Navigate to News section

Arguing the World

In his last book, the late intellectual Tony Judt is sharp as ever—offering biting comments about American Jews, Israel, and his ex-wives

Matthew Kaminski
February 22, 2012
Tony Judt, 2002.(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo James Leynse/Corbis.)
Tony Judt, 2002.(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo James Leynse/Corbis.)

Thinking the Twentieth Century, the last book by the late NYU historian and intellectual provocateur Tony Judt, is the product of an unusual collaboration. Before Judt was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in the summer of 2008, he was planning to follow up Postwar, a now canonical account of Europe since 1945, with a history of 20th-century social thought. But the incurable neurological disorder made it impossible for him to write.

Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of the critically acclaimed Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, and a longtime friend of Judt’s, suggested that Judt talk the book out with him, instead. Most Thursdays, for most of 2009, Snyder visited Judt’s apartment in Manhattan’s Washington Square and recorded their conversations. The men worked on the final product until a couple weeks before Judt’s death in August 2010, at the age of 62. The result mixes history and ideas, Judt’s personal journey from a young Zionist to a lapsed Marxist, and current politics. Each chapter—from the first, on Judt’s Jewish upbringing, to the last, in which he makes his argument for a renewed social democracy—begins with an extended biographical section in Judt’s words, followed by a dialogue between him and Snyder, who asks questions and offers his own thoughts.

Judt’s mind and elbows are as sharp as ever. At turns, he is biting about colleagues and ex-wives, the political right, and—no surprise to those who followed his political writing—Israel. Judt gained wide notoriety for a 2003 New York Review of Books essay that argued that to remain a democracy, Israel needs to morph “from a Jewish state into a binational one.” The New Republic subsequently dropped Judt as a contributing editor, and Judt’s career as a Francophonic, British, Jewish, New York public intellectual, so to speak, flourished. I sat down with Snyder last week in New Haven to talk about Judt, their friendship, and their new book.

A “spoken” book comes with its own logistical challenges, but this also must have been emotionally challenging. You befriended Tony Judt, who was 21 years your senior, when you were an undergraduate at Brown. As you note in the foreword, every time you saw him during the course of writing the book, he seemed to deteriorate physically.

The important thing is that it wasn’t primarily a challenge for me. It was primarily a challenge for Tony. He’s the one who’s now in the position that in order to work he has to talk instead of write. He’s the one who instead of being humiliated, chooses to be humble and to accept that working with someone else might be a good idea. That he chose to overcome utterly horrible physical limitations in order to keep working at his ideas, and that he did so extremely well, transcending not only his condition, but in my view some of his previous intellectual limitation—that, for me, is the truly remarkable thing.

This kind of collaborative book is common in Central Europe and France. You call the Polish poet Czeslaw Miłosz’s interviews with the writer Aleksander Wat, My Century, the best of the “spoken” genre, and the first book that Judt ever read in Czech, which he learned in middle age, was Karl Capek’s conversations with the Czech statesman Tomáš Masaryk. Why is it so rare in America?

It’s a matter of really being able spontaneously to call up the best in yourself, on both sides, over and over and over again, without preparation. It’s harder than it looks. Tony not only had a fantastic memory, but he could recall almost at will what was in that memory. I don’t think Americans are generally that articulate—I say this as an American. I don’t think very many of us could do this sort of thing.

Was it a form of psychological relief?

I think it allowed him to be him, at least for a moment. The Tony who was immobilized and certain of death was in many ways a different person who hadn’t been immobilized and certain of death. But our long conversation was a way for him in his new situation to express himself and to continue to work, and to continue to think, and to continue to progress. I think he really would forget the breathing apparatus, he would forget the immobility, for a time. I think there were moments when, because he was only in his mind, his mind was all that mattered to him.

Judt grew up in a working-class London Jewish home. His academic work was primarily on France. And he spent the last two decades of his life in New York. Yet did Judt have an essentially English mind?

It was a Jewish mind, and Jewish history, recent Jewish history, was always at the back of it. And it was a contestatory mind. He described himself as an outsider, and the default way he could be an outsider was his Jewishness. Even if he didn’t stress it, it was the safe, haimish way of being an outsider.

