Edge Man: Tony Judt (1948-2010)

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.’

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Ill Fares The Land

By Tony Judt

—This essay is drawn from the opening chapter of Tony Judt’s new book, Ill Fares the Land (Penguin), first excerpted at NY Review of Books. A review of the book will follow shortly.

On the left, Marxism was attractive to generations of young people if only because it offered a way to take one’s distance from the status quo. Much the same was true of classical conservatism: a well-grounded distaste for over-hasty change gave a home to those reluctant to abandon long-established routines. Today, neither left nor right can find their footing.

For thirty years students have been complaining to me that “it was easy for you”: your generation had ideals and ideas, you believed in something, you were able to change things. “We” (the children of the Eighties, the Nineties, the “Aughts”) have nothing. In many respects my students are right. It was easy for us—just as it was easy, at least in this sense, for the generations who came before us. The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposelessness of their world was in the 1920s: it is not by chance that historians speak of a “lost generation.”

If young people today are at a loss, it is not for want of targets. Any conversation with students or schoolchildren will produce a startling checklist of anxieties. Indeed, the rising generation is acutely worried about the world it is to inherit. But accompanying these fears there is a general sentiment of frustration: “we” know something is wrong and there are many things we don’t like. But what can we believe in? What should we do?

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Israel 61: The country that wouldn’t grow up

As Zionists prepare to celebrate the 61 anniversary of the ethnic cleaning of Palestine, and declaration of the state of Israel, its an opportune moment to republish some of the better literature covering the six decades.  The following is by Tony Judt published in the Haaretz in May 2006 titled The country that wouldn’t grow up.

wk2By the age of 58 a country – like a man – should have achieved a certain maturity. After nearly six decades of existence we know, for good and for bad, who we are, what we have done and how we appear to others, warts and all. We acknowledge, however reluctantly and privately, our mistakes and our shortcomings. And though we still harbor the occasional illusion about ourselves and our prospects, we are wise enough to recognize that these are indeed for the most part just that: illusions. In short, we are adults.

But the State of Israel remains curiously (and among Western-style democracies, uniquely) immature. The social transformations of the country – and its many economic achievements – have not brought the political wisdom that usually accompanies age. Seen from the outside, Israel still comports itself like an adolescent: consumed by a brittle confidence in its own uniqueness; certain that no one “understands” it and everyone is “against” it; full of wounded self-esteem, quick to take offense and quick to give it. Like many adolescents Israel is convinced – and makes a point of aggressively and repeatedly asserting – that it can do as it wishes, that its actions carry no consequences and that it is immortal. Appropriately enough, this country that has somehow failed to grow up was until very recently still in the hands of a generation of men who were prominent in its public affairs 40 years ago: an Israeli Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep in, say, 1967 would be surprised indeed to awake in 2006 and find Shimon Peres and General Ariel Sharon still hovering over the affairs of the country – the latter albeit only in spirit.
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