Strenger Than Fiction / Tony Judt's Jewish Identity

Despite accusations to the contrary, Tony Judt represents an important tradition of Jewishness.

Tony Judt died on August 6 after struggling for two years with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Even when he could no longer move a single limb, he continued to write haunting texts about his illness, memoirs, and his final book "Ill Fares the Land," a spirited defense of the ideals of social democracy. He was, first and foremost, an internationally acclaimed historian, whose magnum opus "Postwar Europe" is likely to remain the standard work on its subject matter for many years to come. Like most academics, Judt would probably have remained unknown to the wider public had it not been for an essay he wrote in 2003 in the New York Review of Books entitled "Israel, the Alternative."

The essay’s main thesis was that Israel had created so many facts on the ground in the West Bank that the two-state solution was gradually becoming impossible. Judt therefore suggested taking the one-state solution seriously, and considering a federative structure could unite Israel and Palestine into one state.

Tony Judt
Shahar Azran

The essay created huge outrage in Jewish circles in the U.S. The story turned into the full-fledged "Tony Judt affair" after a talk he was supposed to give at the Polish consulate in New York about “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” was cancelled an hour before it was scheduled. It turned out that the Anti-Defamation League and some other Jewish organizations had put pressure on the consulate to cancel. This in turn triggered a storm of protest by intellectuals and academics who felt that Judt’s right to freedom of speech had been infringed, and that silencing dissent was profoundly un-Jewish. It also raised, once again, the question why Jewish critics of Israeli policies are automatically accused being anti-Semitic or at least anti-Israel. Ever since, Judt was known as "the controversial Tony Judt" or "Tony Judt, the well-known critic of Israel."

My point here is not, whether Judt’s proposal to take the possibility of a bi-national state seriously is politically and intellectually sound. I don’t think it is and I had written so publicly and privately to him. Judt had been an ardent Zionist in his youth, spent a lot of time in Israel and spoke Hebrew, and he was deeply angry at and disappointed by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I think this anger clouded his otherwise acute political judgment and led him to endorse the one-state solution that I believe to be thoroughly unrealistic.

The outrage around Tony Judt reminds me of another Jewish intellectual who became the target of ferocious attacks by American Jewish and Israeli organizations. In 1963, Hannah Arendt published "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil." The book created a storm, and Arendt was subjected to a systematic campaign of delegitimization.

Arendt never denied that Israel had the right to try Eichmann, and she didn’t oppose his execution. There were three elements in the book that created outrage: the first was Arendt’s criticism about how the Eichmann trial was turned into a justification of the State of Israel. The second were some passages in which she commented unfavorably on the function of the "Judenräte," which cooperated with the Nazis, often in the hope that they could save some lives in doing so. The third was her use of the term "the banality of evil" to describe Eichmann, whom she saw as a highly limited human being devoid of moral imagination. The tenor of the accusations against her was that she didn’t sufficiently identify with the Jewish people and the goals of the State of Israel.

In 1996 an international conference on her work took place in Jerusalem that ended the period in which she was anathema in Israel. Arendt is today hailed as one of the twentieth century’s great political thinkers and as an intellectual capable of keeping a mind of her own, even when criticized and attacked ferociously. In this she is similar to Tony Judt, and they exemplify a form of Jewish identity that evolved in the nineteenth and twentieth century: the irreverent, critical thinker and writer who maintains independence of religious, national or political group pressures.

As a result both Judt and Arendt were accused of being "self-hating Jews" or even anti-Semites, an accusation that is ignoble, intellectually shallow and ultimately dangerous, because it is used to delegitimize the majority of Jews worldwide, whether secular or religious, who are liberal. Many Jews subscribe to the political and moral values of the Enlightenment that were so dear to Arendt and Judt. This is the standpoint from which they are often critical of Israel; but it is also a proud and creative tradition within modern Jewish history.

It is, I believe, also profoundly un-Jewish to delegitimize these views instead of arguing with them: the spirit of plugta, of incisive, uncompromising debate is as much an essential part of the Jewish tradition as tribal loyalty. There are moments in which these values conflict, and no side should have a monopoly on claiming whether critical thought or unquestioned loyalty must prevail at any given point.

For all those who think that Tony Judt was a self-hating Jew - but even more for those, who, like me, feel a deep sense of loss for this incisive, humane and deep thinker, I want to share the words he wrote to me in an email on April 28, 2008 about his Jewish identity:

“More than I sometimes understand, I think, I am both writing in and about the tradition and spirit of Jewish cosmopolitanism: caught somewhere between Marx’s ‘ruthless criticism of everything existing’; pil-pul; zahor!; bearing critical witness; social responsibility; and perhaps a certain davka. I’ve never written about this directly, but I think it informs the tone – and probably the subject matter – of much of my work. I also makes me smile when American ultras accuse me of being ‘un-Jewish’ in my criticism of Israel, etc. It seems to me that, for good and ill, I am decidedly Jewish and in a long and worthy tradition.”