Book Review,  Israel,  Israel/Palestine

Tony Judt, Good and Bad

This is a guest post by Michael Weiss.

In this illuminating profile in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Tony Judt seeks and indulges no sentimentality about his terminal condition (he suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease, diagnosed about a year ago, which has all but incapacitated him). A life of the mind can be hindered but not stopped by wheelchairs and breathing mechanisms, and I found myself coming away with admiration for how Judt still seems only to care about social democracy and European intellectual history despite his debilitation. As a chronicler of the latter subject, he has attained a level of mastery that even his strongest detractors must concede.

Judt’s undoubted masterpiece is Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, a book whose continental scope is belied by its incredible attention to the telling national detail. I learned a great deal about Central European Stalinism from Postwar, and it’s a rare achievement for an encyclopedic history to allow a reader to breeze through 900 pages of Displaced Persons camps, Romanian Central Committee purges, and nationalized healthcare schemes, only to leave him only desiring more. The book arrived on the heels of a couple of intriguing volumes on French socialism and the twilight of intellectuals in the face of Soviet tyranny. Indeed, had Judt confined himself, at the apex of his justly earned celebrity, to what knew best — the menacing shapes of political fevers in the second half of the twentieth century — his legacy would be that of a hawk-eyed archivist of heady but purposeful debates, the Isaiah Berlin of Special Collections. But it is perhaps inevitable that one who had made a life’s study of engage intellectuals should risk becoming a lesser specimen oneself.

Judt is the most popular stateside proponent of the so-called one-state solution in the Middle East, which is to say a fully democratic, secular country in which Arabs and Jews get along just fine, no matter what the demographic or parliamentary split. Whether you regard this project as a fairy tale out of Scheherazade or an anti-Zionist feint intended to eliminate the Jewish state altogether, may depend on how closely you parse this paragraph:

Judt was born into a lower-middle-class Jewish family of Marxist anti-Communists. They lived in London’s East End, a historically Jewish section of the city. “Anti-Semitism at a low, polite, cultural level was still perfectly acceptable,” Judt recalls. Fearing that their teenage son was too socially withdrawn, his parents, in 1963, sent him to a summer camp on a kibbutz in Israel. Judt became a committed Zionist. “I was the ideal convert,” he says. A leader in left-wing Zionist youth movements, he even delivered a keynote address at a large Zionist conference in Paris when he was only 16 years old. (A smoker at the time, he seized the opportunity to denounce smoking by Jewish adolescents as a “bourgeois deviation.”) In 1967, a few weeks after the Six-Day War, Judt volunteered as a translator for the Israel Defense Forces on the Golan Heights. He was surprised to find that many of the young Israeli officers he worked with were “right-wing thugs with anti-Arab views”; others, he says, “were just dumb idiots with guns.” Israel, he came to believe, “had turned from a sort of narrow-minded pioneer society into a rather smug, superior, conquering society.”

Unless this is poorly rendered by the article’s author, who happens to be my friend Evan Goldstein, Judt appears be saying that a few rough run-ins with obnoxious sabras disillusioned him of the merits of Ben-Gurion’s project, a plaint that, even in nostalgia, belongs more to an Evelyn Waugh reactionary than to an ivory tower social democrat. Let me inquire, then: were he today to spend a few hour in Gaza talking to Hamas militants about topics as diverse as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the proper attire and educational prospects for Muslim women, would Judt be prompted into a re-evaluation of his current integrationist model for peace in the Middle East?

I think I can say with confidence that he would not, but not because that would make him politically inconsistent. There’s a whole narrative at stake here. Like many sound thinkers distracted by the din of the Levant, Judt has turned his attention to a complicated and well-populated field, been found wanting in his analysis by those who’ve been at it longer and know more than he, and come away feeling martyred for his trouble. It’s a familiar story in which Judt seems to think himself an original protagonist.

