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