April 27, 2008


The fate of nations: The subtle historian excels on 20th century European intellectuals but trips in polemics on Israel. (Tim Rutten, 4/23/08, Los Angeles Times)

As a student in England, [Tony] Judt was an ardent supporter of Labor Zionism, spent time on a kibbutz and volunteered as a translator and driver for the Israel Defense Forces during the 1967 war. One of the two essays on Israel that Judt includes in this collection is a review of Michael Oren's history of that conflict, which the author argues was a disaster for Israel, fundamentally altering the Jewish state's culture, politics and even its demography for the worse.

The other piece -- "The Country That Wouldn't Grow Up" -- was commissioned by the editors of the Israeli daily Haaretz. In it, Judt argues that "Israel's future is bleak," the country "an object of universal mistrust and resentment" through its own doing and because of its infantilizing relationship with the United States.

Missing from this collection -- though Judt refers to it in a boldfaced after-note to the essay on Oren's book -- is the most controversial of his anti-Israeli polemics, a 2003 piece for the New York Review of Books in which he advocated abolition of the Jewish state in favor of a new, binational country of unspecific constitution. The heart of Judt's argument for that radical "alternative," as he styled it, can be found in this paragraph: "Today, non-Israeli Jews feel themselves once again exposed to criticism and vulnerable to attack for things they didn't do. But this time it is a Jewish state, not a Christian one, which is holding them hostage for its own actions. Diaspora Jews cannot influence Israeli policies, but they are implicitly identified with them, not least by Israel's own insistent claims upon their allegiance. The behavior of a self-described Jewish state affects the way everyone else looks at Jews. The increased incidence of attacks on Jews in Europe and elsewhere is primarily attributable to misdirected efforts, often by young Muslims, to get back at Israel. . . . The depressing truth is that Israel today is bad for the Jews."

The best rejoinder to Judt's superficially "realist" argument came quickly from the New Republic's Leon Wieseltier: "Why must Israel pay for his uneasiness with its life? The reason, I fear, is that Judt has misinterpreted the nature of the hostility that vexes him. . . . For the notion that all Jews are responsible for whatever any Jews do, that every deed that a Jew does is a Jewish deed, is not a Zionist notion. It is an anti-Semitic notion. But Judt prefers to regard it as an onerous corollary of Zionism ('not least by Israel's own insistent claims upon their allegiance'). He refuses to place the blame for this unwarranted judgment of himself upon those who make it. Instead he accepts the premise of the prejudice, and turns on Israel. He makes a similar mistake in his evaluation of 'the increased incidence of attacks on Jews in Europe.' He knows that they are 'misdirected,' but still he describes them as 'efforts, often by young Muslims, to get back at Israel.' In what way, exactly, is the burning of a synagogue a method for getting back at Israel? In the anti-Semitic way, plainly. It is the essence of anti-Semitism, as it is the essence of all prejudice, to call its object its cause. But if you explain anti-Semitism as a response to Jews, and racism as a response to blacks, and misogyny as a response to women, then you have not understood it. You have reproduced it."

...but despise it as a Jewish enterprise.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 27, 2008 8:50 AM

Judt the historian is good; Judt the Israel commentator is stark raving mad.

I recall him being on Charlie Rose just before the Iraq war, and the guy hardly mentioned Iraq or Saddam. Everything was "Israel this and Israel that."

I think it's Stockholm syndrom. He's a product of the British university system, and it's hard to imagine a more virilently anti-Semitic place.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 27, 2008 9:24 AM

Wieseltier's smackdown was one of the best I have ever seen.

I have often wondered why people like him just don't go volunteer to Hamas or Hezbollah. They have already chosen their side in the war. Are they perhaps afraid of getting bulldozed like Rachel Corrie?

Posted by: ratbert at April 27, 2008 10:03 AM

Jim, the US university system isn't much different although though it may be better concealed.

Posted by: erp at April 27, 2008 12:04 PM