Tony Judt and Israel: The Country That Wouldn’t Grow Up

New York University historian Tony Judt, 58, has a complicated life story. Some of his relatives did not survive the Jewish Holocaust, but he was born in Britain and was an active Zionist youth leader there. He also lived on an Israeli kibbutz and volunteered in the Israel Defense Forces for a number of weeks during the 1967 war.

He was educated at King’s College in Cambridge and then attended the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. He since has taught at Cambridge, Oxford, Berkeley and NewYork University.

Judt currently is the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies and director of the Remarque Institute at New York University. The institute was funded in 1995 by the film star Paulette Goddard, Remarque’s widow. Remarque was the author of the book All Quiet on the Western Front, an internationally acclaimed anti-war novel written after World War I.

Judt himself is the author of 11 books, including The History of Europe Since 1945, which was published in 2005. He has written articles for The New York Review of Books, the London Times Literary Supplement,The New Republic and The New York Times and other journals in Europe and the United States.

In May of 2006 Judt wrote a feature-length article entitled: “The Country That Wouldn’t Grow Up” for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Published on Israel’s Independence Day, it recaps the country’s short history, describing what Judt sees as a steady decline in Israel’s credibility that began with the Six-Day War in 1967.

This past Oct. 4, Judt was one of six writers who participated in a symposium at Cooper Union of New York about the paper “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” written by University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer and Harvard University Professor Stephen Walt (see p. 44). The two highly respected academics created a furor by daring to write about Israel and its American lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

The three symposium participants criticizing the report were former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, former Mideast envoy Dennis Ross, now with the AIPAC-spinoff Washington Institute of Near East Policy, and former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. Judt defended the paper, along with Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University and Mearsheimer himself.

Judt has written extensively about European anti-Semitism, and was a judge for the Koret Jewish book awards. Over the years, however, he became disenchanted with what he calls “Israeli misbehavior” in the West Bank and Gaza, and claims that he no longer feels close to Israel, as he once did.

In an article published in the Oct. 23, 2003 New York Review of Books entitled “Israel: The Alternative,” Judt wrote, “Israel continues to mock its American patron, building illegal settlements in cynical disregard of the ‘road map.’ The president of the United States of American has been reduced to a ventriloquist’s dummy, pitifully reciting the Israeli cabinet line…

“The problem with Israel, in short, is not–”as is sometimes suggested–”that it is a European ‘enclave’ in the Arab world: but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’–”a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded–”is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

“Thanks to its occupation of the lands conquered in 1967, Israel today faces three unattractive choices. It can dismantle the Jewish settlements in the territories, return to the 1967 state borders within which Jews constitute a clear majority, and thus remain both a Jewish state and a democracy, albeit one with a constitutionally anomalous community of second-class Arab citizens.

“Alternatively, Israel can continue to occupy ‘Samaria,’ ‘Judea,’ and Gaza, whose Arab population–”added to that of present-day Israel–”will become the demographic majority within five to eight years: in which case Israel will be either a Jewish state (with an ever-larger majority of unenfranchised non-Jews) or it will be a democracy. But logically it cannot be both.

“Or else Israel can keep control of the occupied territories but get rid of the overwhelming majority of the Arab population: either by forcible expulsion or else by starving them of land and livelihood, leaving them no option but to go into exile. In this way Israel could indeed remain both Jewish and at least formally democratic: but at the cost of becoming the first modern democracy to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project, something which would condemn Israel forever to the status of an outlaw state, an international pariah….

“This is where the U.S. enters the picture. Israel’s behavior has been a disaster for American foreign policy. With American support, Jerusalem has consistently and blatantly flouted U.N. resolutions requiring it to withdraw from land seized and occupied in war. Israel is the only Middle Eastern state known to possess genuine and lethal weapons of mass destruction. By turning a blind eye, the U.S. has effectively scuttled its own increasingly frantic efforts to prevent such weapons from falling into the hands of other small and potentially belligerent states. Washington’s unconditional support for Israel even in spite of (silent) misgivings is the main reason why most of the rest of the world no longer credits our good faith.

