Tony Judt rose to the occasion

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
on 31 Comments

A long line of people is filing by the casket in the great domed hall of universalist imagination– Tony Judt’s casket, in the capital of Europe-Asia-Africa-America that his free mind roamed in– so I want to throw in my few memories. 

Judt always rose to the occasion. That most vital teaching of Rabbi Hillel, If not now, when? Judt understood it. He studied history but he knew that history is not in old books, and history doesn’t repeat itself. It is now, and it is new, and he threw himself into it, wanted to be a player in it, and he was.

All my associations of Judt are to do with the Israel-Palestine question, and that will be his legacy as much as anything else he wrote, maybe more. He outstripped Chomsky as a world intellectual because he was more reflective than Chomsky, likely more self-absorbed, and so was capable of interrogating his Jewish identity; his own Zionist chapter is one that he reflected on critically, and one of his most important pieces in the last year of his life, when he was dictating pieces that he composed as he lay there, was the piece about the kibbutz in the New York Review of Books, in which he discovered that he was not a Zionist, and that this was a betrayal to his former friends there, and so he left the parochial world. Here is that piece, and here are some lines I stumble on, filled with wisdom:

By the time I went up to Cambridge I had actually experienced—and led—an ideological movement of the kind most of my contemporaries only ever encountered in theory. I knew what it meant to be a “believer”—but I also knew what sort of price one pays for such intensity of identification and unquestioning allegiance. Before even turning twenty I had become, been, and ceased to be a Zionist, a Marxist, and a communitarian settler: no mean achievement for a south London teenager.

His independence and self-awareness were thrilling. Only a majestic independent thinker could have written the most staggering, or second-most-staggering, piece on Israel/Palestine in the last ten years, Judt’s great essay on the Jewish state as an anachronism in the New York Review of Books in 2003. This piece was a betrayal, Michael Walzer denounced it, the New Republic excommunicated him, and even his editors stepped back from it in years to come, but it is a monument that will be examined and reexamined as the peace process continues to create oppression for the next generation of Palestinians. And it was rooted in self-awareness; Judt’s own intermarriage informed his historical understanding. (Jerry Haber writes about it here, in "On Tony Judt, of Blessed Memory.")

I say the second-most because three years later Walt and Mearsheimer published their great piece in the London Review of Books, and Judt rose to the occasion. He knew how important it was and in surely the strongest political gesture he ever made, he published an Op-Ed in the Times in April, a month after the Walt-Mearsheimer piece appeared and had been denounced as anti-Semites, supporting them. Astonishing. "It took the wind out of my sails," one friend of mine who didn’t like Walt and Mearsheimer said to me. Judt was willing to lay his body down for two intellectuals he didn’t know. (And the Times asked that he insert the fact that he was Jewish in the piece, because it mattered.)

Judt followed that up by appearing on behalf of Walt and Mearsheimer at the Cooper Union debate of that fall in New York. Steve Walt writes that Judt dominated the debate, in his turtleneck, and that is true. I remember my wife’s jaw dropping. His rebuttal to Indyk and Ross on the anti-semitism cabal charge was to quote Arthur Koestler on anti-Communists, to say that just because you say things that vile people have said does not mean that they are untrue. He said it better than that, I will look around for the quote.

I believe that the episode hurt Judt but he persisted. When he gave a speech on intellectual’s responsibility at NYU a couple months later, flinging off his orange scarf and jacket at the start with his unerring sense of drama, he avoided the Israel lobby talk directly, though it was there throughout his comments on religious attachments and he didn’t hedge. During the Q and A, a Zionist asked him if he wasn’t wrong about the NY Review piece about Israel as an anachronism. Hasn’t the Iraq experience shown that people are inherently tribal? this man asked, so wasn’t it wrong for you to suggest that the Jewish state should abandon its religious identification. No, Judt said, and offered some universalist declaration about where the west was going. He understood our moment, in which the antisemitism of his English youth was a memory, in which Jews were more empowered than they had been since Roman times, as he said that night, but acted as if it was 1938. Here is the passage as I reported it:

Liberals must not be “pressured into silence," Judt said, on the Israel issue by the Israel lobby in America. “Why is the American Jewish community so determined to convince itself that we are living in 1938. Why does the most successful, the most well integrated, the most culturally and politically influential, the most socially and economically well situated Jewish community since the late years of the Roman republic, why is it so worried about the demon of anti-Semitism—more worried than the Jewish community in any other country I know and certainly more worried than Israel itself? It’s an American issue.”

