Ilan Halevi: Palestinian Jew and Citizen of the World, 1943-2013
Much was said about Ilan Halevi following his death at a clinic in Clichy outside Paris on 10 July 2013. His Palestinian friends eulogized him as an unwavering comrade-in-arms—though born to Jewish parents, he not only championed their cause but actually joined their ranks. Obituaries in the French press and elsewhere recounted some of his life story but much of the information was inaccurate or biased. And, unsurprisingly, Zionist internet sites vilified him in death as in life, accusing him of anti-Semitism and branding him a self-hating Jew who had betrayed his people.
Truth be told, the most fitting description of Halevi is the one he himself bestowed on his friend, Felix Guattari: a “singular internationalist” was how he described the great French thinker who died in 1992. In an era of narrow tribal and communal sectarianisms, Halevi noted, those who viewed the world as an indivisible whole were indebted to Guattari (“ceux qui justement réfléchissent sur la réalité du monde vu-comme-un-tout”). Ilan’s internationalism, like Guattari’s, was no mere ideological or political stance: it was the warp and weft of his life, as reflected in his biography, fanciful details included. The departures from the truth, which Ilan sometimes propagated even among his close friends, ranged from the fabrication of his name to the concealing of his precocious political awakening and the extraordinary artistic and literary talents about which any other person would have simply bragged.
Ilan Halevi was born on 12 October 1943 in the French city of Lyon, then under Nazi occupation. He came into the world in a post office building, a hideout of the French Resistance, without even a midwife in attendance. Soon afterward, the post-master, one Eugène Denis, and his son, Henri, were arrested by the Gestapo and executed by firing squad.
Ilan’s father, Henri Levin, had been born in Poland to Russian Jewish parents who subsequently moved to France, and his mother was a Jew from Istanbul. Together they had four children, and after Henri’s death in 1952, Ilan’s mother married Emile Albert, one of Henri’s friends from the French Resistance. Albert adopted all four of the children and they took on his name.
Ilan began his literary life as a poet. In 1960, Ecrire, the prestigious literary magazine published by Seuil, ran a forty-page poem he had written entitled “L’horaire” (Schedule). Modern readers of the poem will quickly glean the influence of the Martiniquais poet and man of letters, Aimé Césaire, the author of “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal” (“Notebook of a Return to the Native Land”) and the seminal Discours sur le colonialisme (Discourse on Colonialism). Ilan had read both works before turning seventeen.
He learned English without formal training by playing the drums at a Latin Quarter jazz club. Pursuing what was his favorite hobby, he met some of the great African-American musicians of the period, including Budd Powell and Eric Dolphy, and he made friends with other leading figures of Paris’s black artist community such as the literary agent, Ellen Wright (widow of Richard Wright), as well as James Baldwin and Chester Himes. After Ellen introduced Ilan to Jean-Paul Sartre, two of his articles on the condition of blacks in the United States were published in Les Temps modernes, the pre-eminent literary journal that was considered Sartre’s review. Other articles of his appeared in Présence africaine, and soon the publication recruited him as an editor. Ilan was also one of a handful of people who met Malcom X on his Paris stopover en route back to the United States following his pilgrimage to Mecca.
His immersion in that milieu stirred in him such empathy with black Americans that Ilan set his novel, The Crossing, in Harlem. Not only did he write it in English (and in black American vernacular at that), but the book was published in New York in 1964 under the name Alain Albert when he was only twenty-one  and before he had ever set foot in the United States. At the time, the Washington Post wrote, “the most poignant new novel about racial tension comes, by some miracle of empathy, from a young white Frenchman far removed from the scene of our crimes.” Ilan translated the novel into French under the pseudonym George Levin, and it was published by Seuil in 1965.
For a time Ilan lived on the African continent, working as a journalist at a radio station in Mali and considered converting to Islam, in solidarity with African Muslims. He was dissuaded from doing so by the great Malian writer, Amadou Hampâté Bâ, who reminded him that the paths to knowledge are many and that the quest for truth needed no outer garb. Ilan discovered the Palestinian question as a result of his encounters with Egyptians and Syrians teaching in Algeria, and after becoming an impassioned supporter of the cause, he decided to move to Israel in 1966 and militate for Palestinian rights there alongside other anti-Zionist Jews. He lived on kibbutz Gan Shmuel, adopted the name Ilan Halevi, learned Hebrew, and initially joined the ranks of the left-wing group Matzpen. Later, he and some friends created the more radical Ma’avak but when two of its members were arrested and charged with being in contact with Syrian citizens, Halevi was expelled from the kibbutz.
