It is customary to say Bernard-Henri Lévy writes about faraway or forgotten wars, but in his new book, “L’Empire et les cinq rois” (The Empire and the Five Kings) published this year in French by Grasset, Levy discusses a problem that for Israelis is close to home – the Kurdish people and their fate.
The Kurds may not be a homogeneous entity, but according to Lévy, they represent philosophical and historic values, which for example are personified in that same shepherd from the Manbij region in Syria and about whom Lévy writes, who abandoned his flock so as to courageously confront the forces of ISIS: “We owe a debt to those individual fighters who dared to stand up face to face against the forces of ISIS immediately after they appeared, and when the entire region, and first of all Iraq, was still fossilized by fear,” he wrote in the introduction to his book.
Lévy (who will be in Israel on June 17 to receive an honorary doctorate from Netanya Academic College, where he will also deliver a talk about his new book) traveled a number of times to Kurdish Syria, near the border with Iraq, to document the heroism of the fighters, both men and women, in his 2016 film, “Peshmerga.” And he is furious about the West’s abandonment of these fighters after “they did the dirty work.”
This is a challenging book, one that mentions the struggles of the author’s youth and their implications on the contemporary situation. The “empire” of the book’s title (which is taken from the fables of French writer Jean de La Fontaine) is powerful America, which closed itself in on itself and turned apathetic to the problems of the Middle East. Although the process of distancing began back in the presidencey of Barack Obama, it was speeded up by the election of Donald Trump.
At the same time, Western Europe is growing weaker, fading in the face of the extremist nationalist movements that are gnawing away at humanist values. The “five kings” in the book are the old-new empires: Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which suffered defeats or declines in the past but have become unrestrained dictatorships in our time that exploit the geopolitical situation created by the American retreat and the Western European spirit of compromise. The “five kings” do not hesitate to use any means, including the most despicable forms of extortion, in the pursuit of dividing the regions of fighting between themselves.
It is not a simple thing to get hold of the photogenic 69-year-old philosopher in the white shirt in the middle of his marketing tour for his new book, which is so tightly connected to current events: He is interviewed in every medium and the conversation between us has already been postponed twice. Even the questions for the interview have changed as time passes and the events in our region progress. Lévy sounds resolute in his reading of the political map and in his not very encouraging conclusions during our telephone interview.
When did you first discover an interest in the Kurdish problem?
“Back in 1991, after the First Gulf War and their shameful abandonment by the West, I wrote a long article on Kurdistan.”
How do you explain the West’s repeated abandonment of the Kurds, despite their courageous war on ISIS? Is it a lack of an economic interest? Pure cynicism?
“The answer is simple: The Kurds’ rivals are a gang of blackmailers [“the five kings” – G.L.] who exert pressure on the West, which by now is used to groveling. Today’s Europe is not a significant power on the world map: The democratic world is in retreat and the undemocratic powers are exploiting this to seize control of the territories that have been left in chaos after the latest wars. Each one of ‘the kings’ is holding a gun to the West’s temple: Erdogan’s Turkey – by means of the ticking bomb of the refugees in its territory; Russia, with the ‘fake news’ and disinformation that are destabilizing the democracies; Iran, with its nuclear blackmail; Saudi Arabia, by arming radical Islam.
“But Erdogan is also a paper tiger and the West should be able to tell him, ‘Stop!’ If he felt he was in real danger of being ousted from NATO, maybe he would calm down. But the West chooses to surrender to blackmail and is sacrificing the Kurds.”
“Europe,” says Lévy, “is continuing in the spirit of Munich of 1938 that led it to capitulate to Mussolini and Hitler.”
Do you see the Kurdish story as a metaphor for the state of the Western world today?
“Definitely, it’s a mirror in which the decline of the democratic West is reflected, a West that is giving way to ‘kings’ that play their cards with unbelievable chutzpah. These are the main adversaries that we now face: They are aggressive, eager for battle and defiantly flaunt their anti-liberal values. From the West, they chose to take the bad examples: Iran stopped calling itself Persia with the encouragement of the Nazi regime, which committed a ‘semantic putsch’ in 1935 when it convinced Reza Shah Pahlavi to change the name of the ancient Persian empire to Iran – which they thought translated as ‘state of the Aryans.’ It was a preposterous racist doctrine at the heart of which is a national-socialist idea that still serves as a backdrop for the Ayatollahs’ regime.”
You say that the Kurds embody the “enlightened Islam” you dream about. What’s this claim based on? For apart from the fact that Kurdish women fought bravely against ISIS, the Syrian Kurds are a patriarchal society and do not seem willing to merge with the Iraqi Kurds into a single state.
“The Kurds deserve to be called ‘enlightened Islam’ first of all because equality between women and men, which they have, is the basis of every proper society. They also respect minorities, especially the Christians. This is also the only Islamic entity that marks Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Iraqi Kurds feel genuine friendship toward Jews – which shows that war between Israel and Ishmael is not inevitable. This may be the answer to the war that has already gone on for 100 years with the Palestinians. And the answer to the hatred that prevails in the Paris banlieues: The Kurds!”
Obama a no-show
For Lévy, one notable sign of the start of the American retreat occurred in January 2015, when President Obama did not come to Paris to march with the leaders of the free world in response to the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cachere terror attacks. Obama also did not respond to Assad’s 2013 chemical attack on his own people.
