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.