These Latin words inevitably remind me of my years in France’s preparatory classes, in Paris, when I was studying for the entrance exam for the École normale supérieure and I was devouring Latin as the Jews of Netanya and Jerusalem, faithful to the lesson of Ezekiel, nourished themselves with the Hebrew square letters.
But, since I am here, in the country of the Jews, please allow me to forget for a minute, this stiff Latin of the academies and clerics.
You might even allow me to forget the Universitas Studiorum with its imperial togas and glorious memories, and rather to borrow from another nobility, one with other accents, and with differing mysteries of thought and knowledge.
And you might permit me to employ a word, in another language, yours, ours, and which, perhaps because I was for too long and too powerfully thrown into the Latin cauldron, alas I do not yet master, which serves this Latin honor—and this word, this synonym, or this quasi synonym, is, you know better than me, the Hebrew word kavod.
Except that there is a nuance, even a difference, between “honor” and “kavod.”
And this difference, it’s that to receive “kavod” brings you, as when you receive an “honor,” joy and pride—but there is, in kavod, a dimension of weight, of burden, of gravity and, moreover, of responsibility that, I believe, only the genius of the Hebrew language associates with honors.
This means that accepting this doctorate, tonight, is to receive from my friends of Netanya, a place among them.
It is to receive, as at the Universities of Bar Ilan and Tel Aviv and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a chair at your table to carry out, alongside you, our common work.
But it is also to be tasked with a significant responsibility.
What is this?
The one each Jew is honored with when he or she connects with this dimension of “exultation,” of “difficult liberty” or even more, of the demanding “choseness” which is the ultimate word in Judaism.
The one that the Jews invented when, even before arriving home, on the hills of Mount Sinaï, they recognized themselves as a treasured people, an Am segula, this unique and singular people which I demonstrated, in The Genius of Judaism, is secretly working, in the “attics of the King,” and for centuries and centuries, towards a masterpiece which is the most difficult of all and for which they are the only ones to have heard all of the requirements.
Each Jew has a responsibility to do this work.
And tonight, because of the doctorate you have kindly bestowed upon me, my responsibility, my kavod, is a little larger.
Again, what is it?
It is a work of attention and expanded intelligence bound to the stars but also concentrated, as with a Talmudic reasoning, on a millimeter of fabric where one has to disentangle the wool and linen, the vegetative and the animal hide.
It is a work of gravity and of laughter combined—for without laughter, one is not serious; for without despair, one does not laugh; as Kafka laughed reading the charges of his trial; as Philip Roth laughed while decrypting the crazy ribbon of our strange and insane modern lives; and as stated in the tractate of the Talmud, Avodah Zarah, God laughed three hours a day with the Leviathan.
It is a work of humanity, pity and strength intertwined, infinite sadness and a pride no less endless: Nietzsche (who, by the way, was, whatever people may say, more a friend of the Jews than an admirer of Germanic culture) said so well that there is not true pride without gentleness and goodwill, nor real commiseration without force and power!
And it is the work of this country where I am today, which honors me, and where I have, as of this evening, a bit more responsibility—this is the miracle of the Jewish spirit which has become a site, a framework, a stage offered to and delivered for the Jewish endeavor.
Our ancestors had aspired to this with a sublime fervor, century after century, persecution after persecution.
They whispered in each other’s ears, the eve of Passover, at the end of the Haggadah—by that time, aroused from the wine and the dormancy of the Cossacks, they finished by singing and dancing to this dream.
Next year in Jerusalem, they sang in a melody learned as much through efforts of thought and study as by the melting pot of experiences and trials.
Well, here we are.
And to find myself, today, honored, kavodized, gives me a responsibility, which has, as it concerns the nations and the Jews, two distinct shapes and, I believe them to be, complementary.
The first responsibility, which today’s ceremony obliges me to take on, more than ever, is as an advocate for Israel before the nations.
Because you know the situation, do you not?
Israel which was conceived as a refuge country for all Jews of the world, Zionism which was designed as a national liberation movement, equally noble and successful, has become for three-quarters of the planet a word of abomination.
By what obscure perversion of spirit and heart could the enemies of the Jewish people, have found, in the word of “Tsion, or of “Zion,” which is one of the most glorious words in Hebrew, the name for vice, calamity, catastrophe, naqba?
By what sinister irony of history could the flame of their hate have been rekindled by contact with this young-old land, of this alt-neu Land of Moses Mendelssohn, which has been that of the Jews for three thousand and 70 years and which our prophets, our sages, our kings and, also, our policymakers have not ceased to say, throughout History, that Israel is a land of redemption for all of humanity?
