“I’m struck when I observe the Jewish community in the United States, especially in New York,” said Tony Judt last Saturday, Oct. 7, sitting cross-legged in his Washington Square Park apartment, “that it’s a community which is the most successful, the wealthiest, the most well-integrated, the most influential, the most safe Jewish community in the history of Judaism, period—anywhere, anytime—since the Roman Empire. And yet it’s driven by an enormous self-induced insecurity.”
The 58-year-old Mr. Judt, a British-Jewish professor of European history at New York University and director of the Remarque Institute, had just come off a busy week perhaps particular to accented intellectuals who speak controversially about Israel: Just days before, Mr. Judt found two of his New York speaking engagements, one at the Polish Consulate, the other at Manhattan College, suddenly canceled.
The ensuing chaos—a combination of conflicting news reports, pitched rhetoric and the specter of censorship raised in heated semi-public e-mail discussions—forced the spotlight back on Mr. Judt, an already divisive figure in the Jewish community, as well as in New York’s chatty intellectual hothouse.
“There are people out there like Chomsky and Finkelstein and others who take positions on Israel that are far more extreme than those of Judt, and who are thus much more easily pigeonholed and marginalized,” said Michael Massing, a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. “Because Judt has such a prominent position in the New York intellectual community and is so articulate, he’s seen as a much greater threat.”
Mr. Judt’s canceled appearances came on the heels of his Sept. 21 London Review of Books essay “Bush’s Useful Idiots,” which lambastes American liberal intellectuals for helping the President along the road to Iraq. But Mr. Judt was most notorious for his 2003 NYRB essay “Israel: The Alternative,” in which he called for a one-state solution as an end to the Israeli-Palestinian morass. (For many, that means the very end of Israel itself.) And on Sept. 28, he’d appeared at Cooper Union to argue in a debate—inspired by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s bomb-throwing essay in the London Review of Books—that an American Israel Lobby does, indeed, squelch honest discussion in the U.S.
As with all things academic (and all things Israel), l’affaire Judt has turned out to be a nuanced one.
“I’m not some kind of victim here. That’s garbage,” said Mr. Judt on Oct. 7. “I don’t even regard this as censorship. But I regard it as serious exercise of censorship by someone on someone else, with me in the middle.”
WHAT HAPPENED ON POLISH SOIL LAST WEEK was much ado about something—but what? By Tuesday, Oct. 10, it was still hard to tell whether or not—and if so, how closely— Jewish groups were tailing Mr. Judt.
On Tuesday, Oct. 3, Mr. Judt was scheduled to speak about the Israel Lobby to Network 20/20, a leadership organization for mid-career professionals, in space at the Polish Consulate. Network 20/20’s president, Patricia Huntington, called Mr. Judt around 5 p.m. and canceled. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Judt wrote in an e-mail to almost 100 “friends”—a list that includes David Remnick, Charlie Rose, Rashid Khalidi, Fareed Zakaria and Mr. Judt’s agents, Andrew Wylie and Sarah Chalfant— that, according to Ms. Huntington, “serial phone-calls from ADL president Abe Foxman warned [the Polish Consulate] off hosting anything involving Tony Judt.”
The next day, Oct. 4, The New York Sun’s Ira Stoll reported that the Polish Consulate took responsibility for the decision to cancel the event. Ms. Huntington again said it was the A.D.L. that had scared the Poles off from Mr. Judt’s speech. David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, was on record “bravo”-ing the Polish Consulate for doing the “right thing.” Mr. Stoll called Mr. Judt “hostile to the Jewish state” and noted the “quickening entente between free Poland and Israel.”
It appeared to Mr. Judt, who received the reporter’s call immediately after Ms. Huntingdon canceled, that the story in The Sun was a direct feed from the A.D.L.
Mr. Foxman admitted to contacting the consulate but denied pressuring them. “We received a couple calls and e-mails informing us that people heard that [Mr. Judt’s] speaking at the Polish Consulate and inquiring whether it was true,” Mr. Foxman told The Observer on Oct. 9, calling from a “quiet corner” in Rome. “One of our staff people called; they said they were just making the facilities available. We said, ‘O.K., thank you.’ As far as we were concerned, the issue was closed.” Mr. Foxman said he was pleasantly surprised the event had been abandoned.
