The ’67 War called Tony Judt to Israel — where he found an ‘anachronism’ he ‘intensely disliked’

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Tony Judt was an intellectual leader because of his brave use of his Jewishness to defend anti-Zionists in the discourse and champion a single democratic state in Israel and Palestine back in 2003. Two years after Judt’s death in 2010, Timothy Snyder published a book of his dialogues with Judt on historical questions, Thinking the Twentieth Century. In that book, Judt related his own progress from being an ardent Zionist who went out to Israel from London at age 15 to serve on a leftwing kibbutz, to flying out again in the ’67 war to help the country, to ultimately turning against the project of a Jewish state. This week I will be commemorating many American responses to the war of 50 years ago. Judt’s is particularly illuminating. What follows is an excerpt of his story.

In the spring of 1967, just before the Six-Day War, I played an active part in organizing support for Israel during the prelude to the conflict. Zionist organizations, kibbutzim and factories in Israel had issued a plea for volunteers to come and work there, replacing reservists who had been called up in anticipation of battle. From Cambridge I helped set up a national organization to find and send volunteers. Then I myself went to Israel… boarding the last plane to leave for Israel before Lod airport closed to incoming flights. Once again I had to seek permission from King’s [College, Cambridge] to leave my studies prematurely… and once again this permission was generously granted…

During the course of the war and the immediate aftermath I worked once again on a banana plantation by the Sea of Galilee. But a few weeks later the victorious Israeli army issued a call for volunteers to join the army as auxiliaries and help with postwar tasks. I was nineteen, and this was irresistible. So I volunteered with a friend, Lee Isaacs: together we made our way to the Golan Heights and were attached to a unit there.

We were supposed to be driving captured Syrian army trucks back into Israel, but I was quickly and somewhat disappointingly assigned to translation work instead… I thus became for a short while a three-way interpreter between young Israeli officers and the French and English-speaking auxiliaries assigned to their units.

As a consequence, I saw more of the Israeli army than I might have done had I merely driven trucks down to the valley, and it was quite an eye-opener. For the first time I came to appreciate that Israel was not a social democratic paradise of peace-loving, farm-dwelling Jews who just happened to be Israelis but were otherwise like me. This was a very different culture and people from the one I had learned to see, or had insisted upon imagining to myself. The junior officers I met were drawn from the cities and the towns rather than the kibbutzim, and thanks to them I came to appreciate something that should have been obvious to me long before: that the dream of rural socialism was just that. The center of gravity of the Jewish state would be and must be in its cities. In short, I realized that I did not live and had never lived in the real Israel.

Instead, I had been indoctrinated into an anachronism, had lived an anachronism, and I now saw the depth of my delusion. For the first time I met Israelis who were chauvinistic in every meaning of the word: anti-Arab in a sense bordering upon racism; quite undisturbed at the prospect of killing Arabs wherever possible; frequently regretting that they had not been allowed to fight their way through to Damascus and beat down the Arabs for good and all; full of scorn for what they called the “heirs of the Holocaust,” Jews who lived outside of Israel and who did not understand or appreciate the new Jews, the native-born Israelis.

This was not the fantasy world of socialist Israel that so many Europeans loved (and love) to imagine– a wishful projection of all the positive qualities of Jewish Central Europe with none of the drawbacks. This was a Middle Eastern country that despised its neighbors and was about to open a catastrophic, generation-long rift with them by seizing and occupying their land. By the end of that summer I left Israel feeling claustrophobic and depressed. I did not go back until two years later, in 1969. But when I did, I found that I intensely disliked almost everything I saw. I was now regarded by my former kibbutz colleagues and friends as an outsider and a pariah.

Thirty years later I returned to the subject of Israel, publishing a series of essays critical of Israeli practices in the West Bank and America’s uncritical support of them. In the autumn of 2003, in what became a notorious essay published in The New York Review of Books, I argued that a one-state solution, however implausible and for most of the protagonists undesirable, was now the most realistic prospect for the Middle East. This assertion, driven as much by despair as expectation, aroused a firestorm of resentment and misunderstanding. I do feel as a Jew that one has a responsibility to criticize Israel vigorously and rigorously, in ways that non-Jews cannot–for fear of spurious but effective accusations of anti-Semitism.

