Disgusting English neocon suggests that brooding on Israel made Tony Judt sick

on 19 Comments

Indomitable Tony Judt, stricken with ALS, has been publishing memoirs in the New York Review of Books, sparkling bits recovered from his youth about a great teacher, class at Cambridge, the Indianness of English food. My favorite of course involves my own conundrum, Jewish identity. Judt spent three summers as a youth on Israeli kibbutzim, and the time in between as a Zionist propagandist with a youth movement. But the militant ethnocentrism got to him. From the memoir Kibbutz

Even now I can recall my surprise at how little my fellow kibbutzniks knew or cared about the wider world—except insofar as it directly affected them or their country. They were chiefly concerned with the business of the farm, their neighbor’s spouse, and their neighbor’s possessions (in both cases comparing these enviously with their own). Sexual liberation, on the two kibbutzim where I spent extensive time, was largely a function of marital infidelity and the attendant gossip and recrimination—in which respect these model socialist communities rather closely resembled medieval villages, with similar consequences for those exposed to collective disapproval.

As a result of these observations, I came quite early on to experience a form of cognitive dissonance in the face of my Zionist illusions. On the one hand I wanted deeply to believe in the kibbutz as a way of life and as an incarnation of a better sort of Judaism; and being of a dogmatic persuasion, I had little difficulty convincing myself of its principled virtues for some years. On the other hand, I actively disliked it…

[Fast forward to the Golan Heights, the army, after the Six Day War]

There, to my surprise, I discovered that most Israelis were not transplanted latter-day agrarian socialists but young, prejudiced urban Jews who differed from their European or American counterparts chiefly in their macho, swaggering self-confidence, and access to armed weapons. Their attitude toward the recently defeated Arabs shocked me (testament to the delusions of my kibbutz years) and the insouciance with which they anticipated their future occupation and domination of Arab lands terrified me even then. When I returned to the kibbutz on which I was then living—Hakuk in the Galilee—I felt a stranger.

Ethnocentrism drove Judt away from Zionism, and led in time to his majestic and courageous essay in 2003 in the New York Review of Books, calling for one state. Because the modern world doesn’t work by dividing peoples on racial lines, he said, and (no!) the peace process is dead. Alas, NYRB has retrenched from his imagination since then. For Judt’s Zionist apostasy gives a lot of people discomfort. Here is British neocon lawyer Anthony Julius, interviewed by the Guardian:

"[P]eople who are not interested in the fact that Hamas is essentially exterminist in its attitude to the Jewish state, they are guilty of a moral culpability that makes them indifferent to antisemitism. I don’t say they are antisemites themselves, but they are fellow travellers. Jacqueline Rose [who has called for academic boycotts of Israel] just hasn’t thought carefully enough. Tony Judt [who has complained of the power of the Israel lobby over American foreign policy] is a remarkable historian but I think he got sick about Israel. Jews can become overwhelmed with the experience of being Jews in the 21st century, and if you brood and brood it can produce all kinds of problems in one’s thinking. There’s a fundamental quality of unseriousness in what’s said about Israel and Jews from people who are otherwise quite serious."

I think the stab is intentional, and yes, it’s disgusting.

19 Responses

  1. Shmuel
    February 8, 2010, 11:52 am

    Anthony Julius: Jews can become overwhelmed with the experience of being Jews in the 21st century, and if you brood and brood it can produce all kinds of problems in one’s thinking. There’s a fundamental quality of unseriousness in what’s said about Israel and Jews from people who are otherwise quite serious.”

    Interesting how Julius accuses people like Judt and Rose both of being too serious and of being not serious enough. I quite agree however that, “There’s a fundamental quality of unseriousness in what’s said about Israel and Jews from people who are otherwise quite serious.

  2. Citizen
    February 8, 2010, 12:01 pm

    I also found Julius’s conclusion quite turned the moral-ethical top on its head. What to do when
    shallow thinking and/or willed ignorance does this? Is this supposed to be a homage
    to those that died in the Holocaust? Replacing one ideology with another is NOT helpful!
    You’d think the whole Western World, at least, would have learned a lesson from
    Nazi Germany and Communist USSR. Obviously, there are people in influential positions who have not–that’s exactly why they are in their influential position. I suggest they all watch Sunshine. The indy film covers this error fairly well.

