The Magnes Zionist, On Tony Judt, of Blessed Memory
Geoffrey Wheatcroft and Peter Kellner, both contributing obits to the Guardian
William Grimes, Tony Judt, Chronicler of History, Is Dead at 62
Telegraph obituary, Professor Tony Judt
Merav Michaeli, Voices from beyond the pale, Haaretz
NPR interview A Historian’s Long View On Living With Lou Gehrig’s, 29 March
Tablet interview, Tony Judt on The Flotilla, J Street, and ‘Linkage’, 10 June
The Magnes Zionist, On Tony Judt, of Blessed Memory
8 August 2010
As a historian Judt will be remembered for his sweeping account of modern European history after World War II, Postwar. The book is a synthesis of intellectual, social, political, and even cultural history and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. As a public intellectual, Judt will be remembered most for his ground-breaking (one may say “earth-shattering”) essay, “Israel: The Alternative.” The essay was published during the Second Intifada, after the Oslo process had ground to a halt, much blood had been spilt on both sides, and the belated attempts of George W. Bush to revive it through a “road map” had failed.
Judt’s thesis in that essay — that Israel, as an ethnocracy (not his term), was a “dysfunctional anachronism” in today’s world, and that it was a time to think of an alternative to the regime founded in 1948 — hit American Jewry very, very hard. Here was a prominent historian, who had never gone beyond the liberal Zionist consensus, who had not made a career of bashing Israel, and who had himself worked on a kibbutz, raising questions as to the desirability of the regime founded in 1948. He could not be dismissed, as had been Chomsky or Finkelstein, and in some ways he was more dangerous than they were, for they had consistently argued on behalf of a two-state solution. Judt was one of the first people to say that it was too late for such a solution, that the question now was not one state vs. two states, but what sort of one-state Israel/Palestine would become. Here was the gist of what he wrote
In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel is truly an anachronism. And not just an anachronism but a dysfunctional one. In today’s “clash of cultures” between open, pluralist democracies and belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states, Israel actually risks falling into the wrong camp.
To convert Israel from a Jewish state to a binational one would not be easy, though not quite as impossible as it sounds: the process has already begun de facto. But it would cause far less disruption to most Jews and Arabs than its religious and nationalist foes will claim. In any case, no one I know of has a better idea: anyone who genuinely supposes that the controversial electronic fence now being built will resolve matters has missed the last fifty years of history. The “fence”—actually an armored zone of ditches, fences, sensors, dirt roads (for tracking footprints), and a wall up to twenty-eight feet tall in places—occupies, divides, and steals Arab farmland; it will destroy villages, livelihoods, and whatever remains of Arab-Jewish community. It costs approximately $1 million per mile and will bring nothing but humiliation and discomfort to both sides. Like the Berlin Wall, it confirms the moral and institutional bankruptcy of the regime it is intended to protect.
A binational state in the Middle East would require a brave and relentlessly engaged American leadership. The security of Jews and Arabs alike would need to be guaranteed by international force—though a legitimately constituted binational state would find it much easier policing militants of all kinds inside its borders than when they are free to infiltrate them from outside and can appeal to an angry, excluded constituency on both sides of the border.5 A binational state in the Middle East would require the emergence, among Jews and Arabs alike, of a new political class. The very idea is an unpromising mix of realism and utopia, hardly an auspicious place to begin. But the alternatives are far, far worse.
The attacks on Judt, and the defenses of the 1948 state, were quick to follow. Some people claimed that ethnic states were hardly an anachronism in today’s world (they pointed inter alia to the ethnic states that emerged from the former Soviet Union and in central Europe). Others dismissed Judt’s cry for binationalism as itself an anachronism – hadn’t Judah Magnes and Martin Buber raised that flag and failed miserably? These were some of the substantive criticisms of the article; others just spewed bile all over him. Judt was portrayed as calling for the destruction of Israel, which, in the mind of Zionists, was tantamount to calling for the destruction of the Jewish people, a self-hating Jew and an anti-Semite.
In his response to his critics, and in subsequent pieces, Judt backed off from the call for binationalism, claiming that he had raised it as a possible and preferable alternative to the status quo of an intolerable occupation. And he wrote his piece before Ariel Sharon moved the settlers out of the Gaza, which gave hope to the two-staters (but not to him, to my knowledge) that moving West Bank settlers could also be accomplished. His subsequent writings on Israel were highly critical, but did not continue in the same vein as his bombshell piece. He still accused Israel of being stuck in the ethno-nationalist mentality, of not “growing up” – but his later critiques did not ruffle any feathers. Judt, Avrum Burg, and now, to some extent, Peter Beinart, have been at the vanguard of the post-Oslo disillusioned Jewish liberals. They came from different backgrounds, but they are arriving at the same place. And more will follow.
