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Bernard-Henri Levy in Paris, January, 2016.Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
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The Nouveau Philosophe on ‘The Genius of Judaism,’ the lessons of Jonah, the ‘human excellence’ of cities, and the futility of the fight against global anti-Semitism

David Samuels
January 20, 2017
Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
Bernard-Henri Levy in Paris, January, 2016.Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

If the Jewish people are ever blessed with the opportunity to choose a President, I hope that they would not do so through the means of direct popular elections, which are not particularly Jewish, and often reward cruder forms of mass manipulation. Instead, the will of the people, the amchah, should be represented, in both its current and eternal manifestations by a modern council of sages that would include poets, Talmudic scholars, history professors, architects, sculptors, currency speculators, rabbis, Antwerp diamond dealers, old-school newspaper editors, as well as show-biz types such as Hollywood agents, screenwriters, movie directors, etc., seated together in solemn convocation, like a Jewish version of the Académie française. Bob Dylan would cast a vote, followed in no particular order by Natalie Davis, Stevie Cohen, Adin Steinzaltz, Philip Levine, Chaim Kanievsky, Sergei Brin, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow, Kinky Friedman, Noam Chomsky, Joe Lieberman, Jared Kushner, Philip Roth, Philip Levine, Joe Lelyveld, A.J. Weberman, Aharon Appelfeld, George Soros, Libby Kahane, Scarlett Johannsen, etc., etc., etc.

The Emanuel brothers would share a single vote. Leonard Cohen would get a vote, even though he is dead. So would the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Some might object that while such an assembly of immortals might be a distantly practical idea, it would also be a very bad idea, since it would feed rumors of a malign global Jewish conspiracy that have been active in various forms these days on both the left and the right. My answer is that these rumors and accusations are baseless—and since they have been around since the forgeries of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or the bitter calumnies of Paul, it is hard to see what additional damage such an assembly would do. Perhaps it would help to clear the air. Since the Jews are in fact a people, and a Jewish state exists, though its exact boundaries remain a subject of dispute, a Jewish form of government might be a good thing to try, even though I would personally rather live in a state run by people from Scotland.

What isn’t in question, for me, is the name of the person who would be chosen by my assembly to speak for the entire Jewish people, in its historical, political, cultural, artistic, poetic, erotic, religious and scatological dimensions, ranging from the Middle East to the Americas, Europe, Russia, and Andalusia, tasked with offering political advice to Presidents and Prime Ministers while dining with poets and artists, conversing with beautiful women while paying attention to physicists, and sustaining a passionate, and at times physically risky involvement in political causes that manifest universalist values in particularist guises. Who else could fill such a demanding job with the appropriate intelligence, tact, and range besides Bernard-Henri Lévy?

Perhaps the most worldly of the young French Marxist revolutionaries of the ’68 generation, many of whom were Jewish, who fought for universalist values while warning against the totalitarian attitudes and tendencies that were deeply embedded in communist and Marxist thought, Lévy is an elitist thoroughbred who functions in the world in a remarkably open and egalitarian way. As a young reporter in the Balkans during the wars of the first half of the 1990s, I was inspired by his impassioned commitment to the ideal of a tolerant, multi-ethnic Bosnia, which he spoke for and defended at real physical risk—and to which he brought real political influence as a kind of shadow foreign minister, an unappointed role that he has filled through a succession of socialist governments through a combination of old friendships and moral and intellectual influence, in a way that can only exist in France. Someday, I imagine he will write a play, a version of Rameau’s Nephew, featuring a version of himself talking with Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdžić and the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke in an airport waiting room in Frankfurt on the way back to Sarajevo.