How can the global stage of commentary and of virtuous preaching, how can new spaces where bells are rung and which are, no longer the churches of olden days, but the universities of England, America, of France, and of Egypt, how can the social networks of Europe, Turkey, or Russia, how has this entire world come to reorchestrate their tunes on the harmonies of anti-Zionism, the old litany of the anti-Semitic malediction?
This is a known affair of which I have, here and elsewhere, often spoken of.
I will only add, on this occasion, one point to the story which I only precisely realized today.
I think that this country, which the Jews won from hard-fought battles, this country which they received the day after the most unforgettable crime every perpetrated in the history of humanity, was given to them begrudgingly.
I believe that, in the fairground of the vanities of History, in the contorted and howling madness of the world, the land of Israel was, in the eyes of many men who remain our enemies even if they feign to be no longer, a consolation prize, a cardboard cutout, similar to the cheap plastic of water guns won in cereal box games.
And I believe that this slice of arid land, cut from the ancient Ottoman Empire, and where no one could have imagined you would make the most fertile of gardens, most knew, from the first instant that this was a tragic place where another people also lived and that, in the customary logic of nations, each people should have a land as each land should have only one people—I think the world knew that it would not take much for this gift to become a trap and this garden of delights, as depicted in Hieronymus Bosch’s work, a hell where we would be viewed, with the curiosity of sadistic and gourmand entomologists, going from one circle to the other.
But this is not our topic today.
The task of the day is how to respond to this demonization, this stigmatization, this disinformation.
The task is to remember that, from this dry and decent land ready, as a great French poet noted, for the most terrible fires, Zionism created a valley flowing with honey.
The task is to take this occasion, this kavod, as a reminder, again and again, that what took form on this land, this miracle, without precedent in the history of recent humanity, is a general will, therefore a social contract, generated overnight, fully armed, thanks to the poetic and political imagination of a handful of legislators.
The task, the only task is to hammer home that what has been built here, to use a word from today, is one of the very rare and true multiethnic societies known in modernity; it is, therefore, to repeat to the deaf who do not wish to hear, and to the blind who do not wish to see, that what was thus implemented, here, one of the truly rare countries where, immediately, without many tumbles or errors, took birth this multiculture, this tolerance towards the other, this respect of otherness and, in particular, of what we call minorities, that is the Holy Grail upon which all democracies thrive: Do you know so many other countries where women and men coming from Western and Eastern Europe, from two Americas, from Arab and Asian countries, from Ethiopia, from Russia, I skip over others, joined together to say “we are a society” and where it worked? And have we sufficiently considered the fact that the Arab minority of this society is represented, in the Knesset, with a number of elected officials unimaginable, alas, in a country like France and that the Arabic language continues to be, 70 years later, an official language of Israel?
My responsibility, the reply to this kavod, is to continue to remind the world that, in general, it takes a few months, as was the case of America after Sept. 11, or a few years, as in France during the Algerian War, for a state of war to create a state of exception and for this state of exception to produce a state of emergency which authorizes itself to suspend some of the civil liberties which are the honor and the kavod of democracies. Yet Israel has been in a state of war, not for several months, nor for several years but for decades, indeed, in reality, and to be completely precise, since the day of its birth, and the laws and pillars of the democracy are still intact, essentially undiminished: freedom of the press and expression; the vitality of checks and balances; justice marches on with strong and tenacious power; cities with Arab majorities who, when the war intensifies, enter into a state of quasi-secession without Israel ever seriously considering, other than for certain extremist factions, to stifle the rights of each citizen; and finally an army which, up to and including the last and disastrous events in Gaza, has remained loyal, whatever anyone says, to the rules of engagement and whose ethics, high moral requirements and prudence are admired by observers of good faith.
My responsibility, dear friends, is to state all this to those who do not tire of demonizing Israel.
And my responsibility will be to push forth the idea that, we Jews, who are gathered here, this evening, are the custodians, the witnesses, the friends, of a society which, against the winds, tides, and often necessary wars, remains democratically exemplary.
Return of the era of monsters.
We see them, everywhere, pricking up through muzzles, gleaming their fangs, sharpening their claws.
Everywhere, yes, the world stage sees the return of dictatorships, eyes beginning again to circle in the orbits of democrateurs and there are, everywhere, crises, misconduct less and less controlled, blind massacres.
And yet, we are not there.
Israel does not play on this field.
And as far as this extreme event, unprecedented in modern history, in which desperate mobs, heated and energized by barbaric tyrants, marched to the border of a country with the firm intention to break through and scatter death around, it is the honor of the Israel Defense Forces to have reacted—yes!—with measure and scruple.
But with the honor of this kavod, my friends, I have a second responsibility.
And, this second responsibility, it is to directly address to Israel, through all of you and beyond, the anxiety I occasionally feel about our future.