He also denied being the source of the story in The New York Sun.
David Harris of the A.J.C did personally call the Polish Consulate. But he too was “shocked,” but pleased at the speedy results.
“I told the Consul General that I had just learned about a meeting that evening—and I wanted to be sure that he was aware of it,” said Mr. Harris. “He already was [aware] when I called. I wanted to alert him because we’ve worked with Poland for a long time, and Poland has worked since 1989 to build a strong relationship with Israel after decades of poor relations under the Communist regime—and because I knew that Tony Judt was not a universally popular figure in the Jewish community. We had a nice conversation.” He denied asking the Polish Consulate to take any action.
Both Mr. Foxman and Mr. Harris said they’d been keeping tabs on Mr. Judt since his NYRB essay.
In the meantime, members of Mr. Judt’s e-mail listserve agreed that, whatever his views, he deserved the right to speak. Mark Lilla of the University of Chicago and Richard Sennett of the London School of Economics e-circulated a petition to be sent to Mr. Foxman and the New York Review that read: “We who have signed this letter are dismayed that the ADL did not choose to play a more constructive role in promoting liberty.” The historian Timothy Garton Ash mentioned his friend Mr. Judt in an editorial on free speech published in the Los Angeles Times. Versions of the story were picked up in France, England and Poland, as well as in The Jewish Week and The Washington Post.
“Tony Judt is a scholar and writer of real standing, and it is wrong and foolish for anyone to try to muzzle or smear him,” David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, told The Observer by e-mail on Oct. 9. “We can use all the intelligent dissent we can get. If Abe Foxman really made that kind of effort—and I’ve done no independent reporting on it—then Abe Foxman was wrong.”
Then, late on Oct. 10, the Polish Consulate sent out a press release: “The unprecedented wave of press coverage of this incident is the result of misinformation released by Ms. Patricia Huntington …. Under no circumstance was the Consulate forced to do anything.” The release said that after the consulate canceled the event, Ms. Huntington phoned. “Since the [Consul-General] was engaged in a conversation with ADL at that very moment, he was unable to join, and Network 20/20 was so advised. This was the only bit of information on the contact between the Consulate and any Jewish organization or any individual that was passed on to Network 20/20.”
It concluded by saying that on Oct. 4, “Ms. Huntington sent an apology letter to the Consul General.”
Ms. Huntington did not return repeated calls from The Observer for comment.
“I don’t fully understand Ms. Huntington’s position,” said Mr. Judt, reached by phone on Oct 10.
“There’s a curious contradiction between the statement [the Polish Consulate] just put out and the direct quote from the Consul General himself in The Washington Post,” he went on. “What he says is, ‘The phone calls were very elegant but may be interpreted as exercising a delicate pressure. That’s obvious—we are adults and our IQ’s are high enough to understand that.’”
Mr. Judt added, “All I ever said was that pressure was exercised.”
ANOTHER CONFRONTATION THAT HAS RECEIVED less attention was the canceled speaking appearance at Manhattan College.
On Oct. 5, The Sun reported that Mr. Judt had withdrawn from attending an Oct. 17 event at the Holocaust Resource Center of Manhattan College. It turned out that Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, along with a number of local rabbis who have protested Mr. Judt in the past, had “threatened to picket the college” if Mr. Judt, “a State of Israel denier,” spoke during a forum on the Holocaust. (Mr. Judt is the author of 2005’s critically acclaimed Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945; the epilogue of the book details the moral failure of Europeans to recognize and memorialize the continent’s murdered Jews in the years following the Holocaust.)
Rabbi Weiss had suggested to Frederick Schweitzer, director of the center, that they invite another speaker to balance Mr. Judt’s views.
“But that’s not our way. We’ve never done that,” said Mr. Schweitzer, who invoked the First Amendment to Rabbi Weiss. “We implied, though, that had this situation built up at the time we negotiated Tony’s visit, our sense would have been to wait a couple years. Tony got upset about our not acknowledging his authority to speak on Israel.”