Until he does, I count myself lucky to have enjoyed a very long lunch at Bouley with the leader of the Nouveaux Philosophes, who was wearing a tuxedo jacket and a black cummerbund, with a formal shirt, but no tie or cufflinks, which is an outfit I last saw during daylight hours when I was much younger than either I or BHL is now. The first portion of our conversation lasted for two hours, and consisted of some interesting exchanges of our perceptions of U.S. policy in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere, and the reasoning behind those policies, his old friend Laurent Fabius, and also the chances that Barack Obama, having reshaped the Middle East and the Democratic Party, intends to complete his life’s journey by becoming Secretary General of the United Nations in 2022, an office from which he is barred by Cold War etiquette but not by anything written in the U.N. Charter.

What follows is a lightly edited and abridged version of the less fanciful and more meaningful parts of the conversation that followed, which centered on his engaging new book, The Genius of Judaism.


You wrote a very moving, unexpected passage about the men in black, the Haredim, toward the end of your new book. You say that it’s important to make it clear that ‘I do not disown ultra-Orthodox Jewry. And I do not see them apart from myself.’

No. 1, it’s true. No. 2, I’m tired of the self-sufficiency of the liberal Jews who send to darkness these sort of Jews, and who believe that they embody intelligent Judaism, the Judaism of questioning belief.

I say in this part of the book that the man in black who devotes his life to questioning the Talmud, to returning again and again to a single line of the text, is more liberal, less orthodox, than a so-called liberal who repeats the same approved mantras, even anti-fascism or whatever, like an automaton.

I wanted to use these pages as a lesson of humility for the liberal Jews, who believe that to be a liberal is sufficient in order to be liberal.

Does it ever strike you as possible that the most powerful and most inventive minds of the Jewish people are sitting in a Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, and not in Paris or New York?

What strikes me more, even beyond that, is when the students from Bnei Brak go to the Technion, which is entirely remote from what they have been learning and what they know, that in two years they catch up, and they become the best. This is the striking thing. These minds, bred at Bnei Brak in the very traditional way, as soon as they are put in contact with the most profane, most advanced scientific studies, they excel there, also.

Maybe it’s not “also.” Maybe this way of thinking, of training minds, is like the core of a nuclear reactor. And it’s necessary to have that core in order to keep throwing off sparks. When you remove Jews too far from the living core of Jewish thought, their minds are no longer Jewish minds, and they become just as stupid and conventional in their thinking as everyone else.

This for me is the real lesson. And I know Bnei Brak. One day, when I reported my book about Daniel Pearl, you remember the part about his last words?

He mentions that his great grandfather had a street named after him in Bnei Brak.

So, when I wrote this book, I wanted to see Bnei Brak. So I went there. I spent two days going around, smelling, interrogating, looking. So I know. I discovered that this city, which is supposed to be the very capital of obscurantism, non-knowledge, non-questioning, that as soon as they make contact with secular studies, so many of them excel.

And why? Because their studies are filled with questioning.

Daniel Pearl’s story is an extreme version of the nightmare of all secularized Western Jews. Here’s the nightmare: Someday, I am going to have to talk about Israel, because others demand it of me. As I open my mouth, I can feel myself becoming exactly the kind of person I have worked my entire life not to be—a person who is reduced to a cliché about whether or not the state of Israel is guilty of apartheid or is responsible for all the problems of the Middle East, or whether Jews are the new Nazis.

I could say something. Or I can choose to say nothing. Except, I can’t, because it’s never only—or even primarily—about Israel. It’s part of a larger conspiracy theory. The logic of the theory may target me, but in the end the target is logic.

I am forced to look at it. I can smell it. It’s an open sewer. But I can’t say anything, because then I will no longer be myself. Instead, I will be another parochial, whining, guilty Jew. And every word, true or false, revealing or concealing, that I speak on these subjects will only dig me deeper into this pit, of becoming a person who isn’t me, who is forced to embody someone else’s creepy obsessions. Except if I don’t say anything, I will also cease to be me, perhaps in ways that are more consequential.

That’s a nightmare, right? So when did it happen to you?

