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​Lunch with the FT: Tony Judt

By Graham Bowley, site
Published: Mar 16, 2007

Wistfully, Tony Judt admits he misses Europe. That seems to be one reason why he chose Cafe de Bruxelles in New York's Greenwich Village for our lunch. It is on a street of British shops where nostalgic expats can munch on fish and chips, or sip cups of tea. The cafe itself is a long, low, slightly grubby sun-washed place, where a sign outside lists mussels specialities. Inside, pictures on the walls evoke the Palace of Justice and various other Brussels sights.
At just after midday, Judt, who is 59, walks through the door and shuts the police sirens of Greenwich Avenue behind him. As professor of European studies at New York University, he is one of the most prominent liberal academics in the US. Yet he appears an unassuming, bookish man, wrapped up against the Manhattan cold in a lumpy, unstylish coat and cap. He has a beard of greying stubble, a broad balding head, an intelligent pale face, a precise handshake and smile - an intellectual. Not at all, I think, the incendiary figure who has recently drawn the ire of some Jewish groups in New York City by arguing that an "Israel lobby " influences US policy towards the Middle East and shuts down proper debate about it.
Judt wanted an early lunch because he has to meet some of his students in the afternoon, just around the corner on Washington Square - where he works and also lives with his second wife and two sons, aged 12 and nine. At this hour, we have Cafe de Bruxelles to ourselves. The polite waiter points to a table set in the middle of the room and warns us that a party of 10 will arrive soon. With a nod, Judt picks his way to a small table tucked away in the furthest, quietest corner.
"In the worst moments I have had death threats, and much worse, threats against my family, " says Judt, after he sits down opposite me and begins to describe the reactions to his writing and his talks. "These people would call up my office and they would say, 'Tell Tony Judt he had better not let his kids out on the street,' or 'Tell Tony Judt this is Hitler calling and he says, Congratulations.' " He winces and shakes his head. "I didn't think I knew until then just how deep and how uniquely American this obsession with blocking any criticism of Israel is. It is uniquely American. " Not European, not Israeli.
He adds: "People accuse me of wanting to see the abolition of Israel, which is nonsense. Israel exists. The question is what kind of state is it going to be in future years, what kind of laws is it going to have for first- and second-class citizens? "
Judt, who is Jewish, grew up in a stoutly middle-class family in London. In an impressive academic career, he went to King's College, Cambridge, Paris's Ecole Normale Superieure, Berkeley and Oxford. He moved to New York in 1987 to teach European history and French studies, when, he says ruefully, "the study of France was still a fashionable and desirable activity and not something you had to hide your head in shame about. "
His last book, Postwar, is a fluid history of Europe since 1945. It tells of the continent's rise from the ashes and the emergence of the European Union, which he is rather bullish about. The book was nominated for a Pulitzer prize, and was one of The New York Times top 10 books of 2005. Part of his job in New York, he says, is to explain Europe to Americans - people accuse him of forever trying to "sell " Europe to Americans, he says - as well as to explain America to Europeans. It is a tough job, Judt says, when, in their worldviews, the two are growing further apart.
Judt seems to be concerned with divisions. As well as the "vertical " separation between Europe and the US, he says, there are widening "horizontal " chasms within countries - between wealthy jet-travelling elites and the rest of the population.
"We probably face a world that is divided much more horizontally than vertically. We have a class of world travellers - as the medievals might have called them, 'clerks' - who speak Latin, or English, and feel at home in Tokyo, New York or Singapore. Underneath are the 'villains', the serfs, who don't speak English, who don't travel - beyond the occasional cheap vacation flight abroad - and who are still very much in a national, local cultural world. They are as much separated from their own airport people as from serfs of other countries. "
It is the gaps between cultures that concern Judt most, and especially the division between America and Europe.
One aspect of that rift is their attitude to Israel. On October 3, Judt was due to give a talk to an independent think- tank, called Network 20/20 about the "Israel lobby " in the US. The event was being held at the Polish Consulate in New York. Hours before he was scheduled to stand up, the consulate cancelled the talk, under pressure, Judt alleged, from influential Jewish groups in New York such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.
The cancellation brought outraged support from a roster of Judt's fellow academics and intellectuals. They said there had been an attempt to intimidate and shut down free debate - seeming to prove the point that Judt had wanted to make. A 114-signature letter was written to Abraham Foxman, the prominent national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and published in The New York Review of Books. But it is still not clear who telephoned whom, when, and to apply what sort of pressure during the incident, which The New York Observer called "l'affaire Judt ".
