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Tony Judt Is Aging Poorly

A new collection of the late historian’s essays says more about his prejudices than about his achievements

Adam Kirsch
January 27, 2015
(Tablet Magazine via Russell Davis/Flickr)
(Tablet Magazine via Russell Davis/Flickr)

It was at a party in early 2002, a few months after the Sept. 11 attacks, that I first heard someone declare, as if it was self-evident, that the George W. Bush Administration was fascist. The accusation refuted itself, of course—people living under a fascist regime don’t go around loudly attacking the regime at parties—but it was symptomatic of the times. Post-Sept. 11 paranoia took many forms, and one of them was paranoia about the American government (and not just in “truther” circles). If you read Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers, for instance, or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America—both products of the first years after Sept. 11—you will see how the fear and dread the attacks provoked could easily be transferred from the Islamic fanatics who actually perpetrated them to the United States itself.

One need not forgive the serious crimes of the Bush Administration—the failed wars, the torture and renditions, the Orwellian surveillance—to note that, among much of the left, the hatred of George W. Bush was a psychological projection or substitution. This was particularly true, I think, among many Jewish leftists. After all, when a terrorist movement emerged whose explicit aim was to murder Americans and Jews, it was considerably more comfortable for some American Jews to claim to be afraid of their own government, which was not out to get them, than to admit that they were afraid of Islamic fundamentalists, who actually were. Condemning the injustices of the Bush Administration would not get your head cut off, like Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, or your bus bombed, as happened in Israel over and over again during the Second Intifada.

The full story of the American Jewish reaction to Sept. 11 would be an interesting one for some historian to write; and when she does, a chapter ought to be devoted to Tony Judt. For during the Bush years, Judt, a historian of postwar Europe who until then had been known mainly to other historians, emerged as a leading spokesman for one strain of American Jewish leftism. Writing primarily in the New York Review of Books, Judt used a series of essays and reviews to advance his bill of indictment of America and Israel, whose actions he saw as primarily responsible for the violence and insecurity in the Middle East. America under Bush, Judt argued, was defiant of international law and European opinion, a belligerent rogue state whose invasion of Iraq threatened to destroy world order. Its chief crime, however, was sponsorship of Israel, whose occupation of Palestinian land was the major cause of Arab grievance and hatred against the West. In time, this criticism broadened to take in America’s economic and social-welfare arrangements as well, as Judt called for a wholesale return to the values of the welfare state, on the postwar European model.

Now these essays have been published in book form, in When the Facts Change: Essays 1995-2010; and reading Judt’s polemics a decade or so after they were first published is a useful way of putting them into perspective. It becomes clear, for instance, that it was not the novelty or originality of Judt’s ideas that made him so significant a controversialist. Take, for instance, the most argued-over of all his essays, “Israel: The Alternative,” which first appeared in the New York Review in October 2003. Here Judt argued that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank had already made a two-state solution impossible, so that the only way out of the impasse was the creation of a single, binational state in Israel-Palestine. This was by no means a new idea, and in the following years it would be taken up by everyone from Sari Nusseibeh, in his book What Is a Palestinian State Worth?, to Muammar Gaddafi, who called for the creation of a new country to be named “Isratine.”

As these supporters suggest, however, the “one-state solution” was primarily appealing to those who looked with favor on the disappearance of a Jewish state—or, on the other extreme, of those Greater Israel fanatics who wanted to make sure no Palestine ever emerged on the map. Judt, however, was no leftist ideologue. He was a historian of impeccable liberal credentials, who had even, in his youth, been an ardent Zionist and sometime kibbutznik. What Judt did was to legitimize the “one-state solution” in the intellectual mainstream, in much the same way that Mearsheimer and Walt legitimized talk of a “Jewish lobby.” “Israel: The Alternative” was the moment when it became clear that many Jewish liberals were willing to publicly deny the need for, or the moral possibility of, a Jewish state.