Judt ended one of his last pieces, a meditation on the use and abuse of the Holocaust, with a statement of what Judaism was to him:
Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling: the dafka-like quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known. It is not enough to stand at a tangent to other peoples’ conventions; we should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own. I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish.
I find this passage sincere but baffling, its conclusion unconvincing, indicative of a superficial understanding of Judaism, one based less on sober investigation then on his upbringing in a family of Jewish socialists, where figures like Spinoza and social reformers were heroes. For liberal Jews like Judt, the phrase “liberal Judaism” is redundant. Still, It’s a nice vision, historical accuracy aside. While Judt obviously knew that much of historical Judaism was illiberal, he was concerned with what Judaism said to him. Had he lived longer, I think his meditations on Judaism would have become more profound. Clearly, the reactions to his writings on Israel caused him to think harder about his Judaism. We will not have that now, nor will he hear his clear voice on the issues of the day.
Judt’s Judaism was not too different from that of the Jewish socialists who ended up in Israel – except that for them, nationalism and ethnic loyalty almost always trumped socialism and liberalism, when in serious conflict. But it is this legacy that he felt he could not betray. When Richard Silverstein and I wrote a petition to be signed by American Jews against the Gaza operation, some were reluctant to sign because it did not go far enough in criticizing Israel; others did not want to be accused of flaunting their Judaism in order to win points. Judt just signed it. He was very comfortable with his Judaism. And with his liberal socialism.
Tony Judt obituary / Geoffrey Wheatcroft and Peter Kellner
Outstanding historian of the modern world with a trenchantly clear-sighted take on international politics
Geoffrey Wheatcroft, 8 August 2010
In the 1960s, Cambridge produced a remarkable generation of historians – David Cannadine, Linda Colley and Simon Schama among others – but one name acquired a particular resonance. Well before his death at 62 from motor neurone disorder, Tony Judt flowered not only as a great historian of modern Europe, expanding from his original specialism of French 19th-century socialism to encompass the whole continent, but as a brilliant political commentator.
In his guise as a political and historical essayist, he was a fearless critic of narrow orthodoxies and bullying cliques, from communist apologists to the Israel lobby, from “liberal hawks” to progressive educationists. And his political writings have proved not only perceptive but often prophetic.
He was born in the Jewish East End of London. Judt’s grandparents had all been Yiddish speakers from eastern Europe; his father had reached Britain by way of Belgium, and worked as a hairdresser among other occupations. Young Tony went to Hebrew school, learned some Yiddish, and was conscious of English “antisemitism at a low, polite cultural level”. For all that he would one day be denounced as an enemy of Israel, he retained a deep absorption with his heritage. “You don’t have to be Jewish to understand the history of Europe in the 20th century,” Judt wrote, “but it helps.” It helped him.
After the family had moved west across London to settle in Putney, Judt was educated at Emanuel school, an old-established independent school in Battersea. He disliked his schooldays, although he was a useful rugby player and remembered with deep gratitude “Joe” Craddock, a master who proved kindly under his gruff exterior, and who chivvied the boys in his German class to such effect that Judt still commanded the language more than 40 years on. This was one reason why he was later disdainful of educational fads, and of “Britain’s egregiously underperforming comprehensive schools”.
Escape came through King’s College, Cambridge, which offered him a place before he had taken A-levels. But he had already formed one commitment which made his 1960s “a little different” from the decade as his radical contemporaries knew it. His parents were not especially devout, and their political connection was with the residue of the anti-Stalinist, Jewish socialist Bund party. But they were worried that their son, whose sister was eight years younger, was too solitary and withdrawn.
They therefore encouraged Tony to join the small socialist-Zionist youth group Dror. This became the “all-embracing engagement” of his teenage years, making his later change of course all the more striking. An ardent activist and organiser, he spent summers working on kibbutzim, alongside comrades who rebuked him for singing Beatles songs, and he flew to Israel on the last flight as the 1967 war began.
After hostilities had ended, Judt acted as an interpreter for volunteers on the Golan Heights, though he began to lose his faith. “I went with this idealistic fantasy of creating a socialist, communitarian country,” he later said, but he gradually saw that leftwing Zionists, at least as much as the right, were “remarkably unconscious of the people who had been kicked out of the country” and who had since suffered “to make this fantasy possible”. His experience of Labour Zionism had a further effect of imbuing a lifelong suspicion of all forms of ideology and identity politics. He despised political expediency, but abhorred misplaced idealism and zealotry.
