The Arty Semite

Sylvain Lévi: A Man Not For All Seasons?

By Benjamin Ivry

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Courtesy Alliance israélite universelle

Some heroes of Jewish history are better known for their deeds than for their personalities, like Sylvain Lévi, president of the Alliance israélite universelle until his death in 1935. A great expert on Eastern religion, literature and history, who co-authored a dictionary of Buddhism and taught Sanskrit at the Sorbonne, Lévi has been little remembered as a man.

That’s because in 1940, when the Germans invaded Paris, Lévi’s widow Désirée destroyed private papers which might be “compromising.” Scant surviving material was seized by the Nazis and only resurfaced in 1990 in Russian archives, having been seized in turn from defeated Germany in 1945. Readers of 2007’s “Returned From Russia: Nazi Archival Plunder in Western Europe and Recent Restitution Issues,” published by the Institute Of Art And Law know the complex mechanics of such rediscoveries, but for Lévi, it meant private letters were once again known to exist.

These missives, to his nephew and to the recording secretary of the Alliance israélite universelle, have just been published in Paris by Éditions Honoré Champion, edited by Roland Lardinois et Georges Weill. What emerges is a picture of a ferociously disciplined mind, as would be expected from a scholar who made pioneering inroads into Nepal, India and Tibet before 1900.

Yet Lévi’s brain may have been too subtle for a brutal historical time. At first, Lévi did not speak up to defend Alfred Dreyfus’s innocence, feeling that as a Jew, his support might actually damage Dreyfus’s chances. By 1898, however, he decided that “silence would be cowardice; protest is a duty.”

Yet Lévi’s staunch support of assimilation, and opposition to Zionism, left him out to sea when fascism conquered Europe. During World War I, Lévi’s nephew, like many French Jewish soldiers, was repeatedly wounded and Lévi felt that “France trusted the Jews and the Jews have honored France,” not believing that a few years later France would try to murder all its Jews.

Speaking in 1933 on behalf of persecuted Jewish intellectuals, Lévi, an expert on real Aryanism (Indo-Iranian languages) said of the Nazi kind: “What a farce it would be, if this lie did not cost so much blood and tears!” Until this belated epiphany, Lévi believed his duty was to fight not just antisemitism, but also Zionism according to a policy of “splendid isolation,” thereby dividing world Jewry into separate, easily vanquished groups.

Lévi’s letters feature sharp-tongued slatings of fellow Jewish leaders like Rabbi Stephen Wise, whom he calls a “ham actor” (cabotin). He loathed Louis Marshall a founder of the American Jewish Committee, even more: “[Marshall] combines Jewish chutzpah, American insolence, and Boche aplomb,” he wrote.

In the end, Lévi’s tragic lack of foresight about the fate of European Jewry makes him seem learned, but not astute.


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