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Arguing the World

In his last book, the late intellectual Tony Judt is sharp as ever—offering biting comments about American Jews, Israel, and his ex-wives

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Tony Judt, 2002. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo James Leynse/Corbis.)

Thinking the Twentieth Century, the last book by the late NYU historian and intellectual provocateur Tony Judt, is the product of an unusual collaboration. Before Judt was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in the summer of 2008, he was planning to follow up Postwar, a now canonical account of Europe since 1945, with a history of 20th-century social thought. But the incurable neurological disorder made it impossible for him to write.

Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of the critically acclaimed Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, and a longtime friend of Judt’s, suggested that Judt talk the book out with him, instead. Most Thursdays, for most of 2009, Snyder visited Judt’s apartment in Manhattan’s Washington Square and recorded their conversations. The men worked on the final product until a couple weeks before Judt’s death in August 2010, at the age of 62. The result mixes history and ideas, Judt’s personal journey from a young Zionist to a lapsed Marxist, and current politics. Each chapter—from the first, on Judt’s Jewish upbringing, to the last, in which he makes his argument for a renewed social democracy—begins with an extended biographical section in Judt’s words, followed by a dialogue between him and Snyder, who asks questions and offers his own thoughts.

Judt’s mind and elbows are as sharp as ever. At turns, he is biting about colleagues and ex-wives, the political right, and—no surprise to those who followed his political writing—Israel. Judt gained wide notoriety for a 2003 New York Review of Books essay that argued that to remain a democracy, Israel needs to morph “from a Jewish state into a binational one.” The New Republic subsequently dropped Judt as a contributing editor, and Judt’s career as a Francophonic, British, Jewish, New York public intellectual, so to speak, flourished. I sat down with Snyder last week in New Haven to talk about Judt, their friendship, and their new book.

A “spoken” book comes with its own logistical challenges, but this also must have been emotionally challenging. You befriended Tony Judt, who was 21 years your senior, when you were an undergraduate at Brown. As you note in the foreword, every time you saw him during the course of writing the book, he seemed to deteriorate physically.

The important thing is that it wasn’t primarily a challenge for me. It was primarily a challenge for Tony. He’s the one who’s now in the position that in order to work he has to talk instead of write. He’s the one who instead of being humiliated, chooses to be humble and to accept that working with someone else might be a good idea. That he chose to overcome utterly horrible physical limitations in order to keep working at his ideas, and that he did so extremely well, transcending not only his condition, but in my view some of his previous intellectual limitation—that, for me, is the truly remarkable thing.

This kind of collaborative book is common in Central Europe and France. You call the Polish poet Czeslaw Miłosz’s interviews with the writer Aleksander Wat, My Century, the best of the “spoken” genre, and the first book that Judt ever read in Czech, which he learned in middle age, was Karl Capek’s conversations with the Czech statesman Tomáš Masaryk. Why is it so rare in America?

It’s a matter of really being able spontaneously to call up the best in yourself, on both sides, over and over and over again, without preparation. It’s harder than it looks. Tony not only had a fantastic memory, but he could recall almost at will what was in that memory. I don’t think Americans are generally that articulate—I say this as an American. I don’t think very many of us could do this sort of thing.

Was it a form of psychological relief?

I think it allowed him to be him, at least for a moment. The Tony who was immobilized and certain of death was in many ways a different person who hadn’t been immobilized and certain of death. But our long conversation was a way for him in his new situation to express himself and to continue to work, and to continue to think, and to continue to progress. I think he really would forget the breathing apparatus, he would forget the immobility, for a time. I think there were moments when, because he was only in his mind, his mind was all that mattered to him.

Judt grew up in a working-class London Jewish home. His academic work was primarily on France. And he spent the last two decades of his life in New York. Yet did Judt have an essentially English mind?

It was a Jewish mind, and Jewish history, recent Jewish history, was always at the back of it. And it was a contestatory mind. He described himself as an outsider, and the default way he could be an outsider was his Jewishness. Even if he didn’t stress it, it was the safe, haimish way of being an outsider.

