A review of the major causes Bernard-Henri Lévy has embraced over the past 30 years reveals that behind an apparently dissident discourse, he has consistently taken the side of established authorities. When he involves himself in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is as a propagandist for the Jewish State, as reveals this excerpt from The Impostor: BHL in Wonderland, an investigation by Jade Lindgaard and Xavier de la Porte on France’s most famous contemporary philosopher.
Paris, France – On June 5, 2011, nearly three months into the war against the Gaddafi regime, the Libyan rebel forces issued a corrective communiqué referring to Bernard-Henri Lévy. It said that the National Transitional Council (NTC), the political body representing the insurgents fighting the Tripoli regime, “vehemently rejects what has been reported in some media as Mr Bernard Lévy’s comments on the future relationship between Libya and the Israelis”. The communiqué continued: “The NTC is surprised by Mr Lévy’s comments,” and – an intriguing detail – “Mr Lévy was received as a special envoy from the president of France, and relations with Israel were never discussed.”
What was going on? The event had passed unnoticed at first, but three days earlier, Agence France Presse (AFP) had come up with a considerable scoop if turned out to be authentic. A real breakthrough in the history of relations between Israel and the Arab countries: the NTC was apparently prepared to recognise the state of Israel and maintain “normal relations” with it. That was the “verbal message” that Bernard-Henri Lévy had come to deliver to the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, on behalf of the Libyan Council.
The future regime “will be a moderate and anti-terrorist regime, concerned with both justice for the Palestinians and security for Israel”. At least, that is what the French writer told the press agency. The Israeli head of government’s services limited themselves to confirming the meeting, without saying anything on its content.
But the diplomatic thunderclap fell flat. In reality it had been an enormous faux-pas by the French writer. The NTC did not beat about the bush. “Libya is a member of the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference,” the communiqué continued.
“These two organisations have a very solid and clear position on the Palestinian question. With this in mind, Libya firmly commits to the already firm position taken by the Arab world on the Palestinian question, and will support the aspirations of the Palestinian people to achieve their inalienable rights and their desire to establish an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.”
Radically opposed to Muammar Gaddafi the insurgents might be, but they were not ready to mark their differences with him by entering into official relations with Tel Aviv.
“As I’m Jewish, and a friend of Israel…” Even on Al Jazeera, where he introduced himself with those words in March 2011, Bernard-Henri Lévy has never hidden his support for the Israeli state. It is a constant in his public utterances, whether made in France, the US or Israel.
“He’s one of the great defenders of Israel, and he does it in fine, resonant language and with great physical courage, and I believe that that is how he is perceived here,” we were told from Jerusalem by Claude Sitbon, a sociologist and historian who knows the Israeli francophone community well.
The writer often goes there to give talks. He has an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University and another from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in addition to the Scopus Prize awarded by the French community of the latter establishment.
A zealous spokesman
His rare social dexterity – unique for a French intellectual – gave him access to the top ranks of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF, also known by the Hebrew acronym, Tzahal), which found in Bernard-Henri Lévy one of their most zealous spokesmen. Indeed it is not unreasonable to suggest that over the years a close collaboration has been established between the writer and the IDF staff.
In January 2009, aiming to report on the Tzahal offensive in the Gaza Strip, he travelled “embedded … with an elite unit”, as he put it in an article published on three continents. So he describes entering after dark, accompanied by a major and four reservists, the Abasan al-Jadida district “in the suburbs of Gaza City”, and rejoicing not to find the sort of wholesale destruction visited on the city of Grozny, in Chechnya, or some parts of Sarajevo. The implicit message was that Israeli shelling had not been as destructive as claimed.
In fact, however – according to Le Monde’s Israel correspondent Benjamin Barthe – he was not in the outskirts of the Gaza capital at all, but in “a big village, more than 20 kilometres south of Gaza”. Contrary to what Lévy seems to believe, Abasan al-Jadida is not a suburb of Gaza City.
At that juncture in the poetically named “Operation Cast Lead” military operation – January 13, four days before the ceasefire – foreign journalists were having great difficulty in reaching the operations zone or entering the Strip at all. Most of them would have to wait for hostilities to end before setting foot in Gaza. Lévy did not only have the privilege of going there accompanied by an armed convoy.
He also had ready access to the highest dignitaries of the Israeli army and the state: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defence Minister Ehud Barak, and Youval Diskin (erroneously named “Yovan Diskin” in the article and again in its reprinted version in the anthology Pièces d’identité), boss of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service. All three were extensively quoted by the French writer who, by contrast, did not quote a single Gaza inhabitant.
Two Palestinian “militants”, Mustapha Barghouti and Mamdouh Aker, were briskly quoted and dispatched in a few lines. On the other hand, the author had time to wax lyrical about the two pianos in Ehud Barak’s “long” drawing room and on the “pianist minister” playing his instruments “like a virtuoso”, contributing to the mythical image of an army filled with artistic generals and commanders inhabited by a “deep distaste for war”.
BHL did not seem entirely at ease with his position as an embedded reporter. “I know, having avoided it all my life, that the ’embedded’ viewpoint is never the best one,” he wrote, as if it was an exceptional practice for him, tried for the first time. In reality it was nothing of the sort.
