Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy at Tel Aviv University
Born (1948-11-05) 5 November 1948
Béni Saf, French Algeria
Alma mater École Normale Supérieure
Era 20th-century philosophy
21st-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Continental philosophy
Nouveaux Philosophes

Bernard-Henri Lévy (French: [bɛʁnaʁ ɑ̃ʁi levi]; born 5 November 1948) is a French public intellectual, media personality, and author. Often referred to in France simply as BHL,[1] he was one of the leaders of the "Nouveaux Philosophes" (New Philosophers) movement in 1976. In 2010, The Jerusalem Post named Lévy 45th on a list of the world's 50 most influential Jews.[2] The Boston Globe has said that he is "perhaps the most prominent intellectual in France today".[3]

Life and career

Early life

Lévy was born in 1948 in Béni Saf, French Algeria, to a wealthy Algerian Jewish family. His family moved to Paris a few months after his birth. His father, André Lévy, was the founder and manager of a timber company, Becob, and became a multimillionaire from his business.

After attending the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, Lévy enrolled in the elite and highly selective École Normale Supérieure in 1968, from which he graduated with a degree in philosophy. His professors there included prominent French intellectuals and philosophers Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser.

Lévy became a pre-eminent journalist, having started his career as a war correspondent for Combat, the newspaper founded underground by Albert Camus during the German occupation of France. In 1971, Lévy travelled to the Indian subcontinent, and was based in Bangladesh covering the Bangladesh Liberation War against Pakistan. This experience was the source of his first book, Bangla-Desh, Nationalisme dans la révolution ("Bangladesh, Nationalism in the Revolution", 1973).[4]

New Philosophers

Returning to Paris, Lévy became known as a founder of the New Philosophers (Nouveaux Philosophes) school. This was a group of young intellectuals who were disenchanted with communist and socialist responses to the near-revolutionary upheavals in France of May 1968, and who developed an uncompromising moral critique of Marxist and socialist dogmas.[5] In 1977, the television show Apostrophes[6] featured Lévy together with André Glucksmann as a nouveau philosophe. In that year, he published Barbarism with a Human Face (La barbarie à visage humain, 1977), arguing that Marxism was inherently corrupt. Throughout the 1970s, Lévy taught a course on epistemology at the University of Strasbourg and he also taught philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure.

Intellectual involvement

In 1981, Lévy published L'Idéologie française ("The French Ideology"), arguably his most influential work, in which he offers a dark picture of French history. It was strongly criticised for its journalistic character and unbalanced approach to French history by some of the most respected French academics, including Marxism-critic Raymond Aron (see his Memoirs).

In the 1990s, Lévy called for European and American intervention in the Bosnian War during the break-up of Yugoslavia. He spoke about the Serb POW camps which were holding Muslims. He referred to the Jewish experience in the Holocaust as providing a lesson that mass murder cannot be ignored by those in other nations.[7]

When his father died in 1995, Lévy briefly became the manager of the Becob company. He sold it in 1997 for 750 million francs to the French entrepreneur François Pinault.

At the end of the 1990s, with Benny Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut, Lévy founded an Institute on Levinassian Studies at Jerusalem, in honor of Emmanuel Levinas.

He is member of nonprofit advocacy group JCall. In March 2006, Lévy was one of twelve signatories of a letter entitled, "MANIFESTO: Together facing the new totalitarianism."' addressing concerns for free speech and thought in response to violent and deadly protests in the Muslim world related to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy that arose in Denmark.


Who Killed Daniel Pearl?

In 2003, Lévy wrote an account of his efforts to track the murderer of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was taken captive and beheaded by Islamic extremists the previous year. At the time of Pearl's death, Lévy was visiting Afghanistan as French President Jacques Chirac's special envoy.[8] He spent the next year in Pakistan, India, Europe and the United States trying to uncover why Pearl's captors held and executed him. The resulting book, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, argues it was because Pearl knew too much about the links between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence and al-Qaeda. The book was strongly criticized by both experts and Pearl's own family, including wife Mariane Pearl who called Lévy "a man whose intelligence is destroyed by his own ego".[9][10]

