Bernard-Henri Levy, center, in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, October 11, 2023. (Benjamin Touati)
Bernard-Henri Levy, center, in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, October 11, 2023. (Benjamin Touati)
Interview'We’ll have a hard time getting the devil back in the box'

In France, Bernard-Henri Lévy fights a lonely battle on behalf of a solitary Israel

The controversial intellectual superstar’s new book ‘Solitude d’Israel’ puts the Jewish state nearly alone on the world stage, while his advocacy is situated in a sea of antisemitism

Bernard-Henri Levy, center, in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, October 11, 2023. (Benjamin Touati)

PARIS — Since publishing his first book in 1973, French writer, philosopher and activist, Bernard-Henri Lévy has always aroused strong reactions. Few of his compatriots seem indifferent to his outspoken views, fame, influence, wealth and dapper image — not to mention his Jewish identity. A high-profile, public intellectual, often referred to in France by his initials, BHL, he garners long-faced fierce disdain from some, lavish praise from others — no more so than in the nine months since October 7, during which he’s been one of France’s most inescapable voices defending Israel.

Whether in his frequent TV appearances, his weekly column in Le Point magazine, his remarks at public events, or his new book, “Solitude d’Israel,” Lévy is resolute in standing up for the Jewish state. In the process, as a prominent Jew in a country now plagued by widespread antisemitism and hostility to Israel, he’s the target of more abuse than ever, including threats to his personal safety.

Having written 48 books and thousands of reports, columns and speeches in his prolific career, Lévy is rarely at a loss for words. Recently, during an interview with The Times of Israel in his art-filled, two-floor Parisian apartment, when asked if he’s bothered by the intense vitriol directed at him, he pauses briefly before replying.

“Frankly, I don’t care,” says Lévy, 75, dressed in his signature open white shirt and black suit. “I don’t often think about how much hate I’m attracting for being a defender of Israel. But based on what I see on social media, it’s obviously a lot.”

On October 7, Lévy was in Paris when he learned of Hamas’s murderous invasion from Gaza, which saw 1,200 people butchered in southern Israel and 251 kidnapped to the Gaza Strip. The next morning, in what he calls “a reflex, an instinct,” he flew to Israel in solidarity and to bear witness in the media of what had happened.

“I went down to the south immediately, arriving first in Sderot the evening of October 8,” says Lévy, who in subsequent days spent time in other places ravaged by Hamas terrorists including kibbutzim and the site of the Nova festival massacre.

“I was terribly shaken by what I saw. Everywhere you looked, there were traces of barbarism,” he says. “Like everyone, I was devastated. I felt powerless. I promised the survivors I met in Kfar Aza and Be’eri, and families of hostages and my Israeli friends, that I would write about the horror Israel had just suffered and the aftermath.”

Bernard-Henri Levy, center, in a home on Kibbutz Kfar Aza in which bullet holes can be seen in the walls, October 11, 2023. (Marc Roussel)

The result is “Solitude d’Israel,” which was published in French in the spring and will come out in English in North America in September with the less evocative title of “Israel Alone.”

A combination of reportage, contemplation, stream of consciousness and cri de coeur, the book offers a passionate, informative analysis of the loneliness of Israel post-October 7 and its impact on Diaspora Jewry. It explains why for Israel the Gaza war is existential and what’s at stake for the world, especially the West, while refuting false accusations against Israel.

Lévy dedicates “Solitude d’Israel” to those still held hostage by Hamas at the time of writing, listing them alphabetically at the start of the book, which is composed of three parts: “October 7 and After”; “Negationism in Real Time”; and “History and Truth.”

“My desire to write a book about Israel wasn’t new,” says Lévy, speaking mostly in French, occasionally switching to English. “It dates back many years. I probably never did it until now because I felt the circumstances weren’t pressing but the magnitude of October 7 changed everything. It gave me a strong impetus to finally write a book about Israel. I felt an urgent need to do it, to pay tribute to the victims and address the often willful ignorance about Israel and Zionism.”

Israeli soldiers remove bodies of Israeli civilians in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

‘The smell of sour milk’

Early on, Lévy shares with readers what he encountered.