Although he missed the expected first in history in 1969, he was encouraged to continue in academic life, and eventually returned to King’s, where he gained his PhD in 1972. Before that he had studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and then embarked on archival research in southern France. Mixing with the elite at the École Normale began another process of disenchantment, when he observed at firsthand that “cardinal axiom of French intellectual life”, as he drily called it, “a radical disjunction between the uninteresting evidence of your own eyes and ears and the incontrovertible conclusions to be derived from first principles”.
By the time the fruits of his stay in the south were published in 1979 as Socialism in Provence 1871-1914: A Study in the Origins of the Modern French Left, Judt had left King’s for the University of California at Berkeley. But he did not relish his first taste of American academic life, and soon returned, to spend 1980-87 as a fellow, and politics tutor for the philosophy, politics and economics course, at St Anne’s College, Oxford.
Nor was he enraptured by “the small change of Oxford evenings”, and he was startled by the erratic inebriety of such celebrated Oxonians as Richard Cobb, although he shared Cobb’s disdain for the uncritical Francophilia of so many of their colleagues. Even so, Judt preferred what he called the more mondain tone of Oxford to Cambridge “cleverness”, and said later that he had been tempted to return to Oxford, but never to his own alma mater.
Then, in 1988, he was appointed to a professorship at New York University, which was his home for the rest of his life. Judt often missed Europe, which was after all his subject, but he flourished mightily in America. In 1995 he added another string to his bow when he became the director of the new Remarque Institute for the study of Europe at NYU, founded with a bequest from the widow of Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet On the Western Front.
These were very fertile years for Judt. In 1990 he published Marxism and the French Left: Studies On Labour and Politics in France 1830-1982, a collection of scholarly essays. Two years later his scintillating and excoriating Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 dissected that “self-imposed moral amnesia” of a generation that had been infatuated with communism and had worshipped Stalin to a degree which now seems not only repellent but incomprehensible.
Not all clever Frenchmen and women had bowed down before that “pyramid-builder” in the Kremlin. The phrase was Raymond Aron’s, the political writer who was one of a trinity of French heroes to whom Judt devoted the lectures which became his 1999 book The Burden of Responsibility, along with Léon Blum and Albert Camus. By his later years, Judt’s adherence to scholarly standards, along with his contempt for charlatans such as Louis Althusser and for academic fashion, made him seem a conservative figure to more modish colleagues. But far from making the notorious journey to the right, he was preaching social democracy to the end of his life. He was a reactionary only in reacting against intellectual dishonesty and imposture.
By now Judt was writing widely for newspapers and journals. In particular he had been encouraged by Robert Silvers at the New York Review of Books, where many of his best essays appeared, although he also wrote for the New Republic until excommunicated for his criticisms of Israel. He went with a bang not a whimper: two of his last contributions to the New Republic were a trenchant critique of the history of the six-day war by Michael Oren, now Israeli ambassador to Washington, and an evisceration of Koba the Dread, Martin Amis’s purported book on Stalin.
In 1995 Judt lectured at the Johns Hopkins Centre in Bologna under the auspices of the New York Review. His lectures were published as a short book, A Grand Illusion? An Essay On Europe. He was a sceptic in the proper sense of the word, before it was appropriated by xenophobes: sceptical about the lack of democracy that was so evident in the project of European integration. Eurocrats with their centralising obsession reminded Judt of George Santayana’s definition of fanaticism: redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.
In a brilliant passage he compared the Brussels Eurocracy with the “enlightened despotisms” of the 18th century under Frederick II of Prussia and Joseph II of Austria, with their “ideal of efficient, universal administration, shorn of particularisms and driven by rational calculation and the rule of law”. It was this characteristic of “the European idea” that has made it so appealing to “a dominant professional intelligentsia”.
That sparkling essay was by way of being a trailer for the history of Europe that was to be Judt’s magnum opus. As soon as Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 was published in 2005, it was recognised as a masterpiece, acclaimed by scholars and a bestseller in several languages. It described how Europe had remade itself after the horrors of war, totalitarianism and mass murder, helped by some degree of wilful amnesia, although towards the end of the century many repressed memories were at last being recovered.
On the one hand Judt had an eye for telling detail, whether it was the fact that in 1951 only one French household in 12 possessed a motorcar, or that in 1982 the state corporation IRI controlled a quarter of Italian ice-cream production. On the other, his judgments could be pointed: the 1970s was intellectually the bleakest decade of the century: structuralism and deconstructionism came to the fore because their “inherently difficult vocabulary had achieved a level of expressive opacity that proved irresistibly appealing to a new generation of students and their teachers”.
