Between Israel and Social Democracy: Tony Judt’s Jewishness


Daniel Solomon in Dissent (French Popular Front rally for Leon Blum, 1936 (Parti Socialiste/Flickr):

On October 3, 2006, around 5:00 p.m., Tony Judt’s phone rang. On the other line was Patricia Huntington, the president of Network 20/20, a New York–based professional networking organization. Judt had planned to spend the evening speaking to the organization’s members about the influence of pro-Israel advocates over U.S. foreign policy, at the Polish Consulate on Madison Avenue. Huntington’s call freed up Judt’s evening schedule; the Polish consul general had cancelled the event.

The consul general’s decision followed a rhetorical assault by various pro-Israel Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, led by Abraham Foxman, and the American Jewish Congress, whose director David Harris had called the Consulate—“as a friend of Poland”—to highlight Judt’s allegedly anti-Israel advocacy. In the following days, Judt mustered a campaign against these apparent infringements against the historian’s free expression. An open letter to Foxman, signed by over one hundred of Judt’s colleagues andlater published in the New York Review of Books, to which Judt was a frequent contributor, accused the ADL director of fostering a “climate of intimidation.” In response, Foxmandescribed the original letter as an effort to “completely debase those values” of democratic speech that the undersigned themselves defended.

Judt died four years later, on August 6, 2010, from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). If the cancellation of his speech at the Polish Consulate created a new climate of intimidation, Judt had hardly noticed. Obituarists, both familiar and unfamiliar, remembered the historian both as an eminent student of modern Europe—from 1995 until his death, Judt was the founding director of New York University’s Remarque Institute—and as a public gadfly on the topic of Israeli politics. Many discussed this latter status as a synonym of Judt’s Jewishness. Events like the Polish Consulate dust-up, or the controversy surrounding Judt’s 2003 partial defense of a “one-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, defined both posthumous portrayals of Judt’s Jewish identity and, toward the end of his life, the historian’s own understanding of his bibliography. In a eulogy-qua-review of Judt’s collection of memoir-essays The Memory Chalet, Thomas Nagel described the historian’s essay on the one-state solution, “Israel: The Alternative,” as “a deliberately utopian fantasy that takes his rejection of identity politics to its limit.” In this telling, Judt’s last decade of public writing fully embraced the cosmopolitan, leaving little room for a provincial Jewish politics now fully in Zionism’s embrace. For a dying Judt as well as for his obituarists, the hawkish nationalism of many of Israel’s global advocates made contemporary Jewishness an ugly, reactionary enterprise.

Beyond Zionism and its discontents, however, Judt’s Jewishness was a vibrant companion of the historian’s aspiring cosmopolitanism. For Judt, the history of political cosmopolitanism— a politics that serves a common public, regardless of identity—was an outgrowth of a collective history of Jewish suffering. Fin-de-siècle and interwar France, the Nazi Holocaust, and Communist Eastern Europe—the epochs that weigh heaviest over Judt’s work as well as over the century-long destruction of European Jewry—were the predecessors of an increasingly egalitarian European state. The biography of Judt, a next-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors, is also the story of the political left: the imagination of the universal through the preservation of the provincial.

More here.