Bernard-Henri Lévy
Bernard-Henri Lévy

‘Genius’ author counteracts threats with Jewish strengths

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy says he is concerned about the state of Judaism in the United States due to uncertainty in the presidential transition and the sobering fact that “America is certainly not this safe haven from anti-Semitism that some believe.”

Lévy, who has made the fight against anti-Semitism one of the themes in his many books and lectures, said the growth of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement on the West Coast and a rise in Holocaust denial are threats to American Jews.

Speaking to an audience of about 300 on Jan. 16 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, Lévy said he was dismayed by President Barack Obama’s refusal to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements and worried about the tenor of political discourse as President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

“I believe that there could be a very bad trap closing itself on the Jews of America with the recent political events,” Lévy said. “I would warn Jews about what happened to be one of the last political acts of the last president and what happens to be the tone of the relationship for the Jews with the next president.”

But Lévy, 68, who is one of Europe’s intellectual superstars and a political activist who arrived in the Bay Area days after filming a documentary in Mosul, Iraq, said he is not pessimistic because he knows 21st-century Jews are strong enough to fight back with an affirmative form of Judaism that was missing throughout much of Jewish history.

The concept of affirmative Judaism — of Jews intellectually and physically standing up for themselves after centuries of believing that Judaism was “nothing else other than suffering,” he said — is a theme in “The Genius of Judaism,” his latest book and the basis for much of his JCC lecture.

Throughout history, he said in the book and the lecture, Jews have spent more time reacting to anti-Semitism than focusing on the intellectual strength they can derive from the study of their sacred texts. Such reactive thought was particularly prevalent in the decades after the Holocaust, he said.

“Positive and affirmative Jewishness gives to the Jews all over the world an absolutely new form of strength,” he said. “The Jews were victims when they were intellectually weak. The Jews were pogromized when they tried to hide in the margins of society.

“The birth of this calm but proud affirmative Jew is a shield, a real shelter and a real strong line of defense against the anti-Semite.”

Lévy’s lecture focused on other themes in his latest book, including his endorsement of secular Judaism and his staunch support of Israel — whose democracy he compared favorably to that of the United States and France, his homeland.

After an hour of mostly metaphysical and intellectual musings, Lévy drew his first applause of the evening when he connected his beliefs to his steadfast support for Israel. Even for Jews who feel no connection to Israel, the Jewish homeland is essential, he said.

“Even the worst Jewish anti-Zionist, even those who scream when Israel pretends to be their [protector], they all need the State of Israel,” he said.

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.