The fate of nations
April 23, 2008
Like its author -- or, more precisely, because of him -- historian and commentator Tony Judt’s new book is by turns fascinating, edifying and frustrating.
As a university professor at New York University and head of that school’s Remarque Institute, Judt is one of our foremost historians of Europe, an elegant writer and subtle thinker whose last book -- “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945" -- was a Pulitzer finalist. His latest work, “Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century,” collects 24 of his essays, most of which have been published in the New York Review of Books and the New Republic.
The best of them (and they are very good indeed) deal with some of 20th century Europe’s major intellectual figures -- Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, Primo Levi, Hannah Arendt and Leszek Kolakowski, among others -- or with consequential historical phenomena such as the fall of France in 1940 and Romania’s emblematic nationalism.
A handful engage his more recent preoccupation with contemporary U.S. domestic and foreign policies, and there his arguments are more problematic, his grasp of the material less sure.
Only two touch on the direction that has, in recent years, made Judt the object of so much controversy -- his emergence as a passionate and formidable critic of America’s relationship with Israel, of Israel’s conduct generally and, in fact, of Zionism itself.
Judt, 60, was born in England, the son of Jewish refugees -- a Russian mother and Belgian father. He was educated at Cambridge, where he later taught, and at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. It’s a background that superbly prepared him to raise the two concerns that run through “Reappraisals.” One, he writes in his introduction, “is the role of ideas and responsibility of intellectuals.” The other is the way in which our current era has become “an age of forgetting. . . . In decades to come we shall, I think, look back upon the half generation separating the fall of Communism in 1989-91 from 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.”
Against that amnesia, the best of these essays set the examples of Koestler, who Judt thinks has been too quickly forgotten; Camus (his essay borrows Arendt’s description, “the best man in France” for its title); Levi, whom the author convincingly argues has suffered badly from misreading on both sides of the Atlantic; and Kolakowski, the Polish Catholic historian of Marxism whose definition of evil, “postwar intellectual life’s fundamental question,” Judt finds compelling.
“The Devil is part of our experience. . . ,” Judt writes. “Evil, I contend, is not contingent, it is not the absence, or deformation, of the subversion of virtue (or whatever else we may think of as its opposite), but a stubborn and unredeemable fact.”
As a student in England, 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.”
A critic responds
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.”
There’s an oddly jejune thread that runs through these essays -- the true-believing young Labor Zionist, disenchanted with the normalization of Jewish life in a Jewish state, becomes an anti-Zionist. The admirer of Camus, Raymond Aron and the fathers of European Social Democracy weighs the contemporary United States and Europe, for that matter, in the balance of his estimation and finds them wanting.
Somewhere here lurks an unexamined confusion between the unavoidable disappointments that real life deals and the idealistic and imagined betrayals.
Reappraisals Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth CenturyTony JudtPenguin Press: 448 pp., $29.95
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