Opinion

‘NY Review of Books’ says Tony Judt didn’t really mean it when he called for the end of a Jewish state

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The latest New York Review of Books has arrived in my mailbox with a notable retraction. Remember the famous essay “Israel: The Alternative,” that the late Tony Judt wrote in The New York Review of Books in 2003 calling for a binational state in Israel and Palestine? Well, Judt didn’t really mean it.

Jonathan Freedland, the opinion editor of the Guardian, writes that he first met Judt shortly after his “best-known or, more accurately, most notorious essay” was published, and they had whiskey in the lobby of a “smart London hotel” in which Judt looked out of place; and Judt told him the truth, the piece was actually intended to gin up the peace process– a “provocation, forcing US supporters of Israel to confront what the death of the two-state solution would entail.”

Here’s Freedland’s claim, which takes up the first 1000 word or so of a review of Judt’s essays published posthumously, titled When the Facts Change:

It struck me at the time that his critics were misreading the essay, or at the very least misunderstanding its intent. A kind of confirmation came when I asked Judt if he would have published that same piece not in The New York Review but in its UK counterpart, the London Review of Books. He paused, thinking through the implications, and finally said no, he would not.

The simple explanation was that Judt understood the contrast in the climate of opinion between the two countries. In Britain (and Europe) hostility to Israel was already deeply entrenched: Ariel Sharon had recently reincurred the deep enmity of mainstream liberal opinion, not least through his crushing of the second intifada. In the US, in New York especially, the prevailing assumptions were in Israel’s favor. Indeed, a blanket of complacency and unquestioning solidarity tended to muffle any genuine debate…

It seemed to me that his essay, and especially its vehemence, was designed to stir US Jews from their lethargy. (In Britain and Europe, the topic was far from closed and hardly needed prying open). Viewed like that, “Israel: An Alternative” was less a detailed statement of binationalism than a provocation, forcing US supporters of Israel to confront what the death of the two-state solution would entail.

Freedland concludes that his meeting with Judt showed Judt’s

refusal to surrender to dogma… Judt understood that the same argument could have different meanings in different situations, that even the most firmly held principles had to take account of variations in time or place, and that, sometimes, a position had to shift.

I.e., Judt wasn’t surrendering to the “dogma” of binational democracy for Israel and Palestine, no, his “firmly held principles” of democracy had to “shift” to accommodate Israel.

This is horseshit.

Let’s review Judt’s original essay and the response he wrote five weeks later in the NYRB letters column after the piece was attacked by lots of liberal Zionists, which Freedland quotes to suggest that Judt walked the piece back.

Israel: The Alternative is a truly great essay. It is sincere, high-minded, pithy, filled with surprises, and filled too with predictions that have come true. It does not read as coy or tactical in any way, it reads as an earnest and angry disquisition on history and modernity. Israel’s problem, Judt says, is it got the timing wrong: several decades after Europeans fashioned their states along ethnic-national lines that were derisory to minorities, Israel adopted the European model.

It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into 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.

Freedland says that Judt’s argument was a tentative one:

It was time, he had argued, to think afresh, even to turn toward the notion of a single state in historic Palestine, one that would be a secular home to both Jews and Arabs. Yes, it would mean the dissolution of the Jewish state and an end to the Zionist movement that had given it birth. But perhaps there was no longer a place in the world for such a state. Surely Israel had become “an anachronism. And not just an anachronism but a dysfunctional one.”

Even to turnperhaps no longer a place? There is none of that dithering in the original. Judt doesn’t say surely, with all its British indifference. He said Truly. And he based that judgment on social changes he had observed in his own life, and approved. Judt again:

In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel is truly an anachronism. And not just an anachronism but a dysfunctional one. In today’s “clash of cultures” between open, pluralist democracies and belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states, Israel actually risks falling into the wrong camp.

He had come to this conclusion not because the U.S. had helped kill the peace process, but because he didn’t think the peace process could work. And what it would produce wasn’t worth it anyway. The two-state solution

is still the conventional consensus, and it was once a just and possible solution.

But I suspect that we are already too late for that. There are too many settlements, too many Jewish settlers, and too many Palestinians, and they all live together, albeit separated by barbed wire and pass laws. Whatever the “road map” says, the real map is the one on the ground, and that, as Israelis say, reflects facts. It may be that over a quarter of a million heavily armed and subsidized Jewish settlers would leave Arab Palestine voluntarily; but no one I know believes it will happen. Many of those settlers will die—and kill—rather than move.