The book won praise for Lévy's courage in investigating the affair in one of the world's most dangerous regions. But, it was condemned by William Dalrymple, a British historian of India and travel writer, and others, for its lack of rigour and its caricatured depictions of Pakistani society. Dalrymple also criticized Lévy's fictionalised account of Pearl's thoughts in the last moments of his life.[11][12][13][14]

In the Footsteps of Tocqueville

Although Lévy's books have been translated into the English language since La Barbarie à visage humain, his breakthrough in gaining a wider US audience was the publication of a series of essays between May and November 2005 for The Atlantic Monthly, later collected as a book.[15] In preparation for the series, In the Footsteps of Tocqueville, Lévy criss-crossed the United States, interviewing Americans, and recording his observations, with direct reference to his claimed predecessor, Alexis de Tocqueville. His work was published in serial form in the magazine and collected as a book by the same title. The book was widely criticized in the United States, with Garrison Keillor publishing a damning review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.[15]

The Spirit of Judaism

In February 2016, Lévy published a new book entitled "L'Esprit du Judaisme". An English version, "The Spirit of Judaism", is to be published by Random House in January 2017. In his foreword he describes this work as"a sequel, 40 years later" to "Testament de Dieu", his earlier, widely considered seminal, opus. The book explores the reasons why the State of Israel is considered to be a litmus test for Jews and non-Jews alike; as well as the roots and causes of anti-semitism where it existed, still exists, or is newly nascent. But, most of all, the book is devoted to Levy's ″defense of a certain idea of man and God, of history and time, of power, voice, light, sovereignty, revolt, memory, and nature—an idea that contains what I call, in homage to one of the few really great French writers to have understood some of its mystery, the genius of Judaism.″ [16]

Representation in other media

In film

Lévy directed the widely panned 1997 romance film Day and Night.[17] It is considered by critics the worst film of 1997 along with Batman & Robin. The movie received a 3.5 million francs public subsidy through the Commission des avances sur recettes, which at the time was chaired by Lévy.[18]

In 2007, Italian conceptual artist, Francesco Vezzoli, created two commercials for an imaginary U.S. presidential campaign, in which he had actress Sharon Stone running against Bernard-Henri Lévy. His project entitled Democrazy, was shown at the 2007 Venice Biennale.

Pie throwing

Bernard Henri Lévy is a favorite victim of pie thrower Noël Godin.[19]

Recent activities

Bernard-Henri Lévy at Tel Aviv University

In September 2008, Lévy toured the United States to promote his book Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism.

In 2006, Lévy joined the British debate over Muslim women's veils by suggesting to The Jewish Chronicle that wearing a veil had the effect of dehumanizing the wearer by hiding her face – and said, alluding to a passage by Emmanuel Levinas, that "the veil is an invitation to rape".[20]

On 24 June 2009, Lévy posted a video on Dailymotion in support of the Iranian protesters who were being repressed after the contested elections.[21]

He is a member of the Selection Committee of the Editions Grasset, and he runs the La Règle du Jeu ("The Rule of the Game") magazine. He writes a weekly column in the magazine Le Point and chairs the Conseil de Surveillance of La Sept-Arte.

Through the 2000s, Lévy argued that the world must pay more attention to the crisis in Darfur.[7] In Left in Dark Times, he argued that the Darfur genocide was not a palatable issue for modern leftists because it did not provide a platform for the anti-American views with which he says leftist thought has become suffused.

In January 2010, he publicly defended Popes Pius XII and Benedict XVI against political attacks directed against them from within the Jewish community.[22]

At the opening of the "Democracy and its Challenges" conference in Tel Aviv (May 2010) Lévy gave a very high estimation of the Israel Defense Forces, saying "I have never seen such a democratic army, which asks itself so many moral questions. There is something unusually vital about Israeli democracy."[23]

Lévy has reported from troubled zones during wartime, to attract public opinion, in France and abroad, over those political changes. In August 2008, Lévy reported from South Ossetia, Georgia, during the 2008 South Ossetia war; on that occasion he interviewed the President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili.[24]

In March 2011, he engaged in talks with Libyan rebels in Benghazi, and publicly promoted the international acknowledgement of the recently formed National Transitional Council.[25][26] Later that month, worried about the 2011 Libyan civil war, he prompted and then supported Nicolas Sarkozy's seeking to persuade Washington, and ultimately the United Nations, to intervene in Libya to prevent a massacre in Benghazi.[27]

