Clear-eyed academic unafraid to defy the consensus

Thinking of lives of remarkable people, I was drawn to this article by Jurek Martin about fearless Anglo-Jewish intellectual and academic historian Tony Robert Judt.  Widely regarded as one of the most brilliant and genuinely original thinkers of our times, Judt rocked the Jewish world in 2003 with an article in The New York Review of Books, Israel: the Alternative.

It described the Jewish state as “an anachronism” and argued that Zionism’s ethno-religious exclusivity be replaced by an inclusive liberal democracy. In effect, it called for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian impasse, as he did again in a New York Times column only last month.

The Jewish lobby, keenly aware of his standing, took great offence. He was fired as a contributing editor to The New Republic magazine, whose literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, charged that Judt had become “the kind of intellectual whom his intellectual heroes would have despised”. Three years later a speech at the Polish consulate in New York was cancelled after protests from Zionists. His defence of an article by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt on the excessive influence of the Jewish lobby over US foreign policy fanned the flames.

Judt, born to poor secular Jewish parents in the east end of London, joined the Zionist youth group Dror, and spent several summers on kibbutzim.

“I was the ideal recruit,” he recalled, “articulate, committed and uncompromisingly ideologically conformist.” As such, he flew to Israel on the eve of the six-day war in 1967 and volunteered as an interpreter and driver for the army. The experience, however, marked the beginning of his disillusionment with Zionism, after encountering so much anti-Arab prejudice.  

Judt went on to read history at Cambridge and earned his doctorate there in 1972 with a dissertation on French socialism after the World War 1.

In 1987, after teaching at Cambridge, Berkeley and Oxford, he moved to New York University and eight years later helped found its Remarque Institute, which focuses on European studies. His own sweeping magnum opus, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, tracking its recovery from the ashes, with all its fits and starts, was published in 2005 to widespread acclaim.

He described his own legacy and philosophy in these words:   

“I think intellectuals have a primary duty to dissent not from the conventional wisdom of the age (though that too) but, and above all, from the consensus of their own community.” In the same vein, he liked to quote Camus: “If there were a party of those who are not sure they are right, I’d belong to it.”

And, in a recent newspaper interview:

“Today, I’m regarded outside NYU as a looney-tunes leftie, self-hating, Jewish communist. Inside the university, I’m regarded as a typical, old-fashioned, white, male, liberal elitist. I like that, living on the edge of both, it makes me feel comfortable.”

 Judt died a fortnight ago in New York of a motor neurone disease  (“Progressive imprisonment without parole,” he called it.)   He was diagnosed two years ago, but continued his writing and lecturing unabated.

Encased in a steel tube, unable to breathe unassisted or move his limbs, he dictated a most extraordinary and moving series of recollections and reflections that was published in The New York Review of Books, the most recent two weeks ago.


There was humour, too. Last October he addressed 700 people in Greenwich Village on European social democracy (working to the end, he turned it into his final book, Ill Fares the Land). He arrived on stage sheathed in metal, literally, and said, “a talking head . . . wearing facial Tupperware”. It had been suggested that he say something uplifting about his condition, “but I’m English, we don’t do uplifting”. He then spoke for two hours, without notes, the audience spellbound.


10 thoughts on “Clear-eyed academic unafraid to defy the consensus

  1. Hi Roger,

    Nice to see you blogging.

    I think virtually anybody with an interest in the subject would say they support “justice” for the Palestinians. But what does that actually mean? Are you able to sketch out a few of your specific ideas, in your own words, on how this might best be practically realised outside of a “one-state solution” that relatively few people on either side of the divide actively support?

    • Hi David

      I know the limits of my expertise and I’m afraid your request goes well beyond that. I was drawn to Tony Judt primarily as someone who was prepared to swim against the tide and question the consensus, and I’m deeply impressed with the way he handled his terrible illness.

    • David, perhaps you could sketch out your ideas of a “just” resolution?

      Personally, I have trouble seeing any truly just settlement, ever, even including the “one state” proposal, but I am always interested in the views of others.

    • Thank you David.

      This is the so-called international consensus solution, and one must hope it comes about if only to stop the violence, but I fail to see any actual justice for Palestinians in that proposal.


  2. No, it’s not the “so-called international consensus solution,” at least not if a random computer-search (just two matches to the phrase in English and none in Hebrew) is any guide. It’s a simple formula, promulgated by the international powers in the wake of a war launched by Arab armies against Israel, the basis of which is the relinquishing of territories captured by Israel in exchange for Arab guarantees of secure borders. This is what happened with Egypt and Israel. It can and hopefully will happen again (and indeed in some aspects is happening) with the Palestinians and Israelis.

    By the way, I notice from your blog that you are very much opposed to European colonization. Is this just an ideological thing or do you intend leaving NZ and going back to Europe any time soon?

  3. David

    What I refer to as the international consensus is affirmed every year by the United Nations General Assembly

    Here is an extract from the UN press release:

    Stressing the need for realization of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, primarily the right to self-determination and the right to their independent State, the Assembly adopted, by a recorded vote of 157 in favour to 7 against (Australia, Israel, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, United States), with 10 abstentions, an orally amended text on the “peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine,” which stressed the need for Israel’s withdrawal from the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967.

    I’m not sure which war you are referring to, as the only war initiated by Arab states against Israel was in 1973. In 1948, for example, Arab armies and volunteers acted to defend the Palestinians.

    And I have no idea of what you mean by “in some aspects is happening” as that view runs counter to the ongoing colonisation of the West Bank by “settlers.”

    As regards my view of European colonisation, I don’t oppose what has already occurred, that’s silly. I do disapprove of it, but it’s history now. What I do approve of is full and generous reparations for past wrongs, including return of at least a form of sovereignty where practicable eg autonomy for Tuhoe.

    In the case of Israel, because the indigenous people were not wiped out, dispersed or swamped, full return of sovereignty is very practicable.

    Therefore, I believe that ultimately sovereignty will return to Palestinians. I also believe that Israel’s elite understand the inevitably of this, which drives them to ever more desperate actions, alienating the country even more from the international community.

    I suspect there is not much common ground between us.


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