The first war in Lebanon, 1982—so 5 years after the beginning of my career as a writer. I felt it necessary to say what I believed, that this reversing of the world between victim and executioner was intolerable. That Jews were not the new Nazis.

I said it once and twice and then over and over again, until today. I knew since 1982, since the beginning of my career, I understood that this would be part of my fate, to repeat these arguments, in the service of morality and truth.

Of course the core of the book is not that. The core of the book is what is it to be the chosen people. The core of the book is knowledge and grief.

But I had to begin with the anti-Semitism. I’m fettered by that.

So, it’s the war in Lebanon or it’s this or it’s that. At some point, if you are honest, and determined to be political, you snap and say “No, I won’t say that.” Or, “I’m going to disagree with what everyone else has decided is fashionable and correct, because it stinks.” And then you have to work the rest of your life as a writer with this wound in your side—a Jewish wound. Who wants that?

For me, it’s a little difficult to say that, because I think, my readers are those who take a little care. So they are obliged to admit that I spent my life not obsessed by Judaism. The biggest involvements in my life have been in favor of Muslim people, in Bangladesh since I was 25 until Kurdistan today, and going through Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and so on.

And that is authentic to who you are, to your family—

It is authentic to the young universalist who I was when I was 20, and to the less young liberal Jew who I am today. For me it does not, it cannot, work without that.

But it’s difficult—

I don’t see any necessary connection between my personal life and my politics, if I have any, but that’s a minority view. Everything must be connected to everything else, which is Stalinist nonsense.

In my generation, the remoteness was at least as important as any personal feeling of closeness. When I went to Bangladesh, I was 23 years old. I had a feeling, to go to the most remote place in the world, to a country with which I had nothing in common. It was an adventurist, universalist action. I did not express it this way at this time, but if I had to say who I had in mind, I would have said André Malraux and Victor Segalen, the poet of the exotisme.

‘The main disagreement is about identity. I don’t give a shit about identity. I don’t give a shit about identity.’

This is how the story happened. Malraux one day in October ’71 made an appeal on the radio, calling for people to go to Bangladesh, and I said, “OK. I’ll go.” And I went to him. I met him. And I went in a vanguard to Bangladesh. I was the only one who responded to his call.

A vanguard of one! You are my favorite of the Nouveaux Philosophes, of course, because you are also a reporter, and you speak so clearly in a voice that I recognize and admire, from Bosnia until now. I admire the fact that you remained engaged in Bangladesh until today, as you also have in Sarajevo. It’s a rare combination of romantic impulsivity and true commitment.

I have always wanted to ask you about Benny Lévy, who you mention in the book, and who seems like one of the most fascinating figures to come out of the ’68 student generation in France, but about whom relatively little information is available. You knew him well?

Yes. He was one of the most legendary figures of my generation, and probably the most intelligent man I met in my life. I first met him in 1967, when we were part of the class preparing to ascend to the École Normale Supérieure. I came from the mathematics college, and I had some weakness in philosophy at this time. My father had the contact who introduced me to a young Normalien who was supposed to solidify my knowledge of philosophy, Benny Lévy.

After we met a few times, I very soon understood, that he did not give a damn about philosophy. He didn’t give a damn about earning $50 an hour. He wanted to make revolution. And he was upset by that and interested only in that.

What kind of family was he from?

His family was a Jewish family from Egypt. He had a brother, who is still living, who is converted to Islam, and is writing very famous books about Arab society and Islam under the pseudonym of Mahmoud Hussein.

There were three brothers by the way. The family escaped Egypt, probably in 1956, during the Suez affair.

Did they have money?

No money. He was a true revolutionary. I imagine the revolutionaries of the past looking like that. Having this sense of secrecy, this sense of being part of a sacred minority, of making history and so on. And then, he went back to Judaism.

But in between—

The scandal, which is the philosophical holdup of the century. He stole the central bank of philosophy.