The European democracies are known for avoiding intervention in regional conflicts: They failed to respond to Assad’s violence just as they failed to intervene in the Armenian genocide in 1915, in the 1936 Spanish Civil War, in the Anschluss in 1938, in the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and even in 1981, when the Poles rebelled against the Soviet Union. And now that President Trump has announced his intention to pull out of the nuclear accord with Iran, European leaders are beating a path to the White House to try to persuade him to remain committed to it.
Are European leaders, whom you still view as the only hope for preserving democracy, motivated in their attempt to preserve the accord with one of the “kings” – Iran – by economic considerations? By idealism?
“Neither idealism nor economic reasons. I think it would be better to insert revisions into the accord, which of course isn’t perfect, rather than have no accord at all. For without an accord Iran will start an accelerated process toward nuclear armaments. There must be an accord, the weapons must be under international supervision and there should be no Iranian forces in Syria. The big mistake isn’t having a dialogue with the Iranians, but in capitulating to them while they’re supplying Hezbollah with rockets.”
In your book you write that, with the rise of nationalist parties and increasing displays of racism and religious extremism, today’s Europe is not the democratic and liberal continent it once was. In his recent speech to Congress, [Fremch] President Macron spoke of Europe’s moral and democratic values. Do they still hold true?
“Two parallel wars are going on in Europe: One is the war between radical Islam and enlightened Islam, and the other is between those who are faithful to the liberal European values and those who spit on them, like Victor Orban in Hungary, like the Poles, who are legalizing anti-Semitism, like the Italians since Berlusconi and like the British Brexit. And in France, the ‘twins’ – [Jean-Luc] Melenchon and [Marine] Le Pen. Still, let’s not forget that last year President Macron beat Le Pen, and that in England, forces opposed to Brexit are becoming more organized.”
‘Solidarity of the shocked’
A large portion of Lévy’s book is devoted to the close relationship between Kurds and Jews, two peoples who share the experience throughout history of what it means to be considered “un peuple en trop” (“a people who are too much”). “How to be a Kurd at a time when everyone is trying to convince you to stand behind a certain flag, of the empire or of the five kings This is the mysterious bond that connects the Jewish and Kurdish peoples. This is the secret partnership that drives Erdogan and company around the bend. And it is also one of the reasons I related to them. I have always loved the ‘peoples who are too much.’”
The descendants of the Jewish Holocaust survivors who built Israel, says Lévy, know this feeling and feel for the Kurds what the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka called “the solidarity of the shocked.” So they understand the importance of the establishment of an independent Kurdistan for this other people that is “en trop.”
You say in your book that an enlightened Kurdistan should become the second democracy in the Middle East, after Israel. In 2010, at a conference on democracy organized by Haaretz and the French Institute in Tel Aviv, you praised Israeli democracy. Would you say the same thing today, eight years later?
“Yes, absolutely. As far as I know, in Israel there is a strong opposition, criticism of the government is increasingly tough, there is a free press and active human rights organizations. In the parliament there are anti-Zionist MKs who oppose the state and the government. This would not be possible in a nondemocratic country. I don’t support Netanyahu. I oppose his policies. Let’s see if the left will be able to budge him. The populism that is gaining dominance in the West hasn’t passed Israel by.”
You write about the European democracies that turned a blind eye to the dictatorships in Germany, Italy and Spain. What do you think about the current Israeli government, which is trying to weaken the Supreme Court and delegitimize public institutions – such as the police that are conducting bribery investigations – or about the arrogant nationalistic display that constituted the official Independence Day ceremony for Israel’s 70th birthday, a show that could have put some of history’s darker regimes to shame?
“I didn’t see the ceremony you’re talking about, and I find your comparison to dark regimes from the past inappropriate and shameful.”
You’ve said that “Zionism is the only idea that hasn’t become a caricature,” but is the Zionism of today the same Zionism that Herzl spoke of? Isn’t the state of the Jews becoming more racist, religious and extremist?
“The doctors who are treating wounded Syrians in the Golan Heights – they are Zionists. David Grossman is a Zionist. Amos Oz is a Zionist. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. In 2015, opposition leader Isaac Herzog proposed that Israel take in a certain number of Syrian refugees. I congratulated him for that, and I also publicized his words wherever possible. This is Zionism, this is not racism!”
After the brutal murder of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in March by a Muslim youth, and after the big solidarity parade in Paris in her honor, French newspaper Le Parisien published a manifesto against the anti-Semitism of radical Islam, which in some quarters of the French elite is still considered an expression of social revolt. “The old anti-Semitism of the extreme right is added to the anti-Semitism of the radical left, which has found anti-Zionism as its alibi for transforming the executioners of Jews into society’s victims,” said the manifesto, whose 250 signatories included former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, three former French prime ministers and many intellectuals, artists and representatives of different religions. Not surprisingly, Bernard-Henri Lévy was a signatory, too.
When the manifesto was published, some argued that it would poison the atmosphere and deepen the hostility between the Muslim and Jewish communities.
“Just the opposite! The publication of the manifesto set free the sane voices within Islam. It was published on Sunday and already the next day another manifesto was published in Le Monde, signed by dozens of imams who affirmed that they are aware of the radicalization and anti-Semitism in the mosques. This was a direct reaction to the first manifesto, from imams who found the courage to openly denounce the phenomenon.
“Anti-Semitism isn’t just in the suburbs, it’s everywhere. To fight it, we need the courage of Islamic clerics who will give a new interpretation to certain Koranic verses that call for the murder of Jews, and for the punishment of Christians and heretics. I’m optimistic, I expect that in the coming months we’ll see moderate, enlightened Muslims join this call, and in doing so, they will awaken real change. It just goes to show that courage ultimately leads to impressive results.”