French-Jewish thinker Bernard-Henri Levy has long warned of Russian expansionism. Arriving in Odessa as it faces the threat of a catastrophic Russian assault from Putin’s war machine, he tells the JC in an exclusive interview why he travelled to a war zone – and calls for the West to take a stand:
Why did you decide to go to Odessa?
Why Odessa? Because I knew the city in times of peace. I have some friends there. I performed my monologue about Europe on the stage of the opera house. And it broke my heart to know that such a war was going on there. I wanted to show solidarity. And I wanted to bear witness. This conflict is so absurd! So meaningless! How can this paranoid Putin speak of denazifying one of the most brilliant cities, in the entire world, shaped by Jewish spirit and culture?
Bernard Henri Levy in Odessa this week
What are your impressions of the city at the moment?
Anxiety. A whole city holding its breath. Rumours, every day, of the Russian navy approaching. Alerts every night. Families spending the night in shelters. A pure nightmare.
What about the morale of the people?
What amazes me is, at the same time, the magnificent spirit of resistance animating every single citizen. Leaders, of course. But average people as well. With, between the two, a real communion, a shared patriotism. We knew this sort of combination during the French Resistance.
What have you learnt from Odessa’s Governor, Maksym Marchenko?
That the city will never surrender, of course. But, more importantly, it is well-prepared for any sort of assault. By sea. By land. And by sky. Last night, several missiles were sent over the city. They were stopped by the Odessa iron dome. I must add that Marchenko is a good commander. I met him, two years ago, in Donbass. He is really a brave man. And I am so angry at the stupid illiterate set who presents him as an extremist, a former fascist, and so on. This propaganda is disgusting. It’s shameful.
The philosopher with Roman Shvarcman at Odessa's Holocaust memorial this week
Have you met Odessa’s Jewish community and leaders? What have they told you?
Of course, I met with Roman Shvarcman, an old man, a survivor of the Holocaust, who is Vice President of the Jewish community. We spent time together at the Holocaust memorial. We mourned the victims of the Romanian Nazis in 1941. And we celebrated the 200, or so, righteous among the nations who have their name in the middle of the square. This has been one of the most moving moments for me… By the way, it’s another piece of proof of the utter stupidity of Putin when he speaks of a “denazification” of Ukraine. He should, instead, take inspiration from this example. The Ukrainians did a very good job of remembrance. And the Jews, until this war, were happy in Odessa.
What do you think is the significance of this war?
No significance. No reason. No grievance of any sort and no real target. Just the stupid cruelty of Putin.
How much is at stake?
The future of Europe. And of the free world. Nothing less.
If Russia succeeds in taking over the country, or a large part of it…
He will not succeed. Putin has already lost. And, if he wins, he will reign over a country turned into ruins. Would you call that a victory?
Let’s says he succeeds: what are the consequences for democracy and the rules-based international system?
It would be a disaster. Proof that blackmail wins. That international rules don’t work anymore. And, for democracy, a world-scale defeat. This is really the great “rendez-vous” of our generation. But, again, Putin has lost. The human cost, both in Russia and in Ukraine, will be atrocious, but there is no doubt of the outcome.
Bernard Henri Levy with a Ukrainian artillery position in 2020
What should Ukraine’s friends do?
Close the sky, impose a no-fly zone . This is what President Zelensky asks for. And he is right.
What do you say to those who claim that this would be to risk World War Three, and a possible nuclear conflict?
That they will have, as Churchill said, both dishonour and war. Anyway, how can a civilized world live with such a Damocles sword over the head? If we don’t stop Putin now, Putin will threaten Moldova, Poland, Lithuania. And we will say again “If we resist, we risk a nuclear conflict…”
Have you been able to speak with President Zelensky?
What is your view of him and the leadership he has given?
I had the chance to know him before his election. I have never seen, or read about, such a metamorphosis. He was a kid, now he is a statesman. He was an actor, now he is a warrior. He was not prepared for this destiny, but he bears it. It’s really impressive. There are examples of this in French revolutionary history. There are also examples, in Israel, among the founding fathers of the country. That’s it.
You visited Ukraine during the Maidan revolution of 2014. How much has the country changed in a positive way since then?
Democracy was a battle. It became a fact.
What should the international Jewish community be doing to help Ukraine? What is your message for world Jewry, especially given Ukraine’s special significance in Jewish history?
Again, Ukraine is a country possessed by one of the greatest Jewish culture and memory. It is also, of course, the country of Babyn Yar and of one of the worst episodes of the Holocaust by bullets. But the Ukrainians bypassed this past. They reflected on it. They prevailed over it. And that’s how, at the end of the day, it is the only country in the world, apart from Israel, with a Jewish President.
What is your opinion of the apparently somewhat equivocal position of Israel? Do you have an opinion of Prime Minister Bennett’s attempt to mediate?
About the attempt of mediation, I have no idea. My only conviction is the massacre has to stop. And I would be very proud to see my dear Israel acting as a peacemaker and stopping the massacre. For the rest, I know it’s very complicated for a country that is, itself, threatened in its very existence. Israelis have to deal with Syria. With the atrocious Hezbollah in Lebanon. And with the Iranian nuclear threat.
I suppose that, on none of these three fronts, they can afford to enter into open opposition with Russia. But is Putin still Russia? Would it not be a mistake to endorse the policy of a man, Putin, who represents the past, the worst past, and not the future, of Russia? Israel is not just a state. It’s a special state. It’s an idea. And this idea is completely intertwined with the values of humanism and the defence of the afflicted. It seems the place of Israel is at the side of Ukraine. I note, by the way, that Israel goes, each day, more and more in that direction. I am happy with this.