What I should have said to Tony Judt

What I should have said to Tony Judt

On the evening of Dec. 4, New York University historian Tony Judt, having achieved the esteemed rank of “University Professor,” delivered an address before a packed auditorium at the NYU School of Law. As expected, he was erudite, eloquent and feisty. He also continued as a side theme – not his main focus – to drum away at the integrity and honor of the State of Israel.

Entitled “Liberal Intellectuals in an Illiberal Age,” he began by noting the hundredth anniversary of the exoneration of Captain Alfred Dreyfus and how a now-obscure right-wing French intellectual had advocated for the interests of “the nation” over universal values. His was an artful talk that critiqued United States policy for taking a neoconservative direction in its perceived self-interest. He also defended the university as the last bastion of the disinterested intellectual who has the freedom and the duty to speak truth to power; he indicated the ebbing of this role with the disappearance of intellectual journals and the growing prominence of privately funded think tanks. So far, so good.

Judt is cold to the argument that he may be stirring up antisemitism with his views. He insists on “the truth” but also, curiously, admits that “free speech is not completely non-negotiable.” He provided the example of a planned Berlin production of a Mozart opera to be staged with the severed heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad. Judt came to discuss this with German defenders of this staging and suggested that they should have added the head of a rabbi. This produced the shocked objection that that would be insensitive and hateful. And that was Judt’s point about the heads, particularly Mohammad’s head. My point is that this commendable awareness of Muslim feelings is completely absent when he addresses emotional Jewish issues.

Still, he very validly decried the “binary fallacy — that everything is either itself or its opposite.” Yet my concern is that he is contributing to an intellectual climate that does something like this to Israel – that if Israel is not a good example of a Western, peace-loving liberal state, then it is the opposite, without legitimacy.

His comments included a cutting remark on the Bush administration taking Israel’s side and delaying a cease-fire in the recent war against Hezbollah (without his mention of Hezbollah’s aggression) and a riff on US silence in the face of a “fascist,” Avigdor Lieberman, being elevated to Israel’s cabinet. He contrasted this with the outcry when Haider’s party rose to a share of power in Austria. Yet Judt did not also indicate that parties that are arguably fascist, and clearly antisemitic, form the government of the Palestinian Authority and are in the government (and fighting for power) in Lebanon.

Judt feels no compunction about discomforting American Jews, whom he derides for being so well off and influential, yet so insecure. It’s astonishing to me that an historian with a global vision of the past – when Jewish havens in such place as Moorish Spain, Poland and Germany turned bad – would take this insensitive view.

In the Q & A, I was surprised at the relative lack of response (other than an ovation) to his speech from the hundreds, up to a thousand, in the hall. I felt my heart thumping as I decided to get to the wide-open mike a few feet away. I asked if Prof. Judt still held with his view that “an ethnic state” in this day and age was “an anachronism,” prefacing this by pointing out that the proposed European constitution had been defeated by popular referenda and that there were other examples of the Europeans shying away from further consolidation in the European Union.

Judt flashed a knowing smile and reminded the audience of his article in the New York Review of Books (“Israel: The Alternative,” Oct. 23, 2003) in which he described Israel as an “ethno-religious” state that’s “an anachronism” and argued for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his response, he mentioned the extreme-right Flemish nationalist movement in Belgium – which he gratuitously mentioned won many Jewish votes despite its antisemitic roots. But somehow (I doubt that his reasoning was strong here because it went totally by me), he wound up reiterating his notion that Israel’s Law of Return, privileging Jews, is unique and unjust.

I had made a tactical error in sitting down for his answer. If I had still been up there, I might have responded that Germany and other countries have promulgated a similar right of return for ethnic kin and that Israel, although less than perfect in civil rights terms, is more liberal than any other country in the Middle East in the access of all its citizens (including Arabs) to judicial redress and the democratic process. (This is not to mention the separate problem of Palestinian Arabs in the territories who do not have comparable protections.) I might also have added that Israel’s Law of Return should be regarded as affirmative action for a minority group that has widely suffered persecution and discrimination throughout history.

Until Jan. 1, 2000, Germany did not even confer citizenship upon German-born children of “guest workers”; Germany has over two million people, mostly of Turkish origin, living long-term as non-citizens. As indicated in the Wikipedia: “children born on or after 1 January 2000 to non-German parents acquire German citizenship at birth if at least one parent:

* has a permanent residence permit (and has had this status for at least 3 years); and
* has been residing in Germany for at least 8 years.

