Flames of passion

Tony Judt explains why his 2003 essay terming Israel an 'anachronism' wasn't included in his latest book.

judt book 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
judt book 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century By Tony Judt Penguin 464 pages; $29.95 It must take nerve for Tony Judt, professor of European history at New York University, to check his e-mail. He receives hundreds of vitriolic messages - sometimes threats against his life or, worse, his family. People do not, needless to say, want his head for his scholarly tomes on the history of the French left. Or for his magisterial 900-page book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, published in 2005, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and helped secure his place in the world's top 100 public intellectuals named in the Foreign Policy/Prospect survey in May. What makes the celebrated British-born academic a target for hate are his essays on Israel and American foreign policy in the Middle East - most famously, "Israel: The Alternative," published in the New York Review of Books in October 2003. Describing Israel as an "anachronism," he wrote that "the time has come to think the unthinkable": the dismantling of Israel as an exclusively Jewish state and its replacement by a secular and binational state of Jews and Palestinians. Since Judt is the son of Yiddish-speaking Jewish refugees, his detractors struggle to label him an anti-Semite. He has always taken unorthodox positions. A long-term anti-communist, he is a firm believer in state intervention. He is politically progressive but rejects postmodern theory and finds academic political correctness "just as annoying as the reactionary politics of Washington." A historian of French ideas, he is no Francophile. In Past Imperfect (1992) and The Burden of Responsibility (1998), he attacked French intellectuals for closing their eyes to totalitarianism. Since 1987, when he moved to America to teach at NYU, after jobs at Cambridge, Oxford and Berkeley, Judt has been educating Americans about the Continent. The British historian Timothy Garton Ash says Judt's commitment to public discourse makes him unique in the English-speaking world: "He is much more like what we in Britain would think of as a Continental thinker rather than an Anglo-Saxon academic - someone who thinks that ideas matter and that the job of an intellectual is to be engaged in public policy debates." Academic and journalist Ian Buruma, Judt's friend and a fellow contributor to the NYRB, suggests that Judt's worldliness sets him apart from other historians. "He doesn't just write history from archives and books. He is more like a journalist in that he spends time in countries and reports as much as he writes actual history." Judt's varied interests are examined in his new book, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, a collection of 25 essays written over 12 years. They range from pieces on Jewish intellectuals, such as Arthur Koestler, Primo Levi, Manès Sperber and Hannah Arendt, to quirky portraits of countries like Romania and Belgium, to essays on American foreign policy during the Cold War and the decline of social democracy. His polemic style is on display. He likens French neo-Marxist theorist Louis Althusser to "some minor medieval scholastic, desperately scrabbling around in categories of his own imagining." He charges Eric Hobsbawm, a leading living historian and an unrepentant communist, with having "slept through the terror and shame of the age." Fellow liberals, such as David Remnick, Michael Ignatieff and Thomas Friedman, are excoriated for supporting the Iraq War. "In today's America," Judt writes, "neoconservatives generate brutish policies for which liberals provide the ethical fig leaf." HE EXPLORES how international opinion turned against Israel after its victory in the Six Day War. In "The Country That Wouldn't Grow Up," he equates Israel with a narcissistic adolescent that believes itself to be unique and universally misunderstood. Some of the essays first appeared in The New Republic, which listed Judt as a contributing editor until 2003. After "Israel: The Alternative" was published, TNR's literary editor Leon Wieseltier removed his name from the masthead. "He does not wish to be held accountable for things that he has not himself done or to be regarded as a representative of anyone but himself," Wieseltier wrote about his formerly close friend. "Why must Israel pay for his uneasiness with its life?" The troublesome essay is conspicuously absent from this collection. "I really didn't want reviewers and readers to immediately turn to that and then read the book as though it was a footnote to that essay," he says. By 2003, Judt had become convinced that the creation of separate Jewish and Palestinian states was no longer possible. "Israel controls the water, the economy and the power to the state militarily," he says. "It owns the land and has chopped it up in a way that will make a coherent Palestinian state impossible. One should recognize that rather than talking as if, at some point in the near future, the Israeli settlers will miraculously go away, Israel will walk away from the land, and there'll be a Palestinian state." Fears, even among left-wing Jews, that the one-state solution would mean Jews become a minority in Greater Palestine, are exaggerated, he says. "A substantial segment of the Palestinian population, which is still the best educated and most secular of all the Arab populations, will be