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Tony Judt: The Distinctions

Jennifer Homans
Tony Judt, Vienna, mid-1990s
The essence of Labour Zionism, still faithful in those years to its founding dogmas, lay in the promise of Jewish work: the idea that young Jews from the diaspora would be rescued from their effete, assimilated lives and transported to remote collective settlements in rural Palestine—there to create (and, as the ideology had it, recreate) a living Jewish peasantry, neither exploited nor exploiting.

In the end, he says, he became disaffected for two reasons. The first was the appalled reaction of his fellow kibbutzniks to his intention to take up a place at Cambridge instead of settling permanently in Israel. The second was what he saw during auxiliary participation in the Israeli armed forces, on the Golan Heights just after the Six-Day War. He was shocked by the attitude of young Israelis toward the recently defeated Arabs. “The insouciance with which they anticipated their future occupation and domination of Arab lands terrified me even then.” The experience inoculated him against many forms of seductive commitment:

I knew what it meant to be a “believer”—but I also knew what sort of price one pays for such intensity of identification and unquestioning allegiance. Before even turning twenty I had become, been, and ceased to be a Zionist, a Marxist, and a communitarian settler….
Unlike most of my Cambridge contemporaries, I was thus immune to the enthusiasms and seductions of the New Left, much less its radical spin-offs: Maoism, gauchisme, tiers-mondisme, etc. For the same reasons I was decidedly uninspired by student-centered dogmas of anticapitalist transformation, much less the siren calls of femino-Marxism or sexual politics in general. I was—and remain—suspicious of identity politics in all forms, Jewish above all.

But Jewishness is an indelible identity, and Judt struggles over what it means to him. He says he is not a “lapsed” Jew, but he is certainly a lapsed Zionist: his most provocative publication was an essay in these pages advocating the end of the Israeli Law of Return and hoping for the eventual formation of a binational Jewish-Arab state in greater Palestine—a deliberately utopian fantasy that takes his rejection of identity politics to its limit.

Yet Judt emphatically thinks of himself as a Jew, so he must ask, “what can it mean—following the decline of faith, the abatement of persecution, and the fragmentation of community—to insist upon one’s Jewishness?” His uncomfortable answer involves memory, and all the awkwardness of secular Jewish identity appears in his remarks about the Holocaust:

In this sense, American Jews are instinctively correct to indulge their Holocaust obsession: it provides reference, liturgy, example, and moral instruction—as well as historical proximity. And yet they are making a terrible mistake: they have confused a means of remembering with a reason to do so. Are we really Jews for no better reason than that Hitler sought to exterminate our grandparents?

I am afraid that I am one of those secular Jews who regards that and the larger history of anti-Semitism as a sufficient reason, without which the other alleged nonreligious reasons would not carry much weight. Judt appeals to an intellectual tradition:

Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling: the dafka-like [contrarian] quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known. It is not enough to stand at a tangent to other peoples’ conventions; we should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own. I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish.

Yet I doubt that this would be enough without the horrible need to identify with the victims of Hitler, to which Judt is not immune. The chapter in which his reflections on Judaism occur is entitled “Toni,” and at the end he tells us that Toni Avegael was a female cousin of his father’s who was gassed at Auschwitz, and after whom he is named.

It is natural to react to persecution not only by defense but by a heightened pride in the traditions and characteristics of the persecuted group. In spite of his universalist convictions, this mechanism is at work in Judt’s feelings, even though he condemns the “uncompromising Israelophilia” and “lachrymose self-regard” that is often associated with commemoration of the Holocaust in the United States.

But Judt’s dominant identification is with the values of Western liberalism in its social democratic form. He is rueful about the failure of Western radicals of his generation to recognize that the real revolution in 1968 was taking place in Prague and Warsaw, though it would culminate only twenty years later. He taught himself Czech and became a historian not just of modern France, as he had begun, but of the whole of Europe. He loved New York because so much of the world converges here. I was a friend of Tony Judt, and we spoke during his final illness about death, and the importance to someone’s life of the things he does that reach beyond it and what remains of him after he is gone. The magnificent and defiant gesture of writing this book in these circumstances is the fitting legacy of an extraordinary man who wanted us to know who he was.


The ‘Liberal God’ That Failed March 24, 2011

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