Touring With Lévy a Dizzying Experience
“American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville,” by Bernard-Henri Lévy (Random House).
Date: Saturday, April 8, 2006.
I have come to this palace of privilege to meet Bernard-Henri Lévy, France’s philosophy king, the author of 30 books, including best sellers “American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville,” released earlier this year, and “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” (Melville House, 2003).
Lévy’s boyish good looks, intellect and swashbuckling charm have made him a superstar in his native France, where he is simply known as BHL, a veritable brand name as famous for his personae as for his words.
In addition to philosopher, he is a novelist, diplomat, TV personality and documentary maker who first made a name for himself nearly three decades ago. In his book, “Barbarism With a Human Face” (Harper & Row, 1979), he had the temerity to call out France’s old-guard intellectuals for their support of Marxism. Soon thereafter, a movement known as Les Nouvelles Philosophes, or the New Philosophers, coalesced around him.
Married to the beautiful French actress, Arielle Dombasle, and the proud owner of a Moroccan palace, the 57-year-old Lévy would appear to have it all. Vanity Fair called him “Superman and prophet,” while The New York Times said, “Bernard-Henri Lévy does nothing that goes unnoticed.”
A rumored recent affair with Sharon Stone has done little to diminish his reputation as a libidinous libertine with a brain.
“Lévy is probably America’s best known French intellectual,” says New Republic Editor in Chief Martin Peretz. Peretz recently defended Lévy and “American Vertigo” in a New Republic column after the appearance of a scathing front-page review in The New York Times Book Review by writer and public-radio raconteur Garrison Keillor.
I sit nervously as the minutes tick by, waiting and waiting and waiting. Suddenly, a frumpy-looking Donald Trump passes by. Like Lévy, Trump knows how to capture the media spotlight and market himself as a star attraction. Unlike him, though, Trump is a crass creation of America’s unbridled capitalism, a man with little charm or class but with lots of cash. French designer Jean Paul Gaultier walks by looking très chic. But still no Bernard-Henri Lévy.
After a flurry of frantic phone calls to his New York publicist, Lévy finally appears — 45 minutes late. European time. He is tall and tan. He wears sunglasses, even though he’s indoors. His stylish shirt is untucked and unbuttoned at his navel, revealing a flat stomach. His black slacks hang just so. Despite middle-age, jet lag and his globetrotting life, Lévy looks more like a male model on holiday than an intellectual hawking his latest work.
“Hi, I’m Bernard-Henri Lévy,” he says, extending his hand.
I am with a veritable French legend. After helping to “dethrone socialism, Marxism and communism in France,” in the words of the New Republic’s Peretz, through his attacks on French intellectuals’ love affair with Stalinism, Lévy trained his sights on Judaism.
His iconoclasm continued with the publication of “The Testament of God” (Harper & Row, 1980), in which he encouraged French Jews — burdened by memories of the Holocaust — to celebrate their identities rather than flee from their heritage through assimilation.
These days, he raises hackles with his “anti-anti-Americanism.” Unlike many French intellectuals, BHL loves America, loves its freedoms, loves its democracy, even if he abhors its penchant for “obesity,” the idea that bigger homes, bigger cars and bigger churches are somehow better.
Lévy, his celebrity notwithstanding, is seen in some circles as lacking intellectual heft and rigor. Many critics note a lack of footnotes and an abundance of opinion in his books.
“I am not sure whether serious philosophers would consider him their equal,” says David N. Myers, a professor of Jewish history and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies. Still, Myers adds, he finds Lévy “an interesting observer and bellwether of the Jewish condition in Europe today,” and respects Lévy’s ability to synthesize historical and sociological data with philosophy.
Myers recently hosted an April 11, UCLA speech by Lévy on European anti-Semitism before a near-capacity crowd of 400.
My plan is to drive with Lévy around Beverly Hills, Fairfax and the Pico-Robertson district, engaging him in conversation about the city’s Jewish life. He doesn’t like the idea.
“Why do you want to drive around?” he asks sourly. “Don’t you think we could get more done just talking here at the hotel?”
His reaction surprises me. I had cleared the plan with his publicist, who, I assumed, had relayed it to Lévy. More importantly, he amassed the material for “American Vertigo” by traveling more than 15,000 miles around the United States by car.
My sister-in-law, Elizabeth Vitanza, a Ph.D. student in French at UCLA, leads Lévy; my brother, John (doubling as a photographer), and me to her Toyota Corolla. The philosopher reluctantly steps in and takes a seat next to me in the back. I am sure he is accustomed to traveling in a better class of vehicle. He does not put on a seatbelt. As we drive through Beverly Hills, I point to a mansion. I tell him that more than one-third of the residents in this city of multimillion-dollar homes are Jews. Looking at these houses, I ask, what can one say about the concept of Jewish obesity?