“It was once a just and possible solution.” Did Judt have a problem with words? No; this man was direct. If it is no longer just, then why does Freedland say that he says that he was merely trying to nudge establishment opinion? Maybe because Judt was being polite to him over a whiskey, telling him what he wanted to hear. More likely because he heard what he wanted to.

Judt was very clear that he didn’t believe in ethno-religious states, no matter for who!

what if there were no place in the world today for a “Jewish state”? What if the binational solution were not just increasingly likely, but actually a desirable outcome? It is not such a very odd thought. Most of the readers of this essay live in pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural. “Christian Europe,” pace M. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, is a dead letter; Western civilization today is a patchwork of colors and religions and languages, of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Indians, and many others—as any visitor to London or Paris or Geneva will know.

Israel itself is a multicultural society in all but name; yet it remains distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethnoreligious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens. It is an oddity among modern nations not—as its more paranoid supporters assert—because it is a Jewish state and no one wants the Jews to have a state; but because it is a Jewish state in which one community—Jews—is set above others, in an age when that sort of state has no place.

It is true, as Freedland points out, that in his response to vociferous critics a few weeks later, Judt said that one state was “utopian”.

[W]hen I wrote of binationalism as an alternative future, I meant just that. It is not a solution for tomorrow. Both Jews and Arabs have on various occasions embraced the notion, but not in recent times. As Salim Tamari has written, most Palestinians don’t even want a single secular democracy of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, a possibility mooted for a while in the 1970s. If the problem with a two-state solution is that Israel’s rulers won’t make the necessary sacrifices to achieve it, how much less would they be willing to sacrifice Israel’s uniquely Jewish identity? For the present, then, binationalism, is—as I acknowledged in my essay—utopian.

Yes and if it was not a solution for Tomorrow 2003, what about Tomorrow 2015? It is not as if Judt abandoned his principles. He didn’t for one second!

I just don’t believe that Israel, as now constituted, has a very promising future; and like the Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol, I think the best long-term hope for the Middle East lies in “a Jewish-Arab state in which Jews and Arabs have completely equal rights.”

If he was prying open American discourse, it wasn’t to cause Americans to support a two-state solution, it was in an effort to make people (including Jewish intellectuals) reconsider Zionism. He said that there had been crazy fantasies before in history:

[T]hings change….

It is only when we look back across a sufficient span of years that we recognize, if we are honest, how much has happened that we could literally not have conceived of before. Franco-German relations today; the accords reached across a table by Protestant Unionists and Sinn Fein; post-apartheid reconciliation in South Africa—all these represent transformations in consciousness and political imagination that few but “escapist fantasists” could have dreamed of before they happened. And every one of those thickets of bloodshed and animosity and injustice was at least as old and as intricate and as bitter as the Israel–Arab conflict, if not more so. As I said, things change. Of course, they also change for the worse. After all that has happened, a binational state with an Arab majority could, as Amos Elon ruefully reminds us, very well look more like Zimbabwe than South Africa. But it doesn’t have to be so…..

He saw that the two-state solution just wasn’t going to happen, in 2003 or 2013 either:

What are the chances of an American president in the foreseeable future forcing Israel not just to stop colonizing the Occupied Territories but to dismantle its holdings there and retreat to the 1967 frontiers? I don’t mean the US saying that this would be a nice idea, or tut-tutting when it doesn’t happen; I mean forcing Israel to comply right down the line (and, yes, exerting the same pressure on Palestinians, which is a lot easier to imagine).

Just now that is very hard to envisage. Only this month, the Bush administration gave its unofficial approval for Israel’s security fence, wherever Sharon sees fit to place it

I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this before: such a retraction, issued after the author’s death, of a signature portion of his beliefs. And I understand why; it anguished liberal Zionists to hear anyone thoughtful come out against the idea of a Jewish state, won so heroically over 80 years of battle in the chambers of western officials. It was a betrayal of an article of faith, by someone who had previously been a Zionist.

The New York Review of Books has done all it can to bury Judt’s essay. It never asked Judt to expand on his views in the years that followed, let alone ask Ali Abunimah or Ghada Karmi or any other Palestinian who can pick up a pencil to respond. No, this was an all-Jewish event. And the retraction here is being performed by a man who wrote a year back that Ari Shavit is a “liberal” and the right person to talk to American Jews about the conflict (Shavit who “opposed the Oslo Agreement, calling it ‘a collective act of messianic drunkenness’ and defending its most prominent opponent, Netanyahu, against charges that he was partly to blame for its failure…[who] during the Second Intifada,…  praised Sharon for having ‘conducted the military campaign patiently, wisely and calmly’ and ‘the diplomatic campaign with impressive talent’ [, who in] the final week of the war in Gaza this summer that took the lives of 72 Israelis and more than 2100 Palestinians, … wrote that strong objection to Israeli conduct was illegitimate and amounted to anti-Semitic bigotry”)

I mentioned Judt’s predictions. Long before Bruce Shipman, Norman Finkelstein and Max Blumenthal were saying as much, he said that a Jewish state was dangerous to Jews everywhere.