Ilan then worked in Israel as the correspondent of the French daily, Libération, and on a trip to Paris in 1975, he met sociologist and activist Catherine Lévy, who would later introduce him to two pre-eminent French philosophers and intellectuals, Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze. With their help, he launched an anti-Zionist newssheet entitled “News from the Inside.” During the same period, Halevi began lending his exceptional skills to Palestinian public relations efforts and penned the two works for which he is best-known: Sous Israël, la Palestine,  a study of destroyed Palestinian villages, and the famous Question juive: la tribu, la loi, l'espace,  which was translated into both English and German, and remains a masterful refutation of Zionism and a source-book on Jewish identity. He also helped found the Journal of Palestine Studies’ French-language sister publication, Revue d’études palestiniennes, to which he contributed regularly throughout its seventeen years of existence (1981–2008).
Having joined the ranks of Fatah, in the 1980s Ilan was charged with sensitive diplomatic and political missions by both Abu Ammar and Abu Jihad (Yasir Arafat and Khalil al-Wazir, respectively). In 1983, Abu Ammar first appointed him as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) representative to the UN Human Rights Committee and then to the Socialist International, following the assassination of Issam Sartawi. When the first intifada got underway at the end of 1987, Ilan was one of the first to appreciate its strategic significance, and he became one of its most vocal ambassadors, writing and lecturing tirelessly. Together with others in Fatah, and at the request of its leadership, he compiled extensive archival and analytical dossiers on the core issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict, specifically the question of Palestinian refugees and the right of return. These studies helped prepare him for participation in the 1991 Madrid Conference and the follow-up talks in Washington.
Following the signing of the Oslo accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, Ilan decided to live in Palestine. Initially, he was denied entry by the Israeli authorities, but they relented following the intervention of the Socialist International, which demanded his participation as the PLO’s representative at its 1995 congress in Jerusalem. For the next ten years, he lived between Ramallah and Jerusalem. During that period, he was the PLO’s special advisor on foreign affairs, was elected to Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, and he became the Palestinian Authority’s deputy foreign minister in 2003. He continued to write for both the Revue and Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filistiniyya (the JPS Arabic-language sister publication) as well as other journals, and to participate in international conferences and panels. He authored another book—Face à la guerre, lettre de Ramallah  —in which he criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq and pleaded for the global justice movement as an alternative to globalization. His second novel, a mix of autobiography, eyewitness accounts, and fictional storytelling, entitled Allers-retours,  was published in 2005.
Not long after, Ilan left Palestine, traveling with his German companion to Beirut, and then to Berlin. Whether pursuing his political activities or following new literary, philosophical, and artistic trends, Ilan retained his amazing vitality right up to the last months, in spite of a life-threatening illness that necessitated three surgeries.
This sketch of Ilan Halevi is a barebones introduction to the man and a modest tribute to the militant, author, and human being that he was. Friends from different phases of his life would surely add details that others might not know of or have experienced. But they would all agree on his sharp intellect, his vast culture, his love of life, and his unswerving loyalty to the large humanistic causes he devoted himself to from a young age.
Whenever he was asked about his identity, Ilan would reply jestingly that he was “100% Jewish and 100% Arab.” The truth is he was neither because the whole world was his country. He dreamt of a citizenship that would encompass the entire globe, erasing every kind of discrimination. His decision to be Palestinian was anchored in the belief that the Palestinian cause was indivisible from the quest for human liberation.
Farouk Mardam-Bey is a Syrian scholar and writer. He is the director of Sindbad, an imprint of the French press, Actes-Sud, which specializes in French translations of Arabic texts. He also oversees the French-language publications of the Institute for Palestine Studies.
1 Ilan Halevi, “Un internationaliste singulier,” Chimères, no. 2 (1994), p. 5.
2 Biographical details in this essay are based on a touching tribute which his brother, Marc Albert Levine, sent to Ilan’s friends and on the magnificent homage by Nicole Lapierre that appeared on the French internet news site, Mediapart. See: Nicole Lapierre, “Ilan Halévi, métèque générique,” Vagabondages Sociologiques (blog), Mediapart, 13 July 2013, http://blogs.mediapart.fr.
3 After the liberation of France, the city renamed one of its streets Rue Denis Père et Fils in their memory.
4 Alain Albert, “L’horaire,” Ecrire, no. 8 (1960), pp. b3–b44.
5 Alain Albert, The Crossing (New York: George Braziller, 1964).
6 Cited in Lapierre, “Ilan Halévi, métèque générique.”
7 Alain Albert, La Traversée, trans. Georges Levin (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1965).
8 Ilan Halévi, Sous Israël, la Palestine (Paris: Le Sycomore, 1978).
9 Ilan Halévi, Question juive: la tribu, la loi, l’espace (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1981). It appeared in English as Ilan Halevi, A History of the Jews: Ancient and Modern (London: Zed Books, 1990).
10 Ilan Halevi, Face à la guerre, lettre de Ramallah (Paris: Sindbad/Actes Sud, 2003).
11 Ilan Halevi, Allers-retours (Paris: Flammarion, 2005).