  3. Danaa
    February 8, 2010, 1:46 pm

    Re Tony Judt’s memoirs on Kibbutz life – adding a couple of impressions/observations of my own:

    Much has already been written on the peculiar insularity of Kibbutz life in early israel (say, before they started going all private-like) and the incredible conformity of thought and behavior seen among its members. It is commonly accepted wisdom – as Judt has also remarked – that this conformity and willingness to subsume the individual spirit for the good of a collective is the kind of value that made Kibbutzniks such good pilots and commanders in combat forces. Eventually to emerge as political leaders too. later in the article Judt speaks of life for one raised in a kibbutz as a kind of an academy for future warriors for the state. Indeed,kibbutz life was reminiscent of the way spartans raised their young – in academies and schools – apart from their parents, steeped in indoctrination extohling warrior virtues, including shunning of decadent indulgences that say, rival Athens was known for. Like Sparta, kibbutz life was pretty egalitarian for those who were members – just as it was for spartan citizens. Even more interestingly, Sparta has actually endowed it’s women citizens with considerable liberties – not seen anywhere else in Greece. After all, just as in a kibbutz, women too were expected to be warriors, and were, in fact trained in the martial arts up to a certain age. They were also expected to willingly part with their children at a tender age to be raised in same sex academies, and be strong enough to withstand their loss should they die in war. It’s not commonly known, but spartan girls (up to a certain age) were the only ones allowed to participate in olympic games – and were encouraged to practice athletic skills – in the nude too – just like the guys (OK guys, now turn off that sub-routine for a moment, will you?).

    But I digress….the interesting aspect I wanted to mention is that kibbutzniks generally lived a rather segregated life from the urban Israelis of the same age. The first opportunity they had to mix up was when they were drafted into the IDF. Israel – for most of it’s life was, in fact, full of segregated communities like this: kibbuzniks this way, urbanites that way. Arabs heither, jews theither. orthodox/religious to the right, seculars to the left. Ashkenazi one way, mizrahi the other. The divisions were deep and generally accepted as unbridgeable. The experience of israel, as Judt memorializes one aspect of it, was that of separate – and not equal – communities, gated each behind it’s own walls, rarely to cross the dividing lines. As for the homogenizing melting pot of the army – it may have melted alright – for short time while in the service. But no sooner that IDF service was over that individuals drift away again, each into their own milieu, never to mix much with the “others”.

    I always thought that this willingly enforced separation between groups – which went even further into sub-groups – is one reason society in israel could be so spiritually and socially conformist – even as everyone professes to valuing individuality above all other values. Of course, what was meant by that “freedom” – as would quickly become clear to any young adult – is that it was a highly conscripted version of individuality – one that was strictly allowed only within societally enforced parameters. Have a friend or a relationship with someone from the “other side of the tracks” and you’ll quickly find out about those invisible boundaries.

    Shmuel – I wonder whether you have seen this kind of voluntary segregation from your experience – – and whether or how it may or may not been changing for say, the past 2 decades.

    • Shmuel
      February 8, 2010, 4:46 pm

      Danaa: Shmuel – I wonder whether you have seen this kind of voluntary segregation from your experience – – and whether or how it may or may not been changing for say, the past 2 decades.

      Voluntary segregation – religious, linguistic, socio-economic, cultural, political, etc. – is evident just about everywhere you look in Israeli society and it has always been that way. In and of itself, I see nothing wrong with that. In Europe, I find myself fighting against the “integrationist” approach to immigration and cultural diversity.

      The problems start when there is no relatively fair and widely accepted set of rules for the common ground that citizens necessarily share with one another. That’s where principles such as separation of Church and state come in, in other countries. In Israel it’s a kind of free-for-all wrestling match, with each group trying to impose its values on the mainstream – while continuing to maintain its own isolation from all of the other groups.

