Bernard-Henri Lévy. Photo courtesy of Hampstead Rose LLC.
Bernard-Henri Lévy. Photo courtesy of Hampstead Rose LLC.
featureIsrael at War

Israel and the world after Oct. 7: An interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy

In America, you have two roots of antisemitism: One is the denial of the Holocaust; the other is a competition of victims. 

There are few men who feel the pain of distant upheavals as acutely as Bernard-Henri Lévy, 75, a French philosopher, filmmaker and public intellectual. Born to a wealthy Sephardic family in French Algeria, he cut his teeth as an international activist in his support for the war of secession against Pakistan by the erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. In the years that followed, Lévy threw himself into cause after cause, advocating eloquently—and influentially—for the Bosnians, the Kurds, the Georgians, the Christians of northern Nigeria and many others. Yet no cause has moved him as passionately, as indignantly, as that of his own people—the people of Israel—who experienced, on Oct. 7, 2023, the worst pogrom faced by the Jews since the Holocaust. In only a few months since the attacks occurred, Lévy wrote what is, arguably, his most personal and heartfelt book, “Solitude d’Israël” (Grasset, 2024).  

Tunku Varadarajan interviewed Lévy at the latter’s home in Paris for the Jerusalem Strategic Tribune, excerpts of which we publish below, edited for clarity.   

Q: You truly believe that Israel is alone?

A: Alone, yes. Alone to fight. Israel is alone. 

Q: How so?

A: When America retaliated against Al-Qaeda after Sept. 11, there was a great coalition around America, standing alongside America. When France retaliated after Bataclan [the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that resulted in 130 dead], there was a strong coalition with France. Now, we have a third democracy hit by terrorism and jihadism. Israel is retaliating in the same way that France did in Mosul, as America did in Afghanistan, but this time, they’re alone. No one is shoulder to shoulder with the Israeli soldiers defending their democracy. That’s a fact. It is the first element of solitude.

Q: Is this the first time that Israel has been alone?

A: No. But it is the first time that any democracy has been struck in such a way, that it’s been raped with such cruelty. And it’s the first time when citizens have been murdered, tortured, violated with such sadism and on such a large scale. So this time, I would have expected world solidarity with Israel. It was logical to expect this. It did not happen.

Even the support of the United States is not as steady as it should be. We saw it at the U.N. Security Council with the abstention of America on March 26. There are signs of an increasing chasm. You see it now in Biden’s statements on the supply of weapons and conditioning delivery to parameters around Israel’s operations. These are bad signs.

Q: How do you explain this rift? Because until now, Israel and America were in lockstep.

A: I never believed that. The pro-Israel lobby in America is not as strong as people say. The anti-Israeli feelings in the public opinion in America has grown very fast. You see what is happening on the campuses, in the universities. So, nothing can be taken for granted. 

Q: Where do these anti-Israeli feelings come from in the United States?

A: In the best case, misinformation. In the worst case, antisemitism.

Q: But why is it happening now? I presume these antisemitic forces have always existed. Why have they had such traction?

A: Let’s take both, successively. The disinformation is happening because of social networks, because of the active efforts of unfriendly countries—the level of disinformation has grown very, very high in the last years. Does it come from Iran? Does it come from Russia? Probably both. I have never seen in America such a level of lies, of dangerous absurdity.

Q: And the antisemitism?

A: In America, you have two roots of antisemitism. One is the denial of the Holocaust. And the other is a competition of victims. 

The denial or minimization of the Holocaust is an attempt to delegitimize Israel. This phenomenon has grown to a very dramatic level in recent years, even in mainstream opinion.

As for the competition of victims, which is to say, the competing claims of those who say, “We are the true victims and there is not enough room in people’s hearts to bear the sorrow of more than one suffering.”

While wokeness pays respect to all minorities, it excludes the Jewish minority. This omission has played a role in this growing antisemitism in America. All of this creates a constellation of factors and yields a result in which public opinion distances itself from Israel and finds it more and more difficult to defend Israel, even in America. I hear that. I see it. I feel it. And it breaks my heart.

Q: Have you experienced it yourself? Do you find that you have tried to defend Israel and you have found the people to have been resistant to your defense?

A: Yes, and it is not even about defending Israel. It’s just telling the truth. Israel is not the guilty party who should be defended. When you say the following on university campuses now, and I have had the experience at one or two, that “Israel is not just the only democracy in the Middle East, but it’s one of the most exemplary in the world,” you get terrible blowback. 

And if you dare to say that it is an idiocy to speak of “apartheid” in Israel, again, at some of the universities where I have been in the last years, people will look at you as if you’re telling a joke.

