Bernard-Henri Lévy always thought there were two places in the world where Jews were safe: Israel and the United States. Now, he’s not so sure about the latter.
America is increasingly falling prey to the anti-Semitism that’s gaining momentum around the world, Lévy said at an event in Montreal recently.
One of France’s best-known public intellectuals, the now 70-year-old Lévy (or BHL, as he is commonly known) has always been an outlier in European philosophical circles, due to his lifelong support of Israel and his admiration for the United States.
In an appearance at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim on May 8, Lévy said that his love for, and solidarity with, Israel remains undiminished. But he is very worried about the U.S.
Lévy cited three characteristics of contemporary anti-Semitism: anti-Zionism, Holocaust denial and “competition among victims” over who has suffered more.
“The U.S. is one of the countries where you find some of the most vibrant forms of these three,” he said.
It’s not only the two recent deadly attacks on synagogues in the U.S. or the administration of President Donald Trump that has shaken him, he explained in conversation with New Yorker writer and author Adam Gopnik.
Something more fundamental is happening that pre-dates Trump, in Lévy’s opinion: America’s retreat from its historic role as the “shining city upon a hill,” as a model of democracy for the world to follow.
More than 1,000 people turned out to hear Lévy at the synagogue’s 37th annual Helen and Sam Steinberg Lecture. Among them was former Quebec premier Philippe Couillard, whose mother was born in France.
The guest speakers were introduced by the Steinbergs’ grandson, Lewis Dobrin, who organizes the free lecture, and his son, Philip Dobrin.
As for his own country, Lévy thinks anti-Semitism is becoming more socially acceptable. “Israel is continuously demonized and Nazified by the left and the right,” he said.
He immediately sensed the undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the yellow vests movement. When they started protesting in November, he wrote that “something smells bad,” noting that Hitler and Mussolini came to power through such mass unrest.
“I begged the leaders, who say anti-Semitism and hatred of women are just marginal, … just open a Facebook page and say, ‘Not in our name,’ and sign it, but it never happened,” he said. “They can’t accept fascists in their ranks and be devoted democrats.”
Trump is “a symptom, not the cause” of what he sees as America’s withdrawal from global leadership, a trend he traces back to the presidency of Barack Obama. Specifically, he points to that administration’s “failure to act in Syria,” which led to the worst humanitarian “disaster” since the Second World War.
Lévy said the U.S. is not “just another country” and should not abandon its founding ideal as the heir to European Enlightenment and the classical tradition that is the basis of Western civilization.
“Liberal democracy knows no perfection; democratic societies are always failed ones that must be continuously repaired” through free elections, he said. “Totalitarianism is stasis.”
In his new book, The Empire and the Five Kings, Lévy argues that the current rulers of five collapsed empires (Persia, Ottoman, China, Saudi Arabia and Russia) are trying to fill the void in global leadership left by America’s “abdication.” And they are doing so by undermining liberal values.
Like the U.S., Lévy does not regard Israel as a country like any other. He believes the land is “sacred” to the Jewish people in a unique way. “Since biblical times … there has been something very special about the relationship of Jews to the earth of Israel … which is not the same as, (say), Poles to Poland, or Hungarians to Hungary,” he said.
Far from criticizing Israel, liberals should “celebrate” the state because “it is one of the best embodiments of liberal values in the world.”
Lévy confessed that he made the difficult choice to keep his prior commitment in Montreal, even after the Israeli prime minister’s office invited him to become the first non-Israeli to have the honour of lighting a torch at the official Yom ha-Atzmaut celebration, which coincided with the Steinberg event.