Bernard-Henri Lévy has a new book, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope (Yale University Press) and a documentary of the same name, both of which combine autobiography with documentary journalism and humanitarian activism. In many ways, it is a summation of Lévy’s efforts over the last 50 years to give voice to the forgotten victims of genocides and to make a difference in the lives of the survivors.
The book is composed of two parts: the first is an autobiographical essay that seeks to explore, or in Lévy’s words, excavate, the impulse that has seized him throughout his life to travel to conflict zones, not only to report but also “to have an influence no matter how small on the reality reported.”
The second part of the book reports from unsung places of misery Lévy visited in 2020 while most of us were in lockdown due to the pandemic: Nigeria, where Christians are being massacred by the Fulani, Islamic extremists who are allied with Boko Haram; the border areas near Turkey, Syria and Iran where Kurdish forces make camp; The Donbas region of Ukraine which is under siege by Russian forces; Mogadishu in Somalia, where the remaining bulwark against Al-Shabab are mercenaries from the Bancroft private security forces and the Somalis they’ve trained; The Moriah refugee camp on the Greek Island of Lesbos; and a return to places where Lévy has previous history such as Bangladesh, Libya, and Afghanistan.
What impelled Lévy to travel at his own instigation and at times at his own expense at a time when much of the first world was being told to stay at home? “I knew by experience,” he said recently, “that there are parts of the world where there is no home; [and] if there is one, and if you stay in it, you starve. And if you don’t starve, you are killed in your home by gangs of [Al-Shabab or] of radical Islamists. And I soon understood that these situations were completely forgotten by my fellow citizens in France, in all of Europe [and]… I think also in America… as if there was no longer the war in Syria as if there was no longer the war in Ukraine as if there was no longer an massacre of Christian in Nigeria….”
Although both book and film are reports of the same expeditions, they are different experiences. Reading about the massacres in Nigeria is not as powerful as seeing the victims’ corpses left to rot; by contrast, seeing a young Nigerian woman with only one arm is not as deeply shocking as reading how her limb was sliced one piece at a time by the Fulani Extremist Gang that overran her village. That being said, Lévy, in his film, has brought back footage of active warfare from places that most news organizations no longer cover, such as Mogadishu, the battle trenches in Ukraine, as well as the mountainous region of Iran where the Kurdish fighters make camp.
Lévy presents the intellectual basis for his formation in his book’s opening section. It begins with his father, who volunteered to fight the fascists during the Spanish Civil War, and who joined the Free French Resistance under De Gaulle. “Happy are the sons whose fathers were heroes,” he writes. Clearly his father set an example for him.
Lévy was born in Algeria but raised in Paris where he attended several prestigious Lycées before entering the École Normale Supérieure, one of France’s greatest public universities, from which he graduated with a degree in philosophy. Among the famous teachers there at the time were philosophers Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Louis Althusser as well as psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.
Revolution was in the air: It was a time of French Marxists and French Maoists, of the ‘Mai 68’ Student protests. Lévy explains that, personally, he was a follower of Edmund Husserl, a philosopher who distinguished between a Philosophy of Pure Thought and a Philosophy of Thought in Action.
Accordingly, after receiving his degree in Philosophy, Lévy felt he was done with ‘Pure Thought’ and that the time had come to put philosophy, as he said, “in contact with the reality of things.” In this, he says, he was not alone. “All my generation had this. I belong to the generation who made Doctors without Borders. I belong to a generation that made some [significant] NGOs. I belong to a generation who had the desire and the illusion to change the world….”
French intellectual icon André Malraux, a former Culture Minister under De Gaulle, had issued an appeal to form an international brigade to support Bangladesh in becoming an independent nation (In 1947, India was partitioned into two countries a majority Hindu nation of India, and a majority Muslim nation of Pakistan compromised of two land masses to the East and West of India. West Pakistan is what we recognize as Pakistan today; East Pakistan became Bangladesh). Lévy wrote a letter to Malraux volunteering (and in the film we see the letter itself retrieved from Malraux’s archives).
In 1971, Lévy spent some 11 months in Bangladesh, helping establish the new nation and advising the new government. One of his signal achievements was in convincing the new President to designate those women raped during the conflict as heroes. Since then, Lévy has continued to travel the world, a sheliach, a roving ambassador without portfolio, a French citizen with connections and resources and the will to use them to make a difference. He is an interventionist who believes that one person and good people of conscience can inspire change in societies top-down as much as bottom-up.
On film we see Lévy’s life’s adventures scroll before us: There he is a long-haired youth in Bangladesh; in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war; in Rwanda following the genocide; addressing a crowd of many, many thousands in Maidan Square in Kiev. In these clips, Lévy is a torchbearer celebrating the appearance of light in dark times. He is a cheerleader for democracy and for change. At times, it is not just words: In one extraordinary filmed sequence, we are witness to Lévy handing his cell phone to Kurdish leaders. The Kurdish leader finds himself on the line with French President Macron who promises to provide support for their cause. Lévy explains his high-level intercessions as done, “because he can.”