The ADL and AJC said they did not force the consulate to call off the talk. Still, they openly welcomed the outcome. For his critics, Judt is part of a worrying and dangerous trend, one of a number of liberal intellectuals, many of them Jewish, whose outspoken criticism of Israel, and whose support for Palestinians, they argue, provides ammunition for far more dangerous opponents. This, they believe, comes at a time when Israel's existence is probably as precarious as it ever has been.
Sitting at our table, Judt throws up his hands and says the debate at times must seem like "a weird inter-Jewish dispute about Israel ". But it has had personal consequences. He has lost two close friends, including Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, a magazine for which Judt used to write.
"Apparently, the line you take on Israel trumps everything else in life, " Judt says, quite sadly.
It has made his domestic life more difficult, too, because his wife, Jenny, a former ballerina, is The New Republic's dance critic. "The editor calls up and says, 'Jenny, we would like a piece and give my regards to Tony,' and she feels kind of squidged. "
In Cafe de Bruxelles, the party of 10 arrives. Around us the room fills with laughter and loud voices. Judt comes to the restaurant quite regularly. But this lunchtime one of his favourite dishes, carbonade de boeuf, is not on the menu. He looks disappointed. The waiter says he will consult the kitchen anyway. We order two Belgian blonde beers. Sipping them, we wait in suspense until the carbonade, heavy in gravy and cabbage, is laid on the tablecloth.
"I shall enjoy this as you can't imagine, " Judt says with a laugh. His critics "think I am some sort of weird far-out, provocative figure ", he says. "But this is down the line, mainstream, winter Belgian food. "
I wait for my chicken crepe. As we pick at a shared cup of frites in the middle of the table, Judt tells me more about his past.
His mother was a hairdresser. His father came from Antwerp. Members of his father's family had been killed in the Holocaust. His father, he says, "was talented at many things but making money was not one of them. Eventually he discovered a talent for bookselling - just at the point that Barnes & Noble and the like were sweeping away smaller booksellers. "
As a teenager, Judt became involved in leftwing Zionism. In 1967, he travelled to Israel as a volunteer during the Six Day War. He worked as a translator of French and Hebrew, and drove captured Syrian trucks. "Up on the Golan Heights, I met and heard officers talking, and for the first time I was seeing a side of Israel I had managed to turn a blind eye to, " he tells me. "Until then, the dominant rhetoric in Israel had still been that you didn't disparage the Arabs, you believed in socialism and equality. Now it was straightforward anti-Arab sentiment. What began in 1967, and accelerated in a great tumble through the mid-1970s, was the rise of a different Israel: hard-line, rightwing, very often religious, believing they had a real-estate pact with God. It was very ugly, at least I found it very ugly. "
In those years, he says, America didn't care so much for Israel. France was the great friend of Israel, he says, providing jets for the Israeli air force. But that changed, he says, due in part to the rise of identity politics in the US. This, he argues, eventually had an effect on American foreign policy.
"America at that time had a very low collective public consciousness of the Holocaust, " he says, eating the carbonade carefully. "People were not reading Primo Levi. They were not even reading Anne Frank. It became possible, fashionable and in the end almost necessary to identify yourself - Irish-American, Italian- American, Native American, Asian-American. Part of it was because of the rise of the culture of the victim but also because it was a way of being part of the new multicultural space. "
You couldn't just be Jewish-American, however, he says. To create an identity, he says, Jewish people instead tied themselves to the Holocaust and to Israel. "So it became very much a threat to American-Jewish identity to unravel one of these. "
The party of 10 has gone. The restaurant is quiet again. There is only a single diner next to us, reading The New York Times.
Judt says he doesn't lie awake at night worrying about his critics. But, still, he seems to me to carry a sense of anger and despondency about him. He admits that although he likes many Americans, he does not altogether like America. "Tom Friedman is talking through his hat. The world is not flat at all. The world is shaped still in many ways as it was in my generation by culture, by the place you grew up, by the assumptions you make about the place of religion in public life, about the relative importance of the state and the individual. "
Judt says he really has to make his student meetings. His next work projects, he tells me, include a book about 20th-century thought, and a theme likely to keep him clearer of controversy - a history of railways. When he was growing up in London, he loved riding the train into the countryside.
We drink our espressos and march out east across the traffic- clogged avenues towards Washington Square.
As the breach with Europe widens - "Now we are passing through a period of America's simultaneous withdrawal and resentment at the world, " he says - he knows for sure which side he wants to be on.
"I am tempted at least twice a day to go back to Europe, " he says.

