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he was purged from The New Republic’s masthead, where he was a contributing editor; invitations to lectures were withdrawn; and subscriptions to The New York Review of Books were canceled.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.