He drove Sartre, No. 1, to read Jewish texts. No. 2, to say that all his past work was shit. He had Sartre saying that only messianism was the solution to the dead ends in which he had been trapped for 40 years.

How could a young gangster pull off such a big holdup?

He was ingenious. He was not a young gangster, no. He was a real great man.

And you think Sartre recognized that?

Yeah, for sure. Sartre at this time was abandoned by the Sartrians. He was blind. He was considered as finished by his companions of all his life. And he found this young bright Normalien walking with him in an egalitarian way.

This was a time of absolute egalitarianism, between young and old, bourgeois and proletaire. And so Sartre was happy with that. And he read Sartre again through the eyes of Benny Lévy.

Benny Lévy spent days reading for Sartre. Because for Sartre to be blind, think about what that meant.

I remember an encounter I had with Borges, at the end of the ’70s. Maybe ’79, just before his death. Borges was telling me, “You know, blindness is a very special thing. When you are Borges, you know that you will be blind since you were a child. Your father was blind, your grandfather was blind, so you exact yourself to be blind. You make exercises on blindness even when you see. When I was 20, 30, 40, before becoming blind, I was preparing myself. I was exercising to be blind.”

So for Sartre, two things. No. 1, he never expected to be blind, it came on him like a blow. And No. 2, he was a Platonist philosopher. Sartre is the philosopher of today who believed that to think and to look is the same. And for him to become blind was a disaster for which he was not prepared.

Borges told me—this was maybe in 1979, Sartre was still living, there was already rumors of Sartre being blind and walking with Benny Lévy—he told me for this poor guy, for Sartre, blindness must be an absolute disaster. I already prepared myself to find my books. And he says to Benny Lévy, offer him that.

And he offered his huge intelligence. The connection with the two cultures. The study and the learning. The profound sciences and the sacred sciences. He provided that also for Sartre, who deeply respected him and depended on him.

Do you feel that your shared backgrounds as Jews whose families were from Arabic-speaking countries played any role in the strong affinity between you and Benny Lévy? That background would have put both of you at least a little apart from the Ashkenazi French Jews.

I don’t know. Maybe. I could not say that. I can’t speak for him. We were both so universalist, and even more so in our extreme leftist period.

What was it to be a revolutionary in the end of the ’60s? It was to be egalitarian. No Ashkenaz, no Sepharad. No distinctions of any kind. It was a strange time. If abstract universalism has worked once in human history, it was at this time.

I have to wonder emotionally about the difference between that enthusiasm for abstract universalism on the part of people whose families had been taken away to Drancy and had been murdered during the Holocaust. It makes sense, but in part as a kind of desperate gamble. For people whose families weren’t from Europe, the embrace of that principle seems more like a normal part of youth.

Maybe. But what complicates a little the things is a family like mine, when my father was a young communist before becoming a businessman. He was engaged with the international brigades in Spain. He was very involved in the French Resistance. So while he did not go to Drancy, he fought for the salvation of those who went to Drancy.

For my father, I think there was a community of destiny with the people of the camps, yes. Because he spent his youth fighting with weapons against the executioners of these Jews.

What was the moment where you began to perceive the Jewish turn in Benny Lévy’s thought, and how did you respond to it?

I was then a Marxist, but I was far from the core. So I was not close to him at this time as I was to be in the last 10 years of his life. So the impressions that I had were like everybody from outside. When I saw Le Nouvel Observateur coming out with a famous interview of Sartre, and with Benny Lévy obviously leading the old Sartre to the jungle of Jewish texts, I understood. That he was himself completely.

I had one other source of information, which was Emmanuel Levinas. Benny Lévy and me, we saw Levinas exactly the same time, in the same years, ’77, ’78, ’79. And sometimes, in the same days, Levinas acted like a character in, I don’t know—

A French love story.

He saw one in the morning, one in the afternoon.