Before there was a Jewish state, Jewish minorities in Christian societies would peer anxiously over their shoulders and keep a low profile; since 1948, they could walk tall. But in recent years, the situation has tragically reversed.

Today, non-Israeli Jews feel themselves once again exposed to criticism and vulnerable to attack for things they didn’t do. But this time it is a Jewish state, not a Christian one, which is holding them hostage for its own actions. Diaspora Jews cannot influence Israeli policies, but they are implicitly identified with them, not least by Israel’s own insistent claims upon their allegiance. The behavior of a self-described Jewish state affects the way everyone else looks at Jews. The increased incidence of attacks on Jews in Europe and elsewhere is primarily attributable to misdirected efforts, often by young Muslims, to get back at Israel. The depressing truth is that Israel’s current behavior is not just bad for America, though it surely is. It is not even just bad for Israel itself, as many Israelis silently acknowledge. The depressing truth is that Israel today is bad for the Jews.

And this was before the Gaza slaughters of 2008-2009 and 2014, before the attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris. Isn’t it just possible that he would hold these beliefs more firmly than ever?

Judt completely predicted the disgrace of the Israel security wall, which a year later would be declared illegal under international law.

anyone who genuinely supposes that the controversial electronic fence now being built will resolve matters has missed the last fifty years of history. The “fence”—actually an armored zone of ditches, fences, sensors, dirt roads (for tracking footprints), and a wall up to twenty-eight feet tall in places—occupies, divides, and steals Arab farmland; it will destroy villages, livelihoods, and whatever remains of Arab-Jewish community. It costs approximately $1 million per mile and will bring nothing but humiliation and discomfort to both sides. Like the Berlin Wall, it confirms the moral and institutional bankruptcy of the regime it is intended to protect.

And 2 years before Walt and Mearsheimer, he said that pro-Israel forces pushed the Iraq war:

It is now tacitly conceded by those in a position to know that America’s reasons for going to war in Iraq were not necessarily those advertised at the time. For many in the current US administration, a major strategic consideration was the need to destabilize and then reconfigure the Middle East in a manner thought favorable to Israel. This story continues. We are now making belligerent noises toward Syria because Israeli intelligence has assured us that Iraqi weapons have been moved there—a claim for which there is no corroborating evidence from any other source. Syria backs Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad: sworn foes of Israel, to be sure, but hardly a significant international threat.

And this is the giant that the NYRB is now throwing under the bus? It won’t work.

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Phil: I think you got this one right. After the fact negators of other people’s writings are not to be believed. Especially so many years later. A question about the word “anguish” as in your: “it anguished liberal Zionists to hear anyone thoughtful come out against the idea of a Jewish state”. I’ve never had a serious operation without anesthetic, but I imagine that “anguish” might be a correct description of my feelings in such… Read more »

And “this is the giant” that the world has sadly lost.

A great man of open mind and clear vision .

Mr. Jonathan Freedland is very badly misguided in his attempt to reinterpret a great visionary’s wise words……!! He only discredits himself in the process.

Jonathan Freedland wrote exactly the same thing in the UK New Statesman in the summer of 2012. I left the following comment on their website: Jonathan Freedland is quite wrong about Tony Judt’s views on the one-state solution. In the spring of 2010 I sent Professor Judt a copy of a letter I had written for publication which included the following opinion: “There is only one way to make sense of the intermingled Jewish and… Read more »

I subscribed the the NYRB for over 25 years. I loved the highbrow reviews and essays, especially on classical music, and their comparative reviews of several books recently published on similar subjects.

But it is stuff like this, that Phil Weiss writes about, that got me to just end the subscription after the last one ran out, probably four years ago.

I find Phil’s interpretation much more plausible than Freedland’s. An alleged retraction of anti-Zionism over whisky, recalled 12 yrs posthumously by a liberal Zionist apologist. You can only make it up. But given the Zionist climate at the NY Review and in US intellectual life they can get away with stuffing Tony under the bus, no matter how preposterous.