Q: Does it worry you that so many of America’s young people, particularly the educated young people, are so hostile to Israel? Because these are the people who are going to be running the country in 20 years.

A: Exactly. That’s why I wrote this book. This book is not only a tribute to the victims of Oct. 7; it’s not only a meditation on the new growing antisemitism; it’s also an attempt to give strong replies to the worst accusations against Israel.

Q: Such as?

A: Is Israel a colonial state? No. And I say why this is stupid. Is Israel an apartheid state? No, and I concretely say why it is not. 

I try to reply concretely, precisely, historically, deeply to these sorts of questions and, therefore, to give intellectual weapons to those who are overwhelmed by this growing hatred of Israel. 

This book is an attempt to counter-attack, to confront all these new accusations. 

Q: Is the anti-Israel sentiment that you see in the United States, particularly among the young, qualitatively different from the anti-Israel sentiment you see in Europe?

A: It’s the same.

Q: Isn’t there an Islamic or Islamist component in Europe that is absent in the United States?

A: Not so much. Some people say that, but I don’t agree. For me, the proof that it is not the dominant aspect of the problem is the fact that you have exactly the same sentiment in America where there is not such an important Muslim minority.

Q: But it is nonetheless a problem, is it not? Is it not a problem with Muslim minorities in Europe, the antisemitism? Or do you prefer to believe that the problem has been exaggerated, has been …

A: I don’t prefer, but I believe it.

Q: You believe it.

A: Yes, I believe that the problem of Muslim antisemitism has been exaggerated. There are a lot of Muslims in France who have no problem with Israel. You have most of the Muslims in Israel who are true patriots and who agree with the way that this war has been conducted. There are polls in Israel saying that 75% of Israeli Arabs stand behind the war cabinet.

Q: But the polls are different on the West Bank, right?

A: The West Bank is not Israel. I’m speaking about Israel. I’m speaking about Israeli Arabs who make up 20% of the population, which is significant. And they are, again, real and true patriots. So, I repeat, there is nothing in the fact of belonging to this minority who makes you systematically hostile to Israel. This is a political issue in Europe and in America.

Q: Are you depressed by the way things have evolved after Oct. 7? Or are you not depressed, but combative? Are you energized? 

A: I have no time to be depressed. I believe we all have a role to play in the battle for truth. For me, it’s writing this book; for others, volunteering, and so on. Together, the trend or the tide can be absolutely reversed.

Q: The tide can be reversed, do you think?

A: It can be reversed, yes. And I’m very much committed to playing my part. I’m not depressed. But it’s a real emergency. 

Q: There are parts of the book where you appear to be quite sad. 

A: Yes, maybe I am sad also. And not only for Israel. I’m sad for the Palestinian civilians. And I’m also sad when I think of so many martyred peoples who did not receive even a small drop of the concern we have devoted to the Palestinians. I feel sadness for the Syrians. For those in Darfur. The Uyghurs in China, the victims of terrible wars in Africa.

So I’m also sad about this double standard. I would so deeply like for even a small portion of this sympathy for Palestinians to go to the poor Somali people of Mogadishu or to the Afghan girls who we in the West abandoned to the Taliban. 

And I’m also sad because I think that this war is a concern for the whole world and the whole West. Hamas is not just Hamas. Hamas is a small piece of a large game. Hamas is a magnet which attracts much more powerful actors: Iran, Turkey, Russia, Qatar, maybe China in the back office.

Gaza is the vanguard of a very ugly and dark multinational group of crime. A massive gathering point. A magnet.

Israel is fighting for values which are not only the values of Israel, but are the values of the Americans, the French, and Europeans in general. And also oppressed people, in the Global South, who refuse tyranny; what’s at stake there is the big game.

Q: Would you spell out these values?

A: Freedom, gender equality, representative democracy, citizenship based on multi-ethnicity.

What people ignore today is that Israel is a real multi-ethnic country. Of course, there is a majority of Jews, but Jews are not an ethnicity. First of all, you have Jews, you have Arabs, you have Christians, you have people coming from India, America, Europe, Arab countries, Russia, Ukraine …

Q: These are all the different types of Jews you’re talking about.

A: Yes. And you have also a lot of citizens who are not Jews.

This country is a beautiful one and it’s based on citizenship just like America. This is another of the shared values between you and them, us and Israelis.

Q: Do you use the phrase “Western civilization” to describe Israel? Are you saying that they are defending and standing up for Western civilization? Or would you prefer some other phrase?

A: I would prefer “democratic civilization.”

Because, first of all, it’s universal and because it is embodied by countries and populations who are spread all over the world.