For the real subject of the essay—and this turns out to be true of all of Judt’s most passionate essays—has little to do with actual Middle Eastern politics. It is, rather, a dramatization of the crisis of conscience that many liberal Jews now find themselves suffering with regard to Zionism. For Judt, Zionism is an ethnic nationalism, and if there is one thing 21st-century liberals pride themselves on, it is their rejection of ethnic nationalism. As Judt writes, we live in an age “when that sort of state has no place”: “In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel truly is an anachronism.”

What is striking about this is how deeply unhistorical it is, coming from a historian. For of course, we do not live in such a world—not in 2003 and still less in 2015. What may be true of the more cosmopolitan quarters of Europe and America is far from true in the Middle East, where Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, and Kurds are now engaged in a massive sectarian war stretching from Lebanon to Turkey. And as the rise of anti-immigration and nationalist parties in Europe suggests, even there the appetite for multiculturalism is dwindling. For the Jews of Israel to stake their future on joining a multinational state, just at the moment when all such states in the Middle East are unraveling in civil wars, would be madness—or, as Judt himself acknowledges, “an unpromising mix of realism and utopia.”

Judt’s statement only makes sense when it is taken to apply, not to Jews in Israel or to nation-states in general, but to Jews in the West, who indeed have “multiple elective identities.” What he is resisting is the obligation to put Jewish identity, as expressed in Zionism, above other identities—as an American, a European, a liberal, a cosmopolitan. In other words, Judt is rediscovering one of the oldest tensions in Judaism, the tension between universalism and particularism; and he finds it impossible to tolerate. “Israel: The Alternative” is a statement of profound impatience, of the desire for Israel to disappear so that the obligations of Jewish solidarity can also disappear.

For the same reason, Judt finds it necessary to deny that anti-Semitism constitutes any kind of a real threat to Jews outside of Israel. Here, too, his argument has aged especially badly in just the last few years. In “The ‘Problem of Evil’ in Postwar Europe,” a lecture originally delivered to a German audience in 2007, Judt urges Europeans to stop being afraid of criticizing Israel on account of the memory of the Holocaust. The truth, he argues, is that Jews are no longer under threat: “Imagine the following exercise: Would you feel safe, accepted, welcome today as a Muslim … in the United States? As a ‘Paki’ in parts of England? A Moroccan in Holland? … Or would you not feel safer, more integrated, more accepted, as a Jew? I think we all know the answer.”

Of course, the answer “we all know” is supposed to be yes. But the record numbers of European Jews making aliyah, or the ones who get trapped in synagogues by Islamist mobs, or the ones who are massacred in kosher supermarkets, or the ones who get beat up on the street for wearing kippot, might give a different answer. Here again, Judt the historian shuts his eyes to what is actually happening in the world, in order to advance the comforting idea that Zionism and its imperatives of self-defense are obsolete.

It is not just when writing about Jewish subjects that Judt reveals himself to be more actuated by myth and sentiment than by history. The fourth section of When the Facts Change is devoted to laments for the passing of the postwar welfare state, which is embodied for Judt in the British rail system of his youth. “The railways were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society,” he writes. Running a national rail network is “something the market cannot accomplish,” but which the government must supply as a public good. Yet this preference for rail travel appears to be an aesthetic choice, rather than an economic or environmental necessity. It corresponds to Judt’s distaste for SUVs, and by implication the Americans who buy them, as “oversized and overweight … a dangerous anachronism.”

As with Israel, the charge of “anachronism” is made to do the work of analysis and argument. Because “we” instinctively feel that something is uncomfortably old-fashioned, we can feel good about looking down on it. Nowhere is there a concrete argument as to why taxpayers should pay for a rail network they neither need, want, nor use. Similarly, Judt repeatedly attacks the Clinton-era welfare reform act, comparing it to the Poor Law of Dickens’s time, without ever bothering to explain what welfare reform actually did (it did not establish workhouses), or why so many people, including Democrats, felt it to be a good idea. In all these cases, Judt gives up the responsibilities of the historian—to explain why things are the way they are—for the gratifications of the editorialist—rebuking and exhorting about the way things should be. The result is that his essays read as symptoms of their age, rather than explanations of it.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.