BHL is an old travelling companion of Tzahal. When the Israeli army attacked Lebanon in 2006 after the capture of two of its soldiers by Shia militiamen from Lebanese Hezbollah, Bernard-Henri Lévy turned up for another of his “war reportages”, published all over Europe. He did not set foot inside Lebanon, but visited Sderot, Haifa and Acre, towns in Israel that had taken Hezbollah or Gazan rocket fire.
He passed through the Labour Party’s headquarters where he met the defence minister, Amir Peretz, and spoke to foreign minister Tzipi Livni; he visited the parents of Gilad Shalit, the soldier kidnapped by Hamas (who reminded him of the parents of Daniel Pearl, the US journalist murdered by al Qaeda). He also met the former prime minister, Shimon Peres; but he did not talk to a single Israeli opponent of the war, not one Palestinian refugee and no one from Lebanon.
During the well-orchestrated tour, he came across a group of Israeli artillerymen. With their “extreme youth”, their “stunned look at each discharge”, their “childlike teasing”, their “relaxed, unrestrained and even carefree” demeanour, they seem “the exact opposite of those battalions of brutes or unprincipled pitiless terminators that are so often described in the European media”.
Not an ordinary reporter
But the most extraordinary occurrence, still according to the article, was a transcendental and historical one: the sudden disappearance from before his unbelieving eyes of those frolicksome IDF soldiers and their replacement by reincarnations of the International Brigades, the battalions of volunteers who had joined the Spanish Republicans in 1936 to fight General Franco’s troops.
They were no longer soldiers who had just shelled and wrecked part of neighbouring Lebanon at the cost of several hundred civilian lives; no, they were “that joyous scramble of battalions of young republicans” described by Malraux; “an army that is more friendly than it is martial, more democratic than self-assured and dominating”.
Anniversary magic: it was on July 17, the “anniversary of the day the Spanish Civil War began”, that Bernard-Henri Lévy landed at Tel Aviv. And the significant connection is fascism, “this fascism with an Islamist face, this third fascism, which is to our generation what the other fascism … [was] to our elders”.
To put it plainly, today’s extremist Islamist militia and the states supporting them, Iran and Syria, play a role equivalent to that of the Axis powers led by Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s. So today’s Israeli military are not just artists who make war reluctantly: they have taken up the torch of the founding epic of European civil disobedience. This is more than scoop journalism. It is prophecy.
It should be noted that, in 2006, Bernard-Henri Lévy managed to find an excellent guide for a quick sortie to the Lebanese front, in the person of Lt-Col Olivier Rafovitch (as he spelt his surname), with whom he passed “like a whirlwind through a deserted Druze village”. Olivier Rafowicz also happens to be an Israeli army spokesman to the foreign media; French-born and a perfect French speaker, he is more specifically in charge of French journalists.
But Bernard-Henri Lévy makes no mention of his PR duties, as if he were with an ordinary soldier. But BHL is not an ordinary reporter. A French journalist familiar with Israel and the Palestinian territories remembered seeing him, at the end of that expedition, “arrive at Tel Aviv airport accompanied by Olivier Rafowicz, the Israeli army’s French press officer, in uniform”.
“BHL hoped Rafowicz’s uniform would get him into the VIP lounge, but it didn’t work. Then he got on the plane and the soldier left”. He added: “I’ve been going to Israel for 35 years, and no army officer has ever seen me off.”
Olivier Rafowicz remembers those few hours spent with the French writer in 2006 very well. In a message posted on the writer’s promotional website, bernard-henri-levy.com, he writes: “It seems to me that a man like him, who enjoys international renown for his lectures, books and radio and TV appearances, can play an extremely important role in support of states […] And, therefore, I think this is very important for Israel and for Tzahal.”
Not a bad bit of puffery, for a press relations professional. And a recipe that works, tested over time; indeed, he adds that “for more than ten years now, in practically every crisis of international scope between Israel and its neighbours, Bernard-Henri Lévy has joined me and been present on the ground”.
This camaraderie began in 2002, during the second Intifada. “The Israeli authorities had given him permission to join us in the field. He was with us in the operations room,” recalled the soldier, who at that time was already acting as a minder for journalists. It was still going strong in 2009, during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.
“By the Israeli government’s decision, for security reasons, the press was not permitted to enter the Gaza Strip to cover the conflict from inside,” Rafowicz recalled. “It was then that Bernard-Henri Lévy made contact with the highest Israeli authorities, and once again requested to see what was happening from inside.”
Nor did the soldier doubt the success of this new PR stunt: “After a few intense hours spent with soldiers and officers on the ground, BHL returned satisfied to have fulfilled his mission.”
This excerpt is from The Impostor: BHL in Wonderland. English-language edition first published by Verso Books 2012, Translation © John Howe 2012. First published as Le B.A. BA du BHL: Enquête sur le plus grand intellectuel français © Editions La Découverte 2004. Reprinted here with permission.
Jade Lindgaard is a journalist for the news site Mediapart, and she coedited La France Invisible (2006).
Xavier de la Porte is a journalist for the radio station France Culture.
Follow him on Twitter: @xporte