Sunday, August 8, 2010

On Tony Judt, of Blessed Memory

Yesterday, Tony Judt, one of America's most distinguished historians, was vanquished by the disease that had been atrophying his muscles for a few years. As far as I know, no one survives Lou Gehrig's disease, but for some, the progress of the disease can be arrested, and Tony Judt had slowed down, if not stopped, the disease. During the past year, readers of the New York Review of Books were treated to a series of short essays, dictated by a man who could no longer move. As these were published in issue after issue I thought that maybe divine providence – or luck, if you prefer -- had given Judt a break. Then, the bitter news came.

As a historian Judt will be remembered for his sweeping account of modern European history after World War II, Postwar. The book is a synthesis of intellectual, social, political, and even cultural history and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. As a public intellectual, Judt will be remembered most for his ground-breaking (one may say "earth-shattering") essay, "Israel: The Alternative." The essay was published during the Second Intifada, after the Oslo process had ground to a halt, much blood had been spilt on both sides, and the belated attempts of George W. Bush to revive it through a "road map" had failed.

Judt's thesis in that essay -- that Israel, as an ethnocracy (not his term), was a "dysfunctional anachronism" in today's world, and that it was a time to think of an alternative to the regime founded in 1948 -- hit American Jewry very, very hard. Here was a prominent historian, who had never gone beyond the liberal Zionist consensus, who had not made a career of bashing Israel, and who had himself worked on a kibbutz, raising questions as to the desirability of the regime founded in 1948. He could not be dismissed, as had been Chomsky or Finkelstein, and in some ways he was more dangerous than they were, for they had consistently argued on behalf of a two-state solution. Judt was one of the first people to say that it was too late for such a solution, that the question now was not one state vs. two states, but what sort of one-state Israel/Palestine would become. Here was the gist of what he wrote

In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel is truly an anachronism. And not just an anachronism but a dysfunctional one. In today's "clash of cultures" between open, pluralist democracies and belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states, Israel actually risks falling into the wrong camp.

To convert Israel from a Jewish state to a binational one would not be easy, though not quite as impossible as it sounds: the process has already begun de facto. But it would cause far less disruption to most Jews and Arabs than its religious and nationalist foes will claim. In any case, no one I know of has a better idea: anyone who genuinely supposes that the controversial electronic fence now being built will resolve matters has missed the last fifty years of history. The "fence"—actually an armored zone of ditches, fences, sensors, dirt roads (for tracking footprints), and a wall up to twenty-eight feet tall in places—occupies, divides, and steals Arab farmland; it will destroy villages, livelihoods, and whatever remains of Arab-Jewish community. It costs approximately $1 million per mile and will bring nothing but humiliation and discomfort to both sides. Like the Berlin Wall, it confirms the moral and institutional bankruptcy of the regime it is intended to protect.

A binational state in the Middle East would require a brave and relentlessly engaged American leadership. The security of Jews and Arabs alike would need to be guaranteed by international force—though a legitimately constituted binational state would find it much easier policing militants of all kinds inside its borders than when they are free to infiltrate them from outside and can appeal to an angry, excluded constituency on both sides of the border.5 A binational state in the Middle East would require the emergence, among Jews and Arabs alike, of a new political class. The very idea is an unpromising mix of realism and utopia, hardly an auspicious place to begin. But the alternatives are far, far worse.

The attacks on Judt, and the defenses of the 1948 state, were quick to follow. Some people claimed that ethnic states were hardly an anachronism in today's world (they pointed inter alia to the ethnic states that emerged from the former Soviet Union and in central Europe). Others dismissed Judt's cry for binationalism as itself an anachronism – hadn't Judah Magnes and Martin Buber raised that flag and failed miserably? These were some of the substantive criticisms of the article; others just spewed bile all over him. Judt was portrayed as calling for the destruction of Israel, which, in the mind of Zionists, was tantamount to calling for the destruction of the Jewish people, a self-hating Jew and an anti-Semite.

