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From world-renowned public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy comes an incisive and provocative look at the heart of Judaism.
“A smart, revealing, and essential book for our times.”—The Washington Post
For more than four decades, Bernard-Henri Lévy has been a singular figure on the world stage—one of the great moral voices of our time. Now Europe's foremost philosopher and activist confronts his spiritual roots and the religion that has always inspired and shaped him—but that he has never fully reckoned with.
The Genius of Judaism is a breathtaking new vision and understanding of what it means to be a Jew, a vision quite different from the one we’re used to. It is rooted in the Talmudic traditions of argument and conflict, rather than biblical commandments, borne out in struggle and study, not in blind observance. At the very heart of the matter is an obligation to the other, to the dispossessed, and to the forgotten, an obligation that, as Lévy vividly recounts, he has sought to embody over decades of championing “lost causes,” from Bosnia to Africa’s forgotten wars, from Libya to the Kurdish Peshmerga’s desperate fight against the Islamic State, a battle raging as we speak. Lévy offers a fresh, surprising critique of a new and stealthy form of anti-Semitism on the rise as well as a provocative defense of Israel from the left. He reveals the overlooked Jewish roots of Western democratic ideals and confronts the current Islamist threat while intellectually dismantling it. Jews are not a “chosen people,” Lévy explains, but a “treasure” whose spirit must continue to inform moral thinking and courage today.
Lévy’s most passionate book, and in many ways his most personal, The Genius of Judaism is a great, profound, and hypnotic intellectual reckoning—indeed a call to arms—by one of the keenest and most insightful writers in the world.
Praise for The Genius of Judaism
“In The Genius of Judaism, Lévy elaborates on his credo by rebutting the pernicious and false logic behind current anti-Semitism and defends Israel as the world’s most successful multi-ethnic democracy created from scratch. Lévy also makes the case for France’s Jews being integral to the establishment of the French nation, the French language, and French literature. And last, but certainly not least, he presents a striking interpretation of the Book of Jonah. . . . A tour de force.”—Forbes
“Ardent . . . Lévy’s message is essentially uplifting: that the brilliant scholars of Judaism, the authors of the Talmud, provide elucidation into ‘the great questions that have stirred humanity since the dawn of time.’ . . . A philosophical celebration of Judaism.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Lévy (Left in Dark Times), a prominent French journalist and politically engaged philosopher, turns his observations inward here, pondering the teachings of Judaism and the role they have played in contemporary European history as well as in his own life and intellectual inquiry. . . . [Lévy’s] musings on the meaning of the story of Jonah and the relevance of symbolic Ninevahs in our time are both original and poetic. . . . A welcome addition to his oeuvre.”—Publishers Weekly
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Genius of Judaism
The New Guise of the Oldest Form of Hate
There are persuasive reasons for a Jew of my stripe to try to ignore the mental leprosy of anti-Semitism.
One is that its adherents include too many mediocre minds whose feeble arguments gain credence simply in being refuted.
Another is that there is so much beauty in living Judaism, so many thoughts with the power to elevate the soul and give it reason to hope, that one yearns to focus on those and to share them.
Still another, as expressed by most of the rabbis, sages, and thought leaders who inhabit this book (if they did not actually voice it, they were thinking it so strongly that it did not need to be articulated), is that the last thing for which a Jew is made is to engage in a quarrel that is, in the final analysis, a quarrel of anti-Semites with themselves.
And this last reason: New explosions of hatred have erupted everywhere, explosions of which the Jews are not the specific targets. These developments appear designed to put entire countries, and even the world, in a state of siege and emergency response.
The fact remains that anti-Semitism exists.
Some had thought it dead, obsolete, cast aside.
It is back.
Making new connections.
It has even begun to strike and to kill—to growing indifference—in French cities.
And, moreover, because observers of the phenomenon often seem blind to its new reality and, believing that they are confronting it, grapple only with its shadows, I see no option but to begin by describing the new guise of the oldest form of hate.
the virus and its mutations
For, in the beginning, are words.
Anti-Semitism is a very special form of madness, one of the features of which has always been, at every step in its history, choosing the right words to make its madness look reasonable.
At bottom, it is a language of pure rage, of brute violence without logic, which knows that it is never more convincing, never so strong or blessed with such a bright future, as when it succeeds in dressing up its resentment in legitimate-looking clothes.
And the anti-Semite is someone who, at the end of the day, has always managed to make it appear as if the hate that he feels for some is no more than the effect or reflection of the love he claims to feel for others.
There was the time when the anti-Semite said, “I don’t hate the Jews so much as I adore the Lord Jesus Christ, whom the Jews so viciously abused.” That was the Christian argument against a deicidal people.
