If you’ve been following the news lately, you’re probably aware of the death August 6 of Tony Judt, the British-born historian of modern Europe. You’ll surely have noticed the cascades of tribute to “one of the world’s most prominent public intellectuals” (Toronto Globe and Mail), “a historian of the first order” (Time magazine), “widely regarded as one of the great political writers of modern times” (Los Angeles Times).
You’ll also have noticed, if you didn’t know already, that he was one of Israel’s most controversial critics. As some obituaries noted, he was a Jew so reviled by fellow Jews that his name became virtually synonymous with Israel-hater in many circles.
Reporter Guy Raz of National Public Radio said Judt “might be remembered for one word: anachronism.” That’s one of the things Judt called Israel in his notorious 2003 essay in The New York Review of Books, “Israel: The Alternative.” Fans and detractors alike cite the article as the turning point in Judt’s relationship with the Jewish community: the moment when he called for Israel to be replaced by a single, binational Jewish-Arab state.
Here’s something you probably didn’t know: It’s not true. Judt never called for Israel’s destruction or replacement by a binational state. Yes, “Israel: The Alternative” can be read that way — if you skip the first 16 of its 25 paragraphs.
What those first 16 paragraphs say is that the spread of settlements in the territories may have reached the point where it’s no longer possible for Israel to withdraw to the old borders, “within which Jews constitute a clear majority, and thus remain both a Jewish state and a democracy.” The two-state solution “is still the conventional consensus, and it was once a just and possible solution,” Judt wrote, but “I suspect that we are already too late for that. There are too many settlements, too many Jewish settlers, and too many Palestinians, and they all live together.”
That leaves only two possibilities: Keep control of the West Bank and Gaza (remember, he was writing in 2003) and become a binational state, or expel millions of Palestinians and become “an international pariah.” Hence, the “time has come to think the unthinkable. The two-state solution” is “probably already doomed.”
But, he wrote — this is the part that got quoted — “What if the binational solution were not just increasingly likely, but actually a desirable outcome?” After all, “Most of the readers of this essay live in pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural.” Indeed, “Israel itself is a multicultural society in all but name.” What’s missing is the recognition of its Jewish and Arab citizens as equal partners. That “would not be easy,” but “nobody has a better idea.” In other words, if you’re stuck with the lemon called binationalism, look for some lemonade.
To be sure, Judt didn’t make things easy either for the reader or for himself. Much of the essay was a scholarly but provocative history lesson. Modern Zionism began, he correctly noted, as one of many nationalist movements that arose in Europe a century ago, all seeking to create “ethnic” nation-states based on “language, religion, antiquity, or all three” amid the rubble of the Austrian, Russian and Ottoman empires.
The difference between Zionism and other ethnic nationalisms was that Zionism missed the post-World War I moment when ethnic states were all the rage. It was born after World War II, when — for obvious reasons, if you think about it — ethnic pride was losing its luster. Born out of its time, Israel was in the most literal sense “an anachronism.”
That drove people crazy. Which, in turn, drove Judt crazy. He hated being called an anti-Semite. He never called for abolishing Israel, he said repeatedly, and he hated hearing his ideas twisted out of shape. “I find the whole thing, in the end, depressing,” he told me in 2006.
I asked him then if he would have written the same essay after seeing Israel leave Gaza. “I might have written a few things differently,” he said. “A lot of my friends still believe that a two-state solution is possible. I’m more pessimistic, I guess.”
But did he think Israel’s existence was morally wrong? “Good God, no,” he said. “Of course I don’t believe that.”
It’s true that Judt had some nasty things to say about Israel and Israelis. In one 1983 essay he called Israel “a belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-state.” In one of his last published articles, a June 2010 New York Times Op-Ed essay, he wrote that Zionism “has moved a long way from the ideology of its ‘founding fathers’ — today it presses territorial claims, religious exclusivity and political extremism.” Perhaps cruelest of all, he wrote in the 2003 article that the unpopularity of Israel’s actions “affects the way everyone else looks at Jews,” and in that sense, “The depressing truth is that Israel today is bad for the Jews.”
It’s also true that he found this “depressing,” because as much as he hated to admit it, he was attached to Israel. It was his first political passion, and it never left him. He was angered that Zionism had wandered from its founding ideas. As a teenager he had been an enthusiastic member of a Labor Zionist youth movement, Dror, and rose to become its national secretary in Britain. He spent months at a time living and working on kibbutzim. He volunteered with the Israeli army during the Six-Day War as a driver and translator.
Most people don’t know much about Dror, which is partly why they don’t get Tony Judt. Smaller than either Hashomer Hatzair to its left or Habonim to its right, with which it later merged, Dror was the youth arm of Achdut Ha’avodah (“Unity of Labor”), an offshoot of Israel’s dominant Mapai labor party. It preached a quirky mixture of doctrinaire Marxism and equally doctrinaire Greater Israelism.
It was during and after the Six-Day War, as he often recalled, that Judt lost faith in the orthodoxies of his youth. But not as radically as he liked to suppose. His socialism didn’t disappear but softened into a passionately tolerant social democracy. As for his Zionism — well, that’s what we’re exploring right now, isn’t it?
His critics charged that for all his acclaimed breadth and clarity of historic vision, he lost his objectivity when it came to Israel. He regularly dismissed the claim as beneath reply. For some reason, though, he got sentimental with me, one Labor Zionist to another.
“I can’t pretend that it’s not connected to me,” he said of Israel. “I have relatives there. I used to know it well. I feel almost as I would if it were my own country that were misbehaving. I care about it more than I do about other countries.”
I accused him of still loving Israel. He got all huffy for a bit, but he didn’t deny it.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).