West Village to West Bank

By Niall Ferguson
Published: April 26 2008 03:00 | Last updated: April 26 2008 03:00
Tony Judt is an intellectuals' intellectual. To review a book composed of his book reviews, which are often about other people who wrote a lot of book reviews, you feel you really ought to be sitting in a café on the Rive Gauche, smoking Gauloises and sipping Pernod.
In fact, you are more likely to encounter Judt in downtown Manhattan, where he directs the Erich Maria Remarque Centre at New York University. Readers of Postwar , his recent, critically acclaimed history of Europe since 1945, will know that he is a highly readable authority on sometimes unreadable west European (and especially French) intellectuals. What this new collection reveals, however, is how the Left Bank looks viewed from the West Village.
A regular reviewer for the unwaveringly liberal New York Review of Books, Judt is accustomed to writing for an elite American audience. At times, he is content to lead that audience in a liberal singalong. On page one of Reappraisals , he laments the years between the fall of the Berlin wall and "the catastrophic American occupation of Iraq" as "the years the locust ate: a decade and a half of wasted opportunity and political incompetence on both sides of the Atlantic". His parting shot is a call for "the left in Europe . . . to reconstruct a case for the activist state". Ho hum.
Thankfully, Judt says these boring things only so his liberal readers drop their guard. Then he delivers the intellectual equivalent of a left hook. "The Jewish intellectuals of interwar and postwar Central Europe", he writes, "were especially drawn to Marxism . . . 'Zydokomuna' ('Judeo-communism') may be an anti-Semitic term of abuse in Polish nationalist circles, but for a few crucial years it also described a reality." It takes nerve to write a sentence like that, especially in the NYRB.
The uppercut soon follows: "After 37 years of military occupation [of Gaza and the West Bank since 1967], Israel has gained nothing in security; it has lost everything in domestic civility and international responsibility; and it has forfeited the moral high ground forever."
And finally, a knockout punch: "Eric Hobsbawm is the most naturally gifted historian of our time; but rested and untroubled, he has somehow slept through the terror and the shame of the age."
Judt is by education (King's, Cambridge, 1966-1972) a man of the left. But, as his devastating verdict on Hobsbawm suggests, he reserves his harshest words for Marxist intellectuals, especially formerly line-toeing communists. Judt now understands what some people knew all along: "Some version of liberalism that accords the maximum of freedom and initiative in every sphere of life is the only possible option."
Judt is also by birth and upbringing a secular Jew; the descendant of Lithuanian rabbis, he spent his gap year on a kibbutz and even volunteered for the Israeli Defence Forces during the Six-Day war. But in this volume he bestows his highest praise on Edward Said, for decades the Palestinians' most vociferous spokesman in the US.
He even endorses Said's view that Israel should recognise the Palestinian refugees' "right of return" and become a "binational" state, shared equally between Jews and Arabs.
Many of the "rootless cosmopolitans" about whom Judt writes were uprooted by forces beyond their control. Judt is a cosmopolitan who has uprooted himself. He has lapsed not just once but twice: as a socialist and as a Zionist.
It is not surprising, then, that so many of Judt's heroes are what the Germans call Querdenker or contrarian thinkers: Arthur Koestler, Hannah Arendt and, especially, Albert Camus. The thread linking these intellectuals, in Judt's mind, was their readiness to question dogma, especially when they saw it used to justify violence. "Mistaken ideas always end in bloodshed," he (twice) quotes Camus, "but in every case it is someone else's blood."
As a rule, the Querdenker ends up with more enemies than friends. Certainly, Judt lost friends by criticising Israel. But he is clearly a man with the courage of his (new) convictions. He abhors bloodshed but relishes a verbal fight. You sense that he rather admires Koestler for (as one contemporary recalled) being "capable of reciting the truths of the multiplication table in a way to make some people indignant with him".
Judt certainly has a wonderful eye for the telling quotation. Here, in all its awfulness, is the snobbery of the London left circa 1970, as exemplified by Sonia Orwell at a dinner party: "Auschwitz, oh dear, no! That person was never in Auschwitz. Only in some very minor death camp."
Also beautifully captured is the pompous, overblown style that EP Thompson favoured in debate: "There was a time when you, and the causes for which you stood, were present in our innermost thoughts," he wrote to the great Polish political philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, author of the definitive (and damning) Main Currents of Marxism . Kolakowski's withering riposte was entitled "My Correct Views on Everything".
Judt's deepest fear is that this world - that of the "free-standing intellectual" - is fading as fast as the Marxist ideology that was its principal talking point. Nothing, in his view, can be done to salvage Marxism. But Judt would love to preserve the milieu within which it was discussed - though I can't help feeling that intellectuals without Marxism are a bit like jazz musicians without cigarette smoke.
Like all collections of essays, this one has its duds. On the fall of France in 1940 Judt is beta-double-plus at best. Ditto the piece on the Cuban missile crisis. There is disappointingly little insight in the 1998 critique of Henry Kissinger. And, apart from one slightly funny line ("Blair . . . is the gnome in England's Garden of Forgetting"), the piece on New Labour's Britain is off-key.
The discrepancy between these and the many straight alpha essays is easily explained. When Judt writes about generals, politicians and statesmen, he is playing away from home, far from his familiar bohemian haunts. Try as he may, he simply cannot empathise with the men of action who actually make history.
It is only as a reviewer of those who themselves review - the denizens of the cafés, not the situation rooms - that the intellectuals' intellectual excels.
Niall Ferguson is a contributing editor of the FT