“The Shahid of Washington Square” was how Leon Wieseltier not long ago described Judt’s narcissistic agonies when, in 2006, the Polish consulate of New York decided to disinvite him from a speaking engagement because, as its diplomat said at the time, Judt’s views on Israel didn’t quite mesh with those of the Polish government. It wasn’t that simple; it never is when it comes to Israel, and dark motives were apprehended by the Voltaireans of the New York Review of Books, who would sooner die than give up the right to RSVP.

Odd, though, that Judt should have seen in this otherwise forgettable episode the dark hand of conspiratorial Semitic censorship: the elegant, Kundera-esque theme of Postwar, after all, was how Europe was only able to reinvent itself in the aftermath of the Second World War by “forgetting” its shameful participation in it. Poland, much like Germany, has maintained a soft spot for Israel for reasons rooted to ethics as much as to international relations. If Judt had been snubbed by anything, it wasn’t the Anti-Defamation League; it was his own thesis.

His decline on matters of political economy has been steady ever since. To what pasted-together philippic against the legitimacy of Jewish statehood has Judt not lent his imprimatur? His warm appraisal of the Mearsheimer-Walt school of foreign policy, which argues that the United States will invade Iraq on Ariel Sharon’s say-so—was that really a function of his intimate knowledge of Aipac lobbying efforts in Washington, or is it a way of sketching a tenuous line between the personal and the political? Judt may think that Shlomo Sand’s book on the “myth” of Jewish peoplehood is a vital contribution to ethnography and Sorelian illusion, but chances are that, as Jeffrey Goldberg put it, this volume will go the way of Arthur Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe for being yet another stale entry in the anti-Zionist’s bibliograhic answer to Leon Uris. (Anita Shapira and Hillel Halkin have dealt with the substance of the book, here and here.)

Elsewhere in the landscape of current affairs, Judt has proved equally coarse and unreliable. 2006 was clearly his annus horribilis, the year he published “Bush’s Useful Idiots” in the London Review of Books. Here, Judt reveled in making lists of dissidents and intellectuals he thought scandalized by their shared belief that removing a genocidal totalitarian was both wise and necessary:

In Europe, Adam Michnik, the hero of the Polish intellectual resistance to Communism, has become an outspoken admirer of the embarrassingly Islamophobic Oriana Fallaci; Vaclav Havel has joined the DC-based Committee on the Present Danger (a recycled Cold War-era organisation dedicated to rooting out Communists, now pledged to fighting the threat posed by global radical Islamist and fascist terrorist movements); Andre Glucksmann in Paris contributes agitated essays to Le Figaro (most recently on 8 August) lambasting “universal Jihad”, Iranian “lust for power” and radical Islam’s strategy of “green subversion”. All three enthusiastically supported the invasion of Iraq.

Might the first two men, having grown up bullied by commissars and secret police, be expected to harbor natural sympathies with those living under the same conditions in a warmer climate? And before George W. Bush became president, what does Judt suppose Michnik, Havel and Glucksmann thought of Iraqi Ba’athism and the sanity of its continuance? As Goldstein notes, the rebuttal to this lame J’accuse of non-interventionist purity was authored by Todd Gitlin and Bruce Ackerman, both leftists opposed to the Iraq war, who called Judt’s essay “nonsense on stilts.” But no matter. Facts in the London Review of Books can be as promiscuous as the commissioned prose:

But like Christopher Hitchens and other former left-liberal pundits now expert in “Islamo-fascism”, Beinart and Berman and their kind really are conversant — and comfortable — with a binary division of the world along ideological lines. In some cases they can even look back to their own youthful Trotskyism when seeking a template and thesaurus for world-historical antagonisms.

I still eagerly await Peter Beinart’s forthcoming memoir: Against the Grain: My Youth as a Trotskyist Revolutionist. And as for Berman, Kronstadt wasn’t even his Kronstadt: he subscribed to an anarchism derived from the decidedly anti-Bolshevik Peter Kropotkin and best embodied in organized form by the IWW.

How curious that a fellow historian of the left would be so poorly conversant — and comfortable — with the manifold divisions of a radical tradition. Then again, you would expect the founder of the Remarque Institute to be able to draw the most basic distinctions between soldiers and the societies they inhabit, wouldn’t you?