But the larger theme of this great book is “the withering away of the ‘master narratives’ of European history”, from the narrative of Christendom to the narrative of national greatness to the narrative of dialectical materialism. Two hundred years after the French Revolution, the “cycle of ideological politics in Europe was drawing to a close”.
Before that, in 2003, and wearing his polemicist’s hat, Judt had published in the New York Review the single most controversial of all his essays, Israel: The Alternative. Its opening words, “The Middle East peace process is finished,” set the unsparing tone, before Judt went on to say that the very idea of an ethnic Jewish state had become an anachronism, and should be succeeded by a binational state. Writing a few years later, he hoped to see in time “a natural distinction between people who happen to be Jews but are citizens of other countries; and people who are Israeli citizens and happen to be Jews”.
He was contemptuous of the way a powerful lobby had manipulated Jewish American opinion, although this compared with the way “the Greek, Armenian, Ukrainian and Irish diasporas have all played an unhealthy role in perpetuating ethnic exclusivism and nationalist prejudice in the countries of their forebears”. This essay set off a storm of abuse: lectures by Judt were cancelled under pressure and he was dropped by magazines he had written for.
But the essay now seems prophetic as well as brave, as did another he wrote in 2006. The Country That Wouldn’t Grow Up dealt in passing with the accusation that criticism of Israel was antisemitic, and warned that “genuine antisemitism may also in time cease to be taken seriously, thanks to the Israel lobby’s abuse of the term”. And with what already looks like acute prescience, Judt said that the calamitous war in Iraq “will in retrospect be seen, I believe, to have precipitated the onset of America’s alienation from its Israeli ally”.
In Bush’s Useful Idiots he took apart the soi-disant liberals who had supported Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy. He derided those members of the liberal intelligentsia who had supported the Iraq war but changed their minds after incompetent execution led to disaster. “Like Stalin’s western admirers who, in the wake of Khrushchev’s revelations, resented the Soviet dictator not so much for his crimes as for discrediting their Marxism,” the liberal hawks were now “irritated with Bush for giving ‘preventive war’ a bad name”.
His last book was written in extraordinary circumstances. In the late summer of 2008, Judt was diagnosed with the variant of motor neurone disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – or in America as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after a famous prewar baseball player – a wasting malady that gradually, and sometimes rapidly, destroys the use of all muscles; in Judt’s own phrase, it was like being imprisoned in a cell that shrank by six inches every day.
In the spring of 2009 he won a special Orwell prize for his lifetime’s body of work, and in the autumn of 2009, he gave a lecture in New York on “what is living and what is dead in social democracy”. On that unforgettable occasion he appeared in a wheelchair, explaining that, since he was paralysed from the waist down, what the audience had was literally a talking head, and adding that he had been asked to say something uplifting about his condition and treatment, “But I’m English. We don’t do uplifting.” The lecture was expanded into Ill Fares the Land, published in spring this year to much acclaim, and an altogether more effective defence of collective welfare based on the values of community than anything heard from Labour politicians in recent years.
Rather then resign himself to slow extinction in that prison cell, Judt began, as a mental exercise, to recall all his life, from childhood onwards, and turned this into a series of beautiful short “windows of memory” which were published in the New York Review. Some of them dealt with Cambridge, Paris and Switzerland, while those on his upbringing were not only delightful but almost intolerably poignant to anyone of his generation: rationing, London fogs, trolleybuses, the local Sainsbury’s which still had sawdust on its floor and “assistants in starched blue-and-white aprons”, not to mention the way that “girls in those days came buttressed in an impenetrable Maginot Line of hooks, belts, girdles, nylons, roll-ons, suspenders, slips and petticoats”.
Judt was twice married and divorced, and had several other women friends, before he met Jennifer Homans, the American dancer turned ballet writer, whom he married in 1993, with whom he found domestic tranquillity, and to whom he dedicated Postwar.
She sustained him during his final ordeal, and survives him with their two sons, Daniel and Nicholas, the dedicatees of Ill Fares the Land.
In two books, Judd used lines from Camus as epigraphs: “If there were a party of those who aren’t sure they’re right, I’d belong to it,” and “Every wrong idea ends in bloodshed, but it’s always the blood of others.” They could stand as the mottoes of his own sadly abbreviated but splendid life’s work.
