The NYRB Is Rewriting Tony Judt’s Stance on Israel

The NYRB Is Rewriting Tony Judt’s Stance on Israel

The NYRB Is Rewriting Tony Judt’s Stance on Israel

Judt called for a just resolution to the conflict, not the preservation of a “Jewish State.”


In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian’s executive opinions editor, reviewed When the Facts Change (Penguin Press: $29.95), a collection of essays by the late historian Tony Judt. In elegiac tones, Freedland lauds Judt’s intellectual accomplishments and praises his “wise, humane and brave erudition.” The article deservedly pronounces Judt “the best man among us.”

Like others, Freedland also adverts to Judt’s 2003 essay “Israel: The Alternative,” first published in The New York Review of Books and included in When the Facts Change, wherein Judt famously declared Israel “an anachronism,” one that resorted to “ethnoreligious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens.” Judt added: “The true alternative facing the Middle East in coming years will be between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.”

The reaction to the essay was swift and vicious. Judt was defamed and ostracized; he was purged from The New Republic’s masthead, where he was a contributing editor; invitations to lectures were withdrawn; and subscriptions to The New York Review of Books were canceled. Twelve years on, the storm hasn’t entirely abated, and Freedland has set himself the task of shielding Judt from its more injurious gusts.

But he takes a curious approach. “It seemed to me,” Freedland writes, that Judt’s essay, “and especially its vehemence, was designed to stir US Jews from their lethargy”; it therefore “was less a detailed statement of binationalism than a provocation, forcing US supporters of Israel to confront what the death of the two-state solution would entail.”

To support his contention, Freedland offers an anecdote: “More than a decade ago, I met Tony Judt for the first time. We drank whiskey in the lobby of a smart London hotel…. 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.”

Many conclusions can be drawn from this, but Freedland chooses one consonant with his own assumptions. He downplays Judt’s explanation: “The solution to the crisis in the Middle East lies in Washington…. My essay was directed in the first instance to an American audience, in an effort to pry open a closed topic.” But the fact that Judt also admits to being “very worried about the direction in which the American Jewish community is moving” leads Freedland to conclude that this intended audience was American Jews; and, in advocating for a binational state, Judt wasn’t proposing an outcome so much as using its undesirability to prod them into accepting a lesser compromise.

Judt may well have been trying to “stir US Jews from their lethargy,” but to dismiss his assessment as mere provocation is to ignore Judt’s copious writings on the subject. Judt could be provocative, but he was no polemicist. In “Israel: The Alternative,” he does not prefer an alternative before explaining why the existing solutions are doomed. But for Freedland, Judt had conceded the immediate impracticality of the proposal when in a subsequent exchange in The New York Review of Books, he wrote, “It is not a solution for tomorrow…. For the present, then, binationalism, is—as I acknowledged in my essay—utopian.”

This would indeed be a concession if one ignored the parenthesis. In the original essay, Judt admits that his idea is “an unpromising mix of realism and utopia,” but he adds that “the alternatives are far, far worse.” Also ignored by Freedland is the riff that immediately follows the supposed concession: “But things change…. Things change…. Things really do change.” Judt concludes: “Ideas acquire traction over time as part of a process. It is only when we look back across a sufficient span of years that we recognize, if we are honest, how much has happened that we could literally not have conceived of before…. As I said, things change.”

Things change—and Judt took pride in his willingness to change his mind with them. His resistance to dogma was recognized and admired by most; and Freedland is no exception. He illustrates this by noting Judt’s apparent readiness to entertain a two-state compromise, even though he favored “a one-state solution.” Judt had “adjusted his position in the light of the facts,” Freedland insists, citing “Judt’s postscript on the [2003] affair or his subsequent writing on the topic.”

However, the facts that compelled Judt to revert from a one-state ideal to the two-state compromise weren’t political advances, but the corrosive effects of occupation that had sapped trust and left neither side ready to live with the other in a single state. Judt’s essay on Israel wasn’t his return to the liberal Zionist consensus; it was his explicit rejection of its comforting dogmas—the “peace process” salient among them.

In an unpublished essay reproduced in When the Facts Change, Judt offers a practical vision for two states that radically departs from the liberal Zionist consensus. Judt’s two-state solution is not an archipelago of demilitarized Bantustans lorded over by pliant quislings; it is a “properly constituted Palestinian state, with all the rights and responsibilities that go along with statehood.” Only with a “militarily competent Palestinian state on their frontiers” will Israelis feel secure. He rejects exclusive Jewish claims on Jerusalem: “Jews do not have a monopoly on old memories and ancient aspirations”; the international community must ensure the “internationalization of Jerusalem as an open city.” He calls for a recognition of Palestinians’ right of return “in principle,” as an “explicit acknowledgement that a great harm had been done to Palestinians and a redress of some sort was owed.” He insists that Hamas be included in any final settlement negotiations.

For Judt, “further pursuit of the old ‘peace process’ and ‘road map’ is futile”: “engaged outsiders”—primarily the United States and the European Union—must ignore the “prejudices of the organized diasporas” and “exercise leverage, pressure, and muscle.” If, according to Israelis, “Arabs only respond to a show of force,” he writes, “the same is true of Israel.” And should Israel fail to seize this opportunity, he warns, it will have to either accept a binational outcome or “be doomed to pariah status indefinitely.”

Facts had changed—and so had the provocation. The only consistent thing was Judt’s desire for a just resolution to the conflict, not the preservation of a “Jewish State.” His warning was universal.

Ernest Hemingway, after being subjected to electronic shock therapy, is reported to have said: “It was a brilliant cure but we lost the patient.” In trying to rehabilitate Judt for a Zionist audience, Freedland has administered a brilliant cure but enervated his ideas. The exegesis, however, was no more necessary than the electric shocks that “cured” Hemingway (he took his life soon thereafter). Perhaps it’s time for Freedland to consider a provocative alternative: Let the words of our century’s foremost public intellectual speak for themselves.

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