Tony Judt: An intellectual hero

Historian’s willingness to tell ‘uncomfortable stories’ was not embraced by US government.

Tony Judt’s call for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict earned him the wrath of the organised Zionist community in the US [EPA]

New York University (NYU) professor and internationally renowned historian Tony Judt died last week of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known in the US as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the famous baseball player whose death from the disease first brought it to public consciousness in 1941.

It is hard to fathom the scope of the loss, not just of the man, but of the type of scholarship, of the way Professor Judt taught those willing to learn about how to approach and utilise history.

I only knew Judt in passing as a graduate student at NYU but his reputation was already secure then, as a leading historian of France and the European Left. What was as striking as his superior intellect was his equally clear intellectual courage. He was clearly an intellectual of both the 1960s and of the Left (a much maligned combination in Newt Gingrich’s America). But unlike so many of his peers he grasped the inherent contradictions of both while they were happening.

And so Judt became an astute and critical observer of why the era and its politics not only failed to bring about revolutionary change in Europe and the US, but produced a conservative backlash that is largely responsible for the slow destruction of the welfare states that had enabled unprecedented prosperity in the West in the decades after the second world war.

Israel shaping politics

What is particularly interesting in this regard is that among the most important experiences that shaped Judt’s critical stance towards the Left was the years he spent as a devoted left-wing Zionist, including many summers spent working on Israeli kibbutzim and even volunteering as an auxiliary in the Golan Heights in the wake of the 1967 war.

As he explained in an article earlier this year, despite their progressive ideology (or better, the mythology surrounding them), the kibbutzim were “provincial and rather conservative communities, their ideological rigidity camouflaging the limited horizon of many of their members …. The mere fact of collective self-government, or egalitarian distribution of consumer durables, does not make you either more sophisticated or more tolerant of others …. Even now I can recall my surprise at how little my fellow kibbutzniks knew or cared about the wider world-except insofar as it directly affected them or their country”.

Judt’s realisation is not surprising. The mundane realities of daily life inevitably batter down ideological commitments and utopian visions. More broadly, the paradoxes and ethical contradictions of the “New Left” of the 1960s, during which he came of age, led many acolytes of the movement to lurch rightwards in disgust. In so doing, it planted many of the seeds out of which the neoconservative movement grew in the ensuing two decades.

Unlike his more politically jaundiced contemporaries, Judt retained his core commitment to justice and intellectual honesty even as he grew disenchanted with the politics of his era.

As he put it: “By the time I went up to Cambridge I had actually experienced – and led – an ideological movement of the kind most of my contemporaries only ever encountered in theory. I knew what it meant to be a “believer” – but I also knew what sort of price one pays for such intensity of identification and unquestioning allegiance …. I was – and remain – suspicious of identity politics in all forms, Jewish above all. Labour Zionism made me, perhaps a trifle prematurely, a universalist social democrat – an unintended consequence which would have horrified my Israeli teachers had they followed my career. But of course they didn’t. I was lost to the cause and thus effectively dead.”

Judt might have been “dead” to his Israeli teachers, but in the US his honesty and willingness to be self-critical about his attachment to Zionism made him one of the main enemies of the organised Zionist community, both its institutions and its intellectuals. The attacks against him intensified after he had the temerity to propose a one-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic, explained that with his public disavowal of Zionism Judt “has become precisely the kind of intellectual whom his intellectual heroes would have despised,” and even removed Judt’s name from the masthead of the magazine (he had been a contributing editor), just because he dared to advocate what in essence would be a “new republic”.

A death, of sorts, but one that Judt likely (one can hope) did not mind too much, since the magazine had moved far from the kind of thoughtful progressive politics that defined its first half century and towards the type of uncritical ideological politics he abhorred, whether from the Right or the Left.

Threatened status quo

Judt posed a threat to the dominant narrative on Israel and the US [EPA]

Of course, Wieseltier was not concerned about Judt’s heroes. He was concerned by who Judt was: a brilliant Jewish intellectual, who actually lived in Israel, knew the country well, spoke Hebrew, and had the ability to contradict the official party line with integrity and compassion. And because he was not a “knee-jerk” leftist who uncritically supported any cause or group that opposed US or Israeli policies, he was even more dangerous to the dominant narrative surrounding Israel and American foreign policy.

In the last decade the neoconservatives have created something of a cottage industry going after professors they deem “dangerous” because they refuse to provide the intellectual support for and often vehemently oppose both the militarisation of US policy abroad and the disintegration of government services at home.

Judt’s work, even as he became physically incapacitated, was as trenchant as ever in uncovering why the Right had succeeded in getting the majority of Americans to acquiesce to, if not actively support, their agenda.

In his last book, Ill Fares the Land, he explored how the social contract that defined post-war life in Europe and the US and the guarantee of security, stability, and fairness it represented stopped being considered a legitimate social goal and how a social democratic vision could win back the disaffected by creating a “civic language” that could support a renewed social contract between governments and their citizens.


Needless to say, few politicians paid much attention to Judt or invited his counsel. I could find no evidence of his ever having been called to testify before the US congress. The White House made no mention of his passing, even though Barack Obama, the US president, has during his tenure invited well known historians to the White House to help provide him with historical perspective on the numerous crises he faces.