Israel cannot always rely on US helping hand

By Tony Judt, site
Published: May 22, 2006
By the age of 58 a country - like a man - should have achieved a certain maturity. After nearly six decades of existence we know, for good and ill, who we are and how we appear to others, warts and all. And though we still harbour occasional illusions about ourselves, we know they are, for the most part, just illusions. In short, we are adults.
But the state of Israel, which has just turned 58, remains curiously immature. The country's social transformations - and its many economic achievements - have not brought the political wisdom that usually accompanies age. Seen from outside, Israel still comports itself like an adolescent: confident of its uniqueness; certain that no one "understands "; quick to take offence, and to give it. Like many adolescents, Israel is convinced - and aggressively asserts - that it can do as it wishes; that its actions carry no consequences; that it is immortal.
That, Israeli readers will say, is the prejudiced view of the outsider. What looks from abroad like a self-indulgent, wayward country is simply an independent little state doing what it has always done: protecting its interests in an inhospitable part of the globe.
Why should embattled Israel even acknowledge foreign criticism, much less act on it? Because the world and its attitudes have changed. It is this change - largely unrecognised in Israel - to which I want to draw attention. Before 1967 Israel may have been tiny and embattled, but it was not typically hated: certainly not in the west. Most admirers (Jews and non-Jews) knew little about the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948. They preferred to see in the Jewish state the last incarnation of the 19th century idyll of agrarian socialism - or else a paragon of modernising energy, "making the desert bloom ".
I remember in the spring of 1967 how student opinion at Cambridge University was overwhelmingly pro-Israel before the Six-Day War - and how little attention was paid either to the Palestinians or to Israel's collusion with France and Britain in the disastrous 1956 Suez adventure. For a while these sentiments persisted. The pro-Palestinian enthusiasms of post-1960s radical groups were offset by growing public acknowledgement of the Holocaust. Even the inauguration of illegal settlements and the invasion of Lebanon did not shift the international balance of opinion.
But today everything is different. We can see, in retrospect, that Israel's victory in June 1967 and its occupation of the territories it conquered then have been the Jewish state's very own nakba: a moral and political catastrophe. Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza have magnified its shortcomings to a watching world. The routines of occupation and repression were once familiar only to an informed minority; today, computer terminals and satellite dishes put Israel's behaviour under daily global scrutiny. The result has been a complete transformation in the international view of Israel.
The universal shorthand symbol for Israel, reproduced in political cartoons, is the Star of David emblazoned on a tank. Today the universal victims, the emblematic persecuted minority, are not Jews but Palestinians. This shift does little to advance the Palestinian case but it has redefined Israel forever. Israel's long-cultivated persecution mania no longer elicits sympathy. The country's national narrative of macho victimhood appears to many now as simply bizarre: a collective cognitive dysfunction. Israel, in the world's eyes, is a normal state; but one behaving in abnormal ways. As for the charge that criticism of Israel is implicitly anti-Semitic, this is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling assertion: Israel's reckless behaviour, and its insistent identification of all criticism with anti-Semitism, is now the leading source of anti-Jewish sentiment in western Europe and much of Asia.
If Israel's leaders have been able to ignore such developments it is because they have counted on the unquestioning support of the US - the one country where the claim that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism is still echoed by mainstream politicians and the media. This confidence in unconditional US approval may prove to be Israel's undoing. For something is changing in America. Israel and the US appear increasingly bound together in a symbiotic embrace, whereby the actions of each party exacerbate their common unpopularity abroad. But whereas Israel has no choice but to look to America, the US is a Great Power - and Great Powers have interests that eventually transcend the local obsessions of even the closest client states. It seems to me suggestive that the recent essay "The Israel Lobby " by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, published in March in the London Review of Books, provoked so much debate. It is true that, by their own account, the authors could not have published their indictment of the influence of the "Israel lobby " on US foreign policy in a major US-based journal. But the point is that 10 years ago they probably could not have published it at all. And while the ensuing debate generated more heat than light, it is of great significance.
The fact is that the disastrous Iraq invasion and its aftermath have set in train a sea-change in America's foreign-policy debate. It is becoming clear to prominent thinkers across the political spectrum - from erstwhile neo-
conservative interventionists such as Francis Fukuyama to hard-nosed realists such as Mr Mearsheimer - that in recent years the US has suffered a catastrophic loss of international influence and degradation of its image. There is much repair work ahead, above all in Washington's dealings with economically and strategically vital regions of the world. But this cannot succeed while US foreign policy is tied by an umbilical cord to the needs and
interests of one small Middle Eastern country of little relevance to America's long-term concerns - a country that is, in the words of the Mearsheimer/Walt essay, a strategic burden. That essay is thus an indication of the direction of debate in the US about its peculiar ties to Israel. Of course, it generated fierce criticism - and, just as they anticipated, the authors have been charged with anti-Semitism. But it is striking how few people now take that accusation seriously, so predictable has it become. This is bad for Jews as it means that genuine anti-Semitism may also cease to be taken seriously. But it is worse for Israel.
From one perspective, Israel's future is bleak. Not for the first time, a Jewish state is on the vulnerable periphery of someone else's empire: wilfully blind to the danger that its indulgent excesses might ultimately push its imperial mentor beyond the point of irritation, and heedless of its own failure to make any other friends. Yet, modern Israel still has options. Precisely because the country is an object of such universal mistrust, a truly statesmanlike shift in its policies (dismantling of big settlements, opening unconditional negotiations with Palestinians and the like) could have disproportionately beneficial effects.
Such a radical realignment of strategy would entail a difficult reappraisal of every illusion under which the country and its political elite have nestled. Israel would have to acknowledge that it no longer has any special claim on international sympathy or indulgence; that the US will not always be there; that colonies are always doomed unless you are willing to expel or exterminate the indigenous population.
Other countries and their leaders have understood this: Charles de Gaulle saw that France's settlement in Algeria was disastrous for his country and, with outstanding political courage, withdrew. But when de Gaulle came to that realisation he was a mature statesman, aged nearly 70. Israel cannot afford to wait that long. The time has come for it to grow up.
The writer is director of the Remarque Institute at New York University

