Friday, August 18, 2006

Questions For Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy, a French philosopher and writer, is the author, most recently, of “American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville" and an essay in The Times Magazine about Israel and Lebanon. He recently answered readers' questions about the current state of the Mideast conflict.

Q. 1. Why do you only paint your story from the point of view of Israelis? Why do you assume that Hezbollah is an organization that is not wanted by the people of Lebanon, if they provide services, have elected representatives, and are the only ones able to defend their country?
— Cornelius Diamond, La Jolla, Calif.

A. Three questions in one, dear Cornelius. First, why the Israeli viewpoint? Because only the other viewpoint is seen and I do not like conformism, much less injustice. In other words, it's okay to criticize Israel and debate the strategy adopted by the military command, which is not necessarily the right one. But-a little equity, please — let one begin by listening to what Israelis say and looking at what they are enduring: that's what I did in this reporting. Next: Isn't Hezbollah "wanted by the people of Lebanon"? Don't they "provide services" and "have elected representatives"? Yes, of course, there is no dispute about this, but since when would that be contradictory with the fact of being totalitarians and even perfect fascists? Wasn't Hitler — even though it's not comparable — democratically elected? Didn't Mussolini provide the Italian people every possible service? Indeed, isn't that in a general way the precise definition of fascist populism? Things get complicated with your third question and the idea that the people of Hezbollah are "the only ones able to defend their country." I hope you are joking! For in truth Hezbollah has been bleeding Lebanon and has literally taken it hostage and taken its own people hostage, turning them into human shields with mind-boggling cynicism — a bizarre way to "defend" a country.

Q. 2. Why do you say "Inevitable War"? It is inevitable and endless because of your attitude. How do you feel about committing Israel to endless war?
— Mark Ravitz, Santa Barbara, Calif.

A. I do not say "endless." I say "inevitable," which does not at all mean the same thing as "endless." And I say "inevitable" for the simple reason that Hezbollah, and thus Iran, have decided on it. The arsenal on the Israeli border, the bunkers, tunnels and missile launchers, this entire offensive apparatus predicated on, as clearly proclaimed by Iran, the will to "wipe Israel off the map" means precisely that: one day or another, war - a war that Israel did no more than anticipate, for it knew that in a year or two such a war would be yet more difficult, yet more costly in lives, and yet more uncertain for an Israel threatened in its very existence. Forgive me for insisting on "threatened in its very existence," but that is what is at issue. And herein lies the difference between this war and a war linked to the Palestinian question. The latter would have the practical goals of war, and were Israel to come to some kind of agreement with its adversaries on the settlement of the Palestinian question, war would be avoided. Hezbollah's war, on the other hand, is a war of a new kind, which no longer has any real tie to the Palestinian question or any concrete question whatsoever, and on that account is a war that I wish to say is non-negotiable.

Q. 3. Very simply, I have always wanted to know why the moderate Muslim voices have not been screaming full throttle against the fanatical stranglehold of these Islamic fascists? Is it really fear for their own safety, do they agree with there radical brethren, do they have any power to reign in the terrorists who threaten the entire planet? Many thanks for a clear and brilliantly written article.
— Anita Bensabat, Montreal, Quebec

A. There certainly is fear. There is the fact that a moderate Muslim or, worse, a secular Muslim is someone who is genuinely in mortal danger in some countries. Look at the number of Arab intellectuals and intellectuals in the Asian Islamic world who at the time of the Rushdie affair felt immediate solidarity with their English colleague but could not or did not dare say it! That's the reason, moreover, that it's so important for us Westerners to proclaim our solidarity with moderate Islam loud and clear, with this Enlightened Islam that does not dare declare itself in the face of the ambiant terror. For those Muslims who are faithful to this kind of Islam and do battle on the front lines, so to speak, against criminal fundamentalism, our support is vital. It is one of the last reasons they have for not falling into despair.

There's something else as well. It's the eternal rivalry between what in France we call the Girodins and the Montagnards, the moderates and the hardliners, the partisans of compromise and the apostles of violence or simply of radicality. We have known since 1789 that it is the latter who most often defeat the former. We know that there is a frightful prestige associated with the radical spirit. More precisely: we know that there is a terrible seductiveness, an ideologial and symbolic advantage, that goes with the Montagnard spirit. That, I think, is what is happening in the Muslim world today.

