The Best Man Among Us


More than a decade ago, I met Tony Judt for the first time. We drank whiskey in the lobby of a smart London hotel. He looked a little out of place: the scholar among the expensively dressed international businessmen and women, a visiting American professor who was also a former Londoner, born and raised in some of the city’s shabbiest neighborhoods.

Gina LeVay/Redux
Tony Judt, New York City, 2006

Only a few months earlier, in October 2003, The New York Review had published Judt’s best-known or, more accurately, most notorious essay, “Israel: The Alternative.” There he had declared the Middle East peace process dead, and the prospect of a two-state solution to the Israel–Palestine conflict buried along with it. It was time, he had argued, to think afresh, even to turn toward the notion of a single state in historic Palestine, one that would be a secular home to both Jews and Arabs. Yes, it would mean the dissolution of the Jewish state and an end to the Zionist movement that had given it birth. But perhaps there was no longer a place in the world for such a state. Surely Israel had become “an anachronism. And not just an anachronism but a dysfunctional one.”

That essay had brought the roof down on Judt’s head. He was not only denounced in the most vicious terms by the usual suspects on the American Jewish right and barred from speaking on at least one occasion, but also condemned by former friends and allies. He had been a contributing editor at The New Republic but suddenly found his name removed from the masthead. A onetime activist in a Zionist youth movement, a volunteer during Israel’s 1967 war who had put his Hebrew to use as a translator, Judt was now declared by Israel’s most unbending cheerleaders to be a nonperson.

It struck me at the time that his critics were misreading the essay, or at the very least misunderstanding its intent. A kind of confirmation came when I asked Judt if he would have published that same piece not in The New York Review but in its UK counterpart, the London Review of Books. He paused, thinking through the implications, and finally said no, he would not.

The simple explanation was that Judt understood the contrast in the climate of opinion between the two countries. In Britain (and Europe) hostility to Israel was already deeply entrenched: Ariel Sharon had recently reincurred the deep enmity of mainstream liberal opinion, not least through his crushing of the second intifada. In the US, in New York especially, the prevailing assumptions were in Israel’s favor. Indeed, a blanket of complacency and unquestioning solidarity tended to muffle any genuine debate. In a subsequent exchange in these pages, where Judt took on several of his antagonists, he wrote:

The solution to the crisis in the Middle East…

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