“I will never forget my first impressions,” he writes. “The smell of sour milk that filled the bullet-pocked, blasted, half-burned houses; the contents of their kitchen cabinets scattered in the rooms, as if blown away by a hurricane. The neatly laid out streets lined with pretty houses with their shrubs intact but empty of birdsong and human voices; or the consistent accounts of survivors and rescuers who recounted how the dead were collected, some of them decapitated and dismembered, others burned, other riddled with bullets and their hands torn to shreds as if they fought until they dropped. Or, finally, the vegetable storage shed where unidentified body parts that had just been collected were stacked in a small pile of flesh, indistinct except for the stench.”

Later in the book, he refers to the Hamas atrocities as “radical evil,” adding: “More than the Israeli or Jewish soul was murdered [on October 7], it was our common conscience. More than a monstrous pogrom that sent Jewish memory back 80 years, it was another tear in the fragile veneer of civilization that had, for years, been tenuously holding the world just above the moral abyss.”

Throughout the book, in his usual erudite style and reflecting his extensive knowledge of history, Lévy alludes to all manner of past events to make a point. He also refers by name to 185 individuals, many well-known, some in a positive context, others not, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Andy Warhol, Primo Levi, Gershom Scholem, Flavius Josephus, Sigmund Freud, Plato and Joseph Stalin.

‘Solitude d’Israel,’ by Bernard-Henri Levy. (Courtesy)

Written in the tradition of Émile Zola’s celebrated “J’Accuse” open letter in 1898 in defense of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew falsely accused and convicted of spying for Germany amid widespread antisemitism, Lévy angrily laments the abandonment of Israel by much of the world. He denounces those who deny or minimize the brutal mass murder, torture and sexual violence of Hamas on October 7 and takes aim at those he accuses of unjustly vilifying the Jewish state and its response. He has plenty of targets, from UN Secretary-General António Guterres to French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the France Unbowed party, linked to the current surge in anti-Jewish hate in France.

Dire choices for French Jews

The issue of antisemitism figured prominently in this month’s parliamentary elections in France given its presence in the Popular Front on the left and the National Rally on the right. Just before the first round, Lévy admitted his quandary, writing in The Free Press: “For a classical liberal and a proud Jew — and I am both — the choices are dire.“

Amid the political turmoil following the results, Lévy was on edge.

Far-left La France Insoumise – LFI – (France Unbowed) founder Jean-Luc Melenchon, right, clenches his fist with other party members after the second round of the legislative elections Sunday, July 7, 2024, in Paris. (AP Photo/Thomas Padilla)

“This is a chilling moment,” he told The Times of Israel the day after the runoff election. “Given the significant support won by the Popular Front and to a lesser degree the National Rally, this is a difficult and uncomfortable situation, especially for French Jews, but we must never lose hope. We must persist in the struggle against those connected to antisemitism.”

Lévy decried aspects of the election.

“There was something very strange and, above all, very dangerous for the Jews,” he says. “All of a sudden, they were put at the heart of the election campaign. This hadn’t happened since the Dreyfus affair and was significant. Jews found themselves stuck between the shameful antisemites of the National Rally and the declared antisemites of France Unbowed, which is openly antisemitic. Its leader, the infamous Jean-Luc Mélenchon, expresses himself like Edouard Drumont [a fervent antisemitic journalist and politician in France who died in 1917] and acts like Jacques Doriot, the former communist leader who became a Nazi in 1940.”

It doesn’t seem to bode well.

“I fear antisemitism will increase in France because it’s been let out of the box,” says Lévy. “There’s now less of a stigma attached to being antisemitic. Since October 7, it’s permitted to be an antisemite. Some naive people thought that what Hamas did on October 7 would trigger a sense of compassion and solidarity from the world for Israel and the Jews. Sadly, it’s the contrary. It opened a Pandora’s box, freeing the most antisemitic people to spew their anti-Jewish hate. I think we’ll have a hard time getting the devil back in the box. But we must fight it.”

Protesters hold posters of the Palestinian flag as they demonstrate near the entrance of the Institute of Political Studies, Sciences Po Paris, occupied by students, in Paris, France on April 26, 2024. (Julien De Rosa / AFP)

Lévy is concerned but not panicking.

“Of course, I’m worried but I have no time to be depressed or desperate, even if I feel we’re in a new situation, a real emergency,” he says. “For sure, it’s quite disturbing and we all have a role to play in the battle for truth.