A good question, I think. Shows that I’ve read his book and digested the big ideas. He, apparently, doesn’t share my opinion. Lévy furrows his brow. He looks disappointed.
“I would not enter into that,” he says. “I’ve met many poor Jews in my travels in Los Angeles. Some really lower middle-class Jews. They are not victims of this syndrome of obesity at all.”
Strike One. A French intellectual whom I’ve admired since my junior year at La Sorbonne in Paris more than 20 years ago thinks I’m a dolt — perhaps just a cut above the cop who, in Lévy’s book, chastises him for urinating at the side of the road. What to do? Like any good journalist, I do the obvious: I ask Lévy about himself.
“You’re a self-proclaimed agnostic,” I say. “Yet, you call yourself a Jew. Isn’t that a contradiction?”
The cool demeanor melts away, and the conversation, like Lévy himself, perks up.
“I believe [being an agnostic] is one of the best ways to be a Jew,” he says. “Jewishness is an experience of the nonevidence of God. That’s one of the main differences between Judaism and other faiths. The Jewish faith, the Jewish relationship to God, is the one most aware of [God’s] absence sometimes, the silence often. If you read really the prophets of the Bible, you’ll find that their main experience isn’t one of the warm presence of God, but of the despairing absence of it.”
Passionate Jews like himself need not believe in God to embrace the bedrock Jewish value of tikkun olam.
“At least, I would say for me, it is the only viable conception of an individual,” Lévy says. “If you are not committed to repairing the world, better do something else.”
Lévy points out the car window to an Orthodox Jew wearing a kippah and says, sadly: “This in Paris, you don’t see so much. In some parts of Paris and the suburbs, it exposes you to blows.”
American Jews, unlike French Jews, have the freedom to openly practice their Judaism without fear. They are also for the most part free, he says, from “the stupid loss of time” of constantly having to fight anti-Semitism.
And what accounts for this anti-Semitism? Many factors, Lévy says, including “the Shoah, the Holocaust. Europe is still bleeding.”
But wouldn’t that historical memory make the French and other Europeans more sensitive to the Jewish plight? I ask.
“They are fed up with guiltiness!”
Then, are teaching and talking about the Holocaust bad for Jews?
Absolutely not, he says. Sure, some people might complain about being bombarded with Jewish suffering, but knowledge of that suffering helps others’ become more compassionate. In France, he says, the Jews, with their history of the Shoah, were among the first to raise their voices against the slaughters in Bosnia, in Rwanda and, now, in Darfur.
“If Holocaust education stopped it would be bad for the Jews,” Lévy says. “It is a wall, a shield against anti-Semitism.”
It quickly becomes clear that he has little desire to comment on the landmarks of Jewish Los Angeles and is far more interested in letting our conversation take us where it will. As we pass Jewish day schools, synagogues and kosher restaurants, he speaks of his pride in his Jewish roots, despite never having set a foot in a synagogue until he began working on “The Testament of God” in the late 1970s.
“The tradition of Talmud is as great as the tradition of Voltaire and Racine and La Fontaine and Rabelais,” he says.
Strong words for a man of French letters.
We stop at Canter’s. He poses for two photos in front of the deli’s mural, one with his sunglasses on, the other with them off. No smile. As we enter, Lévy checks messages on his incessantly ringing blackberry. He grabs his pants as they start to slide off his tiny waist.
“I have to be careful,” he says, flashing a smile.
“I wish I had such a problem,” I respond, suddenly self-conscious about the extra 15 pounds I’ve packed on since college.
We seat ourselves in a booth, with Lévy taking a place next to my attractive sister-in-law, Elizabeth. He orders black tea, but doesn’t touch the chocolate ruggalah on his plate. Then, he holds court, telling us that the old anti-Semitism, the anti-Semitism that blamed the Jews for the killing of Jesus and vilified Jews as an inferior race, is largely dead. In its place, a new anti-Semitism has taken shape that is every bit as dangerous and disturbing.
“If I had to describe this, I would describe it in three words,” he says, pausing for effect. “Israel and anti-Zionism.”
This “anti-Zionism as a vehicle for anti-Semitism,” Lévy says, appears in newspaper and magazine articles that attack Israel without providing the political and historical context found in stories about other countries. Another variant of this new anti-Semitism occurs when the Jews’ enemies resort to anti-Semitic canards in their vicious attacks on Israel.
“A lot of things that you are no longer allowed to express, that you don’t dare to express, you can express through your hatred for Israel,” he says. “For instance, you can no longer say Jews are thieves, but you can say Israel has robbed the earth of the Palestinians.”