We had the same last name, we were more or less the same age. We were not friends, we knew each other still this time, when Althusser introduced him to me to solidify that we are not friends, so Levinas took care that we didn’t meet. But I knew. Sometimes I went in the afternoon to Levinas, at his apartment, and he laughed with a baby laugh and said, “Your homonym just left an hour ago.” And the reverse, “You have to go because I am waiting for your namesake.”

He enjoyed the comedy of it, the Levys.

“I see the other Lévy in the afternoon.”

So there was, I knew the first signs of Benny’s turn, which happened exactly at the same time as mine. There were this indicator, this sign, which was the confidences, the little informations provided by Levinas.

And why did the great Levinas choose this particular form of tutoring of these two young revolutionary men, both named Lévy? What was in his mind? Was it his intention to introduce you to older and deeper mysteries than those contained in the works of Karl Marx?

No, it was not about his intentions, because the young men chose him.


I think so. Maybe a lot chose him but he did not accept all of them, I’m not sure. Because then, this was until 1980. And then I did not see Benny until 2000, when I published my book on Sartre. The end of the book is devoted to this relationship between Benny Lévy and Sartre. He wrote to me and called me.

Since 20 years, he was living with the rage of having been banned, insulted by the intellectual community in France, who blamed him for the hijacking of Sartre. And suddenly there was his old comrade, me, who gave him back this history, I think—I don’t want to speak for him. But this was the origin of our new, strong relationship.

And what did this relationship give you, before his untimely death? What did you take from it? I can see from your face it was a—

No. 1, we built something together. We built an institute—the Levinas Institute in Jerusalem with me, himself, and Alain Finkielkraut, even though all three of us by that time represented different worlds.

It’s a suggestive trio—yourself, Benny Levy, and Alain Finkielkraut—these three brilliant young Jewish French Marxist universalists of the ’68 generation who become influential philosophers, but then move over time in these radically different directions. But you are all part of a common, what? How would you define it? That these are all Jewish choices?


Friendship. So it’s a Flaubert story then.

Yes. There was no calculation of embodying tendencies of French Judaism, incarnating this work, no calculation whatsoever.

At the beginning, there was an attempt to, to find an exit to the terrible situation Benny was in with the French university.

Then, a common revolt again the fact that Levinas was unknown in Israel. Not translated.

There was also the common desire to mix, to make sparks between the two wings of our common culture. One, in which we were equally advanced, which was in literature and philosophy, in which Benny was as good as us. And one in which Benny was much in advance, namely Talmud.

Of course, Benny Lévy pretended to have got rid of his interest in literature and philosophy, but that was completely false. His coquetry was to say, “I don’t even know what you are talking about.”

This is part of the foolishness of my secular youth.

But when we had our seminars together, there was really a fire made out of the two. It was sparking.

What are your points of agreement and points of disagreement with what Finkielkraut has been writing for the past 15 years, since Sept. 11? The tendencies of your thought have obviously diverged.

I respect him. He’s one of the French authors today for whom I have real consideration. He’s a good writer, an honest thinker. But I disagree with him about everything.


He’s a thinker, and the main disagreement is about identity. I don’t give a shit about identity. I don’t give a shit about identity.


Identity is a philosophical question that does not interest me. It is a question, but you know.

To me, Identity is a jail. Identity is a limitation of what we are. Identity is a myth. Identity is an illusion. I don’t, I cannot embrace that.

So, it’s more than a disagreement. It’s a political disagreement but beyond that, we don’t ask ourselves the political question at all. For me what is important is the alternative.

[In French.] The alternative is passion. The alternative is the experience of vertigo. The alternative fills me with joy and anxiety.

The Torah is full of the idea that to make cities, to design them, to decorate them, to add to them, is the very image of human excellence.

Identity bores me. I drool with boredom when I have to listen to people talk about identity. So the question he poses doesn’t interest me.

Afterwards, when I look at him, and evaluate who he is, I find him to be courageous.