We could say “global West.” And this includes Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, as much as California. But “democratic civilization” for me is better.

And Israel is part of that. 

Q: Is part of Israel’s isolation attributable to the manner in which the war in Gaza is being conducted?

A: Maybe, but I’m not sure at all. The isolation started the very day after Oct. 7, before Israel started the retaliation.

Q: Right. It started on Oct. 8.

A: The first demonstrations of solidarity with Palestinians were a demonstration of solidarity with Hamas. And they happened in London, for example, before the counter-attack of Israel. In France, we had statements condemning Israel before Israel had made one step forward.

Q: Which political leader or country outside Israel offers a model, a paradigm of how to behave and how to respond—on how to support Israel and how to be understanding collaborative?

A: I don’t know. Maybe Germany. 

Q: So Germany has been impeccable, would you say?

A: Impeccable. Scholz is very strongly attacked on the left for this support of Israel, but he stands firm. I would say, Scholz. But again, nothing can be taken for granted.

Q: Do you worry about Biden?

A: I do.

Q: And if I can continue the question, what do you think the implications for Israel are of the American elections coming up?

A: Democrat strategists believe that support to Israel can have a high cost for the candidate Biden. I think that they believe that. 

Q: Were you shocked by the U.N. Security Council abstention?

A: Yes, it was a shock. A shock. It meant that Israel is alone and that the support of America is not a given as you seem to believe. We had the abstention of Barack Obama in December 2016 just before he left office. One of his last acts in office was this abstention and we have this new one just before the election.

Q: I mean, America abstaining on an Israeli resolution is extremely rare.

A: It’s rare. We have gotten accustomed to the idea that there is automatic support of America to Israel. But before 2002, it was not the case. Half of the resolutions of the Security Council against Israel were not vetoed by America.

Q: But everything changed after 9/11.

A: Yes. What people are not aware of is that America has become a strong ally of Israel not because of the Jewish lobby, but because America was hit in its gut by terrorism. So, they took a very strong side. Automatic support for Israel dates from 2002. Before that, the support was half and half. The United States let a lot of anti-Israeli resolutions pass. I say this to stress the fact that the US support is not automatic, and Israel and American Jews should be wary about this. Nothing should be taken for granted.

Q: We haven’t mentioned Trump yet. How is Trump on Israel? After all, he did something that no American president has done. He moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

A: I know, but he’s so unpredictable that I would prefer this move to have been rooted in a solid and consistent knowledge and love of Israel.

Q: And Trump doesn’t have that.

A: No, probably not. 

Q: May I continue to insist that the United States is still a true friend? I do believe it is.

A: Ok. Let’s hope.

Q: But it’s your opinion I seek. I can’t impose my opinion.

A: Let’s hope. Let’s hope. Let’s hope. But Israel, in this war against Hamas, deserves 101% support, not support with conditions. Israel self-imposes conditions and limits in exercising power. Israel does not need to be asked, or to be ordered, to respect conditions.

I saw Kamala Harris saying, “I studied the map of Gaza and the Palestinian refugees of Rafah have nowhere to go.” What does that mean? The Israelis know the ground. They have an evacuation plan. They have a plan for provisional sheltering the innocent civilians, and they know what to do better than the vice president who studied the map for a few minutes or hours.

Israel is not a dictatorship, taking advantage of its own people. It is not an imperialist country trying to invade another country. Israel is a democracy which has a code of engagement and is exceptionally careful in the conduct of war.

Q: Would you agree that there are two countries in this world that do not have the luxury of privacy, that anything they do domestically immediately becomes an international issue? One is the United States and the other is Israel.

A: Sure, I could agree. But the U.S. can afford this luxury, because it is the biggest democracy in the world, the most powerful. The other one cannot afford this position because it is a very small country. People don’t always realize how small and vulnerable Israel is.

Q: Very small.

A: Of course, people don’t always realize that. People have the image of a powerful Robocop country. No, it’s small, surrounded by enemies, threatened by Iran, which is close to acquiring nuclear weapons, and has declared its will to eliminate Israel. So, it’s not comparable to the United States of America, which is, thank God, still the dominant country of the world. 

Q: Do you think part of Israel’s isolation right now is a result of the fact that the prime minister of Israel is a man who is very unpopular, not just domestically, but also globally?

A: Probably. I’m not sure. A part of me thinks that any prime minister of Israel, any other prime minister, would not make much difference. Today, the war is led by three men, one of the three, Benny Gantz, is the biggest opponent of the prime minister.

But if Gantz were the prime minister, I think the war would be conducted the same way, and I fear that the attitude of the rest of the world would remain very similar.

