It’s a vague childhood memory, but the French celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy still remembers the first time he was bullied for being Jewish.
“Three idiots in a Paris play yard tell me: ‘You don’t get to have Christmas presents because you’re a dirty Jew and Jews killed Jesus.’ Maybe I cry a bit on the street later, but first I start hitting,” the 68-year-old Lévy, who was born in what is today Algeria but grew up in France, recalled in an interview earlier this month with JTA.
More than half a century later, Lévy — a slender man with wavy, gray hair who is one of France’s most recognizable individuals — is still embracing his Jewish identity and confronting anti-Semites.
But since that childhood incident, Muslim extremists have taken anti-Semitism in France from schoolyard taunts to terrorism, with multiple deadly attacks on Jewish targets.
This “return of anti-Semitism,” Lévy said, “perhaps” prompted him to pen one of his most Jewish books ever, “The Genius of Judaism” (Random House). The English-language translation will be released next month in the United States, and Lévy will do a Q&A (with Charlie Rose) at the 92nd Street Y in New York on Jan. 11.
In the book Lévy, a non-observant Jew, traces the Jews’ “misunderstanding with the nations” to their definition as a “chosen people.”
Far from suggesting superiority, Lévy writes, this status means that Jews are the guardians of a “treasure of knowledge” found in sources that Lévy has studied for decades: the Talmud and the sages like Rashi, Rambam and the Malbim. Much of the book is devoted to his musings about their writings, as well as reflections on his own past.
“The Genius of Judaism” is one of the most personal books ever penned by Lévy — an influential, poker-faced intellectual who neither smiles much during interviews nor engages in small talk. The book “in a certain manner sums up my life, holds the key to my endeavors and traces the roots of my worldview,” he told JTA at a video editing studio in Paris, where he is preparing a documentary about Iraq.
In the book, Lévy advocates a definition of Judaism that emphasizes “work, not belief. Study, not worship,” he said.
An outspoken advocate of Israel and prominent supporter of the fight against anti-Semitism, Lévy is among several well-known French Jewish intellectuals — along with philosopher Alain Finkielkraut and historian Georges Bensoussan — who have come under attack recently from the far left, particularly in a secularist society where many resent ethnic and religious affiliations.
Not that Lévy minds.
“I was always proud to be Jewish,” he said. “I always believed it was a source of glory, never anything to question or be ashamed of. Let them call me what they want.”
In France, Lévy is revered by some and hated by others in part for his influential activism in conflict zones, including his perceived key role in bringing about France’s intervention in the former Yugoslavia and Libya, according to a 2014 documentary about him by the France 2 television channel. His support for Israel has not earned him many fans.
Vilified by nationalists and conservatives who resent his humanist agenda, he is also assailed by radical leftists, who accuse him of serving neo-colonialist governments that they say are seeking pretexts to invade foreign countries.
Lévy insists that the considerable antagonism he provokes, particularly among left-wingers, is “primarily over support of Israel,” he said.
Despite his vocal criticism of its settlement policy, Lévy has consistently defended Israel. In a 2010 speech in Tel Aviv, he said of the Jewish state and its military: “I have never seen such a democratic army, which asks itself so many moral questions. There is something unusually vital about Israeli democracy.”
Lévy said he also holds Israel to a high moral standard for this reason. Israel’s “indifference when it comes to refugees from Syria didn’t measure up to the stature of a Jewish state,” he said, adding that President Barack Obama has a “crushing responsibility” for the humanitarian disaster there.
In “The Genius of Judaism,” Lévy revisits his disillusionment following the rise in fundamentalism, which dashed his hope in 1979 that he was “at the apogee of the age in which God had died,” he writes. “It had been beautiful. It had been huge.”
Suspicious of worship, Lévy said he has nonetheless striven to imbue his daughter and son — novelist Justine, 42, and lawyer Antonin-Balthazar, 36 — with Jewish values and culture.
“I did not enroll them to Jewish schools,” he said, “but I hope they will follow my travel itinerary from the secular world to the treasure of Jewish wisdom.”