Last night the family of Tony Judt held a memorial service at NYU for the historian, who died at 62 in August, and I got a sense of Judt's spirit from the movie excerpts that his family had picked out to play: scenes of class humiliation and lawlessness from The Bicycle Thief and 400 Blows, and the heroic climactic anti-fascist endings of Casablanca and Grand Illusion. Judt grew up humbly and got a lot of pleasure from life. He knew the difference between fighting over ideas in print and his successful social relationships. Was the world-class intellectual visible in his youth at Cambridge? No, said his cousin and classmate Jonathan Goldberg, he was into music and girls, and let that give hope to the rest of us. The family also showed Orson Welles's cuckoo clock speech from the Third Man, and the Sanity Clause scene from Night at the Opera, and two Charlie Chaplin bits. Judt seems to have prized stoical humor over almost any other response to ill fortune. When Goldberg asked if he was going to turn religious after his diagnosis with a dread disease, ALS, he said it was too late; if he was wrong about god, he wasn't going to vex the creator further by adding hypocrisy to his list of offenses.
My friendship with Judt was very small but it was political. He encouraged writers who opposed the edifice that Zionism had created on our journalistic/military/ideological/religious landscape, and so I listened for political statements in the many august speeches in the big formal hall, packed with people in dark suits.
Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of books, said that Judt had contributed more pieces to "the paper" than anyone else in the last 17 years, beginning with a piece about Vichy and the Jews. How could intellectuals blind themselves to the atrocities that were being committed right next door? Silvers remembered that piece asking. And he said this question, of intellectual and moral failure, engaged Judt throughout his labors. Silvers spoke mostly of Judt's engagement in Jewish history. He mentioned Judt's "feuilleton" about the relative he was named after, a woman killed in Auschwitz, and also his most famous piece, the sensational 2003 piece calling for a binational state, Israel: The Alternative, and the charges of betrayal that it brought. Silvers spoke movingly of the occupation, then walked the bold piece back in front of the establishment audience, saying that Judt had affirmed during the ensuing controversy that a "binational state" was an idea for a "utopian future" not the here and now.
This was a claim. Seven long years have passed and what has the here and now done for the Jim Crow conditions of the occupation? Nothing. Judt supported a binational state because it accorded with the choices that he had made in his life and the historical cultural changes he saw around him-- the mixing of races and traditions, the safety of Jews in the west. Judt's piece was postracial. It spoke at the start of a
world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state”—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.
When I heard Judt attacked for the piece in 2007, he did not describe it as utopian.
The Holocaust was several times mentioned. So were seders, and "the Jewish people," by Judt's college friend Goldberg, who said that he had urged Judt to arrange a funeral service at Temple Emanu-El, the big social uptown synagogue, but Judt would not hear of it. Joy in the gallery.
Goldberg was a true friend, and his speech was the most personally affecting and sincere. His grandfather Pinchas and Judt's grandfather were brothers in the East End of London. Pinchas was pious and Judt's grandfather was a freethinker, and these different strands persisted into the grandsons' generation. Goldberg went into the law, and had little to do with his cousin until 2003 when he was at an antisemitism conference for Jewish lawyers and Efraim Halevi, the former Mossad chief, said that Tony Judt should be shot for writing "Israel: The Alternative." Goldberg went up afterward to remonstrate with Halevi that the man was his cousin. Soon the boyhood friendship was renewed, and Goldberg often twitted Judt that he could take credit for the stream of books and articles that Judt had produced since 2003 as it was only through his intervention that Judt had not accidentally fallen off the Brooklyn Bridge or the Empire State Building. Good, a Mossad joke. And I thought of who Israel kills.
Goldberg did not say a word of judgement against "Israel: The Alternative," and evidently this unconditional love was so meaningful to Judt that he had had Goldberg at his side, along with his wife, when he got news of his death sentence from a "professor" at Columbia hospital, in September 2008.
As much as I enjoyed Goldberg, he spoke in the parochial spirit of Pinchas. He said that Judt had cared most about leaving a good name, a shem tov, in the Jewish tradition, and that he was a latter day Koestler and Arendt. Jewish Jewish!
I was thankful to Timothy Garton Ash, who grew up in the same dreary London neighborhood, Putney, in the same era as Judt, though they had not known one another as boys. While conceding diplomatically that Judt's "Jewish identity was the deepest," the lions would have been set on him had he contradicted that, Ash said that Judt also had strong English identity to the end, in his pragmatism, his restraint, his humor and his "bloody-mindedness, and I mean that as a compliment." To understand their father, Ash said, he would like to take Judt's sons some day to the Church of St Mary the Virgin in the High Street in Putney.
Where 300 years before Judt and Ash came along, Colonel Rainsborough had given a famous speech on behalf of the "Levellers" movement. Ash quoted:
..for really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under...”
It was the most moving political statement in the service. It spoke to the sweep and worldliness of Judt's political values, his feel for democratic history. With a bloodymindedness that his timid New York friends could not fully appreciate, and the heroism of Bogart in Casablanca, he had stood up in his maturity when he was called upon, and the inequality he had denounced most strongly was the persecution of the Palestinians by Israel, a utopia he long ago stopped believing in.