It was an English mind in that he had an English education and loved the English language. This was one of the ways in which he was conservative. He was the product of a very conservative educational system—almost reactionary I would say—all the way through. And that was one of the reasons why he was so confident with language, not only personally, but also confident about what the language could do, the purposes it could serve, how far you could take it. Like Churchill, he had faith in the transformative capacity of language. It was worth making arguments correctly and well because it might actually make a difference.

It was a French mind in that it was dialectical. He believed in argument. He believed in sacrificing friendships for ideas. It was a polemical mind, but only because he believed that ideas really were the world and that argument could bring us closer to understanding.

It was an Eastern European mind in a 1989 sort of way, a pluralist way. He accepted that no matter what the historical suffering in your life was (Jewish mind), no matter how precise formulations were (English mind), no matter how powerful your ideas were (French mind), there was in fact no one right answer to everything. That if you are going to be decent and responsible and fundamentally correct, you have to be a pluralist.

And finally, it was an American mind at the end in that he understood that optimism [is] our default mode of thinking; “it’ll work itself out, the market will take care of it, history will take care of it, our good faith will take care of it.” Understanding that national tendency, he knew what he was working with and against, and was critical and clear in a way that resonated here, whether or not people agreed with him.

Tony came to think of himself as a public intellectual. What’s the job description?

It’s something he kind of backed into, and he wouldn’t have embraced the term so comfortably. Normally when we talk about intellectuals we talk about a common formation, common experiences, and so on. He did a pretty good job of not sticking with experiences of everyone else. You can’t say there was the Tony Judt school or the Tony Judt agenda. He was a loner, and he was often criticizing the people with whom you might think he would have shared the solidarity of a milieu.

The classic example of that is the Iraq War, when a lot of people, also of Jewish origin, also of the left, also of the generation of 1968, were making one kind of argument and he was making exactly the other sort of argument with all sorts of political and personal results. So, he was definitely an intellectual, but he was an intellectual by not being with other intellectuals—just as that vocation itself was tumbling toward collapse.

He wasn’t afraid of what other people thought. He puts his points very sharply. He tried very hard to be his own man, which is a lot harder than it sounds.

Judt was especially withering about pundits in the press, famously calling David Brooks’ work “garbage,” and he stressed the importance of having an expertise. But why does his deep knowledge of French intellectual history give him any greater authority than Brooks to speak about the wisdom of the Iraq War? Judt was also a talking head when he played the role of polemicist.

Well, one of them was dead wrong and one of them was dead right.

The question is: What do you want to have inside that head in that 99.9 percent of the time when that head is not talking in front of the camera? I don’t think that Tony would say you have to be a historian. I think Tony would have said there has to be some way that you exercise your mind such that what you say can be at cross-purposes with dominant reality.

I think his problem with David Brooks—just taking that as a general example—is that too much of what he said was simply an articulation of what was already happening anyway. And articulating what’s already happening anyway is fundamentally of no use, and indeed damaging. Just going along with what’s happening anyway as is determined by greater forces than yourself is not knowledge. It’s not the right kind of life.

Tony could be extremely critical of the blind spots and failures of other public intellectuals. He made his public name initially with Past Imperfect, his 1994 book that excoriated the French left for their refusal to see Stalinism for what it was. Yet when it comes to his own views, he remained sympathetic toward Marxism.

No matter how self-critical we are, the story we tell about ourselves can rarely withstand any serious kind of interrogation. In this book, I was seriously interested in a question that Tony exemplifies, but which transcends Tony, which is: How is it that experience affects ideas? The way that appears in the book, I think, reveals him in a good light because he was responsive to my repeated and sometimes critical inquiries. Even if you are not suffering from horrible illness, it’s not necessarily that pleasant to have someone to your apartment who constantly questions what you’ve said about your past life, which is what I did, hopefully respectfully, but also hopefully revealingly.

But I think you’re right that Tony is biographically much more capable of understanding British left-wing historians of an older generation like E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawn, with whom he had a very critical, but nevertheless mutually admiring, relationship than he is with people on the right. That remains the case even as his Marxism fades away in the 1980s. I think that has to do with the fact that his Marxism was never the kind of commitment which would mean that he would join the party, as Eric did. He could neither fall in love with it, nor could he fall out of love with it. It was always just there.