In his response to his critics, and in subsequent pieces, Judt backed off from the call for binationalism, claiming that he had raised it as a possible and preferable alternative to the status quo of an intolerable occupation. And he wrote his piece before Ariel Sharon moved the settlers out of the Gaza, which gave hope to the two-staters (but not to him, to my knowledge) that moving West Bank settlers could also be accomplished. His subsequent writings on Israel were highly critical, but did not continue in the same vein as his bombshell piece. He still accused Israel of being stuck in the ethno-nationalist mentality, of not "growing up" – but his later critiques did not ruffle any feathers. Judt, Avrum Burg, and now, to some extent, Peter Beinart, have been at the vanguard of the post-Oslo disillusioned Jewish liberals. They came from different backgrounds, but they are arriving at the same place. And more will follow.

Judt ended one of his last pieces, a meditation on the use and abuse of the Holocaust, with a statement of what Judaism was to him:

Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling: the dafka-like quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known. It is not enough to stand at a tangent to other peoples' conventions; we should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own. I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish.

I find this passage sincere but baffling, its conclusion unconvincing, indicative of a superficial understanding of Judaism, one based less on sober investigation then on his upbringing in a family of Jewish socialists, where figures like Spinoza and social reformers were heroes. For liberal Jews like Judt, the phrase "liberal Judaism" is redundant. Still, It's a nice vision, historical accuracy aside. While Judt obviously knew that much of historical Judaism was illiberal, he was concerned with what Judaism said to him. Had he lived longer, I think his meditations on Judaism would have become more profound. Clearly, the reactions to his writings on Israel caused him to think harder about his Judaism. We will not have that now, nor will he hear his clear voice on the issues of the day.

Judt's Judaism was not too different from that of the Jewish socialists who ended up in Israel – except that for them, nationalism and ethnic loyalty almost always trumped socialism and liberalism, when in serious conflict. But it is this legacy that he felt he could not betray. When Richard Silverstein and I wrote a petition to be signed by American Jews against the Gaza operation, some were reluctant to sign because it did not go far enough in criticizing Israel; others did not want to be accused of flaunting their Judaism in order to win points. Judt just signed it. He was very comfortable with his Judaism. And with his liberal socialism.


Anonymous said...

baruch dayan haemes

hopefully he did teshuva before he was niftar

and of course he was comfortable with his judaism

its easy to be comfortable with that which one doesnt practice

David L. said...

He was a great historian. I loved his seminal work "Postwar." May the memory of this great man be for a blessing!

Eric said...

May his ideas and ideals as well as his memory continue to be a blessing.

David L. said...

@Bacci-The man is dead. Please show some respect for his memory.

Unknown said...

He threatened my life here, why would he show any respect for someone like Judt??

Peter Schwartz said...

I'm not Judt would have wanted a lot of hushed tones and bruchas around his casket. Jerry's eulogy is mostly a discussion of Tony's ideas and the controversies surrounding them, so why not continue it in the comments?

Anonymous said...

As a refugee from Communism I found myself at times as enraged by some of Prof Judt's positions as many Zionists were by his Mideast position. But I sought him out for MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE and found him so kind, so humble, so understanding and so open that I thought I stood before a saint. Both his social and private world and mine were worlds apart. Nevertheless we both found time to meet and argue, even to agree. I feel like I personally lost an angel keeping me safe from despair, a friend, a teacher and a steel rod in my spine so that I would not be bent and overcome. But in the end we are all here only for a short while to be replaced by another generation. I try to be hopeful in our youth, both as parent and teacher, but I grieve so deeply the loss of Prof. Judt as I grieve the Jewish friends of my parents, survivors of a double Holocaust (Hitler's and Stalin's) who served as my mentors through the long refuge to America. DE Teodoru

Anonymous said...

when did i ever threaten anyone's life?

is richards1052, jerry's buddy richard silverstein?

what, lying on your own blog isnt enough for have to come onto others to spread even more?

Jerry Haber said...


As for being "comfortable with that which one doesn't practice" I know a lot of liberal Jews who are not comfortable with the Judaism they don't practice.

Maybe "comfortable" wasn't the best word...

Who said anything about death threats?

Richard said...

Let this refresh Bacci40's memory:

must kill dickie to know that he is irrelevant.

Posted by bacci40 to The Magnes Zionist at July 24, 2010 11:21 PM

Or was that not you? Or is there some way you want to weasel out of conceding the meaning of what you wrote?

BTW, other legal sources I consulted treated this threat seriously enough that it was reported to the proper authorities.