There was the time, epitomized by the Enlightenment and its methodical nonbelief, when the anti-Semite corrected the first proposition, going so far as to reverse it: “These people must be detested not because they killed Christ but because they invented him.” That was the agnostic if not atheistic anti-Semitism of those who, like Voltaire, faulted the Jews not for being deicidal but for having invented monotheism.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, when the capitalist mode of production was firmly established, there arrived a third form of hate, which consisted of saying, “We don’t care if the Jews invented or killed Christ—we are not firm enough in our belief or unbelief to give this matter the importance that devotees on both sides gave it over the centuries. We are socialists. We care about the underdog and, filled with this concern, with our consuming love for the sacred common man, determined to find and break the chains that hold him down, we have no choice but to declare that the Jews are at the center of the most extensive system of extortion ever devised by man. And it is for this reason that we go after them.” That was the anti-Semitism of French polemicist Édouard Drumont, of the segment of the workers’ movement that opposed the pro-Dreyfus party, which was perceived as the incarnation of the “banker’s spirit” and the “mercantilist mind.” It is that of the socialists who saw Dreyfus himself as the clandestine conductor of the gang of “rapacious crows,” as the “yids of finance and politics,” or even as a naked pretext employed by the “Jewifying and swindling crowd” to “wash away all the stains of Israel” (from a manifesto dated January 19, 1898, and signed by most of the socialist pundits of that time, including the great Jean Jaurès). It is the socialism for imbeciles that swears not to have anything against Jews (really, nothing!) but everything (really, everything!) against “Jewish capitalism” using Dreyfus’s name to “rehabilitate” itself and “prevail” in the war it is waging against “the emaciated Christian nobility” allied with the “clerical” minority of the bourgeoisie (from the same manifesto).
More recently there was a fourth strain, contemporaneous with the triumph of the life sciences, which made possible a vision of the world unknown in ancient times (and, in particular, in the Christian age, when the monogenesis of the sons of Adam was never really disputed). That fourth strain was the racist vision of the world. “Like the socialists, we are neither Christian nor anti-Christian. We really don’t care whether the Jews are tied to the deadly world of money. But what is in fact worrisome is that they constitute another race, an impure, mongrel race. And we find ourselves in the regrettable position of observing the ravages that that race has caused in the healthy and beautiful Aryan races.” This is a wholly separate strain of anti-Semitism, distinct in its mottoes and its consequences. Born with Renan, Vacher de Lapouge, Chamberlain, and Gobineau, it is the anti-Semitism that made possible Hitler’s Final Solution.
Four forms of anti-Semitism, each distinct from the one that preceded it.
Four forms that had to differ in order to resonate with the spirit of the era, adapt themselves to the era’s capacities for action and perhaps to what it wanted to hear—and so to expand their audience and propagate optimally within the social echo chamber.
Forms that are like so many faces of the same demon spirit, which take over from one another, replace one another, and are, in Hegelian parlance, successively “relieved,” either because the earlier face was no longer consistent with the sensibilities or the ideological needs of the new period (What does a follower of Voltaire care about the theme of a deicidal people? What does a follower of Hitler care about eliminating oppression?) or because the mask cracks and the alibi can no longer disguise the plainly criminal foundation for which it has served as a screen (as in the moment when Jaurès, who not only signed but also wrote most of the manifesto of January 19, 1898, cautioning the proletariat against taking sides between the two “rival bourgeois factions” that were tearing each other apart over Dreyfus, understands the trap into which he has fallen and chooses Zola’s side) or because the mechanism put in place proves more criminal than anticipated (as was the case with the many anti-Semitic Catholics who realized, at the end, the unsuspected scale of the crimes committed in the name of Catholicism; as with the disciples of Maurras or even of Drumont, some of whom recoiled in horror before the evidence of the gas chambers and the reality of extermination!).
beasts cured of the plague?
That is where we stand today.
That is precisely what is happening, once again, in the early years of this century.
There are still anti-Semitic Catholics, of course, but they are an isolated minority who keep a low profile when, by chance, they score a point, as when they persuaded John Paul II to canonize one of his predecessors, Pius IX, who believed Jews were “dogs” that could be heard “barking in the streets” and “bother us wherever we go.”
There are still followers of Voltaire, unreconstructed tormentors of priests, die-hard secularists, who continue to think that the religion of the One God is the mother of all dictatorships, an insult to the freedom of the mind, a disease—and that the only way to get rid of Christianity is to hit it over the head or, even better, to pull it up by the roots, which, as everyone knows, are Jewish. But this, too, is marginal; it is a rear-guard struggle. Apart from a few God-is-dead throwbacks and oddly wired Nietzscheans, as well as those who mix everything up and confuse the fundamentalist deviations of theo-political Islam with Islam writ large, not too many people believe that the war on faith is an urgent matter.