They don’t understand that there is no other option. They don’t see that Israel is taking precautions which are absolutely unique. I have covered a lot of wars in my life. I have never seen an army which is so careful to avoid civilian casualties. This is a fact.

Of course there are civilian deaths and each time it is heartbreaking. But it’s undeniable that Israel takes precautions, which no other army in the world takes.

People don’t want to see this. People don’t want to see that Hamas, on the reverse, deploys a strategy, which is completely new. It’s an underground strategy that puts the civilians on the ground and they bury themselves underground. They use the civilians not just as shields, but like “living bullets.”

The civilians are used by Hamas as weapons. 

Q: Could you elaborate on that?

A: The strategy of Hamas is to kill as many Jews as possible but also as many Palestinians as possible. This is their strategy and their weapon. They use the dead Palestinian corpses as a weapon to augment public support in the West and in the world in general.

Q: Could you say, then, that Israel is playing into Hamas’s hands, that it’s giving them a gift?

A: For sure. Yes, in a way. But what’s the other option?

Q: The other option, in theory, would be not to fight the war.

A: Exactly. And that is not an option, of course. 

Q: How long did it take you to write this book? 

A: I started the book after Oct. 7. The book was born from a promise, from an oath, which I made to the people I met during the first days following the pogrom. Right after October 7, I met hostage families. I met survivors of the kibbutzim. I met witnesses of the horrors which had been committed, and I promised them I would write this book.

Q: When did you go to Israel? 

A: On Oct. 8.

Q: You went the next day.

A: The next day.

Q: You saw the news and you got on a plane?

A: Yes.

Q: From Paris?

A: From Paris. The day after. I tried the very day, on Oct. 7. There were no planes. Not even the possibility of a private plane. Everyone was overwhelmed. So the first possible plane was the day after, and I went.

Tunku Varadarajan: Was it a private plane or commercial?

A: Commercial.

Q: So you flew to Tel Aviv, and then you visited the kibbutz first.

A: No, the town of Sderot first. Sderot on the 8th at night. And the kibbutzim of Kfar Aza, Be’eri, the martyred kibbutzim, on the 10th.

Q: Did you go Nir Oz?

A: Yes.

Q: I went there myself. It was harrowing. I couldn’t sleep for days after that. You came back after that visit and started to write?

A: Yes.

Q: And how long did it take you to finish the first draft?

A: I finished at the beginning of February. So, November, December, January, February …

Q: Is it your first book about Israel?

A: It is.

Q: Your first book about Israel. What took you so long to write a book about Israel? Why did you not write a book about Israel before?

A: Good question. I have had this plan for a long time. I wrote a lot about Israel in my life. Many essays which are scattered, spread in collections. And I always had the plan to write a real book. I could not have imagined that I would write a book under such terrible conditions.

Q: Can I ask you to define your ideology? I would describe you as a humane internationalist, a democrat of the European left. Would that be fair to say?

A: Yes.

Q: Given that position, in the past, in the years before Israel had faced this particular horror, when Israel was a country that seemed invulnerable, would you say that you had some ambivalence about the way Israel was dealing with the Palestinian question? Or were you always 100% supportive?

A: No. For example, in the last 20 years, I have believed that the policy of settlements in the West Bank is a mistake.

And my consistent position has always been that Palestinians should have a state and that the only condition for this is to have a leadership which sincerely accepts Israel. I always said that. And until 2000, the settlements were not a real obstacle. Since then, they’re starting to be a real obstacle to peace. So I’m against that. I said it very often. I wrote very severe pieces against Netanyahu’s policy in the past. 

Q: What do you think of Netanyahu’s coalition? What do you think of the Cabinet? Of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich?

A: I don’t like them. I don’t like the fact that people like Smotrich or Ben-Gvir are members of the government. I don’t like this idea. They don’t embody the true Israeli spirit. The last chapter of my book is called “If I Forget You, Jewish Soul.” It’s an implicit address to those who are not shocked by the presence in the government of people like that.

Q: How would you define the true Israeli spirit that is not represented by Smotrich and Ben-Gvir? 

A: There is a lightness in the way of inhabiting the earth in Israel. This is an antidote against chauvinism.

For Jews, the land of Israel is a place which has been given to you and which you have to use properly. You have to enrich it, you have to nurture and nourish it, you have to create something in it. This is what Zionism says. Not just, “I’m here and that’s it.” No, I’m here with a mission, a human mission to do good things, good deeds.

Q: And it goes without saying you are a Zionist?

A: In this sense, absolutely. 

Originally published by The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune.

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