Tony Judt, a towering intellect, a moral giant, and a master of prose, has passed on. He did what only the greatest of thinkers do: he constantly evolved. More significantly, he never succumbed to orthodoxies, he was always on the edge. And that is what gave his writing its distinctive freshness. In his last years, he also outgrew his middle-of-the-road liberalism to adopt principled, at times radical, positions on war and capitalism. He fought successfully to erase the gap between passion and principle. The Zionism of his youth had led him to volunteer for the Israeli forces in 1967; he was disillusioned after realizing that the Israeli soldiers he worked with were ‘right-wing thugs with anti-Arab views’ or ‘just dumb idiots with guns.’
Judt’s disenchantment turned him into one of the most courageous and eloquent critics of the Jewish State. But unlike some luminaries of the left, he also had the moral courage to re-examine his own easy assumptions. A year after his first public statement on Israel-Palestine, in which he had called for a two-state solution, Judt acknowledged its unviability and issued a call for a single binational state in Palestine. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Evan Goldstein describes the essay’s impact.
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.
In 2006, he was the only mainstream figure to come to the defence of Mearsheimer & Walt after they published their groundbreaking London Review essay. He later joined John Mearsheimer in a debate organized by the London Review of Books in which they argued against apologists for the lobby. In the same year an event organized by Network 20/20 at which Judt was slated to speak was cancelled following pressure from the ADL and AJC. This prompted Mark Lilla and 114 writers and intellectuals to write a letter of protest to the ADL. He also spoke eloquently in a must-see Dutch documentary on the lobby (in which he also recounts the Network 20/20 incident). Later, he would join Mearsheimer, Tariq Ali and others to stand up for Norman Finkelstein who was being unjustly denied tenure under Israel lobby pressure. He also wrote a burning indictment of Israel’s crime in the same year, calling it the ‘country that wouldn’t grow up.’
In 2009, Judt was paralyzed below the neck with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a variant of ALS (he described the experience in an evocative vignette.) Yet he managed to produce a series of truly remarkable essays for the New York Review of Books right until his passing. He also managed to distill his thinking on the degeneration of politics, the triumph of predatory capitalism, the increasing impoverishment of oppositional ideas, and the need for a new language of politics, into a sharp and elegant little book Ill Fares the Land. I dearly wished to engage him on some of the ideas he propounded in his book. Alas, this will not be. I only discovered Judt’s writings late, after he wrote a moving tribute to his friend, the ‘rootless cosmopolitan‘ Edward Said. But in recent years I had grown so familiar with his writings that I feel his passing as a personal loss.
(All his writings and his reflections on his journey from Zionism to universalism are collected in his 2008 book Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. My review of Ill Fares the Land will appear on Mondoweiss shortly.)