Tony Judt Still Fights to Expose Israel’s “Inconvenient Truths”

by James M. WallJudt cropped

On October 23, 2003, exactly six years ago this week, Professor Tony Judt published an essay in the New York Review of Books entitled, Israel: The Alternative.

The essay was the culmination of a journey he began as a teen-ager on an Israeli Kibbutz during the Six Day War.

Judt was born in London in 1948. His parents were secular Jews. His mother’s parents were immigrants from Russia; his Belgian-born father came from a long line of Lithuanian rabbis. By the time he reached the age of 24, Judt had earned a PhD in history from Cambridge University.

Earlier, the young scholar had followed a pattern that came naturally to a secular Jewish teenager in the 1960s.. At age 15, according to his biography in Wikipedia, he “helped promote the migration of British Jews to Israel.”

At 18, he worked for a year on Kibbutz Machanaim in Israel. During and after the 1967 Six Day War, Judt,worked as a driver and translator for the Israeli Defense Forces. When the war ended, Judt began to have doubts about the Zionist project.

“I went with this idealistic fantasy of creating a socialist, communitarian country through work,” Judt has said. He began to realize that this “idealistic fantasy” was “remarkably unconscious of the people who had been kicked out of the country and were suffering in refugee camps to make this fantasy possible.”

On September 11, 2001, Judt was a professor at New York University, where, in addition to his academic achievements, he had become known as a “combative writer and reviewer”.

In an article on Judt, the London Guardian writes, “his early opposition to the Iraq war threw him out of alignment with his usual [liberal] allies, who were still rallying around the president following the terrorist attacks.”

Judt had more to say. Seven months into the Iraq war, he wrote Israel: The Alternative. It begins:

The Middle East peace process is finished. It did not die: it was killed.

Mahmoud Abbas was undermined by the President of the Palestinian Authority and humiliated by the Prime Minister of Israel. His successor awaits a similar fate.

Israel continues to mock its American patron, building illegal settlements in cynical disregard of the “road map.”

The President of the United States of America has been reduced to a ventriloquist’s dummy, pitifully reciting the Israeli cabinet line: “It’s all Arafat’s fault.” Israelis themselves grimly await the next bomber.

Palestinian Arabs, corralled into shrinking Bantustans, subsist on EU handouts. On the corpse-strewn landscape of the Fertile Crescent, Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat, and a handful of terrorists can all claim victory, and they do. Have we reached the end of the road? What is to be done?

The essay was stunning in its audacity. It attacked two American sacred cows: the patriotic zeal behind the Iraq war, and Israel’s absolute right to exist as a Jewish state. Judt was saying the unsayable: The Iraq war was a tragic mistake, and the “two state solution” was dead.

This was 2003, when few Americans dared to voice either of these opinions. The essay was so removed from the conventional wisdom promoted by Main Stream Media, that it was quickly shoved into a corner reserved for eccentric professorial nonsense.

But the Israel Lobby noticed. Tony Judt immediately became a prime target for the Lobby, a man who had spoken a truth that would undermine Israel’s carefully constructed narrative designed to protect “inconvenient truths”.

Judt had written what many thought, but few dared express.

Later in his essay, Judt wrote:

The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European “enclave” in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law.

The very idea of a “Jewish state”—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism. In one vital attribute, however, Israel is quite different from previous insecure, defensive microstates born of imperial collapse: it is a democracy.

Hence its present dilemma. Thanks to its occupation of the lands conquered in 1967, Israel today faces three unattractive choices. It can dismantle the Jewish settlements in the territories, return to the 1967 state borders within which Jews constitute a clear majority, and thus remain both a Jewish state and a democracy, albeit one with a constitutionally anomalous community of second-class Arab citizens.

Alternatively, Israel can continue to occupy “Samaria,” “Judea,” and Gaza, whose Arab population—added to that of present-day Israel—will become the demographic majority within five to eight years: in which case Israel will be either a Jewish state (with an ever-larger majority of unenfranchised non-Jews) or it will be a democracy.