The habit of equating Jews with money and the Pavlovian diabolization that results from that equation have not been relegated to ancient history. But on this score the words of Georges Bernanos are borne out. In an article entitled “The Jewish Question—Again,” which appeared in a Brazilian newspaper on May 24, 1944, Bernanos asserted that Hitler had “dishonored” anti-Semitism. An awful thing to say, of course, because it implies that anti-Semitism could be “honorable.” But it expresses the terror that gripped the heirs of Socialism for Dummies when they discovered the vast cemeteries that Nazism had strewn around Europe, for which the tale of “moneyed Jews” was partly responsible. And the same remark might explain today how neither the financial crisis nor the patent misdeeds of globalized capitalism, nor, in France, the path taken by the young minister of the economy, Emmanuel Macron, through a bank with a name (Rothschild) that was, along with that of the Foulds and Péreires, one of the targets of Drumont’s La France juive, will succeed in re-inflaming, except residually, the fevers of the era of the Dreyfus affair.
As for racist anti-Semitism; as for the idea that it is genes or consistency of biological or cultural traits that make Jews a legitimate target of hate; as for the will to “free the race,” that is, to relentlessly and mercilessly “destroy” the foreign “forces” that are corrupting its healthy, glowing purity; as for the charge that had been made to a “horrible little Jew” (Georges Bernanos is speaking) named Adolphe Crémieux for naturalizing “en masse” a whole “horde” of Algerian Jews who had “nothing to do” with France, shared none of its “history” or “values,” and did not even have the merit, like their Arab neighbors, of having formed military units to go and shed their blood in France’s wars: Well, here we are at the heart of what Hitlerism indeed rendered practically inaudible. Tiny cells—sure. Handfuls of illiterates nostalgic for the Third Reich—that, too. But crowds of Europeans dreaming, seventy years after Auschwitz, of “destroying” the “Jewish race . . . by any means”? A political force calling for the revocation of the decree that I have to thank for the fact that, like many other children of soldiers in the French African army of 1943, I today am French? A mass movement calling, as did Drumont and Bernanos (not to mention Wagner and Chamberlain), for the “excision” of the Jewish “tumor”? No, we will not see that again.
In other words, anti-Semitism can reappear as a major force only by assuming a new guise.
It can recommence firing people up and mobilizing them on a grand scale only by acquiring a new way of speaking and a new sales pitch.
And that, in fact, is what has been happening for the last two or three decades with the gradual articulation and accumulation of a set of propositions that are, I repeat, new enough not to be fatally compromised by the criminal scenes of the past and, even more importantly, appear to be in step with present-day sensibilities, emotions, and preoccupations—and even with current notions of what is just, true, and good.
the foundations for future ravings
Proposition no. 1: We have nothing against the Jews. We reject in word and deed the toxic ideology that was anti-Semitism in ages past. But we must regretfully point out that being Jewish seems, in a great many cases, to be defined by allegiance to Israel, which is (1) illegitimate, because it was planted where it did not belong, and (2) colonialist, racist, fundamentally criminal, and even fascist in its attempts to silence the voices of its opponents. And so, despite our goodwill and anti-racist vigilance, despite the sympathy that we have always had and continue to have, in principle, with this victimized people and its ageless ordeals, we do not see how we can consider those who call themselves Jews innocent of this fascism. This is the anti-Zionist argument. It goes as follows: “How nice the Jew seemed during the war the world waged for him. But then came Zionism and, with it, the conversion of victim into executioner and the tragic and ruinous dialectic by which the Jew declares war against the world. No, that is not acceptable.”
Proposition no. 2: We have nothing (truly, nothing) against the Jews, they say. Their suffering over the centuries inspires universal compassion. But it strikes us that the central argument of Zionism—the argument on which the right of Israel to exist is based and justified, and which is trotted out like a “moral sledgehammer” (the phrase was used by German novelist Martin Walser during a 1999 debate over the form of the memorial planned for the center of Berlin) whenever one raises the objection of the unforgivable spoliation that lies at the source of that existence—is the chapter in their history of suffering referred to as the Holocaust. So, they continue, what about this “Holocaust”? Is it not obvious that it is a murky crime whose historical verity has yet to be fully established? A misfortune that, if not wholly imaginary, is exaggerated by survivors and the children of survivors, who have made it into a religion? And even if not imagined or exaggerated, even if the numbers are accurate and the killing procedures are as described in the abundant literature associated with the “Holocaust industry,” what are six million deaths on the scale not only of world history but of the wars of the twentieth century? And what is the purpose of the insistent claim to be the survivors of an unprecedented crime, unique in the annals of history and incomparable to any other, if not to make people feel guilty and, in the name of an infinite debt, demand limitless reparations? The reader will have recognized the more or less radical facets of this strange rant, which we know as Holocaust denial, Holocaust revisionism, and negationism. And we can see how a second terrible complaint is set up: How pathetic that these unscrupulous people lay claim to a dubiously exceptional status in order to build a state the very principle of which is unjustifiable! Shame on these traffickers in cadavers, who stop short of no lie, no moral swindle, no trick of memory, to arrive at their criminal ends! They deserve not only hate but scorn, these brazen calculators who, to quash the legitimate objections that their underhanded actions inspire in good people, dare to manipulate something that, since time immemorial, humanity has held sacred: the memory of their dead.