According to a just published account by one of the invited historians, Gary Wills, most invitees warned Obama that “pursuit of war in Afghanistan would be for him what Vietnam was to Lyndon Johnson,” an assessment none of the government officials who participated in the celebrated-but-secret top secret review of Afghan policy apparently sought fit to make before suggesting the massive, but still seemingly ineffective surge.

I could not help but contrast the principled and well-reasoned analyses of scholars like Judt with their limited ability to impact political discourse as I perused a glossy flyer sent to me by my congressman, John Campbell, as part of his 2010 reelection propaganda.

Titled “Strengthening Our Relationship with Israel,” the slickly designed cardboard notice provided details of everything he has done “to support Israel’s right to defend herself and ensure her safety in the region”.

The illustrations and the symbolism they evoke are in fact quite striking – picture of Campbell at a American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, of a young Israeli girl, of the Dome of the Rock (which has been all but appropriated by Israel as a defining image of the country, despite its function as a major Muslim holy place and symbol of Palestinian nationalism).The Israeli flag is even more prominent than the US flag – right next to the congressman’s head in one image.

Lowest political instincts

IN depth

More from Mark LeVine:

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  Beyond hypocrisy
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  The meaning of strangulation
  The cautionary tale of Helen Thomas
  Israel’s ‘friends’ also to blame
  The terrors of occupation
  Obama and the curse of moderation
  ‘Stupid’ law or ‘soul’ of the US?
  The world is not flat
  Hypocrisy and the end of empires

Among the resolutions and letters “in support” of Israel Campbell shared with constituents were those “repudiating the findings of the Goldstone Report,” “reaffirming the unequivocal support for the alliance and friendship between the United States and Israel,” several Iran sanctions bills, and finally, HR 5501, the “America Stands with Israel Act”.

This bill, currently referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, would not only remove the US from the UN Human Rights Council, but “prohibit American taxpayer dollars from being used to pay for any UN investigation into the flotilla incident”. It also support Israel’s “unconditional right to defend herself and support[s] Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza”.

In excerpts of his letters to Obama administration officials Campbell declared that “a strong Israel is an asset to the national security of the United States and brings stability to the Middle East”.

To Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, he gushed that “in a volatile area of the world, where Israel stands as a beacon of light for democratic values, the country and all it stands for is hated by many. Thus, it has been forced to defend its mere existence and must be able to continue to do so in situations like this, in which efforts were made to aid a terrorist-controlled region”.

The flyer is utterly devoid of any critical thinking, which is precisely the way the congressman intended it. How else could he declare that he will continue “supporting America’s strongest ally in the Middle East” without a hint of irony? There is no reason for him to consider that the Israeli government itself has agreed to cooperate with the UN flotilla investigation, that its own investigation has found numerous violations of the laws of war, and agreed to ease the blockade – all of which make his opposition redundant.

To ensure support from his many conservative Jewish – and even more important, Evangelical Christian – constituents, no compromise is possible with the UN or anyone who would challenge Israel’s “unconditional right” to do whatever it wants.

There is not a chance that Campbell might consider how a region in which the majority of countries are US clients or allies can be “terrorist-controlled” – unless he means that most of the region’s governments regularly terrorise their citizens (but I doubt it). Nor can one hope that Campbell might read the many Israeli scholars and policy-makers who increasingly warn about the deterioration of democratic values and freedoms in Israel. What would be the point of that, particularly when the US is not far behind, even under a Democratic administration?

Indeed, I wish that Judt could have had the chance to discuss his experiences and disenchantment with Israel and the numerous actions the congressman so uncritically supports before he died. But even if he had and Campbell had become better educated as to the realities of the country and its policies, what good would it do? When it comes to the Middle East, and Israel/Palestine in particular, promoting nuanced discussion and policies can only cost votes, while pandering to peoples’ willful ignorance and most chauvinistic interests will at least bring out the party faithful.

Useless knowledge?

Ultimately, Campbell and the vast majority of his 534 House and Senate colleagues have little use for the knowledge that historians like Judt could offer because the main purpose of that knowledge is to disrupt hypocritical arguments and the fantasies of ideologically – and as importantly – money-driven policies.

As Judt put it, the historian’s task is precisely “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. A well-organised society is one in which we know the truth about ourselves collectively, not one in which we tell pleasant lies about ourselves”.

Today Americans and their politicians much prefer pretty lies to hard truths, even as they pay for that privilege more dearly with each passing year. It would be nice if Judt’s arguments and scholarship could help shape the civic language that has so clearly gone missing in the US during the last 30 years.

But in the meantime, his writings on European history and the need for a new social contract between rulers and ruled can inspire a new generation of scholars and activists in other cultures, including the many societies of the global south that are still grappling with the slow demise of the “authoritarian bargains” that for decades ensured continued power for autocratic elites, and in return, a basic level of development for their citizens.

It is there, in Latin America, Africa, and the Muslim world, where the legacy of Judt’s call for a critically reflective social democratic political discourse might well be found. If American militarism, European myopia, corporate greed and the militant ideologies of numerous stripes do not doom them first.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source : Al Jazeera

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