      A case in point is Shas, which recently decided to join the World Zionist Organization – a major taboo among ultra-Orthodox parties. Without getting into the dove-hawk battle within Shas (or the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi struggle within the ultra-Orthodox world), it is the logical conclusion of Shas’ joining and influencing mainstream institutions, while seeking to maintain a completely separate educational system, society, hierarchy and nepotistic party structure.

      I don’t think the divisions today are any greater than they were or the battle over hegemony in the public sphere any fiercer. The only difference I can see (and that happened longer than 2 decades ago) is the loss of secular Mapai-Labour Zionist control. Of course the Labour Zionists have also always opted for voluntary segregation, but imagined that their (minority?) group set the standard. The “standard” today is somewhat different, and that pisses a lot of the old timers off.

      • Danaa
        February 8, 2010, 6:23 pm

        Thanks Shmuel for the interesting reply. The example about Shas is a good one – the way them joining WZO kind of shakes everyone up – must be quite puzzling to people outside israel.

        I agree that voluntary segragation is found everywhere – and not just in the west. it’s obvious for example that rich and poor do not mix much, and neither do “new’ and “old” immigrants, etc. anywhere. What is different in israel I think is the depth and breadth of the segregation, which cut across so many boundaries – both visible and invisible, which is why I used the “gated community” analogy. In the US too, there’re all kinds of segregations, some more pronounced than others, but the difference is that the separation is not absolute. Partly because there are no officially sanctioned different educational systems – as you alluded to (though there are obviously private schools that separate along parochial/income/specialty lines). So, for example, in any normal school, one may find a devoutly religious person (say from a baptist congregation) sitting in the same class – and even being friends with – someone from a die-hard agnostic family. Which is why talk of religion is kind of discouraged – it’s considered something of a private matter. Sure, someone from, say, a latino immigrant would have much opportunity to mix with someone from a more established middle class family, but the lines are not drawn as sharply as they are in Israel. In the US it’s more about opportunity to meet than anything else. So, for example, the closest analogy I can think of to the palestinian – jewish intra-israeli segregation is the separateness of Indians from tribal lands. Which is really more because of geography than any other factor, along with poverty, of course. In Israel, OTOH, it’s as if there’s an barely suppressed inclination to turn the Arabs into a lower caste, make them untouchable, so to speak.

        What I found astounding looking back years after I left israel is just how very narrow my immediate environment was, and how little I knew about any of the other segments of Israel. Growing up, our opinions were really rarely challenged by encounters with people from outside the comfort zone. I knew my exposure was limited (all the more so since, like everyone else around, my English was extremely limited – could not even speak fluently until my early 20’s, much less read or write with any facility**) but did not realize just how much till much later.

        I understand your reservations about PC “multiculturalism’, of course. But that’s kind of a different issue, at least the way I see it. I was asking because you were there till not too long ago, and I was curious to know whether my impressions from a somewhat earlier time are still reflected in the current situation.

        BTW, I didn’t mean to ask for a essay (though it goes without saying – I, along with everyone else around here- would love to read any essay you’d care to share) – sorry if you felt on the hook. Thanks again.

        ** Obviously someone is making up for lost time. Compliments to this much deprived ESL speaker from a veritable linguist are of course graciously accepted (not solicited, honest :))

      • Shmuel
        February 9, 2010, 3:41 am


        Our experiences were very different. I never had any illusions about being mainstream or “normal”, or about the very existence of a mainstream or norm. I started out as an immigrant, straddling two groups – the national-religious and the haredi – and eventually joined the secular-leftist minority (you don’t realise how much of a minority it really is until you’ve lived in Jerusalem). I grew up religious in a mostly secular, left-wing neighbourhood (over the Green Line), and when I became secular, I lived in a very settler-oriented national-religious neighbourhood (within the Green Line). Of course the anti-Zionist business put me in such a small minority I actually disappeared ;-)

        Don’t worry about “the hook”. I like commenting here (as you may have noticed).

        **I don’t think I qualify as a “veritable linguist”, but you have my sincere and completely unsolicited admiration for your mastery of the English language. You obviously have fun with it, which is the surest sign you feel at home.