Mr. Schweitzer also said he was disappointed that his students wouldn’t hear get to hear Mr. Judt speak: “I insist that he is hypercritical of Israeli government policies,” he said, “but not seeking the destruction of the state of Israel.”
“I felt very embarrassed,” Mr. Judt said afterwards. He suggested that “State of Israel denier” was a “new term of art.”
“Here was a Catholic college with a laudable interest and emphasis on trying to educate its students about the genocide of the European Jews, squeezed in what is being presented as a dispute between pro-Israeli Jews and critical-of-Israeli Jews. That seemed obscene, and so I withdrew.”
THIS WEEK, MANY E-MAIL INBOXES of intellectuals, policy wonks and media types have blink-blinked with commentary about the divisive Mr. Judt, whose own e-mail listserve, he said, erupted with an “avalanche” of sympathy as well as some minor attacks. Brown University professor of history Omer Bartov asserted that Mr. Judt was in the wrong for joining “the chorus of those who negate Israel’s right to exist,” a charge that Mr. Judt vehemently denied. “Hard to resist the thought that the tactic you are now employing makes you sound an awful lot like Abe Foxman,” Mr. Judt replied.
Then came Peter Beinart of the New Republic. On Friday, Oct. 6, he wrote in a three-point e-mail that the abuse of free speech, if it actually happened, was “dead wrong.” But: “It is also unclear that readers would know that you are on record as opposing the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state—a position I find profoundly misguided and dangerous.”
At this point, Mr. Judt seemed to lose his cool. “Foxman, Harris and some others in the leadership of ‘official’ American Jewry are illiberal lying bigots—Fascists, as we used to say—and as a good liberal you’d not have one minute’s difficulty seeing that if they weren’t also Jewish. And I can get away with telling you that because I’m Jewish.”
“Foxman isn’t the problem—pollution like him swirls in the gutters of every democracy,” Mr. Judt also wrote. “Those who refuse to stand up to him are the problem. Ciao, Tony.”
Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic and longtime writer about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, called the week’s virtual back-and-forth a sort of “highbrow spam.” “It reached the point where I had to start erasing e-mails because the program wouldn’t let me send anymore,” he said.
Mr. Wieseltier has known Mr. Judt for eight or nine years and has sparred with his friend in print before; he attacked Mr. Judt’s “Israel: The Alternative.” (The two remained on friendly terms, though Mr. Judt was subsequently removed from the masthead of The New Republic as a contributing editor.)
Mr. Judt named Mr. Wieseltier as one of the guilty liberals in the essay “Bush’s Useful Idiots.”
“I don’t like being called a useful idiot,” said Mr. Wieseltier. “Tony seems to think that people with whom he disagrees are the pawns of interests and powers, while he sits at his desk writing purely in service of truth. The fact is that in political debate, everyone serves some interest, whether they intend to or not.
“Tony is suffering from an excessively heroic conception of himself,” he continued. “He’s under some illusion that nobody knows what he thinks or has never before heard anything like what he thinks. I admired Tony’s work because he was a staunch and learned defender of liberalism against precisely the kind of radicalism he now champions when it comes to the Middle East. He was the great student of Aron and Camus and the intellectually responsible people who understood how complicated the morality of power is, and refused to take any simple ideological line. But when it comes to Israel, he has become precisely the kind of intellectual whom his intellectual heroes would have despised.”
Mr. Wieseltier plans to write about Mr. Judt for The New Republic this Wednesday evening. “We’ll know by the end of the week,” said Mr. Wieseltier about whether the two would remain friends. But he planned to sign the Lilla-Sennett petition, because Mr. Judt “has every right to express his contemptible views.”
But why is Mr. Judt so popular among many liberals?
“We’re in the middle of another Peter, Paul and Mary concert,” said Mr. Wieseltier of Mr. Judt’s fans at the Cooper Union debate. “He’s an old-fashioned radical intellectual of a kind that liberals haven’t seen in a long time, of a kind that Clinton and Clintonism made impossible. And the left is pleased to be unburdened by the complications Clinton introduced to liberalism.”
