Tak­ing is­sue with the or­tho­dox­ies

Is­rael is not the only coun­try Tony Judt has fallen out of love with, writes Ben Na­parstek

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IT must take nerve for Tony Judt, pro­fes­sor of Euro­pean his­tory at New York Univer­sity, to check his email. 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 a For­eign Pol­icy- Prospect sur­vey in May.

What makes the cel­e­brated Bri­tish- born aca­demic a tar­get for hate are his es­says on Is­rael and US for­eign pol­icy in the Mid­dle East, the best known of which is Is­rael: The Al­ter­na­tive, pub­lished by 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. As 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 at­tacks French in­tel­lec­tu­als for clos­ing their eyes to to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism.

Since 1987, when he moved to to the US to teach at New York Univer­sity, af­ter jobs at Cam­bridge, Ox­ford and Berke­ley, Judt has been ed­u­cat­ing Amer­i­cans about Europe.

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 dur­ing 12 years. They range from pieces on Jewish in­tel­lec­tu­als, such as Arthur Koestler, Primo Levi, Manes Sper­ber and Han­nah Arendt, and quirky por­traits of coun­tries such as Ro­ma­nia and Bel­gium, to es­says on US for­eign pol­icy dur­ing the Cold War and the de­cline of so­cial democ­racy.

His polem­i­cal 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 Bri­tish his­to­rian and an un­re­pen­tant com­mu­nist, with hav­ing ‘‘ slept through the ter­ror and shame of the age’’. Fel­low lib­er­als such as David Rem­nick and Michael Ig­nati­eff are ex­co­ri­ated for sup­port­ing the Iraq war. ‘‘ In to­day’s Amer­ica,’’ Judt writes, ‘‘ neo- con­ser­va­tives gen­er­ate brutish poli­cies for which lib­er­als pro­vide the eth­i­cal fig leaf.’’

He ex­plores how in­ter­na­tional opin­ion turned against Is­rael af­ter its vic­tory in the 1967 ArabIs­raeli 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 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,’’ Judt says.

By 2003, Judt was con­vinced that the cre­ation of sep­a­rate Jewish and Pales­tinian states was no

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