The idea that communism was a “God That Failed” doesn’t seem to resonate with him.

Communism as a God that failed is something he observes and chronicles, especially in this book, but it is not something that he experiences. Marxism for him was more a way of seeing the world; it wasn’t a way of being the world. The only way that he had of being the world was Zionism. And that, I think, explains why he doesn’t think total identifications with national communities is intellectually helpful.

Tony was a Zionist in his youth, and even spent time on a kibbutz. But he dropped it when he became involved in the leftist campus politics of 1968. Around the same time he published that 2003 piece on Israel, he also wrote that Belgium, a binational structure of the kind he thinks the Jews and Arabs ought to build, is doomed. And the Walloons and the Flemings share a religion, are fully economically integrated, and live in Europe. If Belgium can’t last, how could a binational Israel in the Mideast?

I’m glad somebody else noticed that. Rereading all of Tony’s stuff, which I did, that was striking. He takes a very conventional line about the nation-state with Belgium. If there’s not really a nation, there’s probably not going to be a state, and dissolution is what we expect. And the logic he applies to Israel does not seem to fit that, and of course Israel is not surrounded by the European Union.

But I took the Israel essay seriously and I take it seriously, although I don’t think he was correct about the politics of it for this very reason. I’m no Israel expert but I don’t think a one-state solution would actually work. I think to understand that piece one has to go back to what we were just saying. I think Tony’s attitude about Zionism had to do with his earlier embrace of Zionism.

Zionism was the God That Failed.

He was overstated about his critique of Israel in a way that you might be once you have given up your faith. That’s how I read it. That doesn’t mean one should just dismiss it.

There are a couple things about which I think Tony was right about even if he was wrong about the solution. He was certainly right that Israeli politics were moving toward the right, and that without a solution to the Palestinian problem this trend would continue.

Another way he was right while being wrong was revealed by the American reaction itself: This man hates Israel, this man wants to destroy Israel, that this man is a Jewish anti-Semite, and so on. But he’s saying something that Israeli high-school students will write in essays and no one in Israel will think this is outrageous. They might think it’s wrong, but no one in Israel is going to get up in arms about something that’s been discussed there for years.

Well, the fight he sets out to pick is exclusively with American Jews—

Exactly, that’s what I mean. The idea was to permit an American discussion …

—he does it repeatedly. In your book there’s a line about the “pernicious role played by the diaspora.” In Memory Chalet, he accuses American Jews of exploiting the Holocaust “to justify uncompromising Israelphilia and to service lachrymose self-regard.” Where does that come from?

Tony was, late in life, an American in Manhattan. And he was a Jew in Manhattan. But he was profoundly not an American Jew in Manhattan. So, how are you different from the people around you is a question he asks himself to prepare to understand the world around him. Vis-á-vis American Jews, he’s an English Jew, or an Englishman, or a European, or something else. The need to be an outsider in order to get a grip on the inside can be a healthy impulse. It’s a way of not just falling in and believing what everyone else is believing. But, as I say, the fact that people reacted to the Israel essay as they did suggests that he had sniffed something out. If a prevailing consensus is both so strongly felt and so intellectually brittle, there’s probably something wrong.

Some American Jews think you have to deny your Jewishness more in England than here, and maybe that’s something they picked up on, fairly or not, with him. As you say, for a long time he avoided the centrality of the Holocaust both to 20th-century Europe and to himself.

But that’s true of his whole generation, including the Americans and the French and so on. And in the book, we are trying to understand why that was and correct it. That’s Chapter 1.

I don’t want to get into a generalized dispute between English and American Jews over who’s more or less Jewish, but it does strike me that Tony thought that his English education, including the experience of rather direct anti-Semitism, affirmed his Jewish identity. And he says it in the book, so I don’t think it’s a subject that I need to expound on.

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His was a specifically ashkenazi intellectual outlook. Any Jew who has had the bad luck to live under an Arab regime (the majority of Israelis and their children) would view the bi-national solution as absurd, condescending and ignorant. The fact that he seriously put it out there reflects poorly on the rest of his work.