But when a person choses to speak from the position of identity, you would prefer to eliminate this ground for speaking: “As a …”

And even the obsession with France. I mean, I am sure what happens in France is very important. But it is not the end of the world. All my life, I have resisted the temptations of provincialism.

France bores me very quickly. It’s afraid of America. It’s afraid of Muslims. It’s afraid of Israel. And that has poisoned me against this discourse.

I see the book you have written as a political wrapper around a fascinating meditation on the book of Jonah, in which you seem to have found a mirror for understanding your own existential and moral commitments, in what feels to you like a Jewish and a liberal frame. When did you discover this book?

The book of Jonah is the only book that I knew even when I was totally ignorant, when I was told by my family that it was a waste of time to cast even one eye on the text of the bible. I followed my family’s advice, except for the book of Jonah.

Where did you find this book?

In the bookshelves of my mother, there was an edition, maybe Pleiades, of the Old Testament, which she never read. And inside, I read this little book, this 10 pages, with 41 verses. And it was for me a huge shock.

I was so impressed, so fascinated, so surprised by this story of a man who goes to the worst city on earth in order to save her, knowing that he will not save her, that he will save her but she will not repent. Or if she repents, the repentance will be insincere, and that she would maybe become the worst enemy of his people and nevertheless doing it. This story [in French] plunged me into an abyss of reflection.

And you were how old then?

Maybe a boy, 13, 14, 15 but not more. I was a compulsive reader. I read everything and I fell on that.

How did I, in this huge book, how did I chose exactly this brief text? Maybe because it was so short, I don’t know. But even later, when I began to enter into the science of Judaism, at the time of Levinas, I read so many other things but I always came back to the Book of Jonah.

When did you start carrying it with you?

In Libya. In Benghazi, in Tobruk, in Libya.

In Bosnia, I did not have it. I had a book of Malaparte—

Kaputt, which is a great book. When I was a young reporter in the Balkans, I read that, because I knew it was your favorite. The other great book I carried then was Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon.

Tell me about how you understand the time that Jonah spends saying, “No, I won’t go.” The refusal. Why does he refuse?

Because it makes no sense to go to Nineveh. It makes no sense.

But God told him to go. If you believe in God, why not just listen to him?

No. 1 he is not sure to believe in God so much. No. 2, he believes that you are obliged to obey God when you are on terra firma, but when you are at the sea you are relieved from this obligation. And he believes that God is tempting him, setting a trap for him. Because it can’t be the will of God to go to this enemy city.

It’s not only that he escapes by going to sea with the mariners. He has the feeling that he is doing the right thing. And this is the great hubris of the man. He thinks that he knows better than God what is the real wish, or the real will of God. And the real will of God cannot be to go to Nineveh. God does not mean it.

And so what happens to him inside the sea creature, whether it’s a whale or an octopus?

What happens to him?


Emotionally, modesty.

He begins to understand that you cannot pretend to be the interpreter of the real thought of God. You cannot be that.

You may refuse and die. Or you may follow and go. But you cannot be the one who knows better the design of God than God. This is what probably he understands in the belly of the whale.

And the fact that God sends him to a city isn’t an accident, in your reading.

The God of the Old Testament is pro-cities. He is a metro-addict. He believes that the excellence of habitation, the excellence of the Yeshuv, is the city.

The best thing which men can do is not to take care of the vine, it’s not to cultivate a little garden, but it’s to make big cities.

The Torah is full of the idea that to make cities, to design them, to decorate them, to add to them, is the very image of human excellence.

That is such a strikingly Jewish thought, and yet I don’t associate it with the Bible.

The pagans believe the opposite. For the pagans at the same time or before or after, it’s the opposite. Cities are bad for the pagans. For fascists. For Khmer Rouge, Bosnian Serbs.

Corruption issues from the city.

