Tony Judt Dies at Age 62

by James M. Wall

Ten months ago, October 21, 2009, I posted an essay on this blog, reprinted below, on Professor Tony Judt.

On Friday (August 6), Tony Judt died. The Los Angeles Times wrote:


Tony Judt, a leading historian of postwar Europe and outspoken political essayist who also wrote movingly about his struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, has died. He was 62.

Judt, who was a history professor at New York University, died Friday at his home in Manhattan of complications from the disease, the university announced.

In 2005, his career reached its zenith with the publication of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, a hefty book that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Writing in the New Yorker, intellectual historian Louis Menand called Judt’s scope “virtually superhuman.”

The New York Times did not allude to Judt’s writings on Israel until late in its obituary:


His views on Israel made Mr. Judt an increasingly polarizing figure. He placed himself in the midst of a bitter debate when, in 2003, he outlined a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem in The New York Review of Books, proposing that Israel accept a future as a secular, bi-national state in which Jews and Arabs enjoyed equal status.

In 2006, a scheduled talk at the Polish Consulate in Manhattan was abruptly canceled for reasons later hotly disputed, but apparently under pressure, explicit or implicit, from the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

Since I came late to Professor Judt’s work, and know of him primarily through his work on the Israel/Palestine issue, the piece I wrote in October, 2009, focused on that interest.

There will, no doubt, be other stories and essays on Judt, some of which will honor him for his work on the Middle East. Others, like that of the New York Times’ obiturary, will describe Judt as “controversial” in his views on Israel, the customary coverage for disapproval.

His involvement with Israel/Palestine came late in his career, but it remains an important chapter. I am reprinting, below, my October 21, 2009, Wall Writings essay, as my contribution to that chapter.

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

by James M. Wall

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.

The picture above of Professor Judt is by John R. Rifkin.

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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12 Responses to Tony Judt Dies at Age 62

  1. Larry George says:

    The New York Times and other such “liberal” powers remain devoted to diverting our gaze from the “elephant in the room”–even by the editing of an obituary. Yet your writing, as Judt’s, keeps the focus where it needs to be. There is no better legacy.

  2. Robert H. Stiver says:

    Alas, we have lost a great man at too young an age. On numerous occasions via public-access TV in my home state of Hawaii, I have presented Professor Judt’s august presence and principled wisdom regarding the criminally psychotic Zionist Israel and U.S. project to dispossess the Palestinians. He is well-nigh irreplaceable, but someone must pick up where he left off.

  3. Rob Prince says:

    I’ve spent a good part of the summer reading Judt. His history of post war Europe, the book of many of his columns in the New York Review of Books `Reappraisals’ (highly recommended) and his most recent `Ill Fares The Land’ – a small but `pregnant’ volume on the sorry state of the USA. It was fascinating – and hopeful – watching his thinking on Israel-Palestine, Iraq evolve.

  4. Martin Bailey says:

    Thanks, Jim. The only way to fill the vacuum that Tony Judt’s death brings to our contemporary reading list is to re-read what he has written. His pieces on Israel and Palestine stand the test of time.

  5. Noushin Framke says:

    Thanks for this great tribute, Jim. I was at the Cooper Union debate and thought Judt stood head and shoulders above Ross, Indyk and Ben Ami. I kept wishing for it to be his turn to speak. Reading Judt’s Post-War Europe made me wish I had had the chance to be a student in one of his classes… and his musings in his last year on growing up in England took me to my own childhood there.

    But what stands out for me is his brilliant piece in the NYRB (2003) wherein he explains why Israel is “a mistake in time,” an anachronism:
    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.

  6. wallwritings says:

    Wow, Noushin,

    What a great quote from Judt. What a legacy he leaves behind.

    Thanks for your comment,


  7. Bill Gepford says:

    You are to be commended, Jim, for lifting up the writings of Judt, as prophetic as they are and still needing to be heard by the general public. It is the inconvenient lies that hold us hostage, and at what a terrible cost! Only the truth can make us truely free.

  8. Sam Jones says:

    Jim – thank you for drawing attention, once again, to this specific piece of Judt’s truth-telling. There are more than enough equivocators on Palestine and Israel, most of whom are unfortunately leading the current “policy debates” and “peace process.” Tragically, without a recognition of the facts that Judt tried to bring to light, we will likely find ourselves “processed” into oblivion with a fully settled West Bank, a fully ghettoized Gaza, and a fully Israelized Jerusalem, presided over by the syncophants of institution-building, security, and never-ending negotiation.

  9. Dorsey Gardner says:

    Great stuff.
    Unfortunately you do not furnish an easy way for us to forward it to interested parties and spread the word.

  10. frank scott says:

    deepest sympathy for his loved ones and the rest of us who lose him, and thanks for this article…


  11. Robert H. Stiver says:

    To forward alerts to Wall Writings postings, I click on the above url, copy it, and paste it into E-mails which I route around…. I don’t use Facebook or some of the other communication avenues available, but the method I employ seems quite easy to me, an endlessly challenged computer user!

  12. Harris W. Fawell says:

    Jim: A very beautiful story about a man – Tony Judt, a scholar who has left us at a very eary age. Thank you for the article about this Jewish scholar who had the courage to speak and write the truth about the tragic story enfolding in Israel. When, oh when, will our President wake up. Thank you. Harris W. Fawell, Member of Congress, (Republican) retired 1999.

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