Tony Judt - Writings - Israel

Israel

Judt's mother and father were British citizens and secular Jews. Judt enthusiastically embraced Zionism at age 15. For a time he wished to emigrate to Israel, against the wishes of his parents, who were concerned about his studies. In 1966, having won an exhibition to King's College, Cambridge, he worked for the summer on kibbutz Machanaim. When Nasser expelled UN troops from Sinai in 1967, and Israel mobilized for war, he volunteered to replace kibbutz members who had been called up. During and in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, he worked as a driver and translator for the Israel Defense Forces. After the war, Judt's belief in the Zionist enterprise began to unravel.

In October 2003, in an article for the New York Review of Books, Judt argued that Israel was on its way to becoming a "belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno state." He called for the conversion of "Israel from a Jewish state to a binational one" which would include all of what is now Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This proposed new state would have equal rights for all Jews and Arabs living in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The article, which presented a view of Middle Eastern history and politics that had rarely been given exposure in the mainstream media in the United States, generated an explosive response, positive as well as negative. It drew strong criticism from pro-Israeli writers who saw such a plan as "destroying" Israel and replacing it with a predominantly Palestinian state governed by a Palestinian majority. The NYRB was inundated with over a thousand letters within a week of the article's publication, peppered with terms like “antisemite” and “self-hating Jew,” and the article led to Judt's removal from the editorial board of The New Republic. In April 2004 Judt gave a public speech at Columbia University in which he further developed his views.

In March 2006 Judt wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times about the John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt paper entitled "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy". Judt argued that " spite of provocative title, the essay draws on a wide variety of standard sources and is mostly uncontentious the Israel Lobby affect our foreign policy choices? Of course – that is one of its goals . But does pressure to support Israel distort American decisions? That's a matter of judgment." He summed up his assessment of Mearsheimer and Walt's paper by asserting that "this essay, by two 'realist' political scientists with no interest whatsoever in the Palestinians, is a straw in the wind." He predicted that "it will not be self-evident to future generations of Americans why the imperial might and international reputation of the United States are so closely aligned with one small, controversial Mediterranean client state."

In May 2006, Judt continued in a similar vein with a feature-length article entitled "The Country That Wouldn't Grow Up" for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The article, published the day before Israeli Independence Day, recaps Israel's short history, describing what Judt saw as a steady decline in Israel's credibility that began with the Six-Day War in 1967.

On 4 October 2006, Judt's scheduled New York talk before the organization Network 20/20 was abruptly cancelled after Polish Consul Krzysztof Kasprzyk suddenly withdrew his offer of a venue following telephone calls from the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. The consul later told a reporter that "I don't have to subscribe to the First Amendment." According to The New York Sun, "the appearance at the Polish consulate was canceled after the Polish government decided that Mr. Judt's views critical of Israel were not consistent with Poland's friendly relations with the Jewish state."

According to the Washington Post, the ADL and AJC had complained to the Polish consul that Judt was "too critical of Israel and American Jewry," though both organizations deny asking that the talk be canceled. ADL National Chairman Abraham Foxman called Judt's claims of interference "wild conspiracy theories." Kasprzyk told the Washington Post that "the phone calls were very elegant but may be interpreted as exercising a delicate pressure. That's obvious – we are adults and our IQs are high enough to understand that." Judt, who had planned to argue that the Israel lobby in the US often stifled honest debate, called the implications of the cancellation "serious and frightening." He added that "only in America – not in Israel – is this a problem," charging that vigorous criticism of Israeli policy, acceptable in Israel itself, is taboo in the US. Of the ADL and AJC, he said, "These are Jewish organizations that believe they should keep people who disagree with them on the Middle East away from anyone who might listen."

The cancellation brought support from a roster of academics and intellectuals who said there had been an attempt to intimidate and shut down free debate. Mark Lilla and Richard Sennett wrote a letter to Foxman in protest, which was signed by 114 people and published in the New York Review of Books. In a later exchange on the subject in the New York Review of Books, Lilla and Sennet argued that "Even without knowing the substance of those 'nice' calls from the ADL and AJC, any impartial observer will recognize them as not so subtle forms of pressure."

The ADL and AJC defended their decision to contact the Polish consulate and rejected Judt's characterization of them. Foxman accused his critics of themselves stifling free speech when "they use inflammatory words like 'threaten,' 'pressure,' and 'intimidate' that bear no resemblance to what actually transpired." He wrote that the "ADL did not threaten or intimidate or pressure anyone. The Polish consul general made his decision concerning Tony Judt's appearance strictly on his own." Foxman said that Judt has "taken the position that Israel shouldn't exist hat puts him on our radar," while David A. Harris, executive director of the AJC, said that he wanted to tell the consulate that the thrust of Judt's talk ran "contrary to the entire spirit of Polish foreign policy."

In a March 2007 interview, Judt argued the American need to block criticism of Israel stemmed from the rise of identity politics in the US. "I didn't think I knew until then just how deep and how uniquely American this obsession with blocking any criticism of Israel is. It is uniquely American." He added ruefully: "Apparently, the line you take on Israel trumps everything else in life".

Asked about his taste for controversy during an interview with NPR prior to his death, Judt stated "I've only ever published four little essays in a lifetime of book writing and lecturing and teaching, just four little essays which touched controversially on painful bits of other people's anatomies, so to speak. Two of them were about Israel".

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