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR: Judt sees ugliness of his former Zionist compatriots as emblematic of US society

By Wayne E Merry, Financial Times
Published: Mar 24, 2007
From Mr E. Wayne Merry.
Sir, Tony Judt ("The dissident visitor", FT Magazine, March 17/18) does his own cause little service by condemning all of "America" for the insults and threats he has received as a result of his criticisms of the state of Israel. Mr Judt is hardly alone in the US in his views. He was the target of such shameful venom because, as an acknowledged former Zionist himself, he is regarded by hardline Zionists as an apostate and renegade to the Zionist cause.
Mr Judt has been widely defended and his attackers widely condemned, and correctly. However, he construes the ugliness of his former Zionist compatriots as emblematic of US society, without a shred of evidence, and contrasts it with a supposedly benign "Europe". In so doing he is intellectually dishonest.
Europe and not the US gave birth to the Zionist cause, while Mr Judt's own country, Britain, made possible the creation of a Zionist state. Jews fleeing Europe for the US tended to regard their new home as the promised land, and most American Jews certainly still do. Mr Judt needs to appreciate that there is much more to American views and policies in the Middle East than the Zionism he once espoused.
It is sad that Tony Judt's experience of intolerance is manifested in his own and in the kind of provincial analysis of US affairs so common among contemporary European intellectuals.
E. Wayne Merry,
Senior Associate,
American Foreign Policy Council,
Washington, DC 20002, US

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