In 2002, Lévy was sent by French President Jacques Chirac as an official observer to Afghanistan to meet with President Hamid Karzai. However, while there, Lévy learned of Daniel Pearl’s murder in Pakistan. Sensing that Pearl’s abduction and decapitation was not random but rather signaled a hinge moment in history, Lévy decided he would write a book investigating the crime. The resulting “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” was as ambitious as it was shocking, exposing connections between Pakistani intelligence and Al Qaeda – and positing Pearl’s murder as the herald of a worldwide resurgence of antisemitism – which proved regrettably prescient. In the following years, Lévy continued to report on forgotten wars, such as in his 2005 collection, War, Evil and the End of History, that took him to Colombia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Angola and Burundi.
In The Will to See, Lévy declares his credo as being “Universalism as opposed to decolonization; Inquiry and debate instead of “safe spaces”; Internationalism not Globalism – Neither a homogenous Europe nor a Nationalist Xenophobic one. The Europe of Stefan Zweig and Romain Rolland. The Internationalism of Doctors Without Borders.” Although Rolland referred to himself as an “antique species,” Levy doubles down on his beliefs, even as the world seems to be dancing to a different tune.
Lévy does this, he said, because of nagging guilt that France (and he personally) did nothing to stop the Rwandan genocide. At that time, Lévy made a pledge to himself to never again be witness to such a tragedy – and if such a tragedy arose again, he would do all that was possible to stop it. “I was 40 years old. I already had a voice already wrote, and people like me could not do anything to stop it.” And so, in Nigeria Lévy sees another possible Rwanda for which he must speak out. “My intention,” he said, “is to be faithful to my oath.”
Over time, Lévy has come to see his actions as being informed by his own Judaism. “It’s my way of being a Jew,” Lévy said “It’s my way of doing duty of a member of mankind.” In The Will to See, Lévy writes: “The Jew in me cannot help but recognize himself in the inability to report facts without matching them with a good and rightful action – a mitzvah – the ultimate purpose of which will be the repair of the world – Tikkun Olam.” Adding: “Ironically, it took many years to recognize the desire to report to spend time in uncomfortable places as Jewish.”
However, despite’s Lévy’s continued idealism and optimism, in The Will to See, the present appears less receptive to his appeals – the crowds he speaks before are smaller and smaller, until he is in Libya in Tarhuna making a declaration in a deserted Roman theater for the benefit of the few members of his crew – a site whose heroic past is complicated by its most recent use as a mass grave. Although his public declaration is little attended, it is immediately rejected on social media and Lévy suddenly finds himself a target of hostile Islamic forces.
Lévy finds little progress in the places to which he returns. Visiting Bangladesh after 50 years, Lévy is greeted with a band and a parade. However, Bangladesh’s present is dire and its future is subsumed by poverty, pollution and the effects of climate change. On the Greek Island of Lesbos, he visits the Moriah refugee camp, where, it may be said: hope goes to die. Those who wish to turn away the refugees are noxious. Lévy writes: “It was the first time in my life that I had found myself in such a situation. Confronted with such open, proud, hate.”
Since Daniel Pearl’s murder and 9/11, one can say that “Open Proud Hate” has increasingly infected the world and made it a far more hostile and dangerous place. In Mogadishu, Lévy is almost stoned to death with real stones by Somalis. An even more terrifying moment in both the film and the book comes in Libya after Lévy’s Tarhuna appeal, when he is chased by armed militias in trucks trying to run Lévy’s convoy off the road or block it, even as individuals call out “Jewish dog – No Jewish dogs in Libya.” In the film you see the incendiary spirit animating this hatred – and it is frightening.
Lévy also returns to Afghanistan where he finds hope in the person of Commander Massoud’s son, Ahmad Massoud. However, since Lévy’s reporting, with the return of the Taliban, Ahmad Massoud has fled to Tajikistan. On film, we watch Lévy’s appeals to our better angels, but what we see on the ground raises doubts about whether Lévy’s interventions have become a lost cause. One wonders: When the day comes that Lévy no longer travels to these cursed places, who will take up the fight? Who, if anyone, is even in a position to do so? And yet….
When I interviewed Levy recently at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, one audience member asked what any of us – any of us who are not Lévy – can do regarding these situations. Lévy’s answer was twofold: First we can become informed and let others know; second, Lévy noted that most people, including most politicians, lead ordinary lives. The challenge was whether in a moment of crisis for others, one could rise to the occasion and transcend one’s own limitations and do more. Just a little more than you may have thought possible. That, Lévy said, often made a big difference. That is what through his writing and film and his example, he hopes to inspire.
“What gives me hope is this ability of women and men to rise above themselves.” Even in politics, Levy said, whether we are more on the right or more on the left, or Republican or Democrat, doesn’t matter if a politician can commit an act worthy of a stateswoman or a statesman. As an example, Lévy spoke of a time during the Bosnian war that French President Mitterrand, with whom Lévy disagreed with on almost every subject, nonetheless decided while flying back from a G8 summit in Portugal to divert his plane to land in Sarajevo which was under heavy shelling. By doing so, Mitterrand forced a temporary ceasefire which saved many lives. Because of this one act, Lévy never again judged Mitterrand as harshly. “This one act reconciled me with him for a while,” Levy said, relishing the memory. “This is what I like in life.”