Tony Judt is a scholar who was until recently best known for his writings on European history. But then, in a 2,900-word essay in the October 23 edition of The New York Review of Books, Judt dropped the intellectual equivalent of a nuclear bomb on Zionism, calling for the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state.
Judt argued in his essay that Israel is quickly on the way to becoming a “belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno state.” The ethnic basis of Israeli laws, Judt said, was counter to the modern, democratic ideals to which Israel holds itself. In place of a Jewish state, he argued, should emerge a binational state with equal rights for all Jews and Arabs currently living in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The response to the essay, “Israel: The Alternative,” was fast and furious, with several vehement critics seemingly ready to dismantle Judt, the London native and director of the Remarque Institute at New York University.
In the first weeks after his essay was published, Judt and The New York Review received more than 1,000 letters, many peppered with terms like “antisemite” and “self-hating Jew,” and some going so far as to threaten the scholar and his family. Judt was removed from the masthead of The New Republic, where he had been listed as a contributing editor, and condemned by the magazine’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, and other pro-Israel commentators.
In the end, the outrage in many circles appeared to boil down to one basic question: “What kind of a Jew would write such things?”
A “proud” one, answered Judt, in a recent interview with the Forward, insisting that despite his transformation from teenaged Zionist activist to 50-something Zionist apostate he is still happy to be connected to the “annoying, burdensome, proud, difficult, unique, Jewish heritage.”
Born in 1948, the same year that Israel came into existence, Judt was raised in the heavily Jewish East End section of London by a mother whose parents had immigrated from Russia and a Belgian father who descended from a line of Lithuanian rabbis.
Like many other Jewish parents living in postwar Europe, Judt’s mother and father were secular, but they sent him to Hebrew school and steeped him in the Yiddish culture of his grandparents, which the scholar says he still thinks of wistfully.
Urged on by his parents, Judt enthusiastically waded into the world of Israeli politics at age 15, rising to become the national secretary of the Labor Zionist youth movement Dror. He helped promote the immigration of British Jews to Israel and organized relief missions to the fledgling Jewish state.
Just after the Six Day War, Judt, then 19, dropped out of Cambridge and went to Israel, where his excellent Hebrew allowed him to work as a translator for international volunteers aiding the army.
While many Jews throughout the world found themselves inspired by Israel’s dramatic victory in 1967, it was during the aftermath of the war that Judt’s belief in the Zionist enterprise began to unravel.
“I went with this idealistic fantasy of creating a socialist, communitarian country through work,” Judt said. The problem, he began to believe, was that this view was “remarkably unconscious of the people who had been kicked out of the country and were suffering in refugee camps to make this fantasy possible.”
When he returned to Cambridge to finish his studies, he did not turn against Zionism, but he did push questions regarding Israel to the back of his mind. Over time, though, on top of his increasing discomfort with Israeli policy toward Palestinians, the idea grew in his head that a national homeland and haven for Jews was no longer necessary. Judt said that he began to think that “the rule of law, the power of Western states and international diplomacy” provided better protection than the Jewish state.
“Even if I felt threatened as a Jew,” Judt told the Forward, “I would never want to go to Israel.”
Judt went further in his essay, arguing that rather than serving as a safe haven for Jews around the world, Israel and its policies were responsible for a global spike in antisemitism. “The depressing truth,” Judt wrote, “is that Israel today is bad for the Jews.”
This argument, perhaps more than any other, aroused the anger of Judt’s critics, including Wieseltier. “Surely Israel is not bad for the Jews of Russia, who may need a haven; or for the Jews of Argentina, who may need a haven; or for the Jews of Iran,” Wieseltier wrote in his lengthy response to Judt, published in the October 27 edition of The New Republic.
Wieseltier attributed Judt’s essay to a misguided sense of embarrassment and internalization of antisemitic attempts to blame all Jews for Israeli policy decisions.
“I mean that Judt is embarrassed by Israel. And so Israel must be gone,” Wieseltier wrote. He added: “The behavior of the self-described Jewish state seems to have affected the way everyone else looks at him. I detect the scars of dinners and conferences. He does not wish to be held accountable for things that he has not himself done, or to be regarded as the representative of anyone but himself.”
“That is garbage,” Judt responded, when asked about Wieseltier’s theory. In order to be embarrassed, Judt said, he would have had to have precisely the kind of abstract, ethnic identification with Israel that he believes is so antiquated. With all this venom being exchanged, Judt told The New Republic that he would understand if his name were dropped from the masthead. A week later it was, without any further communication, Judt said.
Judt told the Forward that while he understood the controversial nature of his call for a binational state, he was taken aback by the refusal of most of his critics, especially the American ones, to even consider the idea. European and Israeli readers and discussion partners did not voice the same vehement objections to his proposal, Judt said. Indeed, the only approving response published in The New York Review came from writer Amos Elon, an Israeli expatriate now living in Europe.
“Americans, unlike most other Jews in the world, think of Israel not as a country, but as a guarantee,” Judt said. “It made me feel a growing responsibility to provide another way of looking at these issues.”
Judt seemed remarkably unperturbed by the deeply critical response to his essay from American Jews, a reflection that appears to stem in part from his rather dim opinion of the Jewish community. “It is such an insecure community,” Judt said, “so desperate to find some basis for its own identity.”
The scholar said that he does not identify with Israel or the American Jewish community, and acknowledged that this partially explains his lack of attachment to the Zionist state.
Still, Judt said, he considers himself a “proud Jew.” He said that he has every intention of providing his two young sons with a strong education in Jewish history and tradition, while also instilling a respect and understanding for the other religions in the Western world.
Judt has mostly shied away from any Jewish communal involvement, except for his stint as a judge for the Koret Jewish Book Awards. With other Jewish dinner engagements probably off the table for the foreseeable future, Judt said he plans to continue in that capacity.
“I don’t see why my position on Israel should disqualify me as a good Jew in the Jewish community or Jewish literary circles.”