Tony Judt is the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies at New York University and “one of our most dazzling public intellectuals.” At least that’s what David Halberstam, one of our most dazzling sportswriters, says in a blurb for Judt’s new book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945.
If you’re curious about the credentials needed to be certified as a true public intellectual by arbiters such as Halberstam, the Judt case could be instructive. Certainly his recent writings suggest that displaying abysmally poor political judgment is no impediment for entry into the PI club.
In Postwar, for instance, Judt devotes no more than three or four pages out of his almost 900 page book to the subject of Muslim immigration to Europe. That’s about the same amount of space he allows for recent developments in European soccer. But while David Beckham’s transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid in 2003 gets Judt’s rapt attention, Tariq Ramadan, the most influential Islamist in Europe, receives no mention. And as to why Muslim immigrants to Europe seem to be behaving so badly in their new lands -- for example, indiscriminately assaulting Jews on the streets of Paris -- Judt has a one line explanation: “The transmigration of passions and frustrations from persecuted Arabs in Palestine to their angry, dispirited brethren in Paris should not have come as a surprise -- it was, after all, another legacy of empire.”
Empire: This is Judt’s equivalent of comedian Flip Wilson’s old claim that “the Devil made me do it.”
Judt’s free pass for Islam is the other side of the coin of his recent obsession with the sins of Israel and Zionism, areas which make the personal oh so political for Judt. Raised in London’s Jewish East End, as a teenager he became the national secretary of the Labor Zionist youth movement, spent time on an Israeli kibbutz, and served as a non-combatant volunteer for the Israel Defense Forces immediately after the Six Day War. Then, after taking his PhD in European Studies at Cambridge University, Judt not only grew disenchanted with his youthful vision of a socialist, peace seeking Israel but also became convinced that “the rule of law, the power of Western states and international diplomacy” were better guarantors of Jewish security than the Jewish state.
There’s nothing particularly earth shaking or newsworthy about one more progressive Jewish intellectual announcing that he has personally had it with Israel. The path Professor Judt is following is well worn, having previously been taken by the likes of I.F Stone, Noam Chomsky, Amos Elon and many other public intellectuals of lesser renown. All had dreams, or so they said, of a pure socialist, secular Israel that, through its good works, would be able to make peace with its Muslim neighbors and integrate itself into the Middle Eastern family of nations. But in their view the possible dream was sullied by the ugly reality of the new Israel emerging after the Six Day War, the Israel of religious nationalism and insensitivity to the suffering of the colonized Palestinians. Like Judt, they too all turned a blind eye to militant Islam while continuing to hold Israel to ever more exacting moral standards.
Despite his biography of engagement and disenchantment, Judt had actually written very little about the Israel/Palestine conflict until he emerged in October 2003 to publish his second thoughts about Zionism in the New York Review of Books. (Where better might a public intellectual announce his divorce from Israel?) In a piece called “Israel: The Alternative,” he repeated many of the standard anti-Israel tropes. But he also moved to distinguish himself from the herd of common, run of the mill Israel bashers by declaring that the entire Zionist project was all a colossal mistake. Israel, Judt proclaimed, has “imported a characteristically late –nineteenth- century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law.” Thus the very idea of a Jewish State is “an anachronism” and must be transformed, sooner rather than later, into “a single integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.”
Judt called his essay an attempt to “think the unthinkable” and invited readers to undergo the same agonizing reevaluation. (After all, isn’t that what we pay our public intellectuals to do?) But Judt’s bi-national proposal is not only “unthinkable” -- as in unworkable -- but it is based on a misapplication of the European experience to the Middle East. This is stunning because Judt comes to us as a European expert. In fact, Judt might do a little more “thinking the unthinkable” about one of the countries he supposedly knows so much about, France. La Belle Republique is now buckling -- some would say disintegrating -- under a 10% Muslim population introduced by Judt’s recommended mix of “individual rights [and] open frontiers.” France is also a country that many Jews are now running from. So how could any reasonable person propose that the Jews of Israel try to live with a 40% radical Islamist population?
The answer is that public intellectuals are not necessarily reasonable. Sometimes, under the illusion that they are bravely “thinking the unthinkable” they become attracted to dumb and harmful ideas. In the case of Tony Judt the harm is now compounded by a stance of embattled victimhood. Unable to respond substantively to legitimate criticism of his unworkable bi-national idea, he has taken refuge in the big lie about how, because of pernicious Zionist influence, it’s not possible in America to have a rationale debate about Israel. Thus he told the Jewish Forward that he was dismayed that so few American Jews would even consider his proposal, whereas Europeans and even Israelis were more open to discussion.
Caught up in his idée fixe, in April of this year Judt took to the New York Times op-ed page to defend the argument advanced by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer that the “Israel Lobby” prevents open and unfettered debate in America of Israel’s policies. Incredibly, Israel’s liberal daily, Haaretz, also opened up its pages to Judt for an Independence Day jeremiad on how dismaying it was that at the age of 58 Israel was still so “uniquely” immature compared to all the other Western-style democracies, so unwilling to acknowledge its many errors and failings, so “full of wounded self-esteem” that it was unable see that the day of reckoning is coming for all of its sins against another people -- a reckoning, of course, that could only be averted by adopting the Judt bi-national state. The title of the essay was “The Country That Wouldn’t Grow Up.”
By coincidence Tony Judt was born in the same year as the state of Israel. I leave it to others to judge how grown up it is for a reputed scholar of Europe, who missed the story of the unraveling of the European model of integration, to continue on an obsessive quest to find failure on the one tiny island of sanity and democracy trying to survive in a sea of Muslim barbarism.
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