Peter Kellner writes: To those who did not know him well, Tony Judt was a bundle of contradictions: an idealist who could be scathingly critical of those who shared his ideals; a Jew, immensely proud of his heritage, who came to be hated by many Zionists; a very European social democrat who preferred to live in America.
To his friends, the contradictions disappeared. As with so many 20th-century Diaspora Jews, education provided the key to Tony’s character: in his case, not education to serve the interests of any tribe or ideology, but education to understand and improve the world about him. His driving passions were evidence, rigour and truth. If his pursuit of those passions led him to reject earlier views, or to offend erstwhile allies, so be it.
Hence his disillusion with kibbutz life and, later, the moral basis of the state of Israel. Hence his frustrations with the centre-left in Europe and his despair with so many facets of the country that he loved and where he chose to settle.
His spell in Israel, immediately after the six-day war and between his first and second years at Cambridge, shaped him in many ways: not just his views of Zionism but his attitude to politics. He was always progressive, but never willing to surrender his judgment to groupthink. He loved few things more than to test arguments – leftwing, rightwing or non-political – with his King’s College friends in his room late into the night.
His love affair with America started when he was a lecturer at Berkeley, California, in the 1970s. But his admiration of its open, can-do mentality was always tinged with scepticism: “I have seen the future and it does NOT work,” he wrote to me. Even as he embraced the opportunities available to an American academic, he deplored the country’s reluctance to imagine, let alone implement, the basic tenets of social democracy.
This approach led him to be wary of the enthusiasms that blinded others. He was as ardent as any Democrat to see the back of George Bush, but was never swept up in Obamania. At the time of the new president’s inauguration, Tony told me he was no more than “cautiously optimistic”, and fearful that he would compromise too far on issues as diverse as the Middle East and healthcare.
Tony’s emotional home remained Europe. When I first visited his flat in New York, I was startled to see a poster showing the apartment block where my own father had grown up: the Karl Marx Hof in Vienna. Tony explained that this fine example of 1920s architecture reminded him of one of the two great 20th-century advertisements for social democracy: “Red Vienna” after the Great War. His other example was Britain’s post-1945 welfare state, of which he and I were grateful beneficiaries.
Tony’s greatest work, Postwar, is a monument to his knowledge and understanding of the continent in which he grew up. He returned to Cambridge for a year to work on the book and spoke of his disillusion with his alma mater. “They spend the whole time grumbling about the lack of government money,” he said. For him, as the director of the Remarque Institute, it was part of the job to raise money. Why could not Cambridge academics do the same – and see the advantages of independence that this gave?
To some, that would be another contradiction: a lifelong social democrat who believed that universities should not be wholly reliant on state funding. But it was no contradiction to a man who believed always that a healthy society required both public purpose and private initiative.
• Tony Robert Judt, historian, born 2 January 1948; died 6 August 2010
William Grimes, 7 August
Tony Judt, the author of “Postwar,” a monumental history of Europe after World War II, and a public intellectual known for his sharply polemical essays on American foreign policy, the state of Israel and the future of Europe, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 62.
The death was announced in a statement from New York University, where he had taught for many years. The cause was complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which he learned he had in September 2008. In a matter of months the disease left him paralyzed and able to breathe only with mechanical assistance, but he continued to lecture and write.
“In effect,” Mr. Judt wrote in an essay published in January in The New York Review of Books, “A.L.S. constitutes progressive imprisonment without parole.”
Mr. Judt (pronounced Jutt), who was British by birth and education but who taught at American universities for most of his career, began as a specialist in postwar French intellectual history, and for much of his life he embodied the idea of the French-style engaged intellectual.
An impassioned left-wing Zionist as a teenager, he shed his faith in agrarian socialism and Marxism early on and became, as he put it, a “universalist social democrat” with a deep suspicion of left-wing ideologues, identity politics and the emerging role of the United States as the world’s sole superpower.
His developing interest in Europe as a whole, including the states of the former Eastern Bloc, led him to take an active role in the developing Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia; it culminated in “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945” (2005), a sweeping, richly detailed survey embracing countries from Britain to the Balkans that, in the words of one reviewer, has “the pace of a thriller and the scope of an encyclopedia.”
Mr. Judt was perhaps best known for his essays on politics and current affairs in journals like The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement and The London Review of Books.
“He had the unusual ability to see and convey the big picture while, at the same time, going to the heart of the matter,” said Mark Lilla, who teaches intellectual history at Columbia University. “Most academics do neither — they float in between. But Tony was able to talk about the big picture and explain why it matters now.”
