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
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
In a much-cited October 2003 essay in The New York Review
, 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.
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
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
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
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
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.”