The death of Tony Judt, historian of contemporary Europe, offers an opportunity to revisit a case of strongly anti-Zionist sentiments held by a prominent Jewish intellectual.

The London-born Judt – who passed away on Friday at the age of 62 at his home in Manhattan, after being diagnosed two years ago with Lou Gehrig’s disease – produced remarkably lucid and readable studies of 19th and 20th century social history. However, it was the New York University lecturer’s polemical essays and public statements against Zionism, and his rejection of the legitimacy of the Jewishness of the State of Israel, that thrust him onto the public stage.

In a much-cited October 2003 essay in The New York Review of Books, Judt called to dismantle the state and to replace it with “a single, integrated, bi-national state” between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea – a recipe for national suicide for the sovereign Jewish entity.

This categorical rejection of Zionism put him in a class with other contemporary Jewish intellectuals of the Diaspora such as Jacqueline Rose, Michael Neumann and Joel Kovel, who have chosen to single out Israel for opprobrium that is rarely, if ever, directed at other countries that choose to adopt unique religious or cultural-based nationalities.

At the center of Judt’s attacks on Israel was a stubborn refusal to accept the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in a distinctly Jewish state. In the above-mentioned article, entitled “Israel: The Alternative,” Judt posited that Israel artificially imported “a characteristically late-19th-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers and international law.”

For Judt, an “ethno-religious” state that provides special privileges to its Jewish citizens – such as the Law of Return – and seeks to preserve its Jewish character through Jewish symbols, is an anachronism “in an age when that sort of state has no place.”

Yet Judt applied totally different rules when he scrutinized nationalism outside of the Israeli context. In A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe, Judt acknowledged that the nation-state was “the only remaining, as well as the best-adapted, source of collective and communal identification.”

With all the desire for a supranational framework that provides universal equality, and eradicates the bigotry and discriminations of cultural and religious distinctions that cause war and strife, argued Judt, there is no substitute for the social cohesion and communal identification provided by a unique national identity.

Therefore, a “truly united Europe” is so unlikely that it would be “unwise and self-defeating to insist upon it.”

As a result, Judt was extremely pessimistic about attempts to create a politically homogeneous Europe devoid of borders and cultural distinctions.

For Israel, by contrast, the time has come to “move on,” “to think the unthinkable,” to replace the Jewish state with “a single, integrated, bi-national state of Jews and Arabs,” in his vision. For Judt, European particularism was an undeniable fact, but the Jewish variety was outdated.

WHY THE double standard? Irrational prejudices are difficult, if not impossible, to fathom, belonging as they do to the murky realm of the psyche.

Judt made some unfortunate comments over the years.

In October 2003 he called then-deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert a “fascist” for publicly threatening to assassinate Yasser Arafat, who at the time was presiding over a wave of suicide bombings.

In October 2006 he described Senator Joe Lieberman as “very ostentatiously Jewish.” As recently as June, after the Israel Navy’s interception of the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara, with its fatal repercussions, Judt asserted that “Thanks to Israel, we [the US] are in serious danger of ‘losing’ Turkey” – as if the gradual process of Islamic extremism that has gripped Turkey since the rise to power of the AKP had nothing to do with that country’s changing orientation.

And what really seemed to have bothered Judt was his subjective feeling that, as an identifiable Jew, he was somehow being represented by Israel.

“The behavior of a self-described Jewish state affects the way everyone else looks at Jews,” wrote Judt. His solution? Do away with the Jewishness of the state.

Yet as Judt himself noted, quoting Arthur Koestler (when writing recently about the Israeli lobby in the US), “fear of finding oneself in bad company is not an expression of political purity; it is an expression of a lack of self-confidence.”

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