In May 2011, Lévy defended IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn when Kahn was accused of sexually assaulting a chambermaid in New York City. Lévy questioned the credibility of the charges against Strauss-Kahn, asking The Daily Beast, "how a chambermaid could have walked in alone, contrary to the habitual practice of most of New York's grand hotels of sending a 'cleaning brigade' of two people, into the room of one of the most closely watched figures on the planet."[28][29]

In May 2011, Lévy argued for military intervention in Syria against Bashar al-Assad after violence against civilians in response to the 2011 Syrian uprising.[30] He repeated his position in a letter to the Weekly Standard in August 2013.[31]

On 9 November 2011, his book, La guerre sans l'aimer, which tells the story of his Libyan spring, was published.[32][33][34][35]

In April 2013, he was convicted by a French court for libelling journalist Bernard Cassen.[36]

Lévy curated a major art exhibition in 2013 entitled Adventures of truth – Painting and philosophy: a narrative at the Maeght Foundation.

He criticized international community for their acts during the Bosnia genocide.[37]

Levy was in Kiev Ukraine during the Maidan Revolution in February 2014, actively promoting that.[38]

In February 2015, he performed his play Hotel Europa at the Kiev opera house on the first anniversary of the Euromaidan's toppling of the pro-Russian government of Victor Yanukovich.[39]


On May 16 2016, Bernard-Henri Lévy's new documentary fim, "Peshmerga", was chosen by the Cannes film festival as a special screening to its official selection. [40] The movie itself is, as stated in its official Cannes presentation: "The third part of a trilogy, opus three of a documentary made and lived in real time, the missing piece of the puzzle of a lifetime, the desperate search for enlightened Islam. Where is that other Islam strong enough to defeat the Islam of the fundamentalists? Who embodies it? Who sustains it? Where are the men and women who in word and deed strive for that enlightened Islam, the Islam of law and human rights, an Islam that stands for women and their rights, that is faithful to the lofty thinking of Averroes, Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, Ibn Tufail, and Rumi?... Here, with this third film, this hymn to Kurdistan and the exception that it embodies, I have the feeling of possibly reaching my goal. Kurdistan is Sunnis and Shiites, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Aramaic-speaking Syrians living freely with Muslims, the memory of the Jews of Aqrah, secularism, freedom of conscience and belief. It is where one can run into a Jewish Barzani on the forward line of a front held, 50 kilometers from Erbil, by his distant cousin, a Muslim, Sirwan Barazi… Better than the Arab Spring. The Bosnian dream achieved. My dream. There is no longer really any doubt. Enlightened Islam exists: I found it in Erbil."[41][42]


Early essays, such as Le Testament de Dieu or L'Idéologie française faced strong rebuttals from noted intellectuals on all sides of the ideological spectrum, such as historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet and philosophers Cornelius Castoriadis and Raymond Aron. Gilles Deleuze, who called Lévy's methods "vile".[43]

More recently, Lévy was publicly embarrassed when his essay De la guerre en philosophie (2010) cited the writings of French "philosopher" Jean-Baptiste Botul.[44] Botul's writings are actually well-known spoofs, and Botul himself is the purely fictional creation of a living French journalist and philosopher, Frédéric Pagès. The obviousness of the hoax led to suspicions that Levy had not read Botul, and that he consequently might have used a ghostwriter for his book. Responding in an opinion piece, Levy wrote: "It was a truly brilliant and very believable hoax from the mind of a Canard Enchaîné journalist who remains a good philosopher all the same. So I was caught, as were the critics who reviewed the book when it came out. The only thing left to say, with no hard feelings, is kudos to the artist."[45]

In the essay Une imposture française, journalists Nicolas Beau and Olivier Toscer claim that Lévy uses his unique position as an influential member of both the literary and business establishments in France to be the go-between of the two worlds, which helps him to get positive reviews as marks of gratitude, while silencing dissenters.[46]

For instance, Beau and Toscer noted that most of the reviews published in France for Who Killed Daniel Pearl? didn't mention strong denials about the book given by experts and Pearl's own family including wife Marianne Pearl who called Lévy "a man whose intelligence is destroyed by his own ego".[9][47]

Personal life

Lévy has been married three times. His eldest daughter by his first marriage to Isabelle Doutreluigne, Justine Lévy, is a best-selling novelist. He has a son, Antonin-Balthazar Lévy, by his second wife, Sylvie Bouscasse. He is currently married to French actress and singer Arielle Dombasle.

