My Weekend in Tunis: Anti-Semitic Sound and Fury

How did a simple weekend trip become a veritable affair of state? Having come to meet with leaders of various Libyan factions at the Hôtel La Résidence, a philosopher found himself at the center of a maelstrom in which rumor and spite eclipsed truth and diplomacy.
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Jérôme Béglé of Le Point interviewed me about my visit to Tunisia this past weekend, a trip that triggered many false rumors, none of which had anything to do with why I made it.

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Le Point: Bernard-Henri Levy does not mince words. No, he was not invited to Tunis by radical Islamists. No, he wasn't there as a "Zionist agent." And, no, he was not expelled from the country...

How did a simple weekend trip become a veritable affair of state? Having come to meet with leaders of various Libyan factions at the Hôtel La Résidence, the philosopher found himself at the center of a maelstrom in which rumor and spite eclipsed truth and diplomacy. Everything and its opposite has been said about the whirlwind trip. Here, BHL sets the record straight while wondering at the extent of the disinformation.

Jérôme Béglé: You're just back from Tunisia. We've read some crazy things in the press. What really happened?

BHL: Nothing much, truth be told. A few dozen Islamists, or perhaps exiled Gaddafi supporters, were waiting for me at the airport and professed outrage at seeing a Zionist (sic) set foot in the country. But the event, if there was one, was what happened after. I mean the tornado of hate and madness that began to blow in editorial offices, on the Web, and over social networks. In a matter of hours I had become, at best, that is, in respectable publications, a "Jewish intellectual" or a "Zionist agent" who had come to sow disorder and, all by myself, to destabilize the young Tunisian democracy. At worst, which is to say on certain blogs, I was a dog, vermin, a vampire feeding on Arab blood, someone who should be lynched if spotted, and much more in the same vein.

JB: What was the purpose of your visit to Tunisia?BHL: A very simple thing. To hold a meeting in a hotel, openly and transparently, with Libyan friends who had come expressly from Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata, Zawifa, and towns in Jebel Nafusa to hold a dialogue of national reconciliation on neutral ground with me present. But suddenly, in the eyes of a crazy segment of public opinion drunk on the wildest conspiracy theories, I supposedly had a secret agenda. According to some, that agenda was to meet up with the Islamists of Ennahda. According to others it was, if I've got this straight, to take part, along with one of the worst Islamic radicals in the region, in a conference that I had never heard of. And according to still others it was to plot against the regime that was voted in in last week's elections and, hell, why not, to overturn it. I was a one-man Zionist conspiracy. The incarnation of dark foreign designs. I was no longer a writer but a professional agitator whose machinations various bunches of idiots said merited a legal investigation. It would be laughable if it weren't so unfunny. Because what is happening in Tunisia is otherwise so important, so beautiful and important, that it's sad to see squawkers (and even serious people gone temporarily crazy) indulge in this kind of raving, discrediting what Tunisia's democratic elements have worked so hard to build.

JB: It has been said that you were thrown out of the country...BHL: You must be joking! Do you think that a French citizen would be summarily ejected, for no reason, by a friendly and, by the way, democratic country? Where would we be if the Tunisian authorities, having just emerged victorious in their electoral battle against the religious obscurantists and those nostalgic for the dictatorship, were to yield to pressure from -- I won't even say from the street -- but from a few handfuls of fanatics high on the most virulent form of anti-Semitism? No. That would be completely grotesque. I left when my meeting with the Libyans was over. And the Tunisian authorities, as far as I could tell, behaved in a perfectly ordinary way.

JB: The far left figured in the hostile reactions to your visit...

BHL: No doubt. But the far left has the same problem everywhere. In Tunisia, it passed through a period when it supported the radical Islamists. Then another when the Gaddafi dictatorship seemed the lesser of two evils. And now it makes excuses for Bashar al-Assad. And when it comes to anti-Semitic conspiracy... No, let's not throw oil on the fire. I would say only that the far left has a real problem of political culture, of political culture and level. It would be hard not to have that problem when you'd just crawled out from under decades of tyranny and head-busting.

JB: How do you explain the emergence of such a poisonous polemic?

BHL: We're living in a crazy time. No one bothers to verify anything anymore. Increasingly, people write whatever they want. Even in France, where a site like Rue 89 managed to write, without taking the trouble to check their information by calling the subject of the story, for example, that "BHL is reportedly in Tunisia to see the Libyan Abdelhakim Belhadj and the Tunisian Islamist Rachid Ghannouchi" -- about the most objectionable company to be found on the political scene in Libya and Tunisia, if I may say so.

JB: Does this incident seem to you to discredit the idea that Tunisia is the first of the Arab revolutions to have succeeded in making the transition to democracy?

BHL: Of course not. I was among the first, in January 2011, to salute the heroism of the Tunisian people who, in solidarity with a street vendor in Sidi Bouzid who set himself on fire in protest, rose up against a power structure that was thought to be invincible. And I remember at the time having relayed appeals to hack Ben Ali's official sites! I don't regret any of that for one second. And Tunisia, once again, is headed in the right direction. But once again we must observe that a democracy is not just elections. It's also a culture. A slow revolution in mindsets. Dikes to hold back the slime that takes advantage of the new freedom to come to the surface. And, in Tunisia as in the rest of the Arab world, much remains to be done in this respect.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy

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