Twice this spring, Bernard-Henri Levy was invited to address the democracy activists massed in the streets of the capitol of Ukraine, a city that Americans know by its Russian name, Kiev.
The natives call it Kyiv, and Europeans respect this national self-assertion. European intellectuals, politicians, bankers, and news consumers have a high awareness of the distinction that, according to surveys, seems to be lost on all Americans—except Republican politicians, who blame Barack Obama for not preventing Vladimir Putin from subverting, terrorizing, and, starting with Crimea, dismembering Ukraine. The polls say that we are a world away from caring much about whether the Ukrainians invite a French philosopher or a French waiter to talk to them about democracy, human rights, and a foreign concept that the famous Levy referred to in both his speeches at the Maidan.
He kept saying “Europe.” Invoking the name of the continent was Levy’s way of asserting that the Ukrainian protesters, the folks who bore up against murderous snipers imported from Putin’s Russia, the folks who tolerate their own home-grown anti-Semites because they’re anti-Russian, are all a part of a bigger culture—a culture of individual freedom, of limited government, of rationalism and secularism, of the rule of law, and also of material well-being.
In Levy’s two speeches, he said “Europe” the way we say “America,” asserting a shared definition even as he was challenging European politicians to get the Ukrainians’ collective back. “Nous sommes tous des Ukrainiens,” was his echo of John F. Kennedy’s famous assertion “Ich bin ein Berliner,” except that Levy, the writer without weapons or armies at his command, said “we,” while Kennedy, commander of a fearsome arsenal, made it personal, individual, a deadly threat. Levy is just an intellectual and thus no threat. Levy looks behind himself to see who has his back and sees snarling Senator John McCain, the other major voice invited to Maidan, but he doesn’t see the US president, nor the leaders of France, the UK, Germany, or anybody else official from his beloved Europe. Neither does Vladimir Putin, the Russian nationalist who is now a Russian imperialist.
This month, while the Ukrainians look for somebody to back them up, Putin himself challenges the intellectuals. Putin says that “Europe”and “America” mean the same things these days—bankers and militarists and exploiters. His counter-narrative is that Europe and America stand not for democracy and protection of the rights of ordinary citizens, but for the criminal financiers and oil barons on whose behalf we invade any country, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Serbia to Libya and who knows where next, to advance their interests.
This month, a few days before Passover and the start of Holy Week, we see our Supreme Court monetizing our democracy and an American anti-Semite go hunting Jews in Kansas City. The armed asshole bags a Methodist father and son and an Italian-American lady visiting her mom at a Jewish old folks’ home, and shouts old epithets first spoken in Russian, and nobody in America could have prevented him from buying his gun.
We see these events for an instant. Then it’s back to the usual American discourse of the Tea Party rage, liberal equivocation, and leftist narcissism.
Forgive the despairing tone, but why should Putin take us seriously?
Levy said we should have pulled out of the Sochi Olympics to protest the Russian thugs who were cracking Ukrainian heads there before they started shooting unarmed civilians. Levy challenged: Don’t we remember how Hitler used the 1936 Olympics to distract the world from his arms buildup? Nobody but the Ukrainians responded.
Then, as the Maidan got bloody, he went back in. As a Jew, his endorsement of the Maidan protests helped muzzle the Svoboda party, which has ugly roots among Nazi collaborators. But it matters that this guy has invested his fame in Ukraine, a country with Jews, Muslims (including the now-marooned Crimean Tatars who feared going back under Russian rule again), Poles, and Russians, too, who all want to be out from under the neo-Stalinism of Putin’s rule.
A couple of years ago, Levy got a better audience here with his book Left in Dark Times, which took out after the new complacency of liberals, American and European alike, in the face of the insane anti-Jewish pronouncements that are the daily texts of Hamas in Palestine, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the mullahs in Iran, and the hand-puppets who surround Putin.
Levy would educate the world about the Holodomor, the Ukrainian term for Stalin’s genocidal famine of 1932-1933 that diminished the Ukrainian population by as many as 12 million. Until Ukrainian independence in 1991, speaking of this genocide was illegal. To this day, it is denied by Russians, and by Russian toadies like Viktor Yanukovich, the guy whom the protestors of the Maidan sent scurrying. Ask an American, even an American knowledgeable about the Holocaust that killed six million Jews in the 1940s, about the 12 million Ukrainians lost in the Holodomor a decade earlier, and don’t bother waiting for any response other than blankness.
As Levy speaks of that Ukrainian catastrophe, and of the Jews’ catastrophe, and of Europe as the framework for a new tolerance based on a steadfast commitment to the rule of law, he is doing the work that a public intellectual needs to do. Perhaps if Levy had better English he’d have an American audience for this important message. Levy bravely defends Ukraine. And he defends Israel, too. A few American heads nod, but nobody with much power, no modern-day Kennedy, goes to Kyiv claiming Ukraine as ours, as family, as an indivisible part of the family. And while Levy challenge the Left for its equivocation and its fashionable anti-Semitism, here in America, defending Israel starts to look like this: liberals deploring nastiness at Gaza and West Bank checkpoints, but never ever acknowledging that the Hitler rhetoric of Hamas, et alia, is a problem. And no national politicians are flying into Kansas City, to say, “Hey, we deplore that guy, the Klansman, the Jew-hunter.”
America watched the Kansas City killer for an eye-blink. Fringe character, right? Nothing to trouble ourselves about, right? Just as Ukraine is a fringe country, too far away, too exotic. Kiev, Kyiv.
Sorry, folks. It’s not that easy. This is our fight, too. The neo-Nazi went after the Jews in KC and killed two Methodists and a Catholic. Levy is right: We are all in this.