The close relationship between Lévy and socialite Daphne Guinness has become something of an open secret known and acknowledged by most US society columnists since 2008. On 13 July 2010, Daphne Guinness confirmed the whole story in the UK press.[48]

Lévy is proudly Jewish, and he has said that Jews ought to provide a unique Jewish moral voice in society and politics.[7]

Lévy has been friends with Nicolas Sarkozy since 1983. Relations between them deteriorated during Sarkozy's 2007 presidential run in which Lévy backed the Socialist candidate and also described Sarkozy as "A man with a warrior vision of politics". However, they grew closer again after Sarkozy's victory.[49] Much of his recent book, Left in Dark Times, is devoted to explaining his refusal to support Sarkozy despite agreeing with him on many points, and his insistence on continuing to identify himself as a leftist despite rejecting much of modern leftist thought.

Lévy has Bosnian citizenship as well as French.[50]


Lévy was one of six prominent Jewish public figures in Europe targeted for assassination by a Belgium-based Islamist militant group in 2008. The list included others in France such as Josy Eisenberg. That plot was reportedly foiled after the group's leader, Abdelkader Belliraj, was arrested based on unrelated murder charges from the 1980s.[51]


Lévy's works have been translated into many different languages; below is an offering of works available in either French or English.


  1. "Rousselet et BHL entrent au capital de Libération". Le nouvel Observateur. 25 June 2008.
  2. Linde, Steve (21 May 2010). "World's 50 most influential Jews". Jerusalem Post. 45. Bernard-Henri Lévy, Philosopher.
  3. "Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism". Random House Trade Paperbacks. Retrieved 25 April 2015.
  4. Davidzon, Vladislav (26 June 2014). "On the Road With Bernard-Henri Lévy, the Planet's Last Superstar French Intellectual". Tablet.
  5. Alexander, Beth R. (10 November 2004). "Commentary: Bernard Henri-Lévy takes heat". UPI Perspectives. UPI. ... a group who broke away from the Marxist ideology dominating late 1960s France and the hard-line French left typified by Jean-Paul Sartre.
  6. Apostrophes was a French TV program hosted by Bernard Pivot.
  7. 1 2 3 environment-science | Leading Jewish Inspiration. Leadel. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  8. Graff, James (4 May 2003). "The Engaged Intellect". TIME. 161 (19). The Envoy: At the request of French President Jacques Chirac, Lévy traveled to Afghanistan in February 2002 to gauge the needs of the Afghan people...
  9. 1 2 Nicolas Beau and Olivier Toscer, Une imposture française, Éditions des Arènes, 2006.
  10. Levy, Justine. "Justine Levy, Daughter of French Public Intellectual BHL, Writes What She Knows: Life". Jewishbusinessnews. Retrieved 19 August 2015.
  11. Escobar, Pepe, "Who killed Daniel Pearl?" (review), Asia Times (28 June 2003). Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  12. Dalrymple, William, "Murder in Karachi", The New York Review of Books, 4 December 2003. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  13. "'Murder in Karachi': An Exchange" (Bernard-Henri Levy and William Dalrymple), The New York Review of Books, 12 February 2004. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  14. "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?". BBC News. 23 October 2003. Retrieved 26 April 2010.
  15. 1 2 Keillor, Garrison (29 January 2006). "On the Road Avec M. Lévy". The New York Times. p. 1.
  17. Lévy, Bernard-Henri (12 February 1997). Le jour et la nuit. France.
  18. François-Xavier Ajavon, "Symbolisme et temporalité bergsonnienne dans Le Jour et la Nuit de Bernard-Henri Levy", Nanarland.
  19. Bernard-Henry Lévy à nouveau "entarté" en Belgique, .
