The famed, if not always celebrated, French intellectual urges all groups to refrain from absurd, counterproductive 'competition of victimhoods.'
Bernard-Henri Lévy, the superstar intellectual also known by his initials BHL, draws crowds to public speaking events and polarizes commentators in his native France and elsewhere. The harshest U.S. critics have seen his recent American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville as a needlessly recondite confirmation for anti-Americans of an "America" prefabricated in Western Europe. In other words, this student of Jacques Derrida (among others) can appear to be the French intellectual that America always already wanted.
Lévy is also the author of Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, about the Jewish American journalist kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002, and many other books and articles. In an April 11, 2006, talk at UCLA on "Anti-Semitism in Europe Today," he pointed to the weeks-long torture and killing of Ilan Halimi in a Paris suburb. A gang targeted the 23-year-old Halimi in January and left him to die in February because he was a Jew. Lévy wants to know what allowed this atrocity to occur.
Describing himself as a member of the French left who is nevertheless at war with the left, in part over what he regards as its reflexive anti-Americanism, Lévy argued that a new anti-semitism rooted in the left was in some degree responsible for what happened to Halami. More than 400 people packed a venue at the Anderson School of Management for the talk, which was sponsored by the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, the Center for European and Eurasian Studies, and the French consulate.
Along with some relevant personal history, Lévy, an Algerian-born Jew brought up and educated in Paris, offered the appreciative crowd 1) a rapid history of European anti-semitism, which he said has adopted six successive guises or rationalizations, all but one of them in the last three centuries, 2) an anatomy of the current avatar, whose rationale has three faulty "pillars," and 3) a warning to Americans about evidence of fresh anti-semitic impulses this side of the Atlantic. He said that his talk should give Americans and American Jews "reason to be relieved not to be European but nevertheless to sleep with one eye open only, and not glued to the pillow."
Although Israel "can and must be" subject to criticism, "especially by its friends," Lévy denounced as the first pillar of the new anti-semitism the "Satanization" and "vilification" of Israel "in order to vilify the Jews." The other two pillars of the current anti-semitic phase, he said, are the claim that Jews have cultivated a status as victims in order to silence others, and the outright denial of the Holocaust. For those who deny that Germany's Third Reich systematically killed roughly six million Jews, along with millions of other victims of the massive genocide and purge, the Jews are three times guilty, Lévy said. Guilty of basing victimhood on a lie, guilty of wearing this victimhood as a badge, and guilty of Israel's crimes, principally those associated with its occupation of disputed lands.
Lévy was at his best Tuesday night in denouncing attempts to provoke a "competition of victims" and "victimhoods." He issued a passionate call for respect of all memories of all histories of oppression, saying that the life of each history depends upon the others. Absurd and counterproductive "competition," Lévy said, has aggravated fissures between American Jews and blacks, for example, and further divided Jews and Muslims in Europe.
As one warning sign of a possible renewal of American anti-semitism, Lévy cited an essay by a University of Chicago political scientist and a Harvard professor of international relations on the "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," published in the London Review of Books in March. That essay discusses the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an important Washington lobby, on U.S. policy in the Middle East; at one point it alleges that Israel's defenders stifle debate by irresponsibly accusing their foes of anti-semitism. Lévy did not offer a way out of this stalemate, in which each side's arguments appear to confirm or to anticipate the other's. Nor did he discuss obstacles to criticism of Israel that seem to set the United States apart from Europe. For example, a New York theater company cited political pressure this March in "indefinitely" postponing its run of a play about Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old U.S. activist who was struck and killed by a U.S.-made, Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003 while protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes. The play moved instead to a second London theater.
In his opening comments, Lévy stressed that he has taken up the subject of anti-semitism recently and most reluctantly, having spent most of his life convinced that the various forms of this evil "ghost" were weakened and that other causes and crises were more pressing. "I saw as a scholar that this hatred had taken in the times many forms, and that all these forms were dead or dying or at least not in such good shape," he said.
Anti-semitism, he concluded for a time, had become principally the problem of anti-semities: "their neurosis, their illness, their madness." In this regard Lévy, 57, said that he could speak for a generation of French Jews who spent decades nearly free from the old prejudice.
Published: Friday, April 14, 2006
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