The French intellectual Bernard-Henry Levy has a new book out called The Genius of Judaism, much of which is a defense of Israel. He flacked for the country on public radio and in the New York Times this week.
On Thursday on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate show Levy said that anti-Zionism is just the latest disguise for anti-Semitism.
There is a very dangerous and terrible trick today, which is that if one wants to be anti-Semitic, wants to put fuel and gasoline in his anti-Semitic hatred, the best habit for that, the best dressing, the best cosmetic, the best language, is anti-Zionism. If you want to recruit a large crowd of followers for an anti-semitic politic, anti-Zionism which is the hate of Israel as such is the best carburent [?]… You cannot be seriously anti-semitic today, if you are not anti-Zionist.
And the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign aimed at Israel is the embodiment of this new anti-Semitism.
The BDS movement, which is a really nasty movement, is much stronger in the US than in France… which consists in harassing vessels bearing an Israeli flag because they are Israeli. This alas is stronger here.
When do WNYC and Leonard Lopate ever air defenders of BDS?
Levy said he was a Maoist as a young man but fell in love with Israel during the Six Day War. Notice the exceptionalism:
I was as far from Judaism as one could be and nevertheless I felt compelled to take a plane and go to Israel…. It was a force stronger than myself, it was something that did not match with all my creeds of this time… I tried to enlist myself in IDF in order to fight, in order to defend this little nation fighting against a lot of people coalesced against it.
I was more than affected. I was completely struck. My discovery of Israel was really like a thunderstorm… in my life. Not for religious reasons… Not for nationalistic reasons…. Maybe for political reasons… an exemplary democracy, a great democracy…. If there is a place where multi-ethnicity works, it is in Israel… This question of multi-ethnicity on which we French break our teeth and you Americans broke your teeth also, it is not bad… in Israel.
Levy also described the Jewish religion as exceptional. He said on WNYC that “at the end of the day what makes the difference between Judaism and the other religions” is the Talmud. Because the Talmud allows Jews “to unfold the wings of the spirit,” and “this is the… genius of Judaism.”
Also on January 19, Levy published an essay called “Jews, Be Wary of Trump,” in the New York Times, which begins by saying that President Obama betrayed Israel and American Jews by allowing the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution condemning settlements.
A few weeks back, both Israel and American Jews were betrayed by Barack Obama.
Donald Johnson notes, “Most of the comments I read ripped this piece to shreds. It is a remarkably stupid piece. Look at the swineherd parable. I had never heard of it.”
The swineherd parable is a story from the Talmud that Levy uses to explain Donald Trump’s relationship to American Jews:
Rabbi Yehudah Nessia, one of the foremost figures of Jewish thought of the third century, … ran a school that a young Roman swineherd would pass by nearly every day. The students at the school, their heads full of knowledge and a sense of their own superiority, never missed a chance to mock and beat the pig farmer.
Years later, Rabbi Yehudah was summoned to the distant city of Caesarea Philippi, to appear before Roman Emperor Diocletian. It seemed that the emperor was full of consideration for his guest. He sent to him one of his most distinguished ambassadors and ordered that a sumptuous bath be provided to allow his guest to cleanse himself after his dusty voyage.
But Diocletian also sent his ambassador on a Friday, so that Rabbi Yehudah would be forced to travel on the Sabbath, violating the most important of commandments.
The emperor also heated the baths to such a degree that the rabbi would have been boiled to death — a fate from which the rabbi was saved by the last-minute intervention of an angel, who cooled the waters.
When the rabbi appeared before Diocletian, he recognized the former swineherd, who said to him with spite, “Just because your god performs miracles, you think you can scorn the emperor?”
I cite this story because it provides a good metaphor for the West today, where, as in ancient Rome, the triumph of nihilism can enable a pig farmer — anybody — to become emperor.
It is a good example, too, of Jewish wisdom, which responds to the situation as follows: “We had contempt for Diocletian the swineherd, but we are ready to honor Diocletian the emperor provided he, like Saul — who, before becoming king had tended donkeys — heeds the prophecy, rises to his office, and becomes a new man.”
And, above all, it is a good allegory of the double-edged favors, or, if you will, the poison apples, proffered by a humiliated swineherd, eager for revenge, who [as Trump did] decides to show Jon Stewart and his fellow Jews that he is indeed smarter than they are.
In the face of this situation, nothing is more important, it seems to me, than to maintain a measure of distance…
In this period that has been labeled, for lack of a better word, populist… in this new political culture that has now encircled the earth, one in which, from the American plutocrats to their Russian oligarch cousins, the swineherds slap their pedigree shamelessly on imperial palaces, the little Jewish nation has no part to play.
To ally with that sort of “populism” would be to betray Israel’s calling.
To surrender to Diocletian would be to betray oneself and to take the terrible risk of no longer being who one is.
Donald Johnson says, “I would have thought the point was that the students were arrogant and cruel to a humble man and this later bit their rabbi in the ass. The Bible itself has stories along those moral lines. I think there are even one or two in Greek mythology. BHL’s reading of the moral is ugly and ethnocentric. For all I know maybe that is the intended point, but it seemed more like the usual one where you should be kind to humble people or God will punish you later.” I’d only add that Levy’s characterization of Jews as people whose heads are “full of knowledge and a sense of their own superiority” is, unh, highly problematic.