Tony Judt, RIP

Tony Judt

Tony Judt was always admirably blunt and would have wanted nothing but the truth in his obituaries. So I hope I can be forgiven for saying that he was not an agreeable man. I mean that in reference to his public persona, not what he might have been like in private: it was always easier to disagree with him than to nod in conformity at this ideas. When I heard the news of Judt’s death this morning my first thought was of all the times I’ve wrinkled my nose while reading him, the various bones I’ve had to pick with him over the years, the many essays and books he’s written which I’ve had problems with, small and large.

Judt’s greatest qualities were his contentiousness which bordered on the ornery, his unwillingness to follow a party line, his independence of mind.  I immediately thought back to his famous attack on social history — “A Clown in Regal Purple” (1979) – which struck me as profoundly churlish in its unwillingness to appreciate the efforts of historians to recover the voices and experiences of the marginalized. His study of postwar French intellectuals – Past Imperfect – was a formidable achievement but marred, I thought, by a certain lack of historical empathy, an unwillingness to grant his ideological foes a context for their follies.

Like many other people I admired Judt’s ideological evolution: he started off a hardened Israeli nationalist, indeed a member of the IDF in 1967, but became in the last decade an eloquent advocate for the Palestinians. But here again, he went too far for me: his advocacy of a one-state solution seemed uncharacteristically utopian and indeed endangers the one real hope the Palestinians have, the two-state solution.

It might sound like I’m putting down Judt but the reverse is true: I’ve learned more from him than I have from thinkers whose worldviews are closer to my own. He was a good man to argue with. The loss to our intellectual life is immeasurable.

In honour of Tony Judt, I’d like to point readers to one of his best pieces of writing, his tribute to Edward Said, another man who stirred up important and necessary arguments. Judt’s essay can be found here.

Of course, much of what Judt wrote about Said applies to Judt himself. An excerpt:

The real impediment to new thinking in the Middle East, in Edward Said’s view, was not Arafat, or Sharon, or even the suicide bombers or the ultras of the settlements. It was the United States. The one place where official Israeli propaganda has succeeded beyond measure, and where Palestinian propaganda has utterly failed, is in America. As Said observed in a May 2002 column for Al-Ahram, American Jews (rather like Arab politicians) live in “extraordinary self-isolation in fantasy and myth.” Many Israelis are terribly aware of what occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has done to their own society (if somewhat less sensitive to its effect on others). In the words of Haim Guri, an Israeli poet who served in the 1948 war, “Rule over another nation corrupts and distorts Israel’s qualities, tears the nation apart, and shatters society.” But most Americans, including virtually every American politician, have no sense of any of this.

That is why Said insists in these essays upon the need for Palestinians to bring their case to the American public rather than just, as he puts it, imploring the American President to “give” them a state. American public opinion matters, and Said despaired of the uninformed anti-Americanism of Arab intellectuals and students: “It is not acceptable to sit in Beirut or Cairo meeting halls and denounce American imperialism (or Zionist colonialism for that matter) without a whit of understanding that these are complex societies not always truly represented by their governments’ stupid or cruel policies.” But as an American he was frustrated above all at his own country’s political myopia: Only America can break the murderous deadlock in the Middle East, but “what the U.S. refuses to see clearly it can hardly hope to remedy.”

Whether the United States will awaken to its responsibilities and opportunities remains unclear. It will certainly not do so unless we engage a debate about Israel and the Palestinians that many people would prefer to avoid, even at the cost of isolating America–with Israel–from the rest of the world. In order to be effective, this debate has to happen in America itself, and it must be conducted by Americans. That is why Edward Said was so singularly important. Over three decades, virtually single-handedly, he wedged open a conversation in America about Israel, Palestine and the Palestinians. In so doing he performed an inestimable public service at considerable personal risk. His death opens a yawning void in American public life. He is irreplaceable.

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