It was an English mind in that he had an English education and loved the English language. This was one of the ways in which he was conservative. He was the product of a very conservative educational system—almost reactionary I would say—all the way through. And that was one of the reasons why he was so confident with language, not only personally, but also confident about what the language could do, the purposes it could serve, how far you could take it. Like Churchill, he had faith in the transformative capacity of language. It was worth making arguments correctly and well because it might actually make a difference.

It was a French mind in that it was dialectical. He believed in argument. He believed in sacrificing friendships for ideas. It was a polemical mind, but only because he believed that ideas really were the world and that argument could bring us closer to understanding.

It was an Eastern European mind in a 1989 sort of way, a pluralist way. He accepted that no matter what the historical suffering in your life was (Jewish mind), no matter how precise formulations were (English mind), no matter how powerful your ideas were (French mind), there was in fact no one right answer to everything. That if you are going to be decent and responsible and fundamentally correct, you have to be a pluralist.

And finally, it was an American mind at the end in that he understood that optimism [is] our default mode of thinking; “it’ll work itself out, the market will take care of it, history will take care of it, our good faith will take care of it.” Understanding that national tendency, he knew what he was working with and against, and was critical and clear in a way that resonated here, whether or not people agreed with him.

Tony came to think of himself as a public intellectual. What’s the job description?

It’s something he kind of backed into, and he wouldn’t have embraced the term so comfortably. Normally when we talk about intellectuals we talk about a common formation, common experiences, and so on. He did a pretty good job of not sticking with experiences of everyone else. You can’t say there was the Tony Judt school or the Tony Judt agenda. He was a loner, and he was often criticizing the people with whom you might think he would have shared the solidarity of a milieu.

The classic example of that is the Iraq War, when a lot of people, also of Jewish origin, also of the left, also of the generation of 1968, were making one kind of argument and he was making exactly the other sort of argument with all sorts of political and personal results. So, he was definitely an intellectual, but he was an intellectual by not being with other intellectuals—just as that vocation itself was tumbling toward collapse.

He wasn’t afraid of what other people thought. He puts his points very sharply. He tried very hard to be his own man, which is a lot harder than it sounds.

Judt was especially withering about pundits in the press, famously calling David Brooks’ work “garbage,” and he stressed the importance of having an expertise. But why does his deep knowledge of French intellectual history give him any greater authority than Brooks to speak about the wisdom of the Iraq War? Judt was also a talking head when he played the role of polemicist.

Well, one of them was dead wrong and one of them was dead right.

The question is: What do you want to have inside that head in that 99.9 percent of the time when that head is not talking in front of the camera? I don’t think that Tony would say you have to be a historian. I think Tony would have said there has to be some way that you exercise your mind such that what you say can be at cross-purposes with dominant reality.

I think his problem with David Brooks—just taking that as a general example—is that too much of what he said was simply an articulation of what was already happening anyway. And articulating what’s already happening anyway is fundamentally of no use, and indeed damaging. Just going along with what’s happening anyway as is determined by greater forces than yourself is not knowledge. It’s not the right kind of life.

Tony could be extremely critical of the blind spots and failures of other public intellectuals. He made his public name initially with Past Imperfect, his 1994 book that excoriated the French left for their refusal to see Stalinism for what it was. Yet when it comes to his own views, he remained sympathetic toward Marxism.

No matter how self-critical we are, the story we tell about ourselves can rarely withstand any serious kind of interrogation. In this book, I was seriously interested in a question that Tony exemplifies, but which transcends Tony, which is: How is it that experience affects ideas? The way that appears in the book, I think, reveals him in a good light because he was responsive to my repeated and sometimes critical inquiries. Even if you are not suffering from horrible illness, it’s not necessarily that pleasant to have someone to your apartment who constantly questions what you’ve said about your past life, which is what I did, hopefully respectfully, but also hopefully revealingly.