      • Danaa
        February 10, 2010, 2:40 am

        Shmuel, your background sounds really colorful (but then I’d say that about religion, wouldn’t I?). It certainly makes your journey to where you are now rather amazing – both spiritually and physically – perhaps it’s a story that needs to be told some day? In any case, it beats mine big time – I feel so grey by comparison! all I ever did was be a proper beach girl in a little town on the coast just north of tel aviv (not saying which, just in case…), where all the powers-that-be (parents, teachers, commanders, bosses, peers …) figured in due course that it was best to leave me to my own devices. Early onset authority issues, I guess…. It was the army (af, actually) that cured me of patriotism (they just wouldn’t let me have my way, all the way…darn – could have been a great and probably very dead – pilot!), space that weakened the tribal bonds and time spent reading that undid some of the damage from early brain washing. Ultimately, though, I believe that it was learning to think and live in a new language that really softened rigid ways of thinking – including those i built up all on my own.

        Nowadays, I feel that there’s something about hebrew – the language itself – that makes one aggressive. maybe the language is too economical for it’s own good. Almost as if it has all the right words for expressing conflict, not so much for the nuances of diplomacy. I realize I’m not being fair here, but hebrew somehow sounds angry to me when I hear it spoken as an everyday speech (perhaps poetry is different. but I hear it rarely if ever). The language seems to tempt me to argue, to disagree, to challenge. needless to say, when given half a chance that’s just what I do. Not good, eh?

        How’s that about off-topic? well, I had to have something to put up against your impressive knowledge of biblical, rabbinical and literary texts.

        Hope you get to read this – threads get old rather quickly around here. This one is sort of musty smelling by now. But I really appreciated your answers. though all I could come up with for a reward is a total tangent!

      • Shmuel
        February 10, 2010, 3:43 am

        beach girl in a little town on the coast just north of tel aviv (not saying which, just in case…)

        Just like my wife! She also thinks I’m strange – but in a good way ;-)

        I have to disagree with you about the language, although clearly the aggression (and vulgarity) in Israeli society is reflected in the language. There was an article to that effect in Achbar Ha’ir (Ha’aretz’ Tel-Aviv culture and entertainment supplement – for those eavesdropping on our private conversation on a moribund thread) yesterday. Maybe it’s because I work on and in Hebrew all the time, or maybe because I deal with Hebrew from many different historical periods, but I find that the language is only as nice or nasty as the speaker or writer – and its economy can amplify either. This quirk can indeed be absolutely amazing in poetry.

        On the subject of tangents, are you familiar with Swift’s “Digression in Praise of Digressions” (from A Tale of a Tub)?

        I have sometimes heard of an Iliad in a nutshell; but it hath been my fortune to have much oftener seen a nutshell in an Iliad. There is no doubt that human life has received most wonderful advantages from both; but to which of the two the world is chiefly indebted, I shall leave among the curious, as a problem worthy of their utmost inquiry. For the invention of the latter, I think the commonwealth of learning is chiefly obliged to the great modern improvement of digressions: the late refinements in knowledge, running parallel to those of diet in our nation, which among men of a judicious taste are dressed up in various compounds, consisting in soups and olios, fricassees, and ragouts.

      • Danaa
        February 10, 2010, 5:51 pm

        Shmuel, thanks for the “nutshell in an Iliad”. That was a great gift – just what I needed as a perfect excuse (did you know I am writing the definitive “little red book of excuses”? the swift quote you so kindly provided goes into a chapter headed “perfect excuses”, with the byline “how to be really bad and be loved for it all the more”. I have every expectation that by the time I complete said book(let), having run out of all excuses not to, it’ll be immediately translated into all 400 known languages. can I count on you for a couple of them? the need is great, truly, and my qualifications in the excuse-making department are impeccable. Quite).

        Also I appreciated the link – it was hilarious and just too true. Actually it’s the kind of impoverished “vadi girl” speech what I had in mind when I made them snipy-snippety hebrew denigrating comments (glad you took them in stride). Anyways, it’s what I tend to encounter nowadays, having lost, somewhere along the way, all my literary and poet friends.