Such children will be required to apply successfully to retain German citizenship by the age of 23.”

If Judt were only advocating liberal positions and making valid criticisms of Israel, he would be unremarkable. I remember fondly his great book reviews in The New Republic – a moderately liberal pro-Israel publication that once listed him as a contributing editor and now doesn’t even include his relatively recent articles in its online archive (a real pity). What is profoundly disturbing is that a liberal such as he, not an extremist, questions Israel’s right to exist.

By | 2006-12-19T14:04:00-05:00 December 19th, 2006|Blog|11 Comments


  1. Anonymous December 19, 2006 at 6:43 pm - Reply

    exonerating Israel by pointing out the appalling lack of citizenship of guest workers in Germany doesn’t compute. What’s wrong is wrong. So Germany is also at fault. basically, ethnic national states are at fault. We, as Americans, are asking minorities in Israel and other such ethnic political identities to live in ways we would, in the US, decry.
    I don’t find there is anything inheritently anti semitic or anti Jewish in questioning Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. In fact, I find that to remain a Jewish state, very unJewish things must be done, therefore, it’s a catch-22.

  2. Ralph Seliger December 20, 2006 at 1:31 am - Reply

    Dear anonymous:
    It’s not about “exonerating Israel.” I’m indicating Judt’s double standard in pointing his finger of blame only at Israel; Judt is also not seeing the world the way it is if he thinks that “ethnic states” are anachronistic. We of the World Union of Meretz movement do not see a problem with an Israel that is “Jewish” in certain cultural ways and as a refuge for such Jews as may need a safe haven, as long as all citizens — Jews, Arabs and others — have equal rights under the law.

  3. Seth Kulick December 20, 2006 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    don’t think Judt actually mentions the Law of Return anywhere in his 2003
    piece or in the following exchange, so it is difficult to know exactly what
    Judt said about it based on your description. Your point about viewing it
    as “affirmative action” was commented on by Amos Elon (perhaps another
    liberal who has lost his way?) in the NYRB exchange following
    Judt’s 2003 piece:

    During the first decade of Israel’s existence, a time when hundreds of
    thousands of stateless Jews lingered in European DP camps and many others were
    forced to leave Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa, a
    convincing case could still be made for consolidating the new immigrant state
    by the “affirmative action” of the Law of Return and other seemingly ad hoc
    laws that served official state ideology….the fundamentalist clamor for a
    dominantly “Jewish” state—as pre-war Poland or Romania were ruthlessly
    “Polish” and “Romanian”—has increased over the years. “Affirmative action” for
    Jews has degenerated into crass discrimination against Israeli Arabs by means of punitive legislative as well as judicial, budgetary, and
    administrative measures.”

    As an aside, here is something I have been wondering about: you are correct
    that other states have a “similar right of return for ethnic kin”. And that
    by itself is not objectionable, I think. However, what other states have a
    favorable clause for ethnic kin while *simultaneously* also refusing those
    who have an actual (ie, documentable) historical connection to the land from
    one or two generations ago? What other countries organizes their
    immigration policy that way? I am actually asking this as a real question, not a rhetorical one. But I have the feeling the resulting list will not be a pretty one.

    Overall, I don’t think you are really engaging with one of the main points of
    Judt’s piece, that “a state in which one category of persons has exclusive
    privileges, from which another category is forever excluded, is out of
    step with modern democratic practice.” Incidentally, Judt comments on the
    1913 German law and its revision in the exchange following his 2003 article:

    To be sure, there is indeed a political party in France that would very much
    like to emulate the Israeli model and discriminate between categories of
    citizenship according to religion or ethnicity or country of origin. That is
    the Front National, whose leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is – perhaps not
    coincidentally – a great admirer of Israel’s way of handling Arabs and has
    long advocated “relocation packages” for French citizens of the wrong color,
    creed, and provenance. But no respectable European politician, however
    tempted to pander to local prejudices, would ever contemplate recasting
    citizenship laws along such lines; moreover, any such proposal would fall foul
    of European law. Even Germany (whose 1913 citizenship law has since been
    revised, as Professor Bartov must know), while it favors certain candidates
    for citizenship, makes no distinctions among German citizens themselves.
    Israel is truly unique in this respect.

    You can say that you
    do not see a problem with an Israel that is “Jewish” in certain cultural ways and as a refuge for such Jews as may need a safe haven, as long as all citizens — Jews, Arabs and others — have equal rights under the law.
    but just saying this does not resolve the basic contradiction between a “Jewish state” and basic democratic principles that Judt has pointed out. If all citizens have equal rights under the law, how are you going to maintain its Jewish character? How are you doing to ensure a Jewish majority, which will likely be necessary? There is no getting around the basic contradiction.