It is important to search for one or more rational criteria by which to evaluate the Zionist project, i.e. the Jewish People’s 20th century implementation of its aboriginal and treaty rights to its ancestral homeland. An example of an inappropriate criterion would be whatever made Tony Judt feel more comfortable and accepted in academic circles in New York and beyond. By contrast, an appropriate criterion might be whether Zionism has –all things considered — diminished death and human suffering. Actually few human lives have been lost in all the conflicts connected with the Zionist project, relative to the few hundred thousand Jews who were able to leave Europe for Palestine in the interwar years. Had they stayed where they were, those Jews would certainly have been killed by the Nazis. This is what I call the beginning of some proper ethical thinking about Zionism. And, I imagine that, after the Second World War, there were also some Jewish lives that would have been lost but for the existence of the “national home for the Jewish People” and then Israel. In this calculus, I am not privileging Jewish life over other life. But, at the same time, I am not placing less value on a Jewish life.

Reuven Savitz says:

Judt may have been a talented contrarian but he was – to be kind -a dismal observer of current events and historian of recent ones. Significant Arab leadership’s assertive embrasure of Hitler’s intent to exterminate Jews, relentless rejection- past as well as present- of any Jewish sovereignty in “Arab” land, unbridled violence against the nascent Jewish state, rhetoric to make the Nazis proud and repeated assurances that the “refugees’ from the non existent and nameless state would return to “their” land and on and on – long before the “right” was in any position to do anything to create obstacles to the nothingness of Arab interaction with Israel. The Arabs drove Jews throughout their domains out to nowhereland – and most settled in a Jewish state.

1967 – Arab vow: No negotiation, No recognition, No peace. But Judt was the brilliant analysis who sees Jewish mendacity as the pivot of conflict. Toynbee incarnate.

Judt traveled a self torturing journey and Jews were his foil and their travail his escape.

Bill Pearlman says:

Just another Jew who curried favor by kissing the ass of people who hate us. that’s all he was.

Ephraim says:

Why on earth should anyone pay even one iota of attention to Tony Judt’s opinions on Jewish issues?

His last wife, with whom he had two children, is an Episcopalian. I think it is an incredible chutzpah for a man like him, who abandoned his people for the life of, if I may be so bold, a “rootless cosmopolitan”, to pontificate on what has to be done to “solve the Jewish question”.

I mean, we already know what his answer is. After all, he lived it. His advocacy of a bi-national state, in which the Jews would inevitably be reduced to a powerless minority at the mercy of the Arabs, is nothing more or less than his own life writ large. For him, Jewishness was not worth preserving, so of course he advocated policies that would lead to the disappearance of the Jewish people as a people. Hey, it worked for him, right? What’s not to like?

One might as well tell blacks that in order to solve the “black question” they need to marry whites until they leech all of their color out. Anyone saying such a thing would, of course, be tarred and feathered as the worst kind of racist, and deservedly so.

Yet Judt advocates essentially the same thing for the Jews and is lionized as a leading Jewish intellectual. And by the Jews themselves, yet!

Pathetic. You need to start interviewing people who don’t think it’s a bad thing to be Jewish.

Bennett Muraskin says:

Judt was an internationalist, not a nationalist–Jewish or any other kind. I’ll take his espousal of universal humanist principles over the ethnocentric bile that passes for much of the above commentary.

He was a brilliant historian, a broad ranging intellectual and a critical minded Jew.

Einstein, Buber, Scholem, Arendt, Magnes and Szold were bi-nationists too.

All self-hating Jews, right?

Ephraim says:

If internationaalism were safe for the Jews, I would advocate it. Since it has been proven that it is not, I don’t.

Generally, secular Jews who, for one reason or another, are not overly concerned with the continued existence of the Jewish people as a people, advocate one form of internationalism or another. I don’t think that such people are necessarily self-hating, they just subscribe to a vision of Jewishness that does not lend itself to the perpetuation of the Jewish people. I don’t think it must be true that Judt hated Jews or himself; he just clearly did not think that the continued existence of the Jewish people was particularly important.

Also, when one speaks of “internationlism”, what is meant by this? Are all of the distinct peoples of the earth expected to voluntarily give up their distinctiveness all in the name of “internationalism”? What language would this new “international” person speak? What culture would he have? Where would he live?