Judt demonstrated the same bravery and honesty and understanding of the moment when it came to his disease. I guess he was private about it for a time, but then he exploded about it publicly by filling that hall at NYU last year to talk about the "elephant in the room," his incapacitation with breathing tube. "Facial tupperware," as he put it. A couple months later I tried to twist his arm to contribute to a collection I’m helping to edit and he wrote back, "No point twisting my arm these days – it’s so loose it will come off." (My response was to pull down his book Postwar and do a post recounting his superb Algeria history, and its lessons for Israel-Palestine.)

Still he wrote those pieces in his mind for the New York Review of Books– I am told that its editor Robert Silvers treasured Judt in spite of the non-Zionism– the most memorable of which was his record of the cousin, Toni Avegael, he had never met. It ends with the kind of dramatic intellectual gesture that Judt had perfected:  

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.

Toni Avegael was transported to Auschwitz in 1942 and gassed to death there as a Jew. I am named after her.

Living in history, Judt understood that the historical question of our moment was Jewish identity, and he gave all that he could to advance our knowledge. I feel cheated that he only got 62 years, but deeply thankful.

31 Responses

  1. Citizen
    August 9, 2010, 9:25 am

    Phil, Judt was all that and then some; your piece brought tears to my old eyes. One caveat: The American experiment is of at least equal moment in this world; the historical question of our moment is also American identity.

  2. lohdennis
    August 9, 2010, 9:31 am

    Judt may have been Jewish by birth and early life and some of his writings. However, the message he communicated was universalist and he was most humanist of us all. Like Edward Said before him, he was the center of the universalist humanist world independent of religious or ethnic identity. (I doubt he hung around talking to Jewish groups much). To me, this is very important-just like Richard Feynman, my physics teacher was, amongst the giants of the previous generation. When are we going to have our primary identity as a universalist humanist first and ethnicity second (or third, or last?)

    • Tuyzentfloot
      August 9, 2010, 9:59 am

      That reminds me of something. Feynman named a drawing of a nude after Marie Curie , pointing out that people tended to think of Marie Curie as just a brain. Tony Judt wasn’t just a historian either. He had style.

      • Tuyzentfloot
        August 9, 2010, 10:00 am

        At least I could tell from youtube :) Never met him.

    • Saleema
      August 9, 2010, 2:59 pm

      I don’t know where my daughter picked it up from. When she was around three years old, I explained to her that when we meet other Muslims we should say ‘salam’ because we are Muslims.

      She says “Yes. Aaaand we are humans, too!”

  3. Bill NYC
    August 9, 2010, 9:31 am

    RIP, Professor Judt. You’ll always be an inspiration. You were that rarest of intellectuals: a truly independent thinker.

  4. Nevada Ned
    August 9, 2010, 9:32 am

    Thanks Phil. Judt made an important contribution.

    But you really take some liberties when you say that Judt “outstripped Chomsky as a world intellectual”. Consider the number of books that Chomsky has written. “The Fateful Triangle” long ago discussed Israel’s 1982 invasion on Lebanon in great detail. A few years ago, Alan Dershowitz claimed that criticism of Israel was led by three people, whom he named: Chomsky, Finkelstein, and Alexander Cockburn. Judt wasn’t mentioned.

  5. Pamela Olson
    August 9, 2010, 9:41 am

    “He studied history but he knew that history is not in old books, and history doesn’t repeat itself. It is now, and it is new, and he threw himself into it, wanted to be a player in it, and he was.”

    Yes. We are taught to feel powerless in the face of that giant abstraction called “history.” Once, in a class at Stanford, I tried to draw parallels between the reading we were doing about the French Revolution and certain current trends in America. The professor practically turned purple and said, “This is a history class, not current events!” I was like, whoah. OK, now I get it. You just want your bugs in a jar. Way too many profs were like that, even in physics. No wonder I was so bored.