    Personally, while I think this is an important issue, it pales in comparison with ending the occupation of the territories, which is far far worse than violations of democratic principles inside Israel. So I view this as mostly a theoretical discussion, or at least for something far off in the future (as does Judt I think). However, the accusation of “stirring up antisemitism” by simply talking about these contradictions is somewhat pathetic. Essentially, what you are saying is that discussing basic democratic principles is bad for the Jews. Is this what liberal Zionism has come to?

  4. Ralph Seliger December 21, 2006 at 3:30 pm - Reply

    Dear Seth Kulick:
    No. I don’t think that Amos Elon is another “liberal who has lost his way” — at least not from what you quote here. I’m inclined to see things as Letty Cottin Pogrebin expressed in a long article in The Nation a few years ago (that I reprinted in abridged form in ISRAEL HORIZONS) that the Law of Return should be amended to only privilege Jews in their right to immigrate but not in their rights as citizens.

    As for another point you raise: I am reasonably sure that Poland and the Czech Republic are not prepared to grant an explicit right of return to Germans expelled after WW II or their progeny. Nor do I think that the USSR and any of its successor states are so inclined. Nor do I see Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, etc. welcoming back their Jews anytime soon. I believe that Morocco is a notable exception in this regard, but I don’t know if it would return or compensate for lost Jewish property. You can let me know how India and Pakistan would regard returnees from each other’s territory.

    Another one of Judt’s “main points” appears less serious to me than you think: “that ‘a state in which one category of persons has exclusive
    privileges, from which another category is forever excluded, is out of step with modern democratic practice’.” “Forever” is a long time. This statement implies that Israel’s parliamentary system can’t legislate changes. Whether it will or not is a political question, dependant upon any number of factors, but Israel can certainly change its laws to provide equal access to state funds and jobs — and Meretz is not the only party that favors this. Will Jews “forever” be in the majority? Who knows? But it’s interesting that the recent proposal of an erudite Jordanian-Palestinian writer for a one-state solution proposes that Israel’s Law of Return remain. If the Palestinians were willing to accomodate this vital measure for Jews in the 1930s and ’40s, Palestine/Israel would have been a bi-national state. But it’s probably too late to return to this option today; still, time will tell.

    Yes, I agree that solving the problems of occupation and mutual security are the key issues for now. No, I don’t think that it’s “bad for the Jews” to discuss these issues, but I think that Judt risks “stirring up antisemitism” in the way that he discusses them. He asserts his points in a tendentious and one-sided way rather than examining them in a fair and open-minded spirit. Even this sophisticated and learned intellectual grossly simplifies complex matters and plays rhetorically for applause lines rather than adequately delving into these questions.

  5. Anonymous December 26, 2006 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    One issue that is never satisfactorily explained to me is how you can even legislate a Jewish identity.. who IS a Jew? and having decided that there are differences in immigration rights and so on accorded to those who can claim Jewish identity, it seems logical to confront that very issue first. In the WWII period, it could be anyone who was persecuted by the Nazis, but that definition can hardly prevail today.

    One of the issues that hangs in the background of Judt’s discussion of European ethnic states is that those ethnicities are no longer well defined for themselves either, anymore, and the breakdown continues. A child of Algerian grandparents born in the suburbs of Paris who knows only French.. who is he/she? I don’t need to pursue this as it pertains to Jews. We know the problem!

    (you almost need to go to Iceland to see the remnant of what a nearly pure European ethnic state is.. and I understand Hitler did that as well, as they were, even then, the few ‘pure’ Aryans remaining. )

    As for the interesting discussion of what countries would accept their returnees, it’s really interesting, but it doesn’t solve the problem. By not having accepted the refugees driven out by ethnic cleansing, Israel may be in company with other countries who refuse to allow their former residents to return, but they aren’t, to my way of thinking, in harmony with Jewish law that is based on justice.
    Unless of course, we are talking here about a Jewish identity that has nothing to do with religion/ethics and so on.

  6. Ralph Seliger December 26, 2006 at 10:39 pm - Reply

    Dear anonymous:
    Israel had to “legislate” Jewish identity for its Law of Return. People are provided rights as returnees if they qualified for persecution as Jews under the Nuremburg laws. In other words, having a Jewish grandparent and not professing another religion.

