I remember reading Tony Judt’s much maligned essay "Israel: The Alternative" when it was first published, in 2003, and not thinking much of it. I had known Judt’s work since my college days, and even interviewed him at his NYU office for a project I was then working on. But like most, I got to know him through his books and The New York Review of Books, where he published his Israel essay.
"Israel: The Alternative" was one of his less notable pieces, I remember thinking then, because the essential idea in it was nothing new. Zionism is doomed, he argued, because it no longer fits that ideals we consider most valuable in democracies today. Voting and self-determination are just the half of it, he argued; if you want to be considered a democracy worthy of the name, then human rights, respect of difference, and the protection of minorities must be equally valued. Religion and ethnicity, on the other hand, mustn’t be–that was the axe that Judt, who died on Friday, at 62, from Lou Gehring’s disease, made his grind.
But of course that essay on Israel is what, for many, he is remembered for most. It resurfaced only because three years later, in 2006, the Polish Consulate in Manhattan canceled a lecture with him because of complaints prompted by the ADL and AJC. I used to think that should this petty bit of journalist sensationalism–which it was, only given the patina of seriousness because it dealt with an "intellectual"–become what Judt was most known for, it would be a pity.
But since his death, I’ve begun to question that view. Perhaps it isn’t so bad. How so?
Mainly because his essay on Israel was a perfect reflection of his entire system of thought. It was not he that had abandoned Israel, but that Israel had, as he wrote recently, abandoned him. You can see this most clearly in the books that made him a figure of note to begin with: "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945," and earlier with "Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956" and "The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron and the French Twentieth Century."
Those last two books in particular should have precluded any shock about his views on Israel; not because either had anything in them on the Jewish state, but because they exemplified the way Judt’s mind worked. His ultimate allegiance was to ideas, and ones tethered to strong moral principles: liberty, democracy, respect for individuals, and belief in the necessity of good governance. And that was his problem with a Jewish democracy, or the idea of Zionism. If Israel wanted to call itself a modern democracy, he thought, it could no longer allow the Palestinian problem to fester. He did not place much blame on the Palestinians or their Arab neighborhoods, but then again, he thought the issue was essentially Israel’s to solve–and was under no illusions that Arab leaders didn’t exploit the issue for their own nefarious ends.
You did not have to agree with him to admire his intellectual integrity. And not surprisingly, even many liberal Jews did not–a fact his indefatigably pugnacious nature must have relished. For that matter, just as many non-Jewish liberals still find his assaults on venerated thinkers like Camus and Aron deeply misguided. Much like he did with Zionism, Judt showed how principles can easily become comprised. With Camus, it was that a self-professed deacon of liberalism should fall silent in the face of atrocious leftist dictators; with Zionism, it was that Jews either refused to acknowledge, or simply explained away, Israel’s abuses.
In the last two years of his life, Judt’s disease slowly shut down his body. It got to the point where, at an NYU memorial for Amos Elon that Judt hosted last winter, he spoke between gasps. His body was shriveled in a wheelchair, moving around by a remote control; a breathing tube was affixed to the back. Still, he was eloquent.
The scene obviously calls for our pity, but that is another thing that Judt would have had no truck with. In his last months, he began publishing short autobiographical essays about his life in the New York Review, the first and most memorable, "Night," detailing his Kafka-esque illness. As he described it: "ALS constitutes progressive imprisonment without parole. First you lose the use of a digit or two; then a limb; then and almost inevitably, all four." There was nothing uplifting, no saving graces about it: "That way lies futility," he wrote, "Loss is loss, and nothing is gained by calling it a nicer name."
Two other of those pieces dealt with being Jewish. The first was about his teenage romance with the kibbutz. He lived on one for a series of summers during breaks from his London high school. But he left after he got accepted to Cambridge, never to return. The reason was that he realized, despite the kibbutz movement’s pretensions of liberal egalitarianism–something he admired most about the kibbutz–they were, in fact, anything but: "What I did, however, come quickly to understand if not openly acknowledge was just how limited the kibbutz and its members really were," he wrote. "The mere fact of collective self-government…does not make you either more sophisticated or more tolerant of others. Indeed, to the extent that it contributes to an extraordinary smugness of self-regard, it actually reinforces the worst king of ethnic solipsism."
Still more poignant was his last piece on Judaism, whatever you make of the opinions themselves. It began with the mention of his father’s cousin, Toni Avegael, a Jewish relative who died in 1942. But it was really about what it means, for him, to be a Jew. The piece was in part inspired by the Polish Consulate episode, after which some more ruthless Jewish critics called him a self-hater and elitist anti-semite. But you will not find a sharper, more lacerating riposte than his.
He basically calls American Jewish identity vapid and superficial; a religion that has tried, in spite of itself, to live on without religion–or even a sturdy understanding of what Judaism’s most sacred traditions are. Instead, secular Jews have tried to come up with an alternative, which has turned out to be support for Israel and remembrance of the Holocaust. But this has given Judaism "a curious dybbuk-like quality: it lives on by virtue of a double, near-death experience. The result," he adds, "is a sensitivity to past suffering that can appear disproportionate even to fellow Jews."
That is not the end of the story, however. The Holocaust, he argued–and here I can, unequivocally, not agree more–still might yet serve a useful purpose to Jewish identity. Instead of it being used to justify a strong Jewish state, as conservative Jews have it, or the more universalist, liberal aim of fighting injustice any- and everywhere, what if instead "the Holocaust served instead to bring us closer, so far as possible, to a truer understanding of the tradition we evoke?" In one disarming blow, Judt relieves the Holocaust of either a liberal or conservative agenda, and affixes to it a singularly Jewish one in their place.
I remember reading this essay several times, the last time out loud, slowly, and to a relative of mine whose views on Israel were entirely different from my own. It had never been easy for me to fully articulate my views on Israel, or even Judaism, a heritage I wholeheartedly embrace as my own. So I was grateful that, at least here, one of the most eloquent intellects of our time could do it for me. Here is how he ended the essay:
"I don’t expect Hitler to return. And I refuse to remember his crimes as an occasion to close off conversation: to repackage Jewishness as a defensive indifference to doubt or self-criticism and a retreat into self-pity. I choose to invoke a Jewish past that is impervious to orthodoxy: that opens conversations rather than closes them. 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."
In the last line of the essay, he adds: "Toni Avegael was transported to Auschwitz in 1942 and gassed to death there as a Jew. I am named after her."