    But history (including the history of science) is nothing more than the collective actions of individuals, and each of us can find our part to play, here and now. Tony Judt understood that, and understood that the way to make history is to look critically, to think broadly, even when it’s painful, and not to pull any punches. As he said himself, he was lucky to get started on the really controversial stuff after he was already well-established. People like Finkelstein, who threw punches before he was tenured, got boinked right out of the system. No one said it was easy.

    I know what you mean about feeling cheated that he only got 62 years. 62 seems younger and younger to me — it’s just a little more than double my current age, which doesn’t seem like that much time.

    Carl Sagan, who was not only a brilliant scientist but a committed popularizer who wrote for the likes of me, a 14-year-old full of curiosity but stuck with useless schooling, and was ridiculed for it by his colleagues, died at the same age just before I started my physics studies and would have made it a point to meet him at a conference somewhere and thank him from the bottom of my heart.

    Our world is very lucky to have such people.

    • lohdennis
      August 9, 2010, 10:04 am

      You know physics!!! Great. curl E = -(1/c)(dB/dt)

      • Pamela Olson
        August 9, 2010, 10:44 am

        Ah, Maxwell’s equations, so elegant. Not like that nasty Schrodinger’s equation, which often takes at least three pages to solve, and is usually simply insoluble (and by the way, no one really knows what it means). The tedium of all those partial differential equations played no small part in my decision not to apply to physics grad school.

        That and the fact that you’re supposed to be content with small, uninteresting questions for years before you get tenure and you’re finally allowed to ask interesting questions, and most profs still aren’t willing to ask the big questions — too worried about getting grants and being invited to conferences and being “taken seriously.”

        It was a pretty big dose of disillusionment to find out there was so much politics even in physics, which I had assumed was the purest thing I could study.

    • Citizen
      August 9, 2010, 10:20 am

      Love what you say, Pamela. Here’s a bit of Judt’s final thoughts to us all:
      link to

      • Pamela Olson
        August 9, 2010, 11:54 am

        Thanks for that. Ill Fares the Land is now near the top of my reading list. Maybe one day I’ll have the honor of writing a ‘popularizing’ version of it. People need to know these things.

  6. Richard Witty
    August 9, 2010, 9:53 am

    There are other conclusions from the same (or different) set of studies and experiences that are equally valid to his.

    Including the conclusion to identify more strongly with one’s tribe, and including the conclusion to bear more sympathy for the nation of one’s tribe.

    Democracy, a liberal attitude, allows for variety of commitments.

    For example, the single state concept is an elegant solution to a selected set of concerns. To other relevant selected concerns, it is utterly innappropriate, oppressive even.

    And, the historical relevance of whether a single-state theory is a good or evil, is in its implementation, something that Judt never approached.

    Also, his conversion from a true believer in Socialism and Zionism to a non-believer need not take the form of a pendulum swing, (rejection) but might convert to moderation.

    • Citizen
      August 9, 2010, 2:22 pm

      Thanks, Dick Witty. Re your comments on tribe. David Duke totally agrees with you! And for the same reasons.

    • lohdennis
      August 9, 2010, 5:19 pm

      You don’t seem to get it. Universal values trumps “tribal” values. Haven’t you heard of such things as all people are equal and have equal human rights? You are still in the realms of “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. Won’t fly anymore.

    • thankgodimatheist
      August 9, 2010, 7:11 pm

      “There are other conclusions from the same (or different) set of studies and experiences that are equally valid to his.”

      Yes me too, I’ve noticed that things can be true and can be false or can be both or can be neither..Things are just like that sometimes, but not all the time, sometimes they’re totally different but not always..

  7. Tuyzentfloot
    August 9, 2010, 9:55 am

    His rebuttal to Indyk and Ross on the anti-semitism cabal charge was to quote Arthur Koestler on anti-Communists, to say that just because you say things that vile people have said does not mean that they are untrue. He said it better than that, I will look around for the quote. He said in a speech about academic freedom, I will look it up, that he got a letter from David Duke, expressing his agreement about things. Judt commented on that that just because people whose political clock has stopped agree with you sometimes (maybe he said ‘twice a day’?) , it should not stop you from speaking out.

