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40 years after first epiphany, Judt still very bashable

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Evan Goldstein in the Chronicle of Higher Ed profiles Tony Judt, and does a nice job tracing his path to the groundbreaking one-state essay in the New York Review of Books. But note that Goldstein uses the opportunity to convene the liberal-Zionist bashers, most of them deeply invested in the Jewish state, instead of focusing on the central truth of the matter, that Judt was moved by his own Jewish experience in the liberal west to try and imagine a liberal future for Israel/Palestine. And that the NYRB has essentially retreated from his position. Extended excerpts:

Fearing that their teenage son was too socially withdrawn, his parents, in 1963, sent him to a summer camp on a kibbutz in Israel. Judt became a committed Zionist. "I was the ideal convert," he says. A leader in left-wing Zionist youth movements, he even delivered a keynote address at a large Zionist conference in Paris when he was only 16 years old. (A smoker at the time, he seized the opportunity to denounce smoking by Jewish adolescents as a "bourgeois deviation.") In 1967, a few weeks after the Six-Day War, Judt volunteered as a translator for the Israel Defense Forces on the Golan Heights. He was surprised to find that many of the young Israeli officers he worked with were "right-wing thugs with anti-Arab views"; others, he says, "were just dumb idiots with guns." Israel, he came to believe, "had turned from a sort of narrow-minded pioneer society into a rather smug, superior, conquering society."..

Early in 2002, when Judt was at home recovering from radiation and surgery to treat cancer in his left arm, he became "more and more worried about the failure of Israel to do the right thing." In May of that year, The New York Review published his first major statement on the Middle East conflict, the solution to which, he contended, was obvious: two states, the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, and no right of return to Israel for Palestinian refugees. Judt fingered Israel for the bloody impasse, provocatively likening its actions to those of France in its colonial war against Algeria. By 1958, he noted, the damage that French policy was inflicting on the Algerians was surpassed by the harm France was inflicting upon itself. Israel, he wrote, was in a similarly dire predicament.

Judt’s historical analogy drew sharp rejoinders. "If Israel resembles French Algeria, why exactly should Israel and its national doctrine, Zionism, be regarded as any more legitimate than France’s imperialism?" asked the political writer Paul Berman. That was a good question. A few months later, Judt revised his position. "The time has come to think the unthinkable," he proclaimed in a widely disseminated essay in The New York Review. The two-state solution—a Jewish state and an Arab state—"is probably already doomed," and the least-bad option remaining was for Israel to convert from a Jewish state to a binational state. "The depressing truth," Judt wrote, "is that Israel today is bad for the Jews."

According to Benny Morris, a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and author of One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict (Yale University Press, 2009), Judt’s essay placed the one-state idea "squarely and noisily on the table of international agendas." The Forward described it as "the intellectual equivalent of a nuclear bomb on Zionism." Within weeks, The New York Review had received more than 1,000 letters to the editor. Suddenly, says Robert Boyers, editor of the quarterly Salmagundi and an observer of the liberal intellectual scene, Judt was a major voice weighing in on the Middle East. Indeed, if the death of Judt’s friend the literary critic Edward Said, in 2003, left a "yawning void" in the national conversation about Israel, Palestine, and the Palestinians, as Judt has suggested, then it is Judt himself who has filled that void.

And like Said, who also advocated a one-state solution, Judt has become a very public target for criticism. An op-ed essay in The Jerusalem Post accused him of "pandering to genocide." Omer Bartov, a professor of European history at Brown University, dismissed the binational idea as "absurd"; Walzer, co-editor of Dissent magazine, derided it as an escapist fantasy that "offers no practical escape from the work of repressing the terrorist organizations and withdrawing from the Occupied Territories." Steven J. Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish culture and history at Stanford University and a close friend of Judt’s for a quarter of a century, blasted the article as "one more in a long series of calls (perhaps the silliest yet) for Jewish self-immolation."

The most trenchant critique is that Judt’s embrace of binationalism echoes the reckless, unrealistic style of trafficking in ideas that he condemned in Past Imperfect. "I, too, wish everyone was a cosmopolitan Kantian, and we had one huge democracy for the brotherhood of all mankind," says Gadi Taub, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of a forthcoming book, The Settlers and the Struggle Over the Meaning of Zionism (Yale University Press). "But these are two peoples (Jews and Palestinians) severely traumatized by the lack of national independence." To argue that such a situation lends itself to shared sovereignty in a binational state is, says Taub, "the strikingly irresponsible kind of thing that intellectuals sometimes do for their own convenience vis-à-vis their own conscience. In reality, a one-state solution will doom Israelis and Palestinians to a permanent civil war."

Judt seems unconcerned that his public image is now so tied to his views on Israel. "Google me," he says nonchalantly. "You will end up at the binationalism essay straightaway." He goes on to observe that "to the outside world, I’m a crazed, self-hating Jewish left-winger." Joking aside, Judt is not entirely comfortable in his role as the public face of the anti-Zionist crowd. "I wouldn’t call myself anti-Zionist, because there are openly anti-Semitic people who use anti-Zionism as a cover," he explains. Some of them, like the white nationalist David Duke, have reached out to him, prompting accusations that he is giving intellectual cover to bigots. Despite such "foul vilification," says the Columbia historian Fritz Stern, "Tony has, if anything, only become more outspoken."

There have been efforts to silence Judt.

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Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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