Q. 4. It's clear that you believe Israel is at a crossroads, as it begins to see a new threat to its very existence unveil itself. I think that the Iranians should be credited for their incredible honesty. If your enemies wish to annihilate you, it's good to know that for a fact. My question to you is whether you believe Europe will at some point in the near future realize that it isn't only Israel that now finds itself at a crossroads, but the entire world? When I read that Mr Zapatero was overheard saying he understands why the Nazis did what they did to the Jews, I despair. But setting leaders with no backbone like Mr. Zapatero aside, what will the brighter minds of Europe do?
— James Basman, San Francisco, Calif.

A. You are absolutely right. This war is not Israel against Hezbollah, but the democracies against neototalitarianism and, in particular, an Iran which is trying to take ideological and political leadership over it. That's what makes the war so important and makes it so crucial, for everyone, that Israel win or at least not come out of it weakened. This is what I meant at the beginning of my article when I evoked the Spanish Civil War. A war as a general rehearsal. A war where all must be done so that it not be for our generation what the Spanish Civil War was for our elders.

Q. 5. I am struck by a common thread now emerging in reporting, that Hezbollah and similar movements feed upon shared feelings of anger and humiliation. There are thousands of references online and in print, many pointing out that such Muslim feelings are key to the rise of Islamic Fascism and Iranian President Ahmadinejad's call for Israel to be wiped off the map. Do you think this is correct?
— Janet Haigh, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

A. I am rather dubious when it comes to this longstanding, recurrent explanation in terms of Arab humiliation. Or, let's accept it on the condition of adding that Germans in the 1930s also felt humiliated (by the Treaty of Versailles). And on the condition of adding that that did not excuse, so far as I know, Nazism! For indeed there lies the problem, namely, the ulterior motives of people who tell us about humiliation and put it at the source of the fascism of Muslim inspiration. Someone who is humiliated has an excuse for what he does. Someone who is humiliated is only half guilty of his crimes. He is pitied not condemned. Now, Arab or Muslim fascism deserves, in my view, to be condemned just like any other fascism. It is, moreover, what Arabs themselves are expecting from us. It's what the antifascists of the Arab and Muslim world-and they are numerous-are hoping for. They, of all people, know that this discourse of humiliation is a red herring and an evasion of the real problems. See Paul Berman's theses. It's all there.

Q. 6. Do you, as an intellectual in France, feel that you are afforded more credibility in speaking out and writing in support and understanding of Israel than other Jews who seem rather too intimidated by French anti-Semitism to speak out and be visible in French society?
— Deidre Waxman, Newton, Mass.

A. I don't even understand what you are saying! For me, anti-Semitism is a form of terrorism and the very idea of letting myself be intimidated by any terrorism whatsoever completly horrifies me. Jewish or non-Jewish, intellectuals must speak out. Jewish or non-Jewish, they have a duty to truth. And, conversely, to tell them-or tell oneself-"A Jew has, because a Jew, a duty to reticence" would be to give into anti-Semitic terrorism. Not my style. I want to add that my defense of Israel is not so closely tied as you perhaps think to the fact that I am Jewish. There is an element of that, of course. But it is certainly not the essential. I defend Israel because I defend democracy. I defend Israel because I have a horror of all fascisms. I defend the Israelis in this war as in the past I have defended other peoples who have nothing to do with Judaism. Bosnia, for example. The Bosnian Muslims whom I defended, I believe, with no less ardor or passion.

Q. 7. Yesterday, at a bat mitzvah, I was discussing the war with fellow peaceniks who had just returned from visiting their in Israel. What struck me was how confused they were about the war. That was the word they used, confused, to describe their feelings of ambivalence. No longer could they feel that Israel should put down its weapons. They felt conflicted because of the real threat from Iran. But my question as a child psychiatrist, a pacifist, and a Jew is: what about the effects, on both sides, on generations to come? Will we ever be able to have children, both Israel and Arab, grow up without trauma? My concern is that the traumatization leads to fear of, and therefore hatred of, the Other, so that future violence is guaranteed. How can we stop this cycle without putting Israel at risk of annihilation? —Celeste Wiser, M.D., Napa, Calif.