But logically it cannot be both. Or else Israel can keep control of the Occupied Territories but get rid of the overwhelming majority of the Arab population: either by forcible expulsion or else by starving them of land and livelihood, leaving them no option but to go into exile.

In this way Israel could indeed remain both Jewish and at least formally democratic: but at the cost of becoming the first modern democracy to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project, something which would condemn Israel forever to the status of an outlaw state, an international pariah.

Judt was prophetic. Six years later, the Iraq war is now generally understood to have been a tragic mistake. And with Israel’s steady “settlement” march across the Occupied Territories, the One State solution is emerging as the only viable and just alternative. (See Ali Abunimah’s One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse)

Six years later, Judt’s prophetic voice is no longer eccentric.

When Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago were targets of the Lobby, he wrote an op ed piece for the New York Times after Walt and Mearsheimer’s initial appearance on the media stage with their essay in the London Review of Books, an essay that was quickly expanded into a book, The Israel Lobby.

As they must have anticipated, the essay has run into a firestorm of vituperation and refutation. Critics have charged that their scholarship is shoddy and that their claims are, in the words of the columnist Christopher Hitchens, “slightly but unmistakably smelly.” The smell in question, of course, is that of anti-Semitism.

In a New York Times column, written in June of this year, Judt cut to the heart of the phony diplomatic game the US and Israel have been playing over “freezing” settlement growth.

He concluded his column:

President Obama faces a choice. He can play along with the Israelis, pretending to believe their promises of good intentions and the significance of the distinctions they offer him. Such a pretense would buy him time and favor with Congress.

But the Israelis would be playing him for a fool, and he would be seen as one in the Mideast and beyond. Alternatively, the president could break with two decades of American compliance, acknowledge publicly that the emperor is indeed naked, dismiss Mr. Netanyahu for the cynic he is and remind Israelis that all their settlements are hostage to American goodwill.

Judt can also be gentle. In a brief appearance in Charlie Rose’s “Green Room” in July of this year,  he spoke poignantly of his earlier years.

When Israeli author Amos Alon died on May 25 at age 82, Judt wrote:

It is for his writings on Zionism and Israel, and his lifelong engagement with the country and its dilemmas, that Amos Elon will be best remembered. In The Israelis: Founders and Sons (1971) he offered a critical history of Zionism, its practitioners, and its heirs; an account that directly confronts the shortcomings of the Zionist project and its outcome.

Today such critical accounts are common currency in debates in Israel; in those days they were rare indeed. Amos Elon’s commitment to Israel, the country where he lived and worked for most of his life, was never in question.

On Monday night, October 19, an audience of more than 2000 waited expectantly for the appearance of Tony Judt, who was to deliver the annual Remarque Lecture, at New York University’s Skirball Center.

Philip Weiss described the emotional evening:

Tony Judt rolled on to the stage at NYU last night in a wheelchair, with a breathing tube strapped to his head and a blanket over his form, and began his lecture in a surprisingly strong voice by “shooting the elephant in the room”.

A year ago he was diagnosed with a form of amyotropic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative disease of the muscle, and it had progressed to the point that he was now paralyzed below the neck.

Some friends had urged him to make the subject of the Remarque Lecture the nature of his disease, so as to advance the health care debate, but he had concluded there was no point in show and tell.

The show was obvious: this is what the disease did to a body, left him quadriplegic “wearing facial Tupperware,” a machine breathing for him, making a rhythmic wheezing. The hope others had that he would give an uplifting lecture about what a body can do under these circumstances he must also disappoint: “I’m English, we don’t do uplifting.”

In his lecture, which lasted for 100 minutes, in spite of his physical limitations, Judt was still the articulate fighter.  Weiss’ report concludes:

I admire Judt no end. . . A man of great intellectual courage, he broke with the so-called liberals of the New Republic over Zionism, then took Walt and Mearsheimer’s side when it mattered in 2006, and joined Mearsheimer on stage at Cooper Union to explain to Shlomo Ben-Ami and Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk that just because anti-Semites agreed with something you said doesn’t mean you are wrong. . .