To ask this question is to answer it. Only the Jews are required to stop being eho they are, all in the name of “international brotherhood”. No one would dream for a moment of asking, say, the Chinese to abandon their language, culture, or country in the cause of “internationalism” and to then accuse them of being damned troublemakers if they demurred. Tellingly, there is no such thing as “the Chinese Question”.

But, of course, it is very easy to ask the Jews to give up what other peoples take for granted. I mean, after all, how many of us are there? And is mainatining our Jewishness really worth the struggle?

This is the story of the Jewish people from the very beginning of our history. Always people have accused us of being elitist outsiders, while jealously guarding and advocating their own uniqueness, simply because we want to stay who we are.

Insisting that the Jews abandon their existence as a people while not requiring others to do the same is a pretty good definition of anti-Semitism, it seems to me.

Liesel says:

Thank you, Bennett Muraskin, for the shortest, clearest comment on this conversation with Snyder about Judt, whose many articles in the NYReview of Books, before the last series on his personal history, often made me uncomfortable, but always made me think. Most of the commentators above who posit so much about Judt’s cosmopolitan, “internationalist” lifestyle (the grieving wife, tsk; the fatherless kids, tsk, tsk?) haven’t made the effort to follow his work or even understand Snyder’s point of view as someone who knew Judt and his mind well.

Lest anyone try to deck Snyder for “diluting” the impact of the Shoah in his own book (oh, that’s coming), just because other peoples died by the millions, he doesn’t dilute anything. These two writers had in common thoughtful and deeply reasoned confrontations with the last century’s violence(s) and don’t deserve castigation for what they observed, wrestled with and put out there for us to read and think about. Why not try READING before bringing out your snarling prejudices? That’s what people do who evolve from earlier standpoints to face their second thoughts. It’s so easy to complain without that pesky necessity — scholarship, if you can do it, or readership, if you can’t. If you don’t, who’s abandoning his/her people??

Jehudah Ben-Israel says:

It is fashionable to be critical of Zionism and Israel in various quarters.

Perhaps, the critics should, every once in a while, do some homework. A good place to begin appreciating the legal basis for the conflict about which so many of us don’t cease talking, and the way to resolve it, is to delve a bit into the following:

Pleasant reading and reflection!

Bennett Muraskin says:

There are millions of Chinese who live outside of China who have integrated into the societies in which they now live.

What is wrong with that?

In any event, integration does not mean assimilation, nor does internationalism. Preserving a culture is not inconsistent with internationalism.

The analogy with Chinese people is inexact. Jewish peoplehood is more complicated. Most of us have been “in Diaspora” for at least 2,000 years!

Different branches of the Jewish family have developed and diverged so far that it is hard to see what Ashkenazic Jews, Sephardic Jews, Mizrakhi Jews have culturally in common–and even harder with more esoteric Jews (from Ethiopia, Kurdistan, India etc.)

I too wish Judt was more connected to his Jewish heritage, but to his credit, he saw the pitfalls of Jewish nationalism and how easily it can degenerate into distruct, fear, and hatred of the “other” aka the “goyim” aka the Arabs.

Has internationalism worked for the Jews? There is no one correct answer. If it is such a failure, why do the majority of Jews chose to live outside Israel, including many many Israeli-born Jews?

I’m glad Judt’s comments on Belgium were brought up. Also, I think he referenced Yugoslavia and how it was preferable or understandable that Yugoslavia be allowed to to disintegrate into the ethnically separated nations we see today.

In both cases, Judt flatly contradicts the solution he demands of Israeli Jews. Thus to me it became clear that Judt is not acting as any historian on this issue, but rather using the opportunity to lash out at people he disagrees with.

Judt lost the imprimatur of historian at that point, and reaffirmed that he is merely an intellectual. Intellectuals can be as thin skinned and subject to their own emotions as anybody.

I’m not sure if it was anger at right wing Jews that caused his anti-Israel outbursts, or simply the notion that Israel as it is simply doesn’t fit in with the ‘post-American’ European model he seemed so enamored of.

Either way, as the Belgium and Yogoslavia examples show, his utterances about Israel really had no rational justification.