very happy to live with and work with the majority of the Jewish population. We're not talking about Israel getting into bed with Saudi Arabia. Although Israel has done its best to turn the Palestinians into angry Islamicists, they are not yet." When Judt published an op-ed about the Jewish lobby in The New York Times, an editor called to ask that he insert somewhere that he is Jewish. Would Judt have entered the fray if he were not Jewish? "I might be, like many of my non-Jewish friends here, inhibited for fear of being accused of being insensitive to Jewish suffering or the Holocaust or anti-Semitism," he says. "One has to live in the United States to realize how oppressive the silence about American policy in the Middle East is, especially compared with similar conversations pretty much anywhere in the world, including Israel." In October 2003, Judt was scheduled to deliver a speech at the Polish Consulate in New York about the "Jewish Lobby." An hour before he was expected to arrive, the Poles canceled the talk, after receiving calls from the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress. ADL director Abraham Foxman dismissed allegations that the Jewish organizations silenced Judt as "conspiratorial nonsense," but the consul-general clearly felt under intense pressure. In the NYRB, 114 intellectuals signed an open letter to the ADL denouncing its antics. Writing in Slate, Christopher Hitchens ridiculed Judt's outrage by arguing that no one has a democratic right to speak at a private institution. A controversial critic of Israel himself, Hitchens mocked: "What a chance I missed to call attention to myself." "I don't respond to Christopher in public," counters Judt, "on the general principle that you should never mudwrestle with a pig because you both get filthy and the pig likes it." Slate later launched a humorous quiz entitled: "Are you a liberal anti-Semite?" Second prize was a dinner with Tony Judt. "I hate dinners so I'd be a lousy dinner companion," Judt says. "It would be a real punishment." Judt was 15 when his mother, a hairdresser, and father, a bookseller, concerned about his lack of social life, sent him to a Zionist summer camp in Israel. He says he was "sucked into the whole youthful enthusiasm - dancing in a circle, singing songs, being both left-wing and nationalistic." At 19, at the end of his first year at Cambridge, he organized a group of volunteers to replace the soldiers called up for the Six Day War in the fields. Later that year, he drove trucks and translated Hebrew and French for Israeli officers. His romance with Zionism unraveled, however. "I started to see a side of Israel that I didn't know very well," he recalls. "I listened to Israeli soldiers talking about how 'We now have all this land and we will never give it back,' and, 'The only good Arab is a dead Arab.' You didn't have to be a political genius to see that this was a catastrophe in the making." ANOTHER FANTASY dissolved during two years in Paris, where Judt researched his Cambridge doctorate at the École Normale Supérieure. "I became less besotted by France," he says, "and less disposed to be a Francophile in the superficial sense of loving French food and wanting to be seen smoking Gauloises and wearing black berets." When he first taught at the Institute of French Studies at NYU two decades ago, France-bashing had not yet become an American sport. "France and things French are now seen as a marginal elite preference, where once they were thought simply to be what the cultivated person cared about, spoke and read," he says. In 1995, Judt founded the Remarque Institute at NYU to facilitate dialogue with Europe, but, even with the prospect of an Obama administration, he holds out little hope for the future of US-European relations. "The substantive content of the relationship probably won't change hugely, because the American way of looking at the world is very different from Europe's," he says. "Europeans look at Turkey or the Middle East as frontier issues, whereas Americans see them as long-distance menaces." In Postwar, Judt describes Europe "as a paragon of the international virtues" and "an exemplar for all to emulate" before concluding that "the twenty-first century might yet belong to Europe." For a generally hard-nosed historian, it's a remarkably sentimental vision. "The European model of how to live a Western pluralistic democratic life in the globalized world," he says, "is probably the only available model to us - that is to say, which combines the reality of nation-states with the necessity of transnational institutions, legislation and cooperation." Garton Ash calls Postwar a landmark achievement: the first history of postwar Europe to integrate the histories of Western and Eastern Europe. He also feels that Judt exaggerates the divergence between Europe and America: "I think both sides of the Atlantic are likely to come back to what I call a Euro-Atlanticist agenda, to a kind of a strategic partnership. Tony has been deeply marked by his experience of the last eight years in the United States under the Bush administration," he says. Journalist and friend Buruma suggests that Judt "sometimes overstates to further the discussion." He sees Judt's idealization of Europe as a way of expressing his disillusionment with the US. "He's a passionate man and I think sometimes takes up very passionate positions and then feels disillusioned. The disillusionment is sharper because of the passionate enthusiasm he had at first. It's true of Israel, and it's true of the United States."