An interview with Tony Judt

March 22, 2010
Richard Kuper


The Way Things Are and How They Might Be

Tony Judt and Kristina Božić

Tony Judt directs the Remarque Institute at New York University. He is the author of Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, Reappraisals: Essays on the Forgotten 20th Century and Ill Fares the Land. In a wide-ranging interview about global political shifts, Judt focuses on changing European attitudes. Here are some extracts about Israel-Palestine – but do read the full interview. His article Israel: the Alternative appeared in the New York Review of Books (23 October 2003).

… When Bush was justifying the war in Iraq, he used a position that was very popular at the time in America: ‘We have to destroy them over there so that they will not come here.’ He talked as though there were two places in the world: here, in America, and there. As long as the problem is over there it is not here. Europeans can’t say that because their worst potential problems are right on their frontiers: Ukraine, Turkey, the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa. The European attitude has therefore not been to export the problem and solve it over there, wherever that might be, because over there is too near. Even if Europe had an army and an air force it is unimaginable that it would attack Syria, just a few hundred miles from Europe’s borders. It is too dangerous. The real problem with Europe is that it says: ‘We will pretend this is not our problem.’ It is a much more serious defect than making a mistake. To wash your hands of someone else’s problems used to be seen as a major moral shortcoming. Now it is what Europe does.

It’s been doing this for a long time in the case of Israel and Palestine, expressing disapproval of the occupation but doing almost nothing to bring it to an end. Is there anything Europe can do to exert pressure on Israel?

Israel wants two things more than anything else in the world. The first is American aid. This it has. As long as it continues to get American aid without conditions it can do stupid things for a very long time, damaging Palestinians and damaging Israel without running any risk. However, the second thing Israel wants is an economic relationship with Europe as a way to escape from the Middle East. The joke is that Jews spent a hundred years desperately trying to have a state in the Middle East. Now they spend all their time trying to get out of the Middle East. They don’t want to be there economically, culturally or politically – they don’t feel part of it and don’t want to be part of it. They want to be part of Europe and therefore it is here that the EU has enormous leverage. If the EU said: ‘So long as you break international laws, you can’t have the privileges of partial economic membership, you can’t have internal trading rights, you can’t be part of the EU market,’ this would be a huge issue in Israel, second only to losing American military aid. We don’t even have to talk about Gaza, just the Occupied Territories.

Why do Europeans not do it? Here, the problem of blackmail is significant. And it is not even active blackmail but self-blackmail. When I talk about these things in Holland or in Germany, people say to me: ‘We couldn’t do that. Don’t forget, we are in Europe. Think of what we did to the Jews. We can’t use economic leverage against Israel. We can’t be a critic of Israel, we can’t use our strength as a huge economic actor to pressure the Jewish state. Why? Because of Auschwitz.’ I understand this argument very well. Many of my family were killed in Auschwitz. However, this is ridiculous. Europe can’t live indefinitely on the credit of someone else’s crimes to justify a state that creates and commits its own crimes. If Zionism is to succeed as a representation of the original ideas of the Zionist founders, Israel has to become a normal state. That was the idea. Israel should not be special because it is Jewish. Jews are to have a state just like everyone else has a state. It should have no more rights than Slovenia and no fewer. Therefore, it also has to behave like a state. It has to declare its frontiers, recognise international law, sign international treaties and agreements. Furthermore, other countries have to behave towards it the way they would towards any other state that broke those laws. Otherwise it is treated as special and Zionism as a project has failed. People will say: ‘Why are we picking on Israel? What about Libya? Yemen? Burma? China? All of which are much worse.’ Fine. But we are missing two things: first, Israel describes itself as a democracy and so it should be compared with democracies not with dictatorships; second, if Burma came to the EU and said, ‘It would be a huge advantage for us if we could have privileged trading rights with you,’ Europe would say: ‘First you have to release political prisoners, hold elections, open up your borders.’ We have to say the same things to Israel. Otherwise we are acknowledging that a Jewish state is an unusual thing – a weird, different thing that is not to be treated like every other state. It is the European bad conscience that is part of the problem.

Full interview

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