The other issue here is the timing of that 2003 article. The early 2000s were a very difficult time for two-state solution Zionists, ie those people who so desperately wanted an enlightened Israel that could live according to ‘the European model’ with their Arab neighbors and to be accepted by the progressive Western community.

It was sobering for these one-time hopefuls to see the Oslo peace process destroyed by Palestinian violence, to see the power bestowed by Oslo upon the PA used to attack so many soft targets in Israel, and to see the world blame Israel for the failure simply because it was the stronger party. Israel took the risks for peace, failed, and was more reviled than ever, despite having undertaken such a risk. Much of the world sobered up to the real picture after the early 2000s, but for Judt to write what he did when he did made it that much more of a shock.

Ephraim says:

Yes, “there are millions of Chinese who live outside of China who have integrated into the societies in which they now live”, and yes, there is nothing wrong with that.

However, there is also a China, a country of, by, and for the Chinese people. There are many nations who have vast numbers of their original inhabitants living in foreign countries. Where would the US be without the Irish, for example? This is a completely natural thing.

The Jews deserve, and have the right to, exactly the same thing that the Chinese and the Irish have: their own country. Judt essentially said that they don’t. So I have no particular reason to give his ideas any respect.

No, Jewish peoplehood is not more complicated. You just think it is because, as you say, “most of us have been “in Diaspora” for at least 2,000 years!”

Why is “in Diaspora” in quotes? I assume that it is because you don’t really believe that we are in galut; that is, you believe Jewish statelessness is the natural order of things and that it is Israel that is the anomaly, not the galut. That just shows how you accept Jewish subordination to the gentiles as the natural order of things.

Jews like Judt can live like water skeeters, skating lightly along the surface of the cultures in which they live, seemingly protected by their elite status as assimilated public intellectuals. Of course they will be completely accepted within their rarefied circle. However, history has shown that this has not worked for the Jewish people as a whole. When the rubber meets the road, a more robust “solution to the Jewish Question” is needed.

As imperfect as it is, that solution is Israel.

In a perfect world, there would be no need for countries, borders, or armies. May it come to pass speedily and soon in our days, amen.

Until then, Israel and the Jews just have to work with what we’ve got.

Judt made the decision to assimilate and leave the Jewish people. That was his right. It is unjust to expect all Jews to follow his example.

Bennett Muraskin says:

Judt did not leave the Jewish people. He wrote about his Jewishness in one of his last essays and ended by noting that he is named after a cousin (I think) who died in a Nazi concentration camp.

Why does it have to be “subordination to the Gentiles”? And not living as equal citizens with Gentiles.

Are Jews subordinated to the Gentiles here in the US or Canada?

Maybe you think that “they” are out to get us–if not right now then down the road.

If so, Israel is the place for you–a place where Jews can get the satisfaction of subordinating non-Jews.

Ephraim says:

Sorry, whatever Judt’s emotional attachment to the Jewish people might have been, and I’m sure it was genuine, he effectively left the Jewish people by marring a non-Jew and having non-Jewish children. If everyone acted as he did, there would soon be no Jews.

It is very nice that Judt was named after a cousin who was murdered by the Nazis. (His cousin did not “die”, by the way, he was murdered.) If this mattered to Judt so much, why did he dishonor his cousin’s memory by choosing to not do his part to ensure the future of the Jewish people?

Individual Jews may not necessarily live physically subordinate to gentiles in gentile countries at the present time, at least not in the US or in the Angloshpere in general. But this is a very recent development and there is no guarantee it will continue, even in the US, the “goldineh medina” (the US had strict anti-Jewish immigration quotas before and during WWII, and many Jews were murdered by the Nazis as a result. You’ve heard of the ship the St. Louis, I assume). However, in almost all of the diaspora and in almost all historical times, Jews have lived at the mercy, or lack thereof, of the gentiles who had the power of life or death over them. That is simply an historical fact. Even now, while the horrors of WWII are still within living memory, Jews again cannot safely walk the streets of many European cities without being attacked because they are Jews. So much for the European model of which Judt was so enamored. You may think that Israel is causing this, but anti-Semitism has never needed a reason, only an excuse.