  20. The Jewish Chronicle, 14 October 2006. Not available online, quote in context: "Our time is almost up, but BHL becomes the most animated I have seen him when I ask him about Jack Straw's intervention on Muslim women and the veil. 'Jack Straw', he says, leaning close to me, 'made a great point. He did not say that he was against the veil. He said it is much easier, much more comfortable, respectful, to speak with a woman with a naked face. And without knowing, he quoted Levinas, who is the philosopher of the face. Levinas says that [having seen] the naked face of your interlocutor, you cannot kill him or her, you cannot rape him, you cannot violate him. So when the Muslims say that the veil is to protect women, it is the contrary. The veil is an invitation to rape.'"
  21. Message to the Young People of Iran by Bernard-Henri Lévy – une vidéo Nieuws & Politiek. Dailymotion. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  22. "Bernard-Henri Lévy défend Benoît XVI et Pie XII"., 20 January 2010. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  23. Or Kashti (30 May 2010). "Bernard Henri Levy: I have never seen an army as democratic as the IDF". Haaretz. Retrieved 1 June 2010.
  24. Bernard-Henri Lévy, "Georgia at War: What I Saw", The Huffington Post, 20 August 2008.
  25. L'appel de BHL depuis Benghazi (Libye) en direct sur TF1 au – une vidéo Nieuws & Politiek. Dailymotion. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  26. Robert Marquand, "How a philosopher swayed France's response on Libya". The Christian Science Monitor, 28 March 2011. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  27. Steven Erlanger, "By His Own Reckoning, One Man Made Libya a French Cause", The New York Times, 1 April 2011.
  28. "Dominique Strauss-Kahn: Bernard-Henri Lévy Defends IMF Director". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  29. Dowd, Maureen (18 May 2011). "Powerful and Primitive". The New York Times.
  30. Bernard-Henri Levy (19 May 2011). "After Qaddafi, Assad". The New Republic. Retrieved 24 May 2011.
  31. Daniel Halper, "Experts to Obama: Here Is What to Do in Syria", The Weekly Standard, 27 August 2013.
  32. "Cinq bonnes raisons de dévorer le dernier BHL", Atlantico, 8 November 2011, MRY
  33. "La légende dorée de BHL en Libye", Le Monde. 7 November 2011}
  34. "BHL en Libye, sur les traces de Lawrence d'Arabie", Rue89, 7 November 2011, Pierre Haski
  35. Sébastien Le Fol, "Bernard-Henri Lévy en Libye, la guerre intime", Le Figaro, 8 November 2011.
  36. "Même la justice française condamne BHL...", Le Monde Diplomatique, 26 April 2013.
  37. Lévy, Bernard-Henri (23 October 2013). "The Significance of Sarajevo". Huffington Post.
  38. Levy, Bernard-Henri (4 April 2015). "Bernard-Henri Levy: Remembering the Maidan". Kyiv Post.
  39. "Bernard-Henri Levy will perform his 'Hotel Europe' play in Kyiv's opera house on Feb. 21". Kyiv Post. 18 February 2015. Retrieved 16 December 2015.
  43. Gilles Deleuze, A propos des nouveaux philosophes et d'un problème plus général, first published in May 1977
  44. Bremner, Charles (9 February 2010). "BernardHenri Lvy a laughing stock for quoting fictional philosopher". The Times. London. Retrieved 26 April 2010.
  45. Carvajal, Doreen (10 February 2010). "Philosopher Left to Muse on Ridicule Over a Hoax". The New York Times. p. 4.
  46. "BHL: les dessous d'un système". L'EXPRESS. Retrieved 19 August 2015.
  47. Lévy, Justine. "Justine Levy, Daughter of French Public Intellectual BHL, Writes What She Knows: Life". Jewishbusinessnews. Retrieved 19 August 2015.
  48. Derek Blasberg, "Daphne Guinness: Bernard-Henri Levy ‘Is Quite Obviously The Love Of My Life’", Huffington Post, 12 February 2011.
  49. Christopher Dickey, "Why Sarkozy Went to War". Newsweek (3 April 2011). Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  51. "Bernard Henri Levy among 6 Jews said targeted by Islamist group", Haaretz (1 January 2009). Retrieved 19 May 2011.

Further reading

Note: Some of the content of this article comes from the equivalent French-language wikipedia article.

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