I am concerned when I see, for example, nationalism revived, everywhere in the world, grumbling, shaking, and thumping and when I see some Jews in Israel who seem prepared to fall into the trap in which we would become, in the reductive sense that our long existence has contributed to destroy, a nationalist nation.
I am worried when I see technology designing, in the West, but also in Russia, in China, and elsewhere, the contours of a new inhumanity and when I hear Israelis proud, rightly so, to be at the forefront of this innovation but not always completely sure how to turn this into an opportunity for good: Will they continue to make, as it is for the moment, tools to save humans, to repair the body and mind, to enliven the deserts even further—or will they be part of the new and terrifying laboratory of transhumanism that is invading most of the planet.
I am troubled when I see profound knowledge, thought and speech tragically diminished on all the global platforms and when, here, in Israel, I see some of my friends hesitating between two paths: remain the people and country of the Book of Scriptures and oral traditions, of logic and inspiration, of prophecy and paradox with no end, a Book immensely simple and prodigiously complex, a Book clear as an Appelfeld phrase and impenetrable as a circular thought from Kafka—or accept (I know what I am talking about) that bookshops close, that publishing houses disappear and that the desert of subculture and its new-speak emerges triumphant.
I am anxious when I remember the pioneers who were also poets and who wished that Israel would remain the name after the man who was tasked, by the angel, with fighting men and gods— yes, I am anxious when I remember the founding texts of Zionism which saw in Israel, if not the homeland, at least the ally of all men who are strangers in their lands, just as our first ancestors have been in theirs: Shall we be faithful to them or might, here also, the sacred law of egoism carry the day over Levinassian holiness? At the moment I speak to you, Israel remains, one of the principal backers of the Kurds who are still denied their existence as a nation and as citizens; it remains this generous country where the most prestigious of prizes, the Genesis Prize, went, last year, to the refugee cause and, in particular, to Syrian displaced persons; it remains the star, near and far, which in the night, guides so many victimized peoples, in the heart of Africa for example, through wars forgotten and atrocious where mass graves are impossible to count; Israel is, and we do not know this enough, one of the countries quickest to come to the aid, with resources, clinics, NGOs, and soldiers, of the injured in Syria’s war against civilians, of the parched of Puerto Rico and Sierra Leone, of the earthquake victims in Mexico, Nepal, Haiti, Turkey, of the ill in hospitals in Safed and Tiberias and of the wounded Palestinians in Gaza. But can we do more? Better? Why take so long, for example, to recognize the genocide of which our Armenian brothers were victims? And don’t you feel, here or there, the winds and conflicting voices which begin to wonder if it is not time to clear out this beautiful but “pointless” Jewish humanism?
In short, I am worried when I have the feeling that this land that I love and admire could be tempted to forget that it was given to its inhabitants to shelter, not a nation like the others, as fallible as others, as erroneous, but a singular, exceptional and, again, exemplary nation.
And finally, needless to say, I am struck by the drama of what has been happening, for weeks now, in Gaza.
My thoughts go, each Friday, to the Jewish families, neighbors of the border, who see their fields burned by incendiary bombs of Hamas, their schools targeted by its rockets and who live under the fear of this horror: They are well placed to know that Hamas’ calls are not just simple words but that they are meant to kill.
But my thoughts also naturally go to the Palestinians themselves: these Palestinians out of breath and hope, crushed by misery, these Palestinians so adroitly manipulated by their local leaders and by outside suzerains that they come—and it breaks the heart—to use their own children as bombs and human shields.
This anguish, this is the distress of the Jewish soul which has been so exposed to suffering that she is unable to resolve herself to inflict it.
This is the dread of the Jewish soldiers, often nearly just children, who I know are too humane to be cruel, to become intoxicated by their own force and to ignore that to fire on people, and to kill, is to violate all the commandants that they received.
This is the anxiety of the Jewish people who, while, everywhere in the world, death speaks in its loud and sinister voice, reminds himself of his history and ponders the limits of what one cannot overcome when you are the people whose life line, somber and luminous, has been so often attacked and shattered by death.
In an Orient overrun by the pride of death given and received, in this region where massacres add up, each day, in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, sometimes even more, I feel and hear the anguish of this people, mine and yours, who devoted blood, sweat and tears to remain loyal, throughout centuries, to the promise of intelligence and the justice proclaimed in the Torah and the Talmud and who, today, in front of the Gaza events, recalls Leviticus: “Do not hate your brother in your heart—scold him, admonish him, but do not hate him”; or the verse of Zechariah which haunts me these last days and sends me back to the depths: “Not by power, not by force, by my spirit”; or the sublime Psalm of King David who, having led Israel to a level of power never to be found again, is reminded that it is in the Name, and not only in might, that she must obtain her force and find her support.