My own experience as a Zionist allowed me to identify the same fanaticism and myopic, exclusivist tunnel vision in others–most notably the community of American cheerleaders for Israel. Indeed, I now saw (and see) the Israel problem as increasingly a dilemma for Americans….

When I discussed a one-state solution, I was deliberately trying to pry open a suppressed debate. On the one hand, I was casting a stone into the placid pool of yea-saying, uncritical assent that characterizes the self-defined Jewish “leadership” here in the U.S. But the other audience for my writings was and is non-Jewish Americans actively interested in the Middle East, or even just concerned over U.S. policy there–men and women who feel silenced by the charge of anti-Semitism whenever they raise their voice: whether on the excesses of the Israel lobby, the illegality of the occupation, the impropriety of Israeli “Holocaust” blackmail (if you don’t want another Auschwitz, don’t criticize us) and the scandals of war in Lebanon or Gaza…

Today, it is the heirs of Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionists who govern and dominate Israel, not the rather uncomfortable blend of left-Russian utopianism with central European liberalism that governed the country for its first three decades.

In revealing respects, Israel today resembles the small nationalist state that emerged in Eastern Europe after the end of the Russian Empire. Had Israel–like Romania or Poland or Czechoslovakia–been established in 1918 rather than 1948, it would have closely tracked the small, vulnerable, resentful, irredentist, insecure, ethnically exclusivist states to which World War I had given birth. But Israel did not come into being until after the Second World War. As a consequence, it stands out for its slightly paranoid national political culture and has become unhealthily dependent upon the Holocaust–its moral crutch and weapon of choice with which to fend off all criticism….

A Zionist, we used to say, is a Jew who pays another Jew to live in Israel. America is full of Zionists. American Jews have a very unusual identity problem: they are a substantial, well-established, prominent and influential “ethnic” minority in a country where ethnic minorities have a distinctive and–in most cases–affirmative place in the national mosaic…

Auschwitz stands for the past: the memory of suffering of other Jews in other places at other times. Israel represents the present: Jewish achievement in the form of an aggressive, self-confident military state–the anti-Auschwitz. With the Jewish state, America’s Jews can establish an identification tag and positive association without actually having to move there, pay taxes there or in any other way switch national allegiances.

There seems to me something pathological about this transference of contemporary self-description onto people quite unlike oneself in other times and other places. It surely cannot be healthy for American Jews to identify so fondly with Jewish victims in the past, to the point of believing–as many surely do–that the best reason to keep Israel in business is the likelihood that another Holocaust is just around the corner. Does being Jewish really require you to anticipate a re-run of 1938 wherever you look? If so, then I suppose it really does make sense to offer unconditional support for a state which itself claims to expect something along those lines. But it hardly constitutes a normal way of life.

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Good thinker, good writer, Tony Judt. Knows history: “uncomfortable blend of left Russian utopianism with central european liberalism.” I agree that the attitude of Israeli militarism that Judt encountered in 67, was very contrary to the attitudes of British (and American) Jews of liberal persuasion of college age. I view Israel’s creation as a consequence of the tumult in europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. With the great migration out of the… Read more »

RE: “There are many truths in what he writes, but I don’t think it is a complete story”.

What are a few examples of what you think makes his story incomplete? Please enlightened us.

In 1967 Israelis thought the Holocaust was over and that God intervened. Trauma doesn’t work like that. 50 years later Israel is still fighting WW2.

@Yonah Friedman
“the ideology seemed to be justified by the climax of the friction between Christendom and Judaism/Jewish peoples, aka WWII”

Mooser beat me to it. I now have a whole new perspective on WW2. It`s a shame Churchill is no longer around. He would really have appreciated this penetrating dynamic analysis.

Tony Judt’s tour de force, Ill Fares the Land, is a primer on the failure of neoliberalism and its invitation to nationalism and fascism. He was a superb observer of the human condition and an astute critic of the ruling elites in Western “democracies”. Though far too harsh in his criticism of the New Left in the USA, he nevertheless goes to the heart of issues of international importance. I had no idea of his… Read more »