Tony Robert Judt was born in the East End of London on Jan. 2, 1948, and grew up in Putney. His parents, although secular and apolitical Jews, encouraged him to join the Labor Zionist youth organization Dror as a way to meet friends. He became a fervent convert to the cause, spending several summers working on a kibbutz in Israel and serving as the organization’s national secretary from 1965 to 1967.
“I was the ideal recruit: articulate, committed and uncompromisingly ideologically conformist,” he wrote in an autobiographical sketch for The New York Review of Books in February.
After he passed the entrance examinations to King’s College, Cambridge, he volunteered as an auxiliary with the Israeli Defense Forces during the Six-Day War, acting as an interpreter for other volunteers in the newly conquered Golan Heights. There he lost faith in the Zionist mission and began to see Israel as a malign occupying power whose self-definition as a Jewish state, he later argued, made it “an anachronism.”
Mr. Judt returned to Britain disabused and highly skeptical of the radical political currents swirling around him at Cambridge, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history from King’s College in 1969. After studying for a year at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he returned to King’s College and earned a doctorate in 1972.
His dissertation, on the French socialist party’s re-emergence after World War I, was published in France as “La Reconstruction du Parti Socialiste: 1921-1926” (1976). In 1979 he followed up with “Socialism in Provence, 1871-1914: A Study in the Origins of the Modern French Left,” and in 1986 he published “Marxism and the French Left: Studies on Labour and Politics in France, 1830-1981.”
These relatively specialist works led to two interpretive studies of French postwar intellectual life: “Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956” (1994) and “The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron and the French Twentieth Century” (1998).
Casting his lot with the nonideological liberals, like Raymond Aron and Albert Camus, who dared to criticize the Soviet Union and third-world revolutionary movements, he subjected Sartre and others to a withering critique that came as a shock to many French and American intellectuals. His target, he wrote, was “the uneasy conscience and moral cowardice of an intellectual generation.”
Fluidly written, with a strong narrative drive and an insistent, polemical edge, both books established Mr. Judt as a historian whose ability to see the present in the past gave his work an unusual air of immediacy. Increasingly he inclined toward free-ranging inquiry across disciplines, pursuing a wide range of his interests reflected in the essay collection “Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century” (2008).
“A historian also has to be an anthropologist, also has to be a philosopher, also has to be a moralist, also has to understand the economics of the period he is writing about,” he told the online magazine Historically Speaking in 2006. “Though they are often arbitrary, disciplinary boundaries certainly exist. Nevertheless, the historian has to learn to transcend them in order to write intelligently.”
In 1987, after teaching at Cambridge, the University of California at Berkeley and Oxford, he began teaching at N.Y.U. There, in 1995, he helped found the Remarque Institute with a bequest from Paulette Goddard, the widow of the writer Erich Maria Remarque. Under his directorship, it became an important international center for the study of Europe, past and present. His skepticism about the future of the European Union found expression in a sharply polemical, pamphlet-length book, “A Grand Illusion?: An Essay on Europe” (1996).
His first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, the dance critic Jennifer Homans, and their two sons, Daniel and Nicholas.
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.
Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, told The New York Observer at the time that Mr. Judt, on Israel, “has become precisely the kind of intellectual whom his intellectual heroes would have despised.” Mr. Judt’s name had been removed from the masthead of the magazine, where he had been a contributing editor, after his article on the one-state solution.
Mr. Judt expressed some surprise that he should be defined by his position on one issue and expressed distaste for public controversy, while showing an unmistakable relish for the cut and thrust of public debate.
“Today I’m regarded outside New York University as a looney-tunes leftie self-hating Jewish communist; inside the university I’m regarded as a typical old-fashioned white male liberal elitist,” he told The Guardian of London in January 2010. “I like that. I’m on the edge of both, it makes me feel comfortable.”
His discovery in 2008 that he had Lou Gehrig’s disease did not deter him from his work. He continued to write and lecture.
Last October, wrapped in a blanket and sitting in a wheelchair with a breathing device attached to his nose, Mr. Judt spoke about social democracy before an audience of 700 at N.Y.U. He turned that lecture into a small book, “Ill Fares the Land,” published in March by Penguin Press.
During the lecture, his last public appearance, he told the audience that some of his American friends felt that seeing him talk about A.L.S. would be uplifting. But he added, “I’m English, and we don’t do ‘uplifting.’ ”
He did write about his illness, however. In an essay in The New York Review of Books in January, he wrote, “In contrast to almost every other serious or deadly disease, one is thus left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one’s own deterioration.”
History remained uppermost in his mind, though. In “Ill Fares the Land,” he turned his attention to a problem he regarded as acute: the loss of faith in social democracy, and the power of the state to do good, that had brought prosperity to so many European countries after World War II.
