Tony Judt’s mixed legacy

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“I must condemn a terrorism operating blindly on the streets of Algiers … and which one day might strike at my mother, or my family. I believe in defending justice, but first I will defend my mother.”

— Albert Camus

Influential political historian Tony Judt highlights this passage in his 1998  The Burden of Responsibility (University of Chicago Press) “as a moment of consummate, intuitive brilliance.”

Zipperstein takes on Judt (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

But a writer in The Chronicle of Higher Education notes:  “Why this same argument should be deemed brilliant in mid-20th-century Paris and mere cant in 21st-century Tel Aviv, Tony never, ever sought to explain.”

In a piece that’s bound to create controversy, Steve Zipperstein has taken on Judt, one month after his death at 62 from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Steve is the author of of last year’s acclaimed Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing and a man of great personal generosity and kindness.

Judt shot to fame after his 2003 article, “Israel: The Alternative” in The New York Review of Books.  I was impressed instead a year-and-a-half earlier with his less-touted “Road to Nowhere,” an article whose “icy clarity” (a term Judt uses to describe Raymond Aron’s assessment of France’s Algerian conflict) makes it a provocative must-read for those who broker peace.  His overarching theme:  At some point, all sides have to recognize that “the point was no longer to analyze the origins of the tragedy, nor assign blame for it. The point was to do what had to be done.”  (I’m not sure his political radar is as precise as his pragmatism. Aron again:  “It is a denial of the experience of our century to suppose that men will sacrifice their passions for their interests.”)

Zipperstein’s article is not skimpy on praise: He notes that Judt “stood out for his capacity to absorb vats of knowledge and analyze them with uncommon, if acidic, clarity, and his mind combined, in more or less equal measure, rhetorical radicalism and common sense.” He added that Judt’s new book, Ill Fares the Land: a Treatise on Our Present Discontents (Penguin Press, 2010), “was dictated over the course of a couple months as his illness progressed; it is a call to social austerity, to self-effacing, moderate, social-democratic principles—in short, a document of the conservative left.”

The two met in the 1980s, and broke after “Israel: The Alternative”: “The piece, a stark reversal from Tony’s previous stance on Israel (when young he spent some time there as a socialist activist), stated flatly that Israel was an ‘anachronism’ constructed out of an unholy amalgam of ethnic essentialism and bogus democracy. The only solution was the creation of one single unified state of Palestinians and Jews. The Jewish Daily Forward likened Judt’s article to an atomic explosion.”

Zipperstein is unpersuaded by Judt’s later insistence that he had been misunderstood, because “Tony contributed mightily to this by insisting, time and again, that he didn’t quite say what he so clearly did say.” Moreover,  “Tony increasingly spoke of Israel in ever-darker terms.”  Steve concludes:

“Tony Judt was an outstanding historian, a superb political journalist, and a man whose capacity for concision and analysis ensures that his books will be read and celebrated for years to come. It would be a shame if he is remembered primarily as one of the best and brightest of America’s anti-Zionists.”


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4 Responses to “Tony Judt’s mixed legacy”

  1. Elena Danielson Says:

    I think Judt’s conclusions in his grand book “Post-War” provide some context for his opinions on more contemporary problems. As I read it, he saw the convulsions of the 20th c as the modern era’s inevitably doomed effort to achieve ethnic homogeneity.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Czesław Miłosz felt the same way, of course. He praised the multi-ethnic tapestries in the pre-World War I empires. He himself was a Polish-speaking Lithuanian. He thought the world had lost much of its richness by the splintering of each tribe into its own nation.

  3. Steven Zipperstein Says:

    Elena — The conflation of the existence of a Jewish State and ethnic homogeneity is itself no more or less synonymous than is the assumption that a French state is inevitably exclusivist, and hence anachronistic. Steve

  4. Elena Danielson Says:

    I happen to agree with you, Steve. Thanks Cynthia for the insight from CM. I do love the descriptions of pre 20th century cultural mixes in places like Vienna, Vilnius, Alexandria and Baghdad. It seems like something important has gone missing in the post WWI world.

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