The great historian of 20th Century European History, Tony Judt, passed away on Aug.6th, after a long and noble effort to keep working until close to the end of his life, despite the infirmity and pain he suffered on a regular basis from ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. For the past few months, Judt regularly wrote eloquent and moving memoirs of his life growing up in England and elsewhere. Those of you who are familiar with Judt will wonder how I can refer to him as a great historian, since most people primarily know him as one of the great bashers of Israel, a scholar most known for arguing in 2003 that Israel should cease to exist, and be replaced by a bi-national state of Arabs and Jews.
The truth is that before that article, Tony Judt was the most acclaimed historian to chronicle the history of Europe in the 20th Century, as well as to elaborate on the illusions in particular of the French intellectuals, many of whom believed in Stalin and the Soviet Union as the future of mankind. I first became acquainted with Judt’s work in 1992, when his book, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956, was published. His greatest accomplishment is viewed by most readers and critics as a masterpiece. The book in question is Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, which was published in 2005, and in readable and brilliant prose takes the readers through the major events of the past century, and provides analysis combined with an overview. Few could write that kind of book and succeed.
For those wishing to get a good acquaintance with Judt’s lengthy essays and articles on various issues, events and people, one can turn to his collection, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, which will give you a first rate acquaintance with how a great mind works. I must acknowledge that one of the books I wrote with my co-author Mary Habeck, Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, received an insightful and provocative discussion by Judt which appeared in The New Republic. Judt closed the review (which is unfortunately not available on line) by writing that years ago those who apologized for the Soviet Union were called “useful idiots.” In the present time, Judt wrote, they had no excuses available for their position. Now, he wrote, “they are just idiots.”
His understanding of the horrors of communism and the continuing apologias on its behalf by Western intellectuals makes his later devotion to the chorus of anti-Israel arguments by the intellectuals of his own day even more inexplicable. His new position led to TNR dropping Judt from their editorial board, and to a take-down of Judt by its literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, that was completely devastating. Wieseltier made the following point about Judt’s essay:
Judt calls his article “Israel: The Alternative.” But let us read strenuously. A bi-national state is not the alternative for Israel. It is the alternative to Israel. Judt and his editors have crossed the line from the criticism of Israel’s policy to the criticism of Israel’s existence. The right in Israel and America are therefore greatly in their debt: They have given credence to the suspicion that the criticism of Israel’s policy is always nothing other than the criticism of Israel’s existence. They have taken the heroic step of calling for the dissolution of the Jewish state.
Judt would go on to write other arguments against Israel, but at no time did he pause to answer any of Wieseltier’s arguments. And so, after Judt’s passing, most of the reviewers spent a great deal of time on Judt’s view of Israel, rather than concentrating mainly on his contributions to European history.
Most of the reviewers in Britain, perhaps expectedly, not only singled his anti-Israel views for discussion, but made clear in their obituaries that they thought Judt was both right and courageous. Take Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s review as an example. He writes that Judt “was contemptuous of the way a powerful lobby had manipulated Jewish American opinion,” as if American Jews are incapable of thinking for themselves, and reaching opinions other than those favored by Judt. According to Wheatcroft, Judt’s Israel essay “set off a storm of abuse: lectures by Judt were cancelled under pressure and he was dropped by magazines he had written for.” He makes it sound as if Judt was an American dissident, denied a place in which to express his views and an institution to work from. But in reality, Judt was highly celebrated, traveled the world, and his essays on Israel were published in Britain and Europe. Moreover, he was heralded, like Walt and Mearsheimer, for taking on the would-be powerful Jewish lobby. And as head of the Remarque Center at New York University, he had a most distinguished perch from which to hold court. Saying that he was suppressed and censored is wide of the mark.
Wheatcroft continued to write that “the essay [on Israel] now seems prophetic as well as brave, as did another he wrote in 2006. ‘The Country That Wouldn’t Grow Up’ dealt in passing with the accusation that criticism of Israel was antisemitic, and warned that ‘genuine antisemitism may also in time cease to be taken seriously, thanks to the Israel lobby’s abuse of the term’. And with what already looks like acute prescience, Judt said that the calamitous war in Iraq ‘will in retrospect be seen, I believe, to have precipitated the onset of America’s alienation from its Israeli ally’”.
If anything, Judt was the opposite of prophetic, and he was hardly brave. In fact, most Israelis opposed the war in Iraq and favored action to curb Iran, arguing that the United States was going after the wrong enemy. Why fighting Saddam Hussein would precipitate a break with Israel makes no sense, unless one believes that the U.S. went into the war at Israel’s behest, which of course, was the argument of Pat Buchanan and others who blamed the “neo-cons” for forcing the Bush administration to act. As the folks at Britain’s “Just Journalism” website concluded, Wheatcroft “offers no evidence for why this might be so, much less for the ‘alienation’ he takes as a foregone conclusion.”
The tragedy was that rather than continue to write about Europe in the past and its position in the present, which Judt more than any other historian had the right to do, he followed his political passions and became known for that which made him a celebrity in Britain in particular, a country in which hostility to Israel and anti-Semitism flourishes. That his departure from scholarship and his commitment to writing against Israel became his seeming main occupation in his last years, and won him plaudits, says a great deal about our contemporary culture. Judt’s sad path should not, however, detract from honoring him for his superb contribution to our understanding of Europe’s past.