been extemporaneously dictated, transcribed and sent to press, untouched by human hands. Someone was asleep at the wheel in the publishing industry.
Yet if one looks beyond the annoying prose and the self-centeredness of the author—and these are big “ifs,” no doubt—one can recognize The Genius of Judaism as nonetheless a significant book because it is symptomatic of a very serious matter—the fragile and vulnerable status of French Jewry today. As already noted, Lévy is well connected in the French political power elite and, when all is said and done, he has enjoyed great success in the intellectual culture industry. He is, one might say, comfortable, or he ought to be.
Yet the first half of The Genius of Judaism, which has very little to do with anything that one might recognize as elements of the Jewish religious tradition, betrays profound discomfort and anxiety, as it stakes out a defensive posture against the burgeoning anti-Semitism in the country that gave the world the Dreyfus Affair. The National Front is on the rise, and matters are even worse in the Muslim banlieues. In contrast to traditional forms of Christian religious anti-Semitism, Nazi racial anti-Semitism, and left-wing anti-capitalist anti-Semitism, Lévy identifies new forms of a “continuously mutating virus, an incurable form of madness,” now reorganized around anti-Zionism, Holocaust denial, and a manipulated competition among victim groups.
Some of Lévy’s referents are parochially French; the allusions to Roger Garaudy and to Jean Genet would have benefited from some explanation for a general American audience, but the large picture is familiar enough from the United States, where swastikas have returned to university campuses as part of the campaign against Israel. Of course, one can distinguish between critiques of Israeli policies and anti-Semitism. However that borderline, so crystal clear in theory, disappeared in practice during the demonstrations around the Gaza War when protestors attacked Parisian synagogues. Had they tried to storm the Israeli embassy, one might have disagreed with their politics and tactics, but nonetheless understand their message as directed against certain state policies. However, by attacking synagogues, they made it clear that they see Jews as their enemies: this anti-Zionism really is anti-Semitism.
No wonder that the numbers of Jews leaving France to immigrate to Israel have been strong in recent years, so much so that, after the 2015 terrorist attack at a Jewish market in Paris, former Premier Manuel Vals decried the new anti-Semitism, stating: “If 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”
This is the context one should bear in mind when reading The Genius of Judaism. The book is evidence of an anxiety—but one that Lévy tries to mask. While he concedes the frequency of anti-Semitic acts, he argues that it is not really all that bad. “I do not believe that France is on the verge of a new Kristallnacht or that the time has come for the nation’s Jews to pack their bags and leave. There are differences, major differences, between the situation in the 1930s and that of today. And those differences give us reason to keep our cool and to hope.”
His reassurance that it is not yet Kristallnacht in Paris sounds less convincing than he evidently hopes, especially when he mounts a particularly strained argument. In order to prove that French Jews enjoy a fundamental security—despite the threat that Vals denounced—Lévy paints a picture of a “Jewish France”; French Jews should not feel endangered because France, so he wants to claim, is fundamentally Jewish. His proof: the eleventh-century Bible commentator Rashi drew on medieval French vocabulary; the early modern political theorist Jean Bodin invoked the Hebrew Bible; and the great modernist novelist Marcel Proust, son of a Jewish mother, enriched French literature.
One can admire Lévy’s creative intellectual history (and his discussion of the anti-Semitic novelist Céline’s rivalry with Proust is compelling indeed), but invoking these legacies as a defense against contemporary anti-Semitism strikes this reviewer as a clear sign of desperation. The public intellectual’s appeal to a glorious history of writing from Rashi to Proust is very much an exclusively intellectual answer and an elite one at that. It has nothing to offer to the likes of Ilan Halimi, the French Moroccan Jew, a street-level cell phone salesman in Paris, kidnapped, tortured, and killed in in 2006 because his abductors assumed they could extort his family, known to be Jewish and therefore presumed to be rich.
The second half of The Genius of Judaism heads off in another direction altogether, building on Lévy’s idiosyncratic reading of the Book of Jonah and the prophet’s mission to speak to the city of Nineveh. With characteristic modesty, Lévy reads himself into that prophetic calling, where he finds his obligation to denounce injustice and defend universal human concerns. That agenda frames his discussion of his support for the French initiative in Libya that ended the Ghaddafi regime. That episode in particular has come to represent the failure of western engagements in the Arab world, but Lévy’s retrospective defense of his advocacy is convincing: “the spectacle of columns of tanks speeding toward a city—Benghazi—with the intention of destroying it” made “nonintervention unthinkable.”
What happened subsequently, after the fall of Ghaddafi, can be attributed to failed follow-through, especially the vacuity of America’s “leading from behind” policy. That story deserves a longer treatment elsewhere. As far as the initial decision to intervene goes, however, Lévy makes a strong case by contrasting the engagement in Libya, which toppled a murderous dictatorship, with the results of non-intervention in Syria, including the ruins of Aleppo and millions of refugees on the move.
The Genius of Judaism is of interest because of these interlinear political reflections—on French anti-Semitism, on Libya, as well as on Ukraine facing Russian aggression. Connoisseurs of French intellectual history will find some of the vignettes of famous figures intriguing. Yet Lévy’s speculations on Judaism—as tradition, as religion, or as hermeneutics—are less productive.
Francois-René de Chateaubriand’s Genius of Christianity of 1802, to which Lévy’s title refers, deeply informed nineteenth-century romanticism by redefining the standing of religion in the aftermath of the French Revolution. In contrast, The Genius of Judaism is a thoroughly secular book. Religious points of orientation are invoked only as vehicles to undergird the anti-totalitarian paradigm of the new philosophers, formulated decades ago. That anti-totalitarianism is admirable, but this book does not demonstrate its dependency on a particularly religious grounding. Ultimately The Genius of Judaism provides us with little theology and instead fragments toward the intellectual memoir of a prominent public figure, against the backdrop of troubling times for the Jews of France.