Life and career
Lévy was born in 1948 in Béni Saf, French Algeria, to an affluent 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.
He is the brother of Philippe Levy and
Véronique Lévy .
After attending the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, Lévy made his way into 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. He was inspired by a call for an International Brigade to aid Bangladeshi freedom fighters made by André Malraux. He subsequently spent part of 1972 working as a civil servant for the Bangladesh Ministry of Economy and Planning. This experience was the source of his first book, Bangla-Desh, Nationalisme dans la révolution ("Bangladesh, Nationalism in the Revolution", 1973). He visited Bangladesh in 2014 to speak at the launch of the first Bengali translation of this book and to open a memorial garden for Malraux at Dhaka University.
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. In 1977, the television show Apostrophes 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.
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 breakup 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.
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. 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".
The book 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.
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. 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.
The Spirit of Judaism
In February 2016, Lévy published a new book entitled L'Esprit du Judaisme. An English version, The Genius of Judaism, was 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.″