Tony Judt: Praised as a public intellectual

Historians in the News

... “You don’t have to be Jewish to understand the history of Europe in the 20th century, but it helps,” Judt writes, and while it has certainly helped him as a historian, he has also made a very striking personal pilgrimage. In the 1960s he was an ardent young socialist-Zionist, spending time on a kibbutz and flying to Israel in her hour of need when the 1967 war began.

He is now a caustic opponent of Israeli policy, and of American policy toward Israel also, even offering sympathetic words about the widely anathematized “Israel Lobby,” by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Not only does Judt lament that the United States has suffered a catastrophic loss of international influence in recent years, thanks to “self-defeating and even irrational” conduct, in the Middle East above all; he says that the reflexive charge of anti-Semitism against critics of Israel, and of the American alliance with Israel, must ultimately be “bad for Jews — since it means that genuine anti-Semitism may also in time cease to be taken seriously, thanks to the Israel lobby’s abuse of the term.” Anyone who writes on this subject is asking for trouble (à qui ...), and Judt’s notably brave and forthright essays have brought him much obloquy. Yet whatever else may be said, he is unarguably right about one thing. The “historian of Opinion,” in Keynes’s phrase, cannot fail to see a huge “change of mood that proved lasting and with the consequences of which we are living still.”

At the time of the 1967 war, it was possible for Israelis to bask in glory, and to cheer when Abba Eban said that “never before has Israel stood more honored and revered by the nations of the world.” Those words would be impossible to utter today, even if, as Judt observes, many Americans don’t seem to have caught up with the great shift of sentiment throughout the rest of the world.

Looking back from our latest fin de siècle, the theme that stands out in Judt’s account is lost time, not in the Proustian sense but in Goethe’s: the moment that, once lost, Eternity will never give back. That is true of the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of Soviet Russia, years of “wasted opportunity and political incompetence on both sides of the Atlantic,” but true first of all of Israel, which after 1967 threw away a priceless chance for peace and for her own ultimate security.

In one of his endnotes, Judt says that his essay on the 1967 war was his last appearance in The New Republic, from which he has since been excommunicated. Just a few months earlier, he had appeared in the same magazine with a ferocious assault on “Koba the Dread,” by Martin Amis (unofficially known in literary London as “Stalinbad” — the book in which Amis “says that Stalin was a bad man”).

That evisceration was unkind, but not unfair. And it served as a reminder that, especially by comparison with the literary gentlemen and ladies — all the novelists, poets and playwrights with their preening political fatuities — historians have had a good record in this field. Few are better than Tony Judt, not only a historian of the first rank but (in a word we need an equivalent for) a politicologue who gives engagement a good name.

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