As for my supposed desire to subordinate gentiles, and your fairly clear belief that Israel is nothing more or less than a place where Jews can turn the tables on the goyim and oppress them as they have oppressed the Jews, I will not dignify such a slander with a response. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Just one more clueless Left-wing Jew with zero knowledge about Islam and what the Reality of the existence of a Jewish nation in the heart of what the arabs consider the Dar al Islam signifies for the arab world.

Bennett Muraskin says:

Who is to say that Judt’s children may not choose to be Jewish?

The idea that someone stops being a Jew by marrying a non-Jew and letting their children decide how to live their lives Jewishly or not is perverse.

Ephraim says:

No, it isn’t.

I am Orthodox, so as far as I am concerned, a Jew is exactly who the halacha says he or she is: a person born to a Jewish mother or someone who has been properly converted according to the halacha, that is, by an Orthodox beit din (religious court).

Right now, Judt’s children are not Jewish, regardless of how “Jewishly” (whatever that means) they may or may not decide to live their lives. Should they decide to convert properly and become Jewish, that would be a very good thing, and I would welcome it. My wife is a convert, so I certainly have nothing against the idea. But until that happens, they’re not Jewish. This is not an accusation by any means; it is just a simple statement of fact. In any case, what their father did is no reflection on them.

Yes, Judt was a Jew. One’s foreskin does not grow back just just because one marries out. However, marrying out is as strong a statement that there could possibly be that the fate of the Jewish people is not uppermost in one’s mind, since one has decided that producing the next generation of Jews is not an important consideration. So when I say Judt “left his people” I meant it metaphorically.

His belief that the Jews need to give up their country and assimilate into what would inevitably become a majority Arab country just reflects the choice he made in his own life to assimilate. And yet, as others have pointed out above, this suggestion was fundamentally dishonest, and ideologically motivated, since he saw clearly that, as in the cases of Belgium and Yugoslavia, it was completely unworkable. So why would he advocate such a “solution” for Israel? The only conclusion one can draw is that he wanted a state of, by and for Jews to fail and for the Jews to once again become a minority dispersed among the nations.

I think it is quite possible that Judt really and honestly believed that such a “solution” to the “Jewish Question” was both morally right and eminently practical. I just do not agree, that’s all

Bennett Muraskin says:

A Jew is someone who identifies as a Jew, halakha be damned.

By your definition, the Jewish child of a Jewish parents (mother died) raised as a Jew by the Jewish father is not Jewish.

And only an Orthodox court can officially convert a non-Jew into a Jew

How tribal!

Ephraim says:

You’re completely wrong, full stop. Can I be Chinese just because I “identify” as Chinese? What utter, fatuous rubbish.

“Halacha be damned?” Oh, very nice indeed.

Without halacha, what are we? Just some racial/ethnic, “tribe”, an idea that you clearly despise. We are Jews because because past generations have maintained the mesorah, the halachic tradition that keeps us Jewish. One cannot simply decide to chuck it out and say “a Jew is whoever I/he/she/we/they say he is”. Just as the US government is the only authority who can say who and who is not an American, so it is with us.

How is this “tribal”? Do you mean “tribal” in some sort of racial or ethnic sense? As I told you, my wife is a convert from a completely different racial background. Yet she and my children have found complete acceptance in the Orthodox community. So at the very least this “tribalness” is not, ultimately, a matter of race. It is a matter of accepting the halacha and living a Jewish life.

Anyway, this discussion is pointless. You clearly put no store whatsoever in the traditions that have kept us Jewish and that give meaning to our lives as Jews. I don’t see any particular value in continuing this discussion.

Have a life.

Ariella says:

Thank you, Ephriam, for your comments. “Bennett M.” is the worst kind of anti-semite; your responses to his vitriol were excellent.

Stella Goldschlag says:

I wish that Tony Judt was alive. I envision Tony, Bennet Muraskin and myself storming ashore at Gaza and putting the IOF to flight

Justicegirl says:

Whoa Stella!


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Arguing the World

In his last book, the late intellectual Tony Judt is sharp as ever—offering biting comments about American Jews, Israel, and his ex-wives