But I think you’re right that Tony is biographically much more capable of understanding British left-wing historians of an older generation like E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawn, with whom he had a very critical, but nevertheless mutually admiring, relationship than he is with people on the right. That remains the case even as his Marxism fades away in the 1980s. I think that has to do with the fact that his Marxism was never the kind of commitment which would mean that he would join the party, as Eric did. He could neither fall in love with it, nor could he fall out of love with it. It was always just there.

The idea that communism was a “God That Failed” doesn’t seem to resonate with him.

Communism as a God that failed is something he observes and chronicles, especially in this book, but it is not something that he experiences. Marxism for him was more a way of seeing the world; it wasn’t a way of being the world. The only way that he had of being the world was Zionism. And that, I think, explains why he doesn’t think total identifications with national communities is intellectually helpful.

Tony was a Zionist in his youth, and even spent time on a kibbutz. But he dropped it when he became involved in the leftist campus politics of 1968. Around the same time he published that 2003 piece on Israel, he also wrote that Belgium, a binational structure of the kind he thinks the Jews and Arabs ought to build, is doomed. And the Walloons and the Flemings share a religion, are fully economically integrated, and live in Europe. If Belgium can’t last, how could a binational Israel in the Mideast?

I’m glad somebody else noticed that. Rereading all of Tony’s stuff, which I did, that was striking. He takes a very conventional line about the nation-state with Belgium. If there’s not really a nation, there’s probably not going to be a state, and dissolution is what we expect. And the logic he applies to Israel does not seem to fit that, and of course Israel is not surrounded by the European Union.

But I took the Israel essay seriously and I take it seriously, although I don’t think he was correct about the politics of it for this very reason. I’m no Israel expert but I don’t think a one-state solution would actually work. I think to understand that piece one has to go back to what we were just saying. I think Tony’s attitude about Zionism had to do with his earlier embrace of Zionism.

Zionism was the God That Failed.

He was overstated about his critique of Israel in a way that you might be once you have given up your faith. That’s how I read it. That doesn’t mean one should just dismiss it.

There are a couple things about which I think Tony was right about even if he was wrong about the solution. He was certainly right that Israeli politics were moving toward the right, and that without a solution to the Palestinian problem this trend would continue.

Another way he was right while being wrong was revealed by the American reaction itself: This man hates Israel, this man wants to destroy Israel, that this man is a Jewish anti-Semite, and so on. But he’s saying something that Israeli high-school students will write in essays and no one in Israel will think this is outrageous. They might think it’s wrong, but no one in Israel is going to get up in arms about something that’s been discussed there for years.

Well, the fight he sets out to pick is exclusively with American Jews—

Exactly, that’s what I mean. The idea was to permit an American discussion …

—he does it repeatedly. In your book there’s a line about the “pernicious role played by the diaspora.” In Memory Chalet, he accuses American Jews of exploiting the Holocaust “to justify uncompromising Israelphilia and to service lachrymose self-regard.” Where does that come from?

Tony was, late in life, an American in Manhattan. And he was a Jew in Manhattan. But he was profoundly not an American Jew in Manhattan. So, how are you different from the people around you is a question he asks himself to prepare to understand the world around him. Vis-á-vis American Jews, he’s an English Jew, or an Englishman, or a European, or something else. The need to be an outsider in order to get a grip on the inside can be a healthy impulse. It’s a way of not just falling in and believing what everyone else is believing. But, as I say, the fact that people reacted to the Israel essay as they did suggests that he had sniffed something out. If a prevailing consensus is both so strongly felt and so intellectually brittle, there’s probably something wrong.

Some American Jews think you have to deny your Jewishness more in England than here, and maybe that’s something they picked up on, fairly or not, with him. As you say, for a long time he avoided the centrality of the Holocaust both to 20th-century Europe and to himself.

But that’s true of his whole generation, including the Americans and the French and so on. And in the book, we are trying to understand why that was and correct it. That’s Chapter 1.

I don’t want to get into a generalized dispute between English and American Jews over who’s more or less Jewish, but it does strike me that Tony thought that his English education, including the experience of rather direct anti-Semitism, affirmed his Jewish identity. And he says it in the book, so I don’t think it’s a subject that I need to expound on.

Matthew Kaminski is a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.

Matthew Kaminski is a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.