Widely regarded as one of the most important historians of contemporary Europe, Tony Judt died on Friday, two years after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Judt is perhaps most controversial for his critique of Israel. A staunch leftist Zionist as a teenager, Tony Judt spent many summers on a kibbutz in Israel. But in 2003 he famously called Israel an anachronism and outlined the argument for a one-state solution with Palestinians and Israelis living in secular, binational state. We play excerpts of his remarks at a 2006 debate on the power of the Israeli Lobby. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: And today, we end our show with the death of the public intellectual and historian Tony Judt, widely regarded as one of the most important historians of contemporary Europe. Judt was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease two years ago. He was born in London in 1948, taught at US universities for most of his life, was most recently director of the Remarque Institute at New York University. Author, editor of a dozen books, Judt was a prolific and widely read essayist and wrote frequently for the New York Review of Books and the New York Times. Although he was paralyzed by the onset of Lou Gehrig’s disease, he continued to write and publish throughout his illness.
He is perhaps most controversial for his critique of Israel. A staunch leftist Zionist as a teenager, Tony Judt spent many summers on a kibbutz in Israel. But in 2003 he famously called Israel an anachronism and outlined the argument for a one-state solution with Palestinians and Israelis living in secular, binational state.
In 2006, he participated in a lively debate at Cooper Union in New York sponsored by the London Review of Books. It was called “The Israel Lobby: Does It Have Too Much Influence on US Foreign Policy?”
TONY JUDT: Let’s take a concrete recent brief case. Many Israelis supported — overwhelming majority, actually, supported the recent incursion into Lebanon. Many people in the rest of the world thought that this was perhaps a bad idea, and many people in the United States, including people in policy-making positions, worried that this was not conducive to the long-term making Middle Eastern peace. But what did the Secretary of State of this country say? That we should effectively stand by and do nothing, because this was, if you remember, the birth pang of a new Middle East.
The consequences of this particular birth pang have been catastrophic for Israel — and that’s one discussion one could have — but they are, believe me, profoundly catastrophic for this country, as well as the country I came from, whose prime minister backed the same position, because we are seen, then, to be two things: one, completely supporting a mistaken policy by a small client state, and two, unable to do anything about it, apparently. So we are perceived simultaneously as complicit and weak. How that could possibly be in our interest defeats me.
And if it’s not in our interest, then why do we not do something much more effective? Why do we not strong-arm the way, for example — excuse me, excuse the language of “force” and “strong-arm,” but sometimes it has applied — the way we have strong-armed some countries in Europe, which I know much more about, into backing us on the International Criminal Court — heavy leverage, heavy financial pressure, heavy legal pressure, heavy promises or threats of the withdrawal of promises? We do it. We can do it. We don’t seem to do it in the case of Israel.
I think that for many American Jews — although I’m an American Jew, I don’t include myself in this — for many American Jews, there is no daylight in their thinking between America’s interests and Israel’s interests. From their point of view, the interests are one and the same. So they don’t think to themselves, well, let’s make sure there’s no criticism of Israel, because criticism of Israel is, in some sense, un-American. The two have blended. And that makes it extraordinarily difficult to talk about the subject, because if you talk about the problem of our relationship with Israel, people can only assume that you have some other agenda, because it wouldn’t be rational to separate the two in any other way, so the other agenda must be anti-Semitism of one kind or another. And I think what’s happened is that there’s a kind of codependency that’s opened up between the two countries in the thinking — and I’ll finish on this —- that people have here about them, such that Israel encourages America’s misreading of the Middle East in recent years, and America, effectively, conspires in Israel’s failure to face the Palestinian problem head-on. And it’s very difficult to see, in this country, how people would learn to separate out the two. And this goes back, as I said, to the mid—'60s.
And on this, I'll finish. Amos Elon, the very senior Ha’aretz journalist, who was the foreign editor —-
MODERATOR: Who’s that?
TONY JUDT: Amos Elon.
TONY JUDT: Amos, back in the 1960s, was at a party in Washington to say goodbye to a longstanding Israeli ambassador. And he asked the ambassador, “What do you regard -— off the record, what do you regard as your greatest achievement during your time here?” And the ambassador said to him, “Amos, my greatest achievement has been to convince Americans that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism.” And I think that this is —
MODERATOR: Who was the ambassador at the time?
TONY JUDT: I’ll tell you some other time. This is our problem. We have to somehow unravel this connection, and then we could have an intelligent debate about what is and what is not America’s interest and Israel’s interest.
AMY GOODMAN: The late Tony Judt speaking in 2006 at Cooper Union. Well, earlier this year, Tony Judt wrote a moving essay about his illness, Lou Gehrig’s disease, which he described as a, quote, “progessive imprisonment without parole.” This is how he described it in an interview with The Guardian newspaper of London.
TONY JUDT: This is one of the worst diseases on the earth. It’s like being in a prison which is shrinking by six inches each day. You know it’s shrinking by six inches; you don’t know how long it’ll take. Subjectively, you tend to go in plateaus. It’s like a staircase. So you go, boink, suddenly realize, oh, my god, my legs won’t hold me up. Then, for a long time, nothing much happens. Then, boink, oh, Jesus, I can’t breathe without this tube. So, that’s how it actually works. Because you have your mind, you don’t have the advantage, in a sense, of losing your mind with your body so you become a vegetable in all parts. You’re going to be absolutely mentally cutting edge until the day you die, in most cases, with this disease, which is good news and it’s bad news. The good news is obvious. You could write essays, articles, reviews. You could teach. I’ve been teaching this semester. Kids come here. We do a class in this room. You can do pretty much anything that your mouth and your brain can do, you can still do. But, at the same time, you know what’s going to happen to you. And your choice is not to think about it, but at the same time, not to go into denial, not to go around thinking that you might get fixed or it’s not really so bad, because there’s no hope and no help, because you know what the ending is.
AMY GOODMAN: Tony Judt, the great intellectual historian and essayist. He died Friday at his home in Manhattan at the age of sixty-two after a battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.