Of course, and authenticity is in the country. But the Bible says, no. There might be corruption OK, but there is intelligence, there is the possibility of access to the essential. There is a possibility of questioning. It’s better to be in a city. The city is as itself an achievement of humanity.

Toward the end of your discussion of the book of Jonah you have an interpretation from Rav Chaim of Volozhin, the great ancestor of Shimon Peres. And then you have this even more terrible interpretation of Jonah’s mission, which is that it will help the people of Nineveh purify the sword that will be used against the Jewish people. You connect this interpretation to your own work, going to Libya or Ukraine or Iraq, in a way that is not naïve, with your eyes wide open to the anti-Semitic hatred and rejectionism that exists in these cultures, and which you do not excuse.

Putting the eventual opposition to Israel on more serious ground. Not on fantasies and conspiracies, not on transforming Israel as a metaphysical opposite to the new Arab people and so on. Cleaning the sword means to go back to the real ground of the real quarrel that might exist after the fantasies have been cleared away. That is what I hear metaphorically as a clean sword.

It is better for them and for you, for the foundation of their opposition to Israel to lie in reality.

I think so. I don’t believe in universal brotherhood. I think that as long as there is history, which is as long as there is mankind, there will be quarrels, class fights, wars between nations, all of that, and maybe even anti-Semitism. All these are parts of the fatality of the human condition. So get rid of as much as possible anti-Semitism, and go back to political clashes, and so on and so forth.

Many American Jews, those for whom “liberal” has long been synonymous with “Jewish,” have been startled over the past year to feel that forms of anti-Semitism that they once believed were entirely marginal have been gaining in strength while migrating toward the center of both political parties.

One obvious reason for this feeling is the rise of Donald Trump, who is about to take office as President of the United States. Trump’s behavior and public statements have crudely violated basic norms—which is part of his appeal for some. Unacceptable ideas are now acceptable.

But loudly condemning Trump is clearly also a welcome excuse to avoid another troubling reality. American Jews have always believed that anti-Semitism was a defining feature of the right. Now, they must insist on it, even when the claims are exaggerated or false. The American Jewish fear of Nazis marching in Montana is in some part a displacement of an equal or more immediate fear that they will be expelled from the left because they refuse to erase their own history and renounce their attachment to Israel, which makes them Nazis. American Jews are eager to be the right kind of victims—meaning victims of the bad people on the right, and not the good people on the left.

The larger sectarian shift in American politics and social life is even more troubling. Instead of emphasizing universal values and rights, and a shared idea of citizenship, which is so central to the French tradition, and to the socialist traditions that many Jews—including my family and yours—came from in Europe, America has embraced a new kind of identity politics, which is openly and aggressively tribal, and which includes a “white” identity politics of hostility and resentment toward officially-sanctioned “minority” groups. It strikes me that among the big losers here are Jews, who are either not oppressed enough or not white or Christian enough—or else must live apart as a tiny, numerically irrelevant group.

I feel that France has had more experience with this kind of tension than we do. So how do you advise people to respond emotionally and politically to this uncomfortable reality?

This has been one of the greatest illusions of American intellectuals, which is to believe that anti-Semitism was a European specialty. There are two places in the world where there is a belief that fascism and anti-Semitism connaissent pas, is not my affair. The Arab world, and America.


They are not comparable situations, of course. But these are the two places in the world where there is a very grounded belief that anti-Semitism and fascism are a spécialité of Europe and didn’t touch us. In both cases, the belief is false.

In the Arab world, we know, that anti-Semitism is at the root of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamism, and etcetera and al-Qaida. In America, it may be one of the key but unexamined explanations of the political mess that the country is today. This negation of the plot against America.

American anti-Semitism is very strong, at the end of the day. The big Bible of anti-Zionist literature here is Mearshimer and Walt’s book about the Israeli lobby. This kind of argument, about an all-powerful Jewish lobby corrupting American foreign policy, is impossible in France.

Mearshimer and Walt’s book was published in France, but in a very tiny publishing house, with no audience, no readership, no articles.