As for Mr. Judt: “I regard Leon Wieseltier as a wonderful thing,” he said. “The front of The New Republic is a catastrophe; it’s run by smart young men out of Yale who know nothing about the world and think they know everything and are completely blocked on the Israel question. The back of the magazine is culturally fantastic, one of the best things going, and I think Leon does a great job there. But he simply can’t talk to me about my views on the Middle East.
“You’d have to ask Leon if he still considers me a friend—but we’ve not lost touch,” said Mr. Judt.
MR. JUDT GREW UP IN LONDON’S EAST END and has lived in the States since 1987 with dual citizenship. (He likes to marvel about the difference between the two continents.) He is married to Jennifer Homans, an American “from 20 generations of Dutch Episcopalians”—who, incidentally, works for Mr. Wieseltier as a dance critic at The New Republic. They have two children, ages 12 and 9.
Mr. Judt, a member of the Zionist Youth Movement in England, lived in Israel on and off throughout the 60’s as a young man. He volunteered with the Israeli army (not as a soldier) after the 1967 war. Mr. Judt doesn’t always include this bio with his writings.
“I deeply resent—not on my own behalf, but as a general point of principle about liberal society—that one should have to stick a legitimizing identity tag on one before one says something controversial,” he said.
In 1967, his opinion of Israel began to change. “I can probably identify the moment,” he said. “I was sitting around listening to young Israeli officers talking, and there was an inevitable macho: ‘Now we’re in charge, we’re the Jews with guns, and we’ve got all this land—and boy, we’re never going to give it back, and if they don’t like it, they can just leave.’ I was a 19-year-old left-winger, and I’d never heard this kind of language on a sustained basis.” Mr. Judt said he hasn’t been to Israel in three decades but plans to visit in January.
“I got involved in writing about Israel really only in the year 2002, when I began to realize that there was a sort of suffocating silence not only about what was happening in the occupied territories and in Israel and Israeli political culture,” he said, “but also that the suffocating silence was largely focused on the illegitimacy of anyone speaking lest they be accused of anti-Semitism.”
He said he lost one friend over his writings, which had made him “sad.”
“I’m not backtracking on anything I said,” Mr. Judt continued, “but I never said, ‘I advocate A, B or C.’ Who am I to advocate? All I said was: Look, Israel is structured as, in the 19th-century way, rather like Greece or Poland in their early national years. Everything is ethnically defined. So I said: That’s an anachronism, a dysfunctional anachronism in the Middle East—and in any case, it ain’t gonna last, because there’s going to be an Arab majority if we insist on occupying all of these Arab lands, and then how can it be a Jewish state? Because then it will be an apartheid state.”
He called the hot-button word “anachronism” an “analytical term.”
What, then, was the point? Was it an intellectual exercise or a plan for policy? Mr. Judt tried to explain his motivation. “I don’t always know,” he said. “Like anyone else, I’m not always in charge of my trajectory. But I do have the following thoughts: I’m an historian. But an historian is also a citizen; you don’t, as it were, switch off your civic responsibilities and put on the hat called historian—sometimes you have a civic view.”
Mr. Judt said he wasn’t opposed to a two-state solution. “If I thought that an Israeli political leadership would emerge that would withdraw to the 1967 borders, but would rein in its army on crossing those borders at will and was capable of convincing the Palestinians it meant it—yeah, I’d love to believe in it,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s going to happen.”
As to the charges regarding his own self-hatred, Mr. Judt said: “First of all, I deny it. But it’s like asking, ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ To have to deny something so nuts is weird. But there it is.”
How does he know real anti-Semitism when he reads pieces about Israel?
“It’s a tone—it’s a sort of insensitivity to the implications of your own words,” Mr. Judt said. “I suffer from a sort of cognitive dissonance on these sort of things, but yeah—I’ll read something and part of me will think: ‘Yes, you are analytically correct.’ And part of me says, ‘Eh, I didn’t like the way you said that.’”