TONY JUDT, 1948–2010: Last October, the historian Tony Judt was brought onstage at New York University’s Skirball Center in a wheelchair, his arms and torso wrapped in a blanket, his face partially obscured by a breathing tube. In this hobbled state, Judt delivered a bracing talk about the modern worship of the market, which he reminded his audience was “an acquired taste,” not an inescapable human condition. He spoke for nearly two hours, without any notes, sprinkling in quotes from John Maynard Keynes, Adam Smith and other thinkers, in what turned out to be his final public lecture.
Judt died on August 6 after battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, for almost two years. He was 62 and, as befit a prolific scholar and public intellectual who never shied away from controversy, he did not go quietly. In a matter of months the NYU lecture was expanded into a book, Ill Fares the Land; a string of evocative essays blending memoir and historical reflection appeared in The New York Review of Books; op-eds and interviews were published in numerous publications, from the Guardian to the New York Times to this magazine [“Talking With Tony Judt,” May 17]. The disease that reduced Judt to a quadriplegic did nothing to diminish the power of his voice, which fused erudition and moral passion in a way that seemed only to deepen as his illness became worse.
Born in London in 1948, Judt grew up in a Jewish household steeped in Marxism, an experience he would later say inured him to sectarian politics. He was a man of the left who belonged to no party or ideological faction: a collection of his essays from 1994 to 2006, Reappraisals, includes a withering assessment of the historian and unrepentant communist Eric Hobsbawm, as well as a pungent attack on American liberals who supported the Iraq War. Judt opposed that war but supported NATO intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, not because he lacked clear principles but because, as he told the British Prospect recently, “I don’t believe that one should have one-size-fits-all moral rules for international political action.”
It was the view of a historian whose judgments were grounded in the messy whirl of human experience rather than the shifting political currents of the day. As he explained in Reappraisals, Judt feared that we have entered a new “age of forgetting,” in which social safety nets are shredded by politicians with no appreciation for the achievements of the modern state and no memory of the cataclysms wrought by mass insecurity during the twentieth century. The sense that history was being ignored fueled a strain of pessimism in Judt. Yet he never succumbed to the smug fatalism that has led so many academics to talk only among themselves.
To people with narrower minds, Judt will be remembered solely, and bitterly, for the critical words he penned about Israel, in particular a 2003 NYRB essay calling for a one-state solution to the Palestinian conflict. A secular universalist who abandoned Zionism after a passionate flirtation with it during his youth, Judt earned himself the loathing of the American Jewish establishment, which accused him of viewing his herit- age with indifference, even embarrassment. But as Judt recently made plain in a moving essay about a distant relative, Toni Avegael, who died in Auschwitz (and after whom he was named), this could scarcely be less true. “Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling,” he wrote. “I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish.”