It is no great surprise that, according to The Boston Globe, the most prominent intellectual in France today is Jewish. His name is Bernard-Henri Lévy, and he is often just called BHL. Love him or hate him, it is impossible to ignore Lévy’s journalistic work in war-torn areas of the world, where he has often traveled to report on crimes against humanity. He has been to Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Angola, Sri Lanka and Colombia in efforts to publicize atrocities against innocent citizens.
Lévy is not in journalism for the money. He inherited a hugely successful timber business, which was sold in the 1990s for $155 million. The eclectic mix of wealth and progressive thought has vaulted Lévy into the sphere of French celebrities and politicians. While in Libya, he served as the personal envoy of Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and helped broker a deal with rebel forces. When PM François Mitterand was getting married, he sent an air force jet to bring Lévy from his work in Bosnia to the event.
Despite Lévy’s prominence in French society, there is one position he has taken that has turned him into a pariah—his unapologetic support for Israel. His outspoken views defending his fellow Jews and their relationship with their Arab neighbors resulted in the following headline in the newspaper Le Figaro: “BHL, France’s Most Hated Darling.” Lévy has received countless death threats online and has been the target of fantastic tales of corruption and conspiracy theories.
In his latest book, The Genius of Judaism, Lévy takes it a step further. He examines the three contemporary justifications for antisemitism, with Zionism topping the list. He debunks the common mantra that “it’s not the Jews, it’s Israel.” As far as the plight of the Arabs, Lévy notes, “There is no place today where the Arabs are as free as in Israel.”
The next two issues on Lévy’s list are Holocaust denial and victim “competition” (the belief that the Holocaust occurred but that it should not be treated differently from any other tragedy).
With the spike in anti-Semitism in France and other European countries, Lévy has a new mission. He wants France and French Jews to understand that Jews were never guests or refugees in France. “They were really among the main builders of France.” And so “the spirit of France owes them a lot.” French Jews did not assimilate into French culture—they were the ones who made French culture.
“My conclusion was, clearly, that if someone had to leave [France], it was not the Jews but the anti-Semites,” he said.
Lately, Lévy has revealed that for the past several years, his views have been shaped by his interest in traditional Judaism, including studying the Rambam and works of the Malbim. He found the story of Yonah particularly inspiring and sees the world as his own Nineveh as he continues his quest for a worldwide “teshuvah” on global atrocities. Lévy now says he has a teacher with whom he studies “on a more or less regular basis.”
There was another event that moved Lévy back to his roots. After witnessing the brutal murder of Daniel Pearl in 2002, Lévy spent the next two years writing his next book, called Who Killed Daniel Pearl? What struck him about this horrible crime was that the terrorists forced Pearl to say he was Jewish, the child of Jewish parents, and that a street in Bnei Brak was named after his grandparents. “For sure, it was a shock for me,” Lévy explains, and it forced him to confront his own Jewishness.
Lévy’s unrelenting progress against such a hostile tide of attacks and opposition is certainly impressive. He is hounded by both his colleagues and his detractors, but he takes everything in stride. He is fully aware of the extremely unpopular public reception of his views, but he is always proud to proclaim himself a Jew.
However, Lévy’s discoveries about the Torah and his own religion seem to end at his front door. He is living proof of another tenet of Torah and mussar—that it is easier to change the world than to change yourself. I hope that one day BHL will join the fortunate ranks of real baalei teshuvah who are not only moved by the Torah’s ideas but are uplifted by its laws.