    This way of defining a Jew — without regard to the religious criterion of matrilineal descent — reveals how the LoR was legislated as a measure of affirmative action for a people in need of refuge. ‘Anonymous’ is correct that this definition has nothing to do with Jewish religious law. Israel is not a Jewish state in a religious sense.

    Still, I would argue that there is nothing in Jewish law that requires Israeli Jews to give up their hard-won right to self-determination
    by allowing all exiled Arabs, and their progeny, to return. Jewish religious law does not endorse suicide — whether on the individual or national level.

    Hopefully, however, if a negotiated solution such as envisioned under the Geneva Initiative/Accord were agreed upon, Israel would and should agree upon a strictly limited return of Arabs on the humanitarian basis of family reunification.

  7. seth Kulick December 27, 2006 at 3:25 pm - Reply

    You accuse Tony Judt of stirring up antisemitism. I have read and reread his 2003 NYRB piece that you asked your question about, and the following exchange. I see nothing there that is stirring up antsemitism. He is questioning the basis of Zionism and pointing out that Israel “remains distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethnoreligious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens.” You summarize his alleged views with “that if Israel is not a good example of a Western, peace-loving liberal state, then it is the opposite, without legitimacy.”

    That is obviously not a reasonable representation of what he was saying.

    It might have been interesting if you had presented to Judt the “World Union of Meretz” view that you mention above in your response to anonymous. I am sure that he would have said that he supports the idea of equal rights for all Israeli citizens under the law (indeed, it’s exactly his point in the quotation above). I suspect, but I don’t know, that he would have said that the overall position is self-contradictory. Would have been interesting.

    There is much more to say about your comments regarding the Law of Return and also your comments in your response to anonymous, which I think will have to wait for another time. But I just have to say that I am somewhat flabbergasted by your reference to the “the recent proposal of an erudite Jordanian-Palestinian writer for a one-state solution ” who “proposes that Israel’s Law of Return remain.” You must be referring to Ali Abunimah. I have not read his new book, but I get his daily news summaries, and he regularly refers to Israel in terms far more harsh than Judt.
    I suspect that he is referring to the Law of Return in a context that will also allow for Palestinian refugees to return, in the context of a single state. So as Abunimah says in his 12/26 column in the Wall Street Journal:
    For Palestinians, the most blatant form of discrimination is Israel’s “Law of Return,” that allows a Jewish person from any country to settle in Israel. Meanwhile, family members of Palestinian citizens of Israel, living in exile, sometimes in refugee camps just a few miles outside Israel’s borders, are not permitted to set foot in the country.

    what I find admirable about Judt’s aricle,and the following exchanges, is that he is asking real questions about what it means for a state to be both “Jewish” and “democratic”,and he is not content to settle for self-contradictory slogans. Hopefully his writings, and those of Ali Abunimah and others, will contribute to a serious discussion of these issues.

  8. Anonymous December 27, 2006 at 4:23 pm - Reply

    Seth’s quote of Ali Abunimah
    (For Palestinians, the most blatant form of discrimination is Israel’s “Law of Return,” that allows a Jewish person from any country to settle in Israel. Meanwhile, family members of Palestinian citizens of Israel, living in exile, sometimes in refugee camps just a few miles outside Israel’s borders, are not permitted to set foot in the country.)
    captures exactly what seems so utterly racist about Israel. There are people from every country come to fill the need for cheap labor since the Palestinians are no longer available, and anyone who is considered Jewish– by some definition — can go there too.
    As for whether that definition is religious and whether the Judaism that is Israel is religious: it is if you can lose the right by accepting another religion. As soon as THAT is part of the equation, the Jewish identity in question is also religious. or at least partly so. If the need for sanctuary from Hitler is the issue, why not a homeland for the Roma people who were also targets of genocide?

    I don’t quite know what you mean by national suicide… are you suggesting the risk of civil unrest since there are now so many angry Palestinians in the territories, or are you referring, by national suicide, to the loss of demographic dominance? if it is the former, the continuing policies are making that anger even worse (a new settlement was just authorized!!!), and if it’s the latter, the only way to avoid that is by human rights violations that in no way, shape or form can be considered Jewish (religious definition).

    I think there is a craving for this kind of conversation and Jimmy Carter’s book, for better or worse, is justified if it opens that up in the Jewish community. This blog is good for this as well and I commend you for hosting it. We have long been taught that it is anti semitic or self hating to have this conversation, and even worse if non Jews hear us! My own experience has been that many non Jews think better of us for having this conversation, as many of them dare to think these thoughts too, but dare not to express them , because they’ll be told they are anti semites. I don’t think that’s healthy for any of us.