    • Tuyzentfloot
      August 9, 2010, 10:04 am

      Here’s a transcripted quote from that conference
      link to

      “If you stand up here and say, as I am saying and someone else will probably say as well, that there is an Israel lobby, that there is… there are a set of Jewish organizations, who do work, both in front of the scenes and behind the scenes, to prevent certain kinds of conversations, certain kinds of criticism and so on, you are coming very close to saying that there is a de facto conspiracy or if you like plot or collaboration to prevent public policy moving in a certain way or to push it in a certain way – and that sounds an awful lot like, you know, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the conspiratorial theory of the Zionist Occupational Government and so on – well if it sounds like it it’s unfortunate, but that’s just how it is. We cannot calibrate the truths that we’re willing to speak, if we think they’re true, according to the idiocies of people who happen to agree with us for their reasons.”

      “It may well be true – I know this because I have received an email from him – that David Duke thinks he has found allies in John Mearsheimer or Stephen Walt or myself. But I remind you what Arthur Koestler said in Carnegie Hall in 1948 when he was asked, ‘Why do you criticize Stalin – don’t you know that there are people in this country, Nixon and what were not yet called McCarthyites, who also are anti-Communist and who will use your anti-Communism to their advantage?’ And Koestler’s response was the response that I think we should keep in mind when we are faced with the charge that we are giving hostages to crazy antisemites or whatever, and that is you can’t help other people agreeing with you for their reasons – you can’t help it if idiots once every 24 hours with their stopped political clock are on the same time as you. You have to say what you know to be true and be willing to defend it on your grounds and then accept the fact that people in bad faith will accuse you of having defended it or aligned yourself with the others on their grounds – that’s what freedom of speech means – it’s very uncomfortable. It puts you in bed sometimes with the wrong people.”

      • Citizen
        August 9, 2010, 10:25 am

        Now, that’s some zig-zagging with ZOG proponents.

      • Tuyzentfloot
        August 9, 2010, 10:35 am

        What’s a zog proponent?
        I think it’s the Koestler quote Phil was looking for. I hope the site I found it at is not ‘problematic’.

      • Henry Norr
        August 9, 2010, 2:31 pm

        A transcript of the Cooper Union debate Phil cites is here.

        Judt’s reference to Koestler on that occasion was less extensive than in the speech Tuyzentfloot cites, but the gist is the same:

        TJ: Sixty years ago, very near to this room Arthur Koestler stood up and gave a lecture about, then a fairly new phenomenon, that is the rise of the cold war, the emergence of the Soviet Block, and so on and talked very angrily and very energetically about everything that was wrong with it, wrong with communism and why ratify it, this goes from an ex-communist.

        And he was accused in the room while he was speaking of bringing aid and comfort to what was not yet called McCarthyism or what was soon going to be McCarthyism. You are saying the kind of things that verge on McCarthyism, Nixonism as it was then called, you shouldn’t say this kind of stuff, it helps them and his answer that was very simple.

        You cannot help it if idiots and bigots share your views for their reasons. That doesn’t mean that you can be taught with their views. You have your views and they should be judged on their merits and it worries me that the very first thing we do when someone writes a controversial essay, whatever it’s academic standing, about the Israel lobby, about relations between this country and Israel. The first question is not, what is the truth or falcity of the substance of it, but how much does it come close to anti-semitism, does it help the anti-semites should we not have said it, because of anti-semitism issue, this seems to me to close down conversation with this country

  8. MRW
    August 9, 2010, 10:27 am

    Tony Judt was a gracious man. I called him at his Remarque Institute to congratulate him on his 2003 article about Israel in the NYRB. It was before Thanksgiving. I left a short message and he called back. We talked about how essential it was that people know the whole truth of events, that the truth of it was more important than the chunk you tear off to savor for yourself, or that you turn into a creed to live by. The whole truth was more essential than the part you love.

    • MRW
      August 9, 2010, 10:32 am

      It broke my heart to hear how he had Lou Guerig’s disease and that he was so physically incapacitated….

