Tony Judt, the British social historian who was an avid Zionist as a teenager and an outspoken critic of Israel as an adult, died Aug. 6 in his Manhattan home of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He was 62.
Dr. Judt, the Erich Maria Remarque professor in European studies at New York University, helped promote the migration of British Jews to Israel in 1966 and worked as a volunteer in Israel before and after the Six-Day War the following year, but said his belief in a Jewish state – he called it “an anachronism” – began to diminish in the aftermath of the war when Israel took control of the Arab territories it had conquered.
“I went with this idealistic fantasy of creating a socialist, communitarian country through work,” he said, calling this view “remarkably unconscious of the people” – Palestinian Arabs – “who had been kicked out of the country and were suffering in refugee camps.”
A frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, he used his essays as a forum for attacking policies of the Israeli government. Israel, he wrote in 2003, was turning into a “belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno state.” He called for the conversion of Israel “from a Jewish state to a binational one.” In a 2006 op-ed piece for The New York Times, he predicted that “it will not be self-evident to future generations of American Jews” of why the interests the United States “are so closely aligned with one small, controversial Mediterranean client state.”
In late 2006, Dr. Judt and his supporters accused the Anti-Defamation League of trying to silence his criticism of Israel by pressuring the Polish Consulate to cancel a discussion there about the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., a charge the ADL vehemently denied in a controversy that lasted weeks.
More recently, Dr. Judt earlier this year declared that the Israeli Navy’s fatal interception of the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara ship as part of a relief flotilla would seriously jeopardize U.S.-Turkish relations.
“I think intellectuals have a primary duty to dissent not from the conventional wisdom of the age (though that too) but, and above all, from the community of their own community,” Dr. Judt said in an interview earlier this year.
A Jerusalem Post editorial this week attacked Dr. Judt’s comments on Turkish-Israel relations. “As if the gradual process of Islamic extremism that has gripped Turkey since the rise to power of the AKP [political party] had nothing to do with that country’s changing orientation,” the paper wrote.
Dr. Judt’s frequent criticism of Israel placed him among “other contemporary Jewish intellectuals of the Diaspora … who have chosen to single out Israel for opprobrium that is rarely, if ever, directed at other countries that chose to adopt unique religious or cultural-based nationalities,” an editorial in The Jerusalem Post this week stated. “At the center of Judt’s attacks on Israel was a stubborn refusal to accept the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in a distinctly Jewish state. For Judt, European particularism as an undeniable fact, but the Jewish variety was outdated.”
The Jerusalem Post called Dr. Judt’s 2003 essay in The New York Review of Books, which called for Israel’s replacement with “a single, integrated, bi-national state” between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea “a recipe for national suicide for the sovereign Jewish entity.”
“Today I’m regarded outside New York University as a looney-tunes leftie self-hating Jewish communist,” he told The Guardian of London this this year. “Inside the university I’m regarded as typical old-fashioned white male liberal elitist. I like that. I’m on the edge of both, it makes me feel comfortable.”
Diagnosed two years ago with ALS, a debilitating motor neuron disease, he became paralyzed from his neck down within months, breathing with the aid of a respirator.