There is a final example of this new anti-Semitism, and it is coming from unexpected places, Lévy says. In America, minority groups such as Native Americans, African Americans and Latinos, just like large swaths of Europe’s immigrant communities, have increasingly come to view Jews as competitors for the spoils of suffering. In this zero-sum game, to borrow a political-science term, Lévy says Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan and Native American activist Russell Means, among others, have concluded that sympathy for the Jews somehow diverts attention from and diminishes concern for the plight of Indians, Latinos and blacks.
In “American Vertigo,” Lévy writes about his disturbing encounter with Means, a veteran of the 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee. Meeting the Indian icon at his home in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Lévy feels proud to be in the presence of such a hero — until Means opens his mouth.
“You here, Mr. Lévy? Not in Israel yet? But I heard on the radio that Sharon wanted all the Jews in France to emigrate to Tel Aviv! Ha, ha!”
Shocked, Lévy doesn’t laugh. He considers himself sympathetic to the Indian cause, so he asks Means why no one has suggested creating a kind of Yad Vashem of Indian suffering? Why, instead, do Native Americans seem to unite around “the casinos that are a slow-working poison?”
Means response: “I don’t need advice from Zionists; you understand?”
The Indian activist goes on to say that Indians are “the poorest of the poor” in America and the “most diseased people in the Western Hemisphere.” The whole world is against Native Americans.
Back at Canter’s, Lévy argues that this competition among minority groups for “the crown of martyrdom” has mutated into virulent anti-Semitism.
“It’s an absurd, disgusting, ridiculous belief that suffering is like a market, and, in a market, you have a limited number of shares,” he says. “So, if there is a booming share for one community, there will not be for the others. You have some people in America and Europe who believe human consciousness, the human mind is unable to shed tears twice.”
“In the United States, my prediction, my fear is that more and more [minorities] could start to say, ‘Stop with the Shoah, the Holocaust. The more you speak of this past suffering, the less you keep space in the public debate to think about our presence,'” Lévy says.
What about the evangelical Christians? I ask. Are they a danger?
Yes and no, Lévy replies. They say they like us, but offer their friendship for the wrong reasons. He turns to Page 77 in “American Vertigo” and reads: “And beyond all that, what about the brilliant evangelical Protestant idea of the need to ensure a peaceful, faithful, and, above all else, Jewish Israel for the time when the Christian Day of Judgment comes?…. Perhaps I’m wrong. But I wouldn’t like to bet on American support, for the survivors of the Shoah if it comes down to depending, really depending, on an outlook of this sort.”
“Let’s realize we don’t have so many allies,” he later remarks. So let’s take their support; but with a gun under the pillow.”
A sobering thought.
Back in the car, I tell Lévy that, according to the National Jewish Population Study of 2000-2001, the U.S. Jewish population has dipped 5 percent, to 5.2 million, since 1990. Not to worry, he says. The problem of Jewish assimilation dates back to the fall of the Second Temple.
“You see a tendency to come back, and a tendency to withdrawal,” he says.
From the 12th or 13th century until the end of the 18th, Lévy estimates that maybe half of the Jewish population disappeared, some from pogroms by the majority, from conversion and assimilation.
That sweeping statement raises my suspicions. Smart as Lévy is, he occasionally seems to exaggerate for effect, substituting philosophy and opinion for factual analysis. In “American Vertigo,” for instance, he calls Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, “the cradle of a national religion, the new Nazareth.”
A national pastime, maybe, although the shrinking World Series audience might belie that. But a national religion? Only in Yankee Stadium.
Similarly, Lévy opines that Sun City, Ariz., an upscale retirement community that bars children and teenagers, a “gilded ghetto,” in his words, could serve as a model for future planned cities that bar the elderly, gay men, women or Jews. Nice theory, but existing housing laws prevent such discrimination.
Is Lévy right? Did the Jewish population shrink by half from the late Middle Ages to the Enlightenment?
Although the Jewish population did dip to less than 1 million by 1500, disease and illness accounted for the decline more than Lévy’s claim of conversion and assimilation, UCLA’s Myers says. Furthermore, the drop in the Jewish population was consistent with general societal trends. Contrary to Lévy’s assertion of a Jewish population shrinkage that continued until the 18th century, Myers adds, the number of Jews began to rise in the 16th century with medical advances, among other factors.
As we hurry back to the Beverly Hills Hotel for Lévy’s noon interview, I ask him a final question: Is it easier to be a Jew in America or in France?
“It’s not completely comfortable to be a Jew anywhere,” he says. “Don’t believe, my friends, that there won’t be an uneasy tomorrow. You have uncomfortable friends. You have strong enemies. You have new arguments that make it easier to spread anti-Semitism.
“Of course, you will win,” Lévy adds.