  9. seth
    August 9, 2010, 10:27 am


    His independence and self-awareness were thrilling. Only a majestic independent thinker could have written the most staggering, or second-most-staggering, piece on Israel/Palestine in the last ten years, Judt’s great essay on the Jewish state as an anachronism in the New York Review of Books in 2003. This piece was a betrayal, Michael Walzer denounced it, the New Republic excommunicated him, and even his editors stepped back from it in years to come, but it is a monument that will be examined and reexamined as the peace process continues to create oppression for the next generation of Palestinians.

    I liked this essay and the followup exchange very much, but the fact is that
    Judt was very much of a “johnny come lately”, as Finkelstein put it:

    link to

    ‘They’ve lost control of the debate,’ he says. ‘For a long time all they had to deal with were people like Norman Finkelstein or Noam Chomsky, who they could dismiss as loonies of the left. Now they’re having to face, for want of a better cliché, the mainstream: people like me who have a fairly long established record of being Social Democrats (in the European sense) and certainly not on the crazy left on most issues, saying very critical things about Israel.

    How nice. The simple fact of the matter is that members of the “crazy left” such as Chomsky were making the same points (and I mean the exact same points) as Judt did in 2003 for many years before, something Judt might have bothered to mention. You mention Michael Walzer’s reaction to Judt’s piece. Did you ever read Walzer’s reactions to Chomsky’s “Peace in the Middle East?” from the mid-70s? The whole thing was a rerun.

    • LanceThruster
      August 9, 2010, 12:24 pm

      Thank you. Those were points worth making. While all support is certainly welcome, it is important to recognize those on board early on and not buy into the “loonie left” characterization.

      Occasionally I take issue with either Chomsky’s or Finkelstein’s interpretation of facts but they always present them reliably in a manner virtually irrefutable. We need more “loons” such as these.

  10. MHughes976
    August 9, 2010, 10:57 am

    Judt’s trajectory represents that of part of the British left. He was anti-Stalinist from early days and had a typically British irritation with the ideas and rhetoric of French leftism, on which he was very well informed. Many of us came late, Finkelstein might say culpably late, to a critique of Zionism because we kept clinging to the hope, a part of our ingrained way of thinking, that what was needed was a magical moment in which the moderates on both sides, the people like us I suppose, would come to power together. Perhaps Finkelstein has a greater claim than Judt to have put things in a new and at the time really unfamiliar light.

  11. David Samel
    August 9, 2010, 11:33 am

    Phil, thanks for the great tribute to a great man. His 2003 article was a watershed in my thinking on Israel. I was not surprised at the vicious, hostile reaction to his common sense, humanitarian approach – just par for the course.

  12. Les
    August 9, 2010, 11:52 am

    During the Cooper Union debate Judt pointed upward to the banner of the sponsor, the London Review of Books, a clear rebuke to the non-sponsor, the New York Review of Books.

  13. annie
    August 9, 2010, 4:43 pm

    thanks phil, sometimes words fail me. i spent the better part of the morning reading every link and the links in the links including his ‘food’ article and watching the london book of reviews israel lobby debate again (for maybe the fifth time). which doesn’t include yesterday when i listened to his npr interview and read a bunch of other stuff and watched more youtubes

    it seems maybe like i don’t want to let him go. this was a beautiful post.

  14. RoHa
    August 9, 2010, 8:20 pm

    Phil, you mention the London Review of Books, and then an op-ed in the Times. Why can’t you say “the NYT”, and remove the ambiguity?

  15. seth
    August 12, 2010, 3:03 pm

    It is worth reading the piece on Judt by J.J. Goldberg in the new issue
    of The Forward:

    link to

    I asked him then if he would have written the same essay after seeing Israel leave Gaza. “I might have written a few things differently,” he said. “A lot of my friends still believe that a two-state solution is possible. I’m more pessimistic, I guess.”

    But did he think Israel’s existence was morally wrong? “Good God, no,” he said. “Of course I don’t believe that.”

    His critics charged that for all his acclaimed breadth and clarity of historic vision, he lost his objectivity when it came to Israel. He regularly dismissed the claim as beneath reply. For some reason, though, he got sentimental with me, one Labor Zionist to another.

    “I can’t pretend that it’s not connected to me,” he said of Israel. “I have relatives there. I used to know it well. I feel almost as I would if it were my own country that were misbehaving. I care about it more than I do about other countries.”

    Obviously another crypto-Zionist left gatekeeper.

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