“The historian’s task is not to disrupt for the sake of it, but it is to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well and live properly,” he told Historically Speaking. “A well-organized society is one in which we know the truth about ourselves collectively, not one in which we tell pleasant lies about ourselves.”
Professor Tony Judt , who died on August 6 aged 62, was widely regarded as a brilliant historian of modern Europe; he described himself as “post-ideological” and deployed his sharp and combative mind against intellectual foes on both Right and Left and, most controversially, over Israel.
Judt, a secular Jew who grew up in south-west London, argued that Israel should not be a Jewish state, but a state for both Jews and Palestinians living together under one government. As it stood, he suggested as early as 1983, Israel was a “belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno state”.
His views, and sharp criticism of Israel’s continued building of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian Territories, drew a fierce response. Countering his claim that “Israel is drunk on settlements” and corrupted by an “illegal occupation”, the American Jewish Committee responded that: “Tony Judt is just drunk on anti-Zionism”. His views so scandalised The New Republic magazine, where he was a contributing editor, that Judt’s name was stripped from the masthead. A colleague there, Leon Wieseltier, said that Judt had “become precisely the kind of intellectual whom his intellectual heroes would have despised”.
But Judt remained unbowed, seeming in fact to relish the combat of ideas. His only irritation with the debate was that it overshadowed his other, considerable, achievements. “Apparently, the line you take on Israel trumps everything else in life,” he said in 2007.
By then he had published his greatest work: Postwar (2006), a book of staggering breadth which chronicled the rise of Europe from the ruins of 1945 to the continent that by-and-large enjoys stability and prosperity today. Over its 900 pages, Judt argued that the rescue of Europe from “a brief interlude and then a Third World war, or a return to depression” was an achievement whose magnitude was hard to exaggerate. For this he emphasised the contribution of America – a country he would later lambast for its campaign in Iraq – through its Marshall Plan funding and “the psychological boost… [of] crucial support at a crucial moment”.
But Judt did not consider Europe definitively beyond the possibility of sliding again into the abyss. Though he was sceptical about the European Union (a standpoint he expressed in the 1996 book A Grand Illusion?: An Essay on Europe), he argued that “for Europe to play a part in the world on the scale of its wealth and its population and its capacities, Europe has to be united in some way, and Europe is not united”.
He was in favour of bringing Turkey swiftly into the European Union (“it would mean Europe would have a real voice in the Muslim world”) but worried that some immigrant and Muslim communities in those nations already in the EU were living in “isolation”.
“What you need is the state and politicians having the courage to say: ‘You must be integrated. You have to learn the local language. You cannot live in cultural isolation’,” he said in 2006. “But we in turn have to ensure that you have the possibility of jobs, equal opportunity in education, in the media, in everything which integrates you into a society. We have to give you that society that we have created in a way that makes you want to be part of it rather than feel outside it.”
If European nations failed to address such social and ethnic divisions, Judt theorised, then “nationalist, anti-European, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim public political figures, seem a worrying picture of a possible European future. We could still fall back into pre-Europe… and it worries me.”
Concerns with the shape of society recently came to dominate Judt’s thinking, and allowed him to show off his talent for using history to reflect upon the present day. It was a skill that he had mostly deployed the other way around during his career, when he described the events of the past with the immediacy of current affairs.
In his last book, Ill Fares the Land (2010), Judt argued that the Europe that had so miraculously emerged from the wreckage of the Second World War had gone “profoundly wrong”. “For 30 years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose,” he wrote.
The security and stability of post-Cold War Europe had bred its own problem: “This is the second generation of people who can’t imagine change except in their own lives, who have no sense of social collective public goods or services, who are just isolated individuals desperately striving to better themselves above everybody else,” he said earlier this year.
His ruminations about the place of the individual within society were, by then, particularly piquant. Judt’s own world was rapidly shrinking following a diagnosis, in 2008, of motor neurone disease. Typically, he was as uncompromising and unsentimental with himself as he had been writing about others.
In a series of essays he chronicled his life and the swift progress of the disease, which attacks the spinal cord, gradually shutting down the body’s ability to talk or move, but leaving the mind intact. “In contrast to almost every other serious or deadly disease, one is thus left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one’s own deterioration,” he wrote.
Tony Robert Judt was born in London on January 2 1948, and raised in Putney in a secular Jewish family with Lithuanian roots. As a boy he joined the Zionist youth group Dror and soon became devoted to the cause. In his teens he spent summers working on kibbutzes in Israel and volunteered with the Israeli army during the Six Day War, when he served as an interpreter.