“It is now tacitly conceded by those in a position to know that America’s reasons for going to war in Iraq were not necessarily those advertised at the time. For many in the current U.S. administration, a major strategic consideration was the need to destabilize and then reconfigure the Middle East in a manner thought favorable to Israel. Israel has no choice but to look to America–”it has no other friends…This is bad for Jews–”since it means that genuine anti-Semitism may also cease to be taken seriously, thanks to the Israel lobby’s abuse of the term. But it’s worse for Israel.”

In a little-known incident, Polish Consul General Krzysztof Kasprzk cancelled an Oct. 4appearance an hour before Judt was scheduled to speak to a nonprofit organization that rents space at the Polish Embassy. According to the Polish diplomat, after the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee called, he quickly concluded Judt was too controversial.

Judt was told by Patricia Huntington of Network 20/20, the group aimed at young businessmen that was sponsoring his talk, that the ADL’s Abraham Foxman had warned the consulate that anything involving Judt was too controversial. Foxman supposedly further warned that, if the event was held at the consulate, he would smear the charge of “Polish collaboration with anti-Israel anti-Semites all over the front pages of every daily paper in the city.”

Such threats have been reported by other writers as well, including Amos Elon, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and Rabbi Michael Lerner. Judt says the ADL was doing precisely what Mearsheimer and Walt claim it does: muzzling dissent.

So powerful is this lobby, the two American writers said, that their own study couldn’t be published in this country and had to appear in a British journal. Nevertheless, Americans are becoming aware of the dangers of the Israel lobby. Mearsheimer and Walt have signed a prestigious book contract with the New York-based publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, owned by the German publisher Holtzbrinck.

Silence of the Media

After this year’s Mearsheimer and Walt controversy, Judt, in “A Lobby, Not a Conspiracy,”published in the April 19, 2006 New York Times, noted that the essay and the issues it raises for U.S. foreign policy have been discussed and debated overseas. “In America, however,” he wrote, “it’s been another story: virtual silence in the mainstream media.”

Judt went on to posit that one of the reasons for the U.S. media’s “continued silence even after the article aroused stormy debate in the academy, within the Jewish community, among the opinion magazines and Web sites, and in the rest of the world [was] fear. Fear of being thought to legitimize talk of a “Jewish conspiracy”; fear of being thought anti-Israel; and thus, in the end, fear of licensing the expression of anti-Semitism.

“The damage that is done by America’s fear of anti-Semitism when discussing Israel is threefold,” he argued. “It is bad for Jews: anti-Semitism is real enough (I know something about it, growing up Jewish in the 1950s Britain), but for just that reason it should not be confused with political criticisms of Israel or its American supporters. It is bad for Israel: by guaranteeing it unconditional support, Americans encourage Israel to act heedless of consequences.

“But above all, self-censorship is bad for the United States itself. Americans are denying themselves participation in a fast-moving international conversation. Daniel Levy (a former Israeli peace negotiator) wrote in Haaretz that the Mearsheimer-Walt essay should be a wake-up call, a reminder of the damage the Israel lobby is doing to both nations. But I would go further,” Judt wrote. “I think this essay, by two ‘realist’ political scientists with no interest whatsoever in the Palestinians, is a straw in the wind.

“Thus it will not be self-evident to future generations of Americans why the imperial might and international reputation of the United States are so closely aligned with one small, controversial Mediterranean client state. It is already not at all self-evident to Europeans, Latin Americans, Africans or Asians. Why, they ask, has America chosen to lose touch with the rest of the international community on this issue? Americans may not like the implications of this question. But it is pressing. It bears directly on our international standing and influence; and it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. We cannot ignore it.”

Judt has noted that when we look back, “We shall see the Iraq war and its catastrophic consequences as not the beginning of a new democratic age in the Middle East but rather as the end of an era that began in the aftermath of the 1967 war.”

Obviously this is an unfinished dialogue. Let us hope that it continues without interruption.