Thinking of lives of remarkable people, I was drawn to this FT.com 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.