I remember when Tony Judt was a rather obscure academic specializing in modern European history. He suddenly ventured into commenting critically on Israel in the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere, a couple of years ago — suggesting, with a gross overstatement, that “ethnic” states, such as the Jewish State of Israel, are an unseemly “anachronism” — and he became a hero among critics and an anathema among defenders of Israel as a result.
I chatted with him amiably following a public forum at New York University (his primary employer) at about this time and found him to be either disingenuous or clueless as to why he’d be a focus of controversy. He indicated that he had been a mazkir (director) for the left-Zionist youth group, Dror, in his native England during the 1960s. I’m convinced that he’s not an inveterate foe of Israel, but when I questioned him, he indicated that he was not troubled about what had just transpired in his public talk.
The British journalist (Richard Grayson, if I recall correctly) who was interviewing him mostly about Europe and the Iraq situation, was noticeably enthusiastic about his recent writings on Israel and mischievously asked him — to the delight of most of the audience — if Israel was “really a democracy.” (I’m not saying that Grayson is anti-Semitic, but he and most of the audience had clearly caught the anti-Israel bug.) Judt responded to Grayson calmly and in appropriate detail on how Israel has admirable democratic institutions, as well as flaws.
But the professor is maddeningly oblivious to how his dispassionate intellectual pronouncements comfort Israel’s passionate enemies and discomfit Israel’s embattled defenders — of which, although not uncritical, I am one. All too often, intellectuals do not understand that, beyond parsing or refuting analytical arguments, the emotionally-held values of people need to be addressed with sensitivity.
Judt did it again last week in a New York Times op-ed, “A Lobby, Not a Conspiracy,” in which he very mildly criticized the Mearsheimer-Walt paper and its shorter version in the London Review of Books, while rebuking critics of the two professors. In particular, he mentioned Christopher Hitchens’ piece in Slate — which (correctly) mentioned their conspiratorial innuendoes as having at least a vaguely anti-Semitic taint — as part of a “somewhat hysterical” response.
In addition to Judt, there was Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan, who lauded Mearsheimer and Walt in Salon, April 18, for “Breaking the Silence.” Judt and Cole are not the only ones (nor nearly the worst) who have applauded Mearsheimer and Walt for taking on the big, bad beast of the “Israel Lobby.”
Mind you there is an Israel lobby, consisting mainly of AIPAC and maybe a half dozen national Jewish organizations and institutions, which is different than the pro-Israel, pro-peace camp that Meretz USA is a part of. And sometimes, as when one runs afoul of any well-connected people or groups, public disagreement with its cherished views involves risk. But you can bet that Professors Mearsheimer, Walt, Judt and Cole are not suffering for their “courage” — except for the fact that Judt is no longer writing articles for the very pro-Israel New Republic, but has replaced this with other outlets and perhaps even enhanced his career.