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Israel’s Genius, and Its Bad Shepherds

The Jewish state is an idea, which is why it will survive its present crisis

Bernard-Henri Lévy
March 21, 2023
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Protests in Rehovot, Israel, March 18, 2023Amir Goldstein/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

I love Israel.

I’ve loved it since day one, just after the 1967 war, when I discovered this unknown land where everything spoke to me in secret.

I love the miracle of this country, born of a publicist’s passion for a history that he knew very little about; baptized with a name from psalmists and poets who knew nothing of what makes a nation; built by practical dreamers who, while resuscitating Hebrew, realized this other miracle, which was the invention of one of the only true social contracts in history (“we decide to be a republic, therefore we are one”—who else dared, except maybe America?).

I love Israel when I feel it’s a refuge for persecuted Jews, and I love it when it’s being menaced, stigmatized or demonized by adversaries who, by arms or words, intend to weaken or destroy it.

And, unlike France, which after six years of war with Algeria suspended some of its fundamental liberties, or the United States, which needed only six weeks after September 11 to pass their Patriot Act, I love that Israel, even at war, not after six years or six weeks, but since the very day of its birth, i.e., for 75 years, has never removed its freedoms or ceased to be a democracy.

Which brings me to my worry, and my anger, before the political and moral crisis currently shaking the country.

Here, we see a minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who wishes to install the death penalty, thereby showing his ignorance of elementary Talmudic principles (“Bloody is the Sanhedrin that passes a death sentence once every 70 years”).

Here we have a representative, chair of the National Security Commission, who proposes criminal immunity for active soldiers, thereby insulting the very idea of Tohar HaNeshek, the purity of arms, which is the honor of the men and women of the IDF, and which they have never—as I’ve witnessed from the first Lebanese war to the conflict with Hamas—accepted to renounce.

And there is the minister Bezalel Smotrich, whose hatred of the LGBT community, Arab citizens, and secular Jews knows no bounds (without mentioning his desire to “wipe out” the Palestinian village of Huwara, where a terrorist had assassinated two civilians and where punitive expeditions had already ransacked the place).

And now, as I write, there is the desire to destroy the keystone of the political system, the Supreme Court.

From David Ben-Gurion to the early Benjamin Netanyahu through Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, I’ve known almost all of the prime ministers of Israel.

Some because they were heirs to the Enlightenment, others because they had learned from the French and American revolutions that no power is intended to be absolute (even that of the people), and still others because they had true biblical culture and knew the history of the Hebrew kingdoms and their sovereignty shared between judges and monarchs—none would have ever seriously considered infringing on the fundamental laws of the state.

So will today’s sorcerer’s apprentices reach their goals?

Happily, nothing is less certain.

The winds of revolt are rising, from within Israel, against these suicidal tendencies.

IDF fighter pilots who refuse to participate in trainings …

Marine reservists who, to state their rejection of a democracy in the style of Poland or Hungary, block the port of Haifa …

Higher ranks of the Mossad who aren’t afraid to speak, at times openly, of the risk of a constitutional putsch …

So many heroes and defenders of the country who, one after the other, make known that they would disobey orders that might put the security, identity, and democratic regime of their country in jeopardy …

And then the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who take to the streets to recall that their parents and grandparents had liberated a people that was, until then, defenseless before the slings and the arrows of man—and that they did not make their sacrifices for the tale to end with the caricature of the Jewish genius that are today’s “religious parties” …

That is the spirit of Zionism.

Here is the magnificent civil society that is the beating heart of Israel.

And it is these living forces that Jews and their friends everywhere must, at all costs, encourage.

For this, we must keep two convictions in mind.

First, that Israel has overcome so many crises that there is little doubt about the outcome of this one, and also that in the long history of this young nation, the evil shepherds have amounted to little.

Second, that if I happen to be wrong, and the winds of nihilism should blow for a time, if Herzl’s metaphysics would seem to be engulfed in the most dire politics, then we should neither give in to discouragement nor fall into the slyly laid trap set by those of bad faith. There is an idea of the United States. Or of France. Or of Italy. Or of any other country. It always survives its disfigurations. And so would Israel. Outraged, yes. Abused. Damaged. But ever alive.

Translated from the French by Matthew Fishbane.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 45 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His forthcoming book, Israel Alone, will be released on Sept. 10, 2024.

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