        You may have a point about hebrew poetry though (used to write some myself, back in the days. who would have thunk? ). I had an occasion to read an old Rachel poem in Hebrew recently, and it was magical, so perhaps I can see a bit of what you mean. partly i think that poem impressed me so is because the language has become foreign to me, but like all things foreign it can, at times, assume a fascinating, near-exotic quality. Actually, even the crude speech has an occasional charm for me, though, like ebonics, the charm can quickly fade into irritation. Maybe, as native speaker, we often cannot grasp the magic of words because they are taken for granted, and are too laden with everyday meanings. Now that the language has become more opaque for me, the obscurity of meanings has its upside.

        So when are you starting your own blog?

      • Shmuel
        February 11, 2010, 3:05 am

        So when are you starting your own blog?

        I really wish someone would write a good book of excuses.

      • Danaa
        February 11, 2010, 12:09 pm

        My book will have a special chapter on this very topic. It’s called “The 21 best excuses for not having your own blog [yet]”. BTW, my little research into the matter of excuses revealed that excuses for NOT doing things outnumber excuses for doing THE WRONG THING by 50:1. That should pretty much tell us all we need to know about the human condition.

        Am actually thinking of turning the book into a franchise (all my ideas lead, eventually to franchises), so that every culture/sub-culture can add its own, unique, touch.

        obviously, the introduction to the book and the prologue are done, as is the epilogue. But then there’s also a special chapter for writers, headed “excuses for never getting past the introduction”.

        I know……the world is waiting – better get on with it. Ciao.

  4. VR
    February 8, 2010, 1:52 pm

    I find it patently ridiculous to try to attach Judt’s illness to his mental wrestling with what has occurred in the Jewish community. Than again, if I were to get sick i would imagine it would be some sort of catharsis to be able to blame on the neocon asses. Other than that, it is a cruel devoid of fact speculation (if you could call it that).

    It is not unreasonable to expect some form of social consciousness out of the than kibbutz community, it is disturbing that even at this earlier juncture it was absent. everything has turned into a self-centered enterprise, which has no other goal than to divest the local indigenous populations of their property and lives, their future. No one should expect anything but a cynical disbelief of anything worthwhile coming out of these thinly veneered practices. So, in essence you bastardize everything with this pattern – from the Holocaust, to any social cause, or any relationship to the known world. It is a heavy price to pay, but apparently some are corrupt enough to pursue it.

  5. Avi
    February 8, 2010, 1:55 pm

    That neocon lawyer should stick to chasing ambulances and frivolous law suits instead of passing off what he considers to be “analysis” that which the rest of the SERIOUS world considers idiotic infantile commentary.

  6. otto
    February 8, 2010, 2:03 pm

    [P]eople who are not interested in the fact that Israel is essentially exterminist in its attitude to the arab peoples of Palestine, they are guilty of a moral culpability that makes them indifferent to anti-arab hatred.

  7. sky7i
    February 8, 2010, 7:26 pm

    Martin Kramer wrote on his Facebook page:

    “Tony Judt has become a metaphor for Jewry before Israel: a disembodied amalgam of grand ideas, unable to act in the physical world or move about freely to create or defend, incapable of self-sustenance, and therefore utterly dependent on the good will of others. The loss of muscularity that he wishes upon the Jews as a collective, fate has imposed on him as an individual. As ironic as it is tragic.”

    • potsherd
      February 8, 2010, 7:58 pm

      What does this say about Krauthammer?

      • sky7i
        February 11, 2010, 5:09 am

        Eh? Where does Krauthammer fit in?

  8. MHughes976
    February 9, 2010, 3:40 pm

    Julius seems to mistake Judt’s fluent style of writing, free as it is even when he is such dire straits of all the bitterness that clogs Julius’ own, for frivolity. Martin Kramer’s even nastier comment (does this man really have to have the same name as me?) does remind us that Jews must on his showing must, in order to have survived so long, have received a great deal of the good will on which they were ‘utterly dependent’, with Muslims very much included among the ‘others’ who provided it over many centuries. Considering the implications of ‘utterly’ and considering how many centuris are in question, some reciprocation might be in order.

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