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Engaged to the End

Tony Judt dies at 62

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Tony Judt.(NYT)

Tony Judt, the brilliant left-wing public intellectual and New York University professor, died Friday evening. Born to a family of London Jews in 1948, he gained perhaps broadest fame in the final year of his life, which saw him continue to produce some of his best intellectual work as well as branch out, beautifully, into the category of first-rate memoir, all while rapidly dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

One imagines him most remembered for those memoirs; for his magnificent studies of mid-20th-century French intellectuals, Past Imperfect and The Burden of Responsibility; and for what was by all accounts his hefty masterpiece, 2005’s Postwar. (For my money—and for yours, too, if you are a New York Review of Books subscriber or an owner of his 2008 collection, Reappraisals—his best essay was his homage to Leszek Kolakowski, his intellectual hero.)

Additionally, Judt will be remembered as perhaps the most eloquent advocate of a so-called one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More precisely, in an extremely buzzed-about 2003 NYRB essay, “Israel: The Alternative”, he predicted that the failure of the Oslo peace process (for which he blamed both sides), continued Israeli settlement-building, and demographic trends would lead either to ethnic cleansing or to a single state. The one-time enthusiastic Zionist had declared the Zionist dream, essentially, dead. “The very idea is an unpromising mix of realism and utopia, hardly an auspicious place to begin,” he argued of the bi-national state. “But the alternatives are far, far worse.”

In June, reading an op-ed he had just published calling for an end to the Israeli-American special relationship, and knowing that he would almost certainly not be able to take a phone interview, I emailed him a series of questions late at night with half a hope of hearing back, later in the week, that while Professor Judt stands by his essay, he is regretfully unable to reply to interview requests. Instead, within 12 hours I received roughly 500 words responding directly to my fairly pointed questions, a testament to his perennial need to convince, undefeatable even by a disease that mostly paralyzed him.

“So your choice is to lie very bored,” he recently explained of his debilitation, “very vegetative, for a very long time, or else to say ‘sod it, I intend to do something. Well, what’ll I do?’” He added, “If I’d been a plumber, it would be catastrophic. But the thing I have done well all my life is read, write, talk, think, teach, disagree, explain and so on, and I can still do those things.”

Indeed, his defiant, combative, pissed-off, and even humorous reply to me demonstrated, in addition to the expected rhetorical firepower, total (and, in his case, heroic) facility with what was going on in the world. In the late stages of a fatal degenerative disease, he did not capitulate and turn completely inward into what must have seemed a comforting cocoon of family and friends and perhaps self-pity. Instead, he felt compelled to continue to read and think and write—to engage with the world. May we all feel this compulsion when our times are on the horizon.

Tony Judt, Chronicler of History, Is Dead at 62 [NYT]
Earlier: Tony Judt on The Flotilla, J Street, and ‘Linkage’
Related: The Liveliest Mind in New York
Israel: The Alternative [NYRB]
Race Against Time To Complete Life’s Work [Irish Independent]

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Bernard Baum says:

Its a tragedy of somewhat epic proportion that a man of his great intellect who authored such an astounding masterpiece on the history of post 1945 Europe nevertheless succumbed to the erroneous conclusion on the existential and real existence of Israel which will forever mar his legacy.

His viewpoint is typical of certain Ashkenazi NY intellectuals who are disappointed in Israel because it is not some kind of upper West Side on the Mediterranean. They can’t stomach it that more than half the population of Israel are actually refugees or their descendants of Jews ethnically cleansed from Arab countries. This also explains his 1 state idea. Most Jews who actually lived under any kind of Moslem rule would never agree to any type of Moslem rule. But these NY intellectuals know better than we do. Right?

Joanna Bankier says:

For more on Tony Judt’s entanglement with the “one-state-solution”

Carl says:

What a prophet! In 2003 he predicted the failure of the Oslo process. Most thinking persons buried the Oslo process in 2000 when Arafat rejected yet another offer of statehood and started the intifada. The fact is that his contributions to the de-legitimization of Israel was not some kind of intellectual game. It strengthened our enemies and actively encouraged those who fired 8000 missiles from Gaza and another few thousand from Lebanon at civilian targets. I will not miss him.

Raeefa says:

I’ll say that despite my disgust for Tony Judt’s views on Israel (and his argument for a one-state solution was pretty much the furthest thing from “eloquent” that one can imagine), I do admire his resilience in the face of debilitating illness. On the other hand, Marc Tracy does seem to have quite a bit of a fixation (like, a man-crush level) on the guy.

My thoughts exactly.
For someone like Marc who purports to attempt some type of balance in his writing, it seems that Marc will always imply that people who defend the rights of Israel and Jews are biased at best, racist at worst, while those who assault Israel and the right of Jews to have their own state are complex, talented, courageous. This post, however, goes beyond the previous levels of fawning.

Guess what, Marc? The anti-Israel movement is far more racist, violent, and anti-liberal than the Zionist, and people like Judt apply unique standards to their discussions on Israel to portray Israel in the worst light imaginable. There’s much more to abhor in Judt’s biography than there is to admire.

manny says:


yakov says:

the only abhorrent thing here is the slander of this man because of his political viewpoint, one gets the feeling of a dog pack closing in on wounded prey.the notion that he helped Israel’s enemies with their rockets is foaming at the mouth lies. the people who fire those rockets have never heard of this man and have their own reasons to do what they do and it has no relation to this or that opinion. it’s too easy to sit in the u.s. and support israel right or wrong -besides the benefits that incur to those who do- there’s a complete abandonment of any truth or reality and it’s these stanch supporters who pose a danger to the jewish people’s survival in this real world.

Why is it slandering someone to disagree with him? He didn’t call for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state? He was either very naive or very stupid not to realize that it would cause the deaths of very many Jews and non-Jews alike. The delegitimization of Israel by him and others created an atmosphere where it was somehow OK for Palestinians to fire thousands of missiles at Israeli civilians but not OK in the eyes of world opinion for Israel to defend itself.

Ilene says:

Reading Tony Judt’s obituary in the New York Times gave me pause for thought. Admittedly, I did say a quiet ‘yippee’ in my heart. His hateful tirades against Israel, and his call for a “neutral” one-state solution, meant only one thing — the death of Israel. What was most disconcerting about his very articulate musings against the State, was that he was considered an ‘intellectual’ a ‘brilliant man.’ That only confirms an opinion I’ve had for many years about all the so-called ‘intellectuals’ — being an intellectual in one arena, does not necessarily grant you a degree of intellectualism in every arena. Ada Yonath’s comments about the peace process after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize are a case in point — a brilliant scientist she is, but her knowledge about what is the ‘best possible’ solution for the Israel-Palestinian stalemate cannot be found in the laboratory, nor is it related to ribosomes. The Israeli press finally figured that one out, and stopped quoting her relatively ‘silly’ musings. I’m sorry Tony Judt didn’t figure out himself when to seal his lips shut, and I’m similarly sorry that the press gave him so much exposure, but I guess the One Above felt it was time now.


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Engaged to the End

Tony Judt dies at 62

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