A. Everyone is "confused." Inevitably "confused." If only because this is a war of a new kind that is led by a historical actor that is itself different from what we have known in the past. Take a look at Hezbollah. It has the strength of a State without being a State. It has all the advantages of a terrorist State while simultaneously having the workings of a criminal NGO of the al Qaeda-type. In other words, its organization, including its military strategies and tactics, constitutes a relatively unprecedented synthesis. And that is inevitably disorienting.

Q. 8. Has this war tipped the balance of European sympathy more to the Israeli side? Are people there preparing themselves for the possibility of a much larger conflict?
— Joshua Salafsky, Burlingame, Calif.

A. This war is a bit like the developing solution used in the old darkrooms. At first the image is blurry. Pale and blurry. And then the shadows, contours, tints and half-tints, and contrasts gradually emerge, and the latent image that was seen without being seen is suddenly revealed and fixed. That's what is happening at this moment. Whether regarding the nature of Hezbollah; the state of moral and political corruption of a largely Hezbollized Lebanon; Iran and its geopolitical game and nuclear ambitions ; or the slipping of moderate Islam toward fundamentalist Islam and, within this, at the heart of this sectarian international in the making, the slipping of the Arab zone of Islam toward the Asian, or Indo-European, zone where Iran aspires to be the hegemonic power-this war functions as a magnifier and revealer. At least, I hope so.

Q. 9. I'd be interested in your view on a couple of issues: The confusion of the American/Israeli identities in France in light of rising anti-semitism, the interchangeable use of "Jew" and "Israeli" in the French media, the difference between the words "colon" in French and "settler" in English, and lastly your views on the difference between the representation of this "new" conflict in the French European and American medias.
— Don Device, Paris, France

A. As with the media, I do not want to globalize. Contrary to the impression sometimes given by the American press, neither public opinion nor the political class in France is globally anti-Semitic. There are some limits that are being breached, to be sure. And there is a certain loosening of speech that one didn't feel ten or twenty years ago. It can even be said that we are witnessing in France as elsewhere the construction of a new anti-Semitic machinery based on the three pillars of anti-Zionism, historical revisionism, and the obsessive competition over victim status. But it cannot be said that France has for all that become a country unlivable for Jews. It cannot be said that the country's political institutions have yielded in the face of pressure. Quite the contrary. And I would even add that this mechanism I am speaking of, this new machinery, this way of saying that Jews are guilty of (1) supporting the "criminal State" of Israel, (2) exaggerating the degree of their suffering through an alleged "religion of the Shoah," and (3) blocking, through their own tears and grief, the attention that the tears and grief of other peoples deserve-all this, I want to stress, you find in the United States at least as much as in France. That's right!

Q. 10. I wonder what impact you think women's voices and feminism in its multiple forms have on the way our modern cultures are facing the terrorist/facist rage of Iran/Syria/Hezbollah/Hamas. Do you think their rage against "democracy," "the west," and "Jews" for all of these are in fact diverse and multiple is at all connected to how they view women? Freedom of choice? Dialogue? I do not mean this to be a simplistic question. Somehow, in the words of war and peace throughout time, but especially post-911, I see some connections.
Jodi Tharan, California

A. Obviously yes. The question of women is at the heart of the problem. It is there, if I dare say, negatively in the sense that the hatred of women has always been at the heart of all the fascisms, including this fascism in particular (the phobia toward the feminine and its supposed impurity, the sexual panic, the fear of actual women: consider Mohammed Atta, the other 9/11 terrorists, or my portrait of Omar Sheikh, the organizer of Daniel Pearl's kidnapping). And it is easy to deduce that this question has an importance in the positive sense as well, in that women can be, and often are, a factor of resistance. Consider the democratization of Morocco: it happens via family laws and the rights that King Mohammed VI has courageously given women. Consider Algeria and the role that women played in the 90s in the resistance to the religious fanatics of the Islamic Salvation Front and the Armed Islamic Group. Consider the heroism of Afghan and Pakistani women.

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