Tony Judt rose to the occasion

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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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.

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