“Back in 1982, I wrote that antisemitism was going to take on the face of anti-Zionism in becoming a mass movement and that this new face was going to be accepted by big crowds and that it would unleash immense violence. Sure enough, I’ve seen it increase year after year and it’s now in the process of taking on a very large dimension. How bad can it get? Hell is the limit.”

A secret rendezvous with Israel

For Lévy, Israel offers a respite from French politics.

“I think most Jewish writers, wherever they live, ultimately have a secret rendezvous with Israel,” says Lévy, sipping a cup of tea. “Sooner or later, it will bring most of them to know Israel more deeply.”

Lévy’s first rendezvous with Israel dates back to 1967 when, at age 19, he arrived near the end of the Six Day War. Since then, he estimates he’s visited the country more than 75 times, including three times since October 7.

“What brings me to Israel so often is my love of the country and its people,” says Lévy, who also has a house in Marrakesh, Morocco. “I feel good in Israel, I feel at home. I just like to be there. I don’t come out of any personal need or sense of obligation. For me, it’s more than a pleasure to be in Israel, it’s a strong desire.”

Born in Algeria, the son of wealthy Sephardic parents, Lévy moved with his family to Paris when he was a baby. He first burst on the scene in the mid-1970s as a co-founder of the “New Philosophers” movement of young writers who presented a moral critique of neo-Marxist and socialist dogmas that had long dominated French intellectual life. Since then, espousing a postmodern anti-totalitarianism, centrist liberalism, his numerous mostly nonfiction books, documentary films and political commentary have kept him in the spotlight.

A protester stands amid tents in an anti-Israel encampment at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, April 29, 2024. (Graham Hughes / AFP)

Of little surprise to Lévy, “Solitude d’Israel,” with its strong support for the Jewish state at a time when so many have turned against it, has given more fuel to his adversaries, earning him considerable venom, and worse.

Lévy isn’t deterred even by serious threats to his personal safety, which began 20 years ago after he wrote a book investigating the kidnapping and beheading of American Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002 by Islamist terrorists. When asked about measures to keep him out of harm’s way, he’s uncharacteristically reticent, saying it would be imprudent to discuss them publicly.

Along with media reports that Lévy has been under constant police protection for many years, the Washington Post revealed in 2022 that Iran had hired an Iranian drug dealer to murder Lévy in Paris. A few months earlier, the Wall Street Journal reported another Iranian plot to assassinate him. In 2009, his name was among several found on a hitlist prepared by a Belgian-based Islamist group.

Lévy takes precautions, including requesting that the location of his Paris home not be mentioned in this article, not even whether it’s on the city’s Left or Right Bank. He also asked that any photographs taken in the apartment, which he shares with his wife, singer/actress Arielle Dombasle, not show the view from windows so as not to reveal any hint of where they live.

“The French state does their job to protect me,” says Lévy, speaking about his safety. “But I’m not afraid. In my life, I’ve been in situations much more difficult than this reality in France.”

Bernard-Henri Levy in his 1994 film ‘Bosna!’ (Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

Indeed, he’s no stranger to danger abroad. In 1971, at age 22, he left France to cover Bangladesh’s war of independence against Pakistan. Since then, in seeking to draw international attention to widescale human rights abuses and extreme injustice, he’s often risked his life in other conflict zones, including Sudan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Kurdistan, Bosnia, Nigeria and Rwanda, as a war correspondent and documentary filmmaker.

Over the past two and a half years, he’s spent considerable time on the battlefields of Ukraine since the Russian invasion, making several films. His latest, “Glory to the Heroes,” shot last summer, captures the harrowing struggle of Ukrainians to defend their country. It’s a fight Lévy now likens to Israel’s war against Hamas, seeing both as a battle for the values of freedom and democracy.

Having stated recently that the future of the Jews is not assured anywhere, not even in Israel, Lévy’s apprehension is evident in “Solitude d’Israel.”

“The Jews are alone,” he writes. “Decidedly, dramatically alone… The major task of a Jew is to survive. And from this point of view, yes, the Jews are more alone than they have ever been. Or perhaps a variation on this theme would be more accurate. Perhaps they are alone, as it was always said they would be, just more desperately so.”

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