On Tony Judt: A memoir

I first heard the name “Tony Judt” when I was a graduate student at UC-Berkeley in the late 1970s, and I took an immediate dislike to it. It was uttered to me by a female student whom I was (briefly) dating. She was enrolled in one of Judt’s classes, and the rapt enthusiasm with which ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
568427_100603_Postwar_book_tony_judtb2.jpg
568427_100603_Postwar_book_tony_judtb2.jpg

I first heard the name "Tony Judt" when I was a graduate student at UC-Berkeley in the late 1970s, and I took an immediate dislike to it. It was uttered to me by a female student whom I was (briefly) dating. She was enrolled in one of Judt's classes, and the rapt enthusiasm with which she described his course made it clear that she was a lot more impressed with him than she was with me. Deservedly so, I suspect. So without laying eyes on the man or reading any of his scholarship, I decided I didn't like this Judt fellow very much.

I remained vaguely aware of Judt's work after that, but his scholarly interests didn't overlap with most of mine and he was mostly a name I remembered with a certain vague disregard. The Committee on Social Thought considered him for a position during the years I taught at the University of Chicago, but I was in a different department and didn't devote much attention to the issue at the time.

Fast forward to the fall of 2003. John Mearsheimer and I were beginning work on our study of the "Israel lobby," and we read with interest Judt's essay in the New York Review of Books entitled "Israel: the Alternative." In it he portrayed modern Zionism as manifestation of 19th-century ethnic nationalism, a world-view he judged increasingly inappropriate to the post-modern, globalized world of the 21st century. Israel was increasingly an "anachronism," he wrote, and he suggested that a brighter future lay in replacing Zionism's ethno-religious exclusiveness with a more inclusive liberal democracy. In other words, Israel should evolve into a multi-ethnic liberal democracy instead of remaining an explicitly "Jewish state." The illiberal leadership of the New Republic greeted the piece by tossing Judt off their masthead (where he had previously been listed as a "contributing editor"), and he and his family reportedly received several death threats