His service with soldiers whom he described as “right-wing thugs with anti-Arab views”, marked a turning point in his love affair with Zionism, and he returned to England to take up his place to read History at King’s College, Cambridge. His disillusion with his time in Israel bled into a more general scepticism of the political and social dogmas that were prevalent in the late Sixties. “I remember going through the 1960s watching my friends become Maoists or Althusserian feminists or God knows what else and thinking: ‘This is garbage’. So I became post-ideological.”
Judt then spent a year in Paris at the Ecole Normale Supérieure before returning to King’s to complete his doctorate. He specialised in the history of the France’s Left-wing and acquired a reputation for his willingness to take on the Left’s sacred cows. Jean-Paul Sartre, the Soviet Union and postcolonial revolutionaries, whose status as good things Judt thought were too-often unquestioned, all came under his fearless scrutiny.
Judt’s teaching career took him from Cambridge to California, where he was at Berkeley, and then back to Oxford. In 1987 he joined New York University, where he founded the Remarque Institute for the study of Europe, and where he remained for the rest of his career.
He wrote half a dozen books, but his output was dominated by Postwar, and by his frequent and often polemical essays in publications including The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.
Judt was clear-eyed about the inevitable consequence of his disease, and did not romanticise his combat against it. “There is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving,” he noted. “There have been people who have said to me: ‘Tony, you are so lucky. More than anyone you live the life of the mind. It could have been so much worse’. Hello! Are you from Planet Zurg? This is one of the worst diseases on Earth. It is like being in a prison which is shrinking by six inches each day.”
In 2009 he received an honorary George Orwell Prize for “intelligence, insight and conspicuous courage”.
Tony Judt was thrice married. He is survived by his wife and their two sons.
Though Tony Judt’s disease left him paralyzed and able to breath only on a machine and to speak only with an amplifier, he continued to produce fascinating texts.
Merav Michaeli, 10 August 2010
This highly regarded British-born Jewish historian, a professor at New York University who lived in Israel as a young man, was critical in recent years of Israel’s policies and conduct. In 2003, he wrote in the New York Review of Books that Israel had reached a situation in which to remain a Jewish state it could no longer remain a democracy. He therefore proposed that we “think the unthinkable … a binational state.” The article was never translated into Hebrew, yet it was received here with aggressive hostility. “Who’s in favor of annihilating Israel?” Yoel Esteron wrote in Haaretz. “An anti-Semite is not just a person who pushes a Jew into an oven,” wrote Dr. Yohai Sela in the magazine Hamizrach Hatichon.
That’s how it is in Israel. Anyone who criticizes it is immediately labeled anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, a hater of Israel and a self-hating Jew. When the critics are on the outside, Israel can do nothing except seat them on a low chair. But when the critics are on the inside, something certainly can be done. Even the New Israel Fund and Haaretz are damaged by their criticism of Israel. Some people are excoriated, attacked in the press, exposed to violence by the police and the military, denied their rights and removed from positions of power in the mainstream.
In Israel, this process has been underway for many years. But Judt’s case exposed the amazing fact that the exact same process is going on in the American Jewish community.
In 2003, right after publishing his article in the New York Review of Books, Jewish and liberal circles called Judt a self-hating Jew, an anti-Zionist, a delusional leftist. He was removed from his senior position at The New Republic, whose editor, his good friend (! ), accused him of calling for the abrogation of the State of Israel. In 2006, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee brought about the cancellation of Judt’s participation in a discussion on the Israeli lobby and American foreign policy at the Polish Consulate in New York. The same all-out war in the same language was declared last year against J Street, the “leftist” Jewish lobby that supports the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
It’s a real mirror image; a conservative, right-wing, colonialist and victimist consensus that is incapable of including any position in the debate that undermines the concept of the omnipotent victim. This mirror is not theoretical; the turning of the back, the boycott, the vilification, the ostracism are very tangible. This mirror is also very tangible from the other side. As part of a documentary project, I interviewed Judt a month ago in his chair-bed. I sat across from him and heard how he’s a partner in the quest to make a change for the better; the strong desire for our good, the good of the Jewish people and their country.
Tony Judt was not afraid to say what he thought. In Israel we also have people who are not afraid, although more and more of them are being shunted out of the mainstream. The rest, having sensed the warning, are careful and keep their opinions to themselves.
Both here and there, the Jewish consensus casts these voices beyond the pale, out of the game, preventing them from making an impact. This mirror image portends very badly for Israel, but also for the entire Jewish people.