Tony Judt: Israel, and Free Speech (roundup of comments on the controversy)

Historians in the News

Hours before the New York University historian Tony Judt was scheduled to give a talk at the Polish Consulate in New York on "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," the event was called off. In an e-mail message to friends, colleagues, and the news media, Judt charged that "the talk was canceled because the Polish Consulate had been threatened by the Anti-Defamation League." For its part, the ADL, which has been critical of Judt's previous writings on Israel, acknowledged contacting the consulate but insisted that it had not sought to intimidate officials. Whatever the case, the controversy — coming on the heels of continuing debate over an article critical of U.S. support for Israel by the international-relations scholars Stephen Walt, of Harvard University, and John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago — has touched off an uproar. At least two petitions citing free-speech concerns, with signatures by noted intellectuals and scholars, have been circulating, and newspapers, commentators, and bloggers around the world have been weighing in.

Petition circulated by Mark Lilla, the University of Chicago, and Richard Sennett, NYU and the London School of Economics and Political Science: Though we, the undersigned, have many disagreements about political matters, foreign and domestic, we are united in believing that a climate of intimidation is inconsistent with fundamental principles of debate in a democracy. The Polish Consulate is not obliged to promote free speech. But the rules of the game in America oblige citizens to encourage rather than stifle public debate. We who have signed this letter are dismayed that the ADL did not choose to play a more constructive role in promoting liberty. (The New York Review of Books)

Petition circulated by Norman Birnbaum, Georgetown University Law Center: We express our solidarity with Professor Judt and Professors Mearsheimer and Walt. We consider that this nation's public sphere will be strengthened by a full discussion of both the American alliance with Israel and Israel's policies. In a historical moment when the "War on Terror" serves as an excuse for an American version of authoritarianism, we invite our fellow citizens to renew their own attachment to the Constitutional traditions of American freedom of speech and thought. (

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor: I wonder whether the shahid of Washington Square and his champions have spoken or signed anything against the boycotts of Israeli academics; but I will leave the double-standards research to others. The more significant point is that what Judt was prevented from delivering at the Polish Consulate was a conspiracy theory about the pernicious role of the Jews in the world. That is what the idea of "the Lobby" is. It is Mel Gibson's analysis of the Iraq war. (The New Republic)...

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Craig Evan Wollner - 11/1/2006

Judt, Mearsheimer, and Walt are wrong in the way they characterize the power of the Jewish lobby, but not wrong to broach the subject. To prevent Judt from speaking out on the problem is also profoundly wrong. It's called public debate and it's what democratic societies do when there is more than one interpretation of a critical issue.

At the same time, the ADL's throat clearing exercise with the Polish consulate provides a doubly ironic spectacle. It both reminds us of the threat that Jews historically have been under which, in turn, causes the nervousness of the ADL and calls up the residual burden of having been the threat itself.