On Free Speech, Israel and Tony Judt

On Free Speech, Israel and Tony Judt

Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science at Boston College and a frequent contributor to The New Republic. His article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, November 17, “Free Speech, Israel and Jewish Illiberalism,” is a complicated discussion of the issues involved in the matter of Tony Judt being excluded from one or more speaking venues. It’s well worth reading, but also long, so I’m including a shortened version below. If you wish to plod through the entire piece, click on the colored web link above.

Free Speech, Israel and Jewish Illiberalism by Alan Wolfe

An accomplished European historian at New York University and director of its Remarque Institute — … [Prof. Tony] Judt, who once lived in Israel…, has emerged as a strong critic of a Jewish state. Basing statehood on ethnicity or religion, he wrote in a 2003 article, is an “anachronism.” The only possible future for Israel, he said in “Israel: The Alternative,” published in The New York Review of Books, is as a binational state. For many Jews, such positions come close to denying Israel’s right to exist. Why have Israel at all if it is not to be Jewish, they ask? And, given low Jewish birthrates and high Arab ones, wouldn’t a binational state eventually lead to the persecution of a Jewish minority?

As the journalist Leon Wieseltier put it in the generally pro-Israel The New Republic last month: “I have never met anybody of any persuasion who believes that Judt’s call for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ‘Israel: The Alternative’ was not a call for the abolition of the Jewish state.”

Judt had been invited to speak in October on “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” by a group called Network 20/20, which regularly rents the Polish Consulate in New York as the site for its events. Although the Anti-Defamation League, whose leading officials view Judt as an Israel hater, denies pressuring the consulate to cancel the talk, it acknowledges having made a call inquiring about the event. That conversation, in turn, led the Poles, who tend to be very sensitive on any issues remotely touching on anti-Semitism, to cancel Judt’s talk — one hour before it was supposed to take place.

In response to the cancellation, two protest letters were sent off to the ADL’s national director, Abraham H. Foxman. One, organized by Norman Birnbaum, an emeritus professor at Georgetown University Law Center, called Foxman’s actions “political vigilantism” and labeled Foxman himself “an adversary of our traditions.” I did not sign it. As unhappy as ADL’s phone call made me, Foxman is neither a person who takes the law into his own hands, as the term vigilante implies, nor, given the ADL’s commendable record of combating extremism, un-American.

Moreover, the Birnbaum letter contained what I view as a serious contradiction. Ostensibly defending Judt’s right to speak, its signatories also proclaimed themselves “in solidarity” with Judt, as well as with Harvard University’s Stephen Walt and the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, the international-relations scholars who wrote a controversial working paper on the influence of the “Israel Lobby” in American politics. When people proclaim they are “in solidarity” with something and someone, I hear echoes of the 1960s demonstrations in which otherwise intelligent people refused to criticize unsavory regimes on the grounds that the enemy of their enemy must be their friend. I do not consider myself “in solidarity” with the ADL or with its opponents, but as an individual free to criticize both. Foxman acted “in solidarity” with Jews, as he understood their interest. To act “in solidarity” with critics of Israel is just as objectionable. Intellectuals should act in solidarity with the truth.

I did sign another protest letter to Foxman, written by Mark Lilla, a political philosopher at the University of Chicago, and Richard Sennett, a sociologist with NYU and the London School of Economics and Political Science. That one pointed out that in a democracy, the proper response to speech with which one does not agree is more speech. Lilla and Sennett took no position on the substantive issues raised by Judt, about Israel or American foreign policy; indeed, they went out of their way to bring together people who “have many disagreements about political matters, foreign and domestic.” Expressed that way, their letter was signed by a number of intellectuals known for their support of Israel, including Wieseltier; two of the The New Republic’s former editors, Andrew Sullivan and Peter Beinart; and its current one, Franklin Foer. (I am a contributing editor of the magazine.)

Not content with angering New Republic liberals, just weeks before his talk was canceled, Judt had also written an essay in the London Review of Books. “Bush’s Useful Idiots” criticized “the liberal intelligentsia” for keeping “its head safely below the parapet” by not opposing more vigorously both the foreign policy of George W. Bush and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.

In this time of petitions, Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law at Yale University, and Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, neither of whom writes for The New Republic, published yet a third broadsheet in The American Prospect. With the title “We Answer to the Name of Liberals,” it was mostly a defense of liberals against conservative charges that their protests of Bush’s policies have made them shills for Osama bin Laden and other enemies of America. But with a subtitle of “A response to Tony Judt,” this petition began by refuting the charges of liberal complicity with Bush foreign policy that Judt had made in his September London Review article. You can be against Bush’s war in Iraq, Ackerman and Gitlin argued, without also having to be either for or against his support of Israel and its actions in Lebanon.

Forty-four people signed. Again, I was one of them. “True patriotism does not consist of bravado or calumny,” Ackerman and Gitlin wrote. “It resides in faithfulness to our great constitutional ideals.” They are right. As they pointed out, liberals are second to none in their desire to protect the United States against terrorism, but they are equally as vigilant in protecting the United States against the temptation to undermine its great commitment to freedom.

Give Tony Judt credit: He certainly knows how to start an argument. Actually, he has started two. One, concerning the future of a Jewish state in the Middle East, is, like the Middle East itself, combustible, and it is by no means clear that intellectuals in this country will have much influence on how it is ultimately resolved. That is a shame, for we need in the United States a debate about the future of Israel as robust as the one that routinely takes place within Israel itself. In “Israel: The Alternative,” Judt paid particular attention to right-wing Israelis whose views, in his opinion, come quite close to fascism. But even though there is no denying that Israel, like the United States, has turned sharply to the right, must we conclude, as Judt seemed to suggest, that any state based on religion or ethnicity will ultimately be illiberal? And does it follow that if Israel is illiberal, its aggressive foreign policy will create a “disaster,” as Judt put it, for a United States that allies itself with the country?

Those are questions that Americans need to ask themselves — however they answer them. But it is hard to raise them, at least in any probing way, when prominent Hollywood celebrities like Mel Gibson flirt with anti-Semitism, and when newspapers like The New York Sun, a staunch defender of Israel, routinely accuse those who criticize Zionism of being little different from Gibson. It is difficult to know why honest discussions about Israel have become so difficult to conduct. Is it, perhaps, because the rise of the Christian right, no matter how ostensibly supportive of Israel it claims to be, reminds Jews that they live in a Christian country and thereby makes them more likely to circle the wagons? Or does the reason perhaps lie in the fact that Jews have become part of America’s multicultural mosaic, one more group proclaiming its identity and difference? Or perhaps it has to do with the charge made by many pro-Israel Jews that Israel is held to a different standard when it comes to judging the morality of a country’s foreign policy than other states, including Israel’s enemies in the Middle East? Whatever the reason, discussions of Israel in the United States resemble a shouting match filled with insult and invective more than a reasoned debate over the proper relationship between that country and this one.

For precisely that reason, the other argument Judt has started, which is whether people should be open to those whose views they find at best distasteful and at worst hateful is not, or at least ought not to be, controversial at all. Surely intellectuals, who commit themselves to arguments based on reason, should be enthusiastic in their support of open debate….

By | 2006-11-15T14:19:00-05:00 November 15th, 2006|Blog|0 Comments

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