There was real grief in seeing a great man so reduced by an illness that he has approached with a stiff upper lip. . . . A huge community of leftleaning New Yorkers turned out because Judt has been so important, and this public act was one of leadership.

As he has done on other occasions, he pulled aside the curtains and the wings to show that the little world we are used to accepting is not necessarily the world of history. It is the world of recent “opinion.” . . .

It was in the end a thrilling spiritual message, forged by Judt’s own misery, and a challenge to our creativity, to break the chains of established opinion and tell a different story about history.

Picture above is from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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9 Responses to Tony Judt Still Fights to Expose Israel’s “Inconvenient Truths”

  1. Having admired Tony Judt’s writings, read over and over again, I am saddened to learn of his health struggles, but also overcome with appreciation for his persistence and love.

    His is a greatness of stature in that he does not allow his own suffering to stop him from facing down the ugly name calling, the lies and half lies upon which much of the American public base their views of Israel/Palestine. Tony Judt puts those who timidly hide behind the myth that interfaith dialogue will bring about peace in the Middle East, should be ashamed. It isn’t dialogue that matters; it’s truth telling.

    I saw another great man of the hour stand before audiences wrapped in a blanket and ravished by the trauma of disease when Edward Said spoke about his beloved Palestinians. When are the rest of us going to pick up the mantra of action? I wonder what Tony Judt and Edward Said would say about the tactic of indifference, valued only by those who insist upon pointless conversation, hidden in the cloak of religiosity and religious tolerance?

    When will talk embracing inaction lessen in value enough so that the lives of the children of the Middle East are more important to us that what our neighbor thinks?

  2. Bill Gepford says:

    Judt deserves a “medal of honor” for his persistance in speaking truth to power. He may not live long, but when he goes he will go in peace.

  3. Arthur Preisinger says:

    I have a pre-publication volume of Said’s collection of essays, From Oslo to Iraq and the Roadmap. Tony Judt writes the extended introduction. What a marvelous combination of sense, passion and compassion.

  4. Caroline Cracraft says:

    Please publish the text of his speech.
    What a mensch!

  5. Jennifer G says:

    Bravo and well said, Betsy. Thanks Jim for, as always, pulling together threads to help us see connections and the bigger picture.

  6. Norman Altstedter says:

    A truly magnificent person.

  7. norman ravitch says:

    Prof. Judt denies Israel but no other nation the right to its own integral nationalism, its own founding myth. In this he is not only unfair but gives ammunition to the deadliest enemies of Israel. His work has been used by charlatans like Shlomo Sand to deny that the Jews are even a people. It’s sad to see a good historian go bad, like old fish.

  8. David N says:

    Norman, you are a bit off with your comments.

    First of all in the modern world nationalism, the way you mean it, denial of rights of those “outside” the “nation’s” religious or ethnic majority, is a sickness.

    You also mischaracterize fully what is going on with Sand’s books; he is not a charlatan but rather applying the same mechanisms that have been applied, for example, by Zionists to the Palestinian People.

    It is you who are the exceptionalist, and that is a sickness within Israel and among the supporters of its most hard core nationalists. Every nation on earth acts regarding its own nationalism. They have been scrutinized, but according to your view only Israel should be immune.

    I doubt you have read Sand’s books — they are not at all as you portray them. It is a legitimate, rational and fully supported debunking of many of the myths around our “heritage” which have been used to exile a people who have a much stronger ethical and ethnic claim to the land of Israel.

    The hypocrisy of those criticizing Judt is stunning. They ask that Israel get special treatment in its pushing nationalism yet whine, usually cravenly whispering charges of antisemitism or self-hatred, when the same critiques applied to the nationalism of others is applied to Zionism.

    Give it a rest.

  9. Pingback: Tony Judt Dies at Age 62 « Wallwritings

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