  9. Ralph Seliger December 27, 2006 at 5:12 pm - Reply

    I understand why Seth thinks that the Meretz position for a Jewish AND a democratic Israel is “a self-contradictory slogan.” But it’s programmatic, not just sloganeering. Meretz has a political program to work for equal rights for non-Jewish and Jewish citizens under law, while also supporting Israel as a place of refuge for Jews when necessary and one in which Jewish culture (i.e., the rhythms of the Hebrew calendar) also predominates as the majority culture. This should not be so difficult to understand. And if he thinks that Jews no longer might need a place of refuge, he should look at Iran, from where 2/3 to 3/4 of Jews have left since Khomeini took power.

    Where Judt may be stirring up antisemitism, is in unfairly adding to the one-sided criticisms of Jews and Israel for what ails us. Instead of thoughtfully modifying what he wrote in 2003, he has become more nasty and insensitive in what he has written and said — as I indicate about his NYU speech and in a blog posting about his obnoxious article in Haaretz in May, and an op-ed he wrote in the NY Times, on the occasion of Israel’s independence day.

  10. Seth Kulick January 4, 2007 at 1:00 pm - Reply

    I do not wish to drag this out, since it is now getting a bit old and has fallen off of the first page of your blog. But I do wish to register my disagreement with your imputing views to me with the “if he thinks that …” tactic. There is enough to argue about, and there is no need to do that.

    Looking back at this from being away, I actually find myself even more puzzled as to what your problem is with Judt. It seems to me that you both agree on two key items -(1) an end to the occupation, and (2) equal rights for all citizens of Israel. Regarding (2), there are disagreements in how such discrimination relates to Israel being a Jewish state, and what exactly that means. But that seems secondary to me than the common purpose of advancing civil rights. Instead you try, quite badly in my view, to focus on why Judt’s arguments concerning “ethnoreligious criteria” and democracy are stirring up antisemitism.

    I just reread his 58th birthday piece
    and your comments about it, which I don’t think I had seen before:

    Not surprisingly, I liked the Haaretz piece, although I could have done without the forced “maturity” analogy. It’s on a somewhat different topic than the NYRB piece, which is more about Israel itself, while the birthday piece seems to me more about what the occupation is doing to Israel.

    But your comments in response perhaps get more to the heart of the disagreement. You complain that Judt doesn’t recognize that Israel has evacuated settlers from Gaza and “ended the occupation there”, and so on.

    Well, it’s easy enough to point out from groups that I would have thought you support (and indeed that you link to!) why this probably doesn’t impress Judt too much, or, more importantly, why this doesn’t affect Israeli’s increasingly negative international image, which I take to be Judt’s concern. For example (and it really is just one example), B’tselem’s comments on Gaza after diengagement:

    While you say Judt does not refer to such policies as the Gaza disengagement, one could just as easily say that you do not refer to such accounts that go beyond saying that Israel has “ended the occupation”.

    Or, even more starkly, consider the contrast between your comments complaining about the good things Israel has done that Judt does not recognize, and the recent comments made by Shulamit Aloni(who I assume you have some respect for), starting with:

    “Jewish self-righteousness is taken for granted among ourselves to such an
    extent that we fail to see what’s right in front of our eyes. It’s simply
    inconceivable that the ultimate victims, the Jews, can carry out evil deeds.
    Nevertheless, the state of Israel practises its own, quite violent, form of
    Apartheid with the native Palestinian population”

    (rest at http://mailman.lbo-talk.org/pipermail/lbo-talk/Week-of-Mon-20070101/026271.html)

    It’s really not too much of a wonder why Israel’s image is going down the tubes, and it’s not because of “double standards”, “stirring up anti-semitism”, or “one-sided arguments”.

  11. Ralph Seliger January 4, 2007 at 3:37 pm - Reply

    I hope we’ll conclude with this, but Seth is correct that Judt and I agree upon areas of concern, while disagreeing on aspects of our concern. I find his one-sided condemnations of Israel to be mean-spirited, unfair and unhelpful.

    It’s instructive that Seth brings up Shulamit Aloni. Since retiring from the Knesset in 1996, she’s typically pronounced herself in condemnatory words reminiscent of Judt. (That was also her style before retirement, and partly why she knew that Meretz would not elect her as party leader.)

    There’s politics and there’s rhetoric; the latter is best for eliciting applause lines, but not necessarily good for making social change. Both Judt and Aloni are noteworthy for the latter but not the former.

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