I was struck by the insistence that this was a serious analysis of American government and politics, and that anyone who didn’t appreciate this important book was themselves displaying some kind of defensive “Jewish” reaction.

I know. This just means that this sort of anti-Semitism was solidly implanted here. I knew it 14 years ago. I’m sorry, but the origins of BDS are here, not in Europe. I lectured at a university in San Francisco, and half the audience were pro-BDS.

Yet they don’t appear to act out of the consciousness of being anti-Semitic. The BDS advocates I have met seem to believe themselves to be pursuing a pure and righteous cause.

Voltaire didn’t have the consciousness of being an anti-Semite. He has a feeling to pursue a noble cause, which was to eradicate the roots of religious superstition.

Racist anti-Semites did not consciously see themselves as anti-Semites, they have the noble task to evolve the human race.

Anti-capitalist anti-Semites would also refuse this labeling. If you told them they were anti-Semitic they would say, “Are you crazy? I am just protecting the humble and the poor.”

Today when Trump says that he wants to fight against the international conspiracy of the elites—I don’t know what were the terms exactly that he used—the network of influence, the global network. He laughed when American commentators told him this is implied anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semites are never conscious of being anti-Semitic. They want to do good. An anti-Semite always is cautious enough to find a good alibi before expressing the anti-Semitic phrase.

Yes—but don’t you feel like you have utterly wasted the last three minutes of your life having to say that? To say any of it? Ever since we started talking about anti-Semitism, I feel a sense of boredom and dread, which comes from wasting time.


That’s always what depresses me so much about anti-Semitism. It’s a waste of time.

Probably. Yeah ,probably.

Then I dislike the people who made me waste three minutes of my precious life.

Yeah and we wasted the last three minutes because we will not convince, I will not convince anybody.

Anti-Semitism obeys strong motivations that are beyond reason or rationality. These motivations just looking for the most rational dressing or cloak, but the root is not rational. So if I convince them, they will find something else.

If you look at societies that have embraced anti-Semitic thinking, you will find that the thing that they have in common is failure. They are failed societies. The connection is a direct one.

Anti-Semitism is a thought-virus. It replaces the real world of things, and causes and effects with a conspiratorial fantasia, in which someone else is always to blame. And societies that can’t deal with reality collapse.

Yes. Wagner, for example, was the biggest theoretician of anti-Semitism in modern history. He wrote a lot of essays, three or four of well-expressed ideological anti-Semitism. What is striking in his book is that it is completely persistent. It is an entire vision of the world. It is not just a stupid passion appearing like a herpes sore. It’s a whole world, explaining music, explaining literature, explaining revolution, explaining why he broke his back, why he is vegetarian, his relationship to animals in nature, his relationship with his wife, with the cosmos and so on. It’s a full explanation of the world. And so you would never reply to that by argument.

It’s hard for Americans to understand, because what people are used to here is the idea that we disapprove of prejudice and bigotry. Who can disagree? It’s bad to be a bigot, it’s bad to be prejudiced, it’s bad to be a racist. There are people who are bigoted against homosexuals, against women, against this group and that. And so, anti-Semitism is bigotry, prejudice, against Jews, right?

And I always say, “No, it has nothing to do with that. Social prejudice against Jews is something completely separate from anti-Semitism.”

And anti-Semitism is not a form of racism.

Anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory.

It’s a theory based in particular on conspiracy.

To put the fight against anti-Semitism as a compartment of the general fight against anti-minority views is missing the point. And I say in the book that it is even the opposite.

The racist hates me because I am different. An anti-Semite hates me because I am the same. The racist hates me because my difference is visible. An anti-Semite hates me because my difference is hidden.

Yes, but I hate that we are having this conversation in New York in 2017. It’s like bad science fiction, which is the most boring genre of literature, because we’d always rather imagine a different future than the one we see on the page.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.