The Rebirth of the NYRB
Some of the most astringent prose in the paper has come from a younger member of the family, Professor Tony Judt. A few weeks ago I called on Judt, 56, in his cluttered office at New York University's Remarque Institute. Bald, with glasses and a gray beard, Judt is wearing a stylish short-sleeve gray sweater and pressed black slacks. He is remarkably self-assured. He offers me a glass of scotch, while he sips mineral water.
Born in England, Judt has taught European history at Oxford, Cambridge and Berkeley, and his best-known book is Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944-1956, a fierce assault on leading French thinkers for their obeisance to Stalinism. "I started writing for The New York Review in 1993," Judt explains. "You start writing when they ask you. You don't send stuff in. They ask you." He has since contributed essays on France, Austria, the Balkans, Belgium, Albert Camus, Primo Levi and various aspects of international affairs since 2001.
How did 9/11 influence him? "For the first time I felt alien, a little out of place, even in New York. And then I realized that, in some ways, it was especially in New York, and that was because of the Israel thing." For years Judt had privately lamented the passivity of the "American Jewish community, and indeed, the American Jewish intelligentsia, what used to be called 'the New York Intellectuals' and so on." Their silence on Israel--and their reluctance to accept, as he wrote in November 2001, that the "Israel-Palestine conflict and America's association with Israel are the greatest single source of contemporary anti-US sentiment"--bothered him. After 9/11, he says, "I started saying what I have for fifteen years been thinking, but had not written."
What he wrote, in a series of essays for the Review, was not unfamiliar to readers of Israeli or European newspapers but, in the American context, was rather startling. These essays, which were provocations as much as prescriptions, tackled a variety of themes: the political uses of the Holocaust, the Jewish psyche, Israeli assassination squads and Ariel Sharon's "shameless" manipulation of the US government. "Most Israelis are still trapped in the story of their own uniqueness," Judt wrote in May 2002. "The problem for the rest of the world is that since 1967, Israel has changed in ways that render its traditional self-description absurd. It is now a regional colonial power, by some accounts the world's fourth-largest military establishment." Three hundred letters, most of them abusive, greeted that essay.
In an even more incendiary essay, "Israel: The Alternative," published in October 2003, Judt argued that the very structure of the Israeli state is hopelessly--and dangerously--rooted in the past:
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.
Judt finished with a thunderclap: "The behavior of a self-described Jewish state affects the way everyone else looks at Jews.... The depressing truth is that Israel today is bad for the Jews." And he went on to propose a rather provocative solution to the current impasse: "A single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians." (The New York Review wasn't always friendly to the "binational state" concept. When Noam Chomsky proposed "socialist binationalism" in his 1974 book Peace in the Middle East?, Bernard Avishai, writing in the Review, dismissed the idea as "misleading and contradictory.")
Judt's essay drew 1,000 smoldering letters. "I got no direct death threats," Judt recalls, "except for a number of e-mails that said, 'You'd be better off dead.'" He has since implemented certain changes to his daily routine. "We do now very carefully check our mail. My wife and kids don't open the mail. It's awful." But the venom of his critics has only served to fortify his opinions. "To be a Jewish American--what does the identity comprise?" Judt pointedly inquires. "It now comprises one identity in space and one in time. Its space is Israel and its time is Auschwitz. This is something I find obscene, ultimately dangerous and abusive on multiple counts."
Judt is not the Review's only critical voice on Israel. Henry Siegman and Amos Elon have also written with great force and clarity, and in August 2001 Robert Malley and Hussein Agha produced the most nuanced insider account of the demise of the Camp David 2000 summit, one that shattered the mythology of "Ehud Barak's unprecedented offer and Yasser Arafat's uncompromising no." Gore Vidal affirms, with a trace of admiration and surprise in his voice, "They're getting very interesting on Israel, which they're taking a lot of flak for, obviously. For them, that's quite brave."