Tony Judt: The Un-Orthodox Jew

TVR Books | Michael Freund | July 2007

British historian Tony Judt has become a presence in Vienna. A permanent fellow of the Institute for the Human Sciences, he was here Jun. 13 to receive the Bruno Kreisky Prize for the best political book of 2006 (see "A History of Two Europes," The Vienna Review Oct. 2006) and deliver an Award Lecture on the eve of the ceremony at the Kreisky Forum, in the home of the former Austrian chancellor.

His topic, "Is Israel Still Good for the Jews?" was right in line with the Institute’s current series theme of "Diaspora," and within the range of his research interests, which cover European and American contemporary history, aspects of memory and remembrance, and postwar intellectual debates.

But it was clear from the outset that this would not be a thank-you note, like many other speeches on comparable occasions.

Tony Judt is a zoon politikon, a political animal, in the true sense of the term. Raised in England in a left-wing family of Eastern European Jewish descent, he had a remarkable academic career that, among other things brought him in close contact with the "Paris May" of 1968 leaving him skeptical of the reigning French intelligentsia and that culminated in his current job as professor at New York University. He is also the founding director of the Remarque Institute at NYU, where he publishes frequently in the beacon of left liberal thought in the U.S., the New York Review of Books, and writes op-ed pieces for The New York Times.

He thus might feel very much at home in the high-energy atmosphere of New York intellectual life – were it not for his position on Israel and on the role of America in general, and American Jews in particular, regarding the Middle East problem.

Judt had frequently criticized what he calls "the powerful Israel lobby" in Washington for making any constructive solution of the Israel/Palestine disaster impossible. He sometimes, in the heat of the ever more caustic debate between liberal and neo-conservative Jews, went as far as to say that Israel is the kind of state that has no real future, an outdated model.

It was remarks like these that made him a favorite target of pro-Israeli Jews, especially those on the lookout for whatever may appear as anti-Semitic. If such remarks come from Jews they are labeled "self-hating" (Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein are further examples). The quarrel came to a climax when Judt was supposed to give a talk last fall at the Polish Consulate in New York on Israel. In the last minute, he was disinvited by the Consul.

Whether this happened because "two journalists had politely asked" what this was about, as critics of Judt would have it, or whether Jewish pressure groups asked the Consul to withdraw the invitation, will probably never be clarified. In any case, under such a shadow, Judt’s lecture in Vienna was greeted with mixed feelings, to say the least. On the days preceding the event, blogs and leaflets circulated that accused the historian of belittling the Holocaust in his book on Europe in they years following World War II, thus indirectly aiding Islamic fundamentalists.

Compared with these attacks, his deliberations on the Jewish Diaspora were sober, restrained and free of vindictive arguments. He differentiated between verifiable facts and speculations and enumerated the consequences especially of the Six-Day-War in 1967 in which Israel triumphed over its Arab neighbors.

From then on, according to Judt (and to several Israeli and American sources he quoted), Israel said good-bye to Herzl’s Zionist idea of a secular "state like any other" and has since defined itself as a project without limits, in every sense of the term.

What did this mean for the Jews outside Israel, all over the world?

"The leaders of the diasporas," Judt maintained, "are often more radically uncritical of Israel than the Israelis themselves. They want an identification with everything the supposed motherland does – which may of course serve the government there, but it does not necessarily represent the opinion of the majority of the Jews in the U.S., in the U.K. and elsewhere."

Moreover, Judt listed some characteristics that make the Jewish Diaspora different from, for example, the Greek or Armenian Diaspora: Whereas these come from one particular land with one culture and usually one language, the Jews came to America from everywhere, their common language is English ("hardly anyone in the U.S. speaks Yiddish or Hebrew"), not many go to the synagogue: "They are Americans." Because of the Middle Eastern situation and, according to Judt, because of Israeli and U.S. Jewish pressure groups, they are all however asked to unite by identifying in space, with Greater Israel, and in time, through remembering the Holocaust.

"The combination of these two identifications is the problem," Judt concluded. As long as the Middle East conflict is not separated from the identities of Jews worldwide, the answer to the question in the title of his talk is, "I am afraid not."

There is another, personal fear that Judt could only allude to: that the unconditional support of Israel by the United States might in the next ten years grow weaker or perhaps even disappear.

It would only be a matter of Realpolitik, but for the Israelis, left without an alternative to the current model of a policy of expansion and deterrence, this would be the real disaster.

Other articles from this issue