Uncomfortable truths

Tony Prominent intellectual Tony Judt, one of the most respected historians of European history, has died at his home in New York City. Judt, who wrote “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945,” was 62. His death on August 6 was announced by New York University, where the British scholar had taught for many years. The cause was complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which attacks nerve cells and eventually paralyzes the victim. But his thinking remained unimpaired and he continued writing, including personal essays for “The New York Review of Books,” through 2010. The son of Marxist Jews, Judt was a left-wing Zionist in his youth who went on to criticize left-wing ideology and once described Israel as a “belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-state.” He is survived by his wife Jennifer Homans, a dance critic, and two sons.

The following article by Tony Judt was published in The Guardian in May 2008:

Over the years, Judt has been notable, in particular, for his acid dismissals of “romantic” communists and their fellow travellers. Many of his targets have been French intellectuals – he has ripped into Sartre numerous times – but in Reappraisals he also, from his own position on the left, accuses Eric Hobsbawm of being a “mandarin” and calls the much loved EP Thompson a “sanctimonious, priggish Little Englander”. Since September 2001, however, Judt's articulate polemicism has taken a new direction – one that has transformed his life. Uneasy about the political reaction to 9/11 in the US, he soon began to publish a series of condemnations of Bush's international policies. But whereas his anti-communism sat comfortably with mainstream liberal opinion in America, his early opposition to the Iraq war threw him out of alignment with his usual allies, who were still rallying around the president following the terrorist attacks. Judt, who was born and has spent most of his life in Britain, began to feel more aware of being European – and different.

He raised hackles by labelling liberal commentators in America – including New Yorker editor David Remnick, Michael Ignatieff and Paul Berman – Bush's “useful idiots”. But by far the biggest tumults Judt has caused have followed an essay he published five years ago, entitled “Israel: The Alternative”, which opened with the notion that “the president of the United States of America has been reduced to a ventriloquist's dummy, pitifully reciting the Israeli cabinet line”, and went on to contend that the time had come to “think the unthinkable” – the bringing to an end of Israel as a Jewish state, and the establishment in its place of a binational state of Israelis and Palestinians.

The essay was written for the New York Review of Books, and within a week of its publication, Judt had received a thousand messages of protest. From that time, Judt, who lost close friends over the article, has been regarded as nefarious by a large section of American Jewry.* Judt's political instincts can be traced, perhaps too easily, back to his upbringing. He was born 60 years ago into the Jewish community in London's East End. All his grandparents were Yiddish-speaking Jews from eastern Europe; his parents were “unapologetically Jewish, but secular, and not really Zionist. They were leftwing, even Marxist, but strongly against communism”. On his 12th or 13th birthday, Judt remembers, he was given a copy of Isaac Deutscher's masterly biography of Trotsky: “Failed communists were acceptable – Deutscher, Trotsky – it was the successful ones who weren't liked.”

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