And finally, forgive me if I am not very “diplomatic”—I cannot prevent being terrified with this gruesome confluence of events: on one side, young soldiers charged upon by a suicide army, and forced to fire on a crowd who, high on a hatred which, even more so than their suffering, nourishes the resentment which one day will have to be overcome in order to share the land and live together; and on the other side, at the exact same moment, the spectacle of a new Ahasuerus giving the world the festive performance which was not that of the beginning of the Book of Esther but instead resembled in many ways, alas, the meal eaten with the untouchable objects and cutlery of the Temple.
This anxiety, my friends, never leaves me.
It is as present in me as the joy and pride to be a Jew.
Or my awareness of belonging to a singular people, to the Am segula, to this unique and paradoxical people—that of Rabbi Akiva when he was subjected to a Roman combing and still chanted the Shema; and of Joseph Roth who became Christian while praising the name of Israel; and of Herzl who cried tears of despair like young Moses over Jewish suffering without so much as touching upon the Hebrew language; and of Bernard Lazare who died in the misery of having saved Captain Alfred Dreyfus after having been a flourishing anti-Semite; and of my friend Benny Lévy who, after having been, as he liked to say, one of the inventors, in the Western consciousness, of the Palestinian people, came to Jerusalem to study intensely every day, boundlessly, infinitely, to the point that perhaps he still studies today, wherever he is.
Or my unconditional love of Israel, this human adventure composed of audacity, bravery, romanticism, socialism, nationalism, madness, but also of sincere memories rekindled, between pious Jerusalem, modern Tel Aviv and French Netanya.
But, because the love of the Jewish people and of Israel is as deep in my heart as it was on my first days here, I believe in this perpetual miracle which is, when put to the test, the strength of the Israeli democracy.
These treasures of solemnity and of contradictions that, in their heyday, literature knew how to say, music how to sing, painting how to paint, everywhere I see them wavering—but in Israel, against all odds, they hold strong.
In messianic times, one said, the whole land of Israel will be Jerusalem, and the entire world will be the land of Israel.
What this fable means, my friends, is that the Jewish undertaking contains truth and humanity, intelligence, and inspiration, for us, Jews, but, also, it holds meaning for and involves all the others in the world.
All to say that the Jews gathered here, tonight, and also those who are not here, are the depositaries of this little flame called hope—but this small flame blazes, and should burn, beyond us all.
This was the thesis of old Jean-Paul Sartre in his final interview (L’Espoir maintenant) with the young Benny Lévy.
This is the attribute accorded to us by the Islamologist Louis Massignon when, in one of his last texts, he considered that charity was the privilege of the Christians; faith, that of the Muslims; and hope that of Israel.
And this, the fact that “Zionist” remains and must continue to remain one of the names of hope, the fact that to be a Jew, to be an inhabitant of this country which is not only a land but an area of Spirit and nearly of Being, it is to be called upon to hold, as high as one can, the name and flag of the Human, it is that we should, absolutely never, under no circumstance, even in the midst of tragedy or at a dead end, forget.
One last word, my friends and, henceforth, thanks to this doctorate, my companions in knowledge and study.
Chatam Sofer, one of the Jewish masters of the modern era, analyzed the initials of those in the Jewish lineage who received and transmitted until us the treasure of the Torah.
It is a thread that, starting from Levi, son of Jacob, went to his son Qeat, and onto his son Amram, and to his son Moses.
But do you know what name is composed with the first letters of this distinguished line? It is the name Amaleq. It is, inherent, like a watermark in our lifeline equally spectacular and delicate, the name of our worst enemy.
You know this.
We all know this.
We know it and we do not tremble.
On the contrary, this certainty of a persistent hardship arouses our courage and our bravery.
These combats for humanity that you and me, each of us, must assume, also because we are Jews, it is always under the iron eye of our accusers that we have to fight them.
We can even smile at him just like we see the young Jew smiling at the Nazi who is cutting off his beard in the photo chosen by Benny Lévy for the publication of the translation, by his wife Léo, of his book, Célébration dans la tourmente.
If he is smiling it is because he knows that he will not concede.
And, not satisfied just not to yield, he knows that he will triumph—as it is said in the Midrash: Isn’t the lineage of Jacob compared to a lofty flame, ardent and burning for long, while that of Amalek is similar to a procession of camels entering the village carrying bundles of straw who, upon contact with the first spark, are set ablaze in an instant and leave nothing?
Thank you, again, for this kavod. This honor, and thus its weight, has a paradoxical effect, you see, to make me feel light at the same time as filling me with gravity and a sense of duty. Thank you. I am brimming with joy to join with you in our common cause!
Translated from the French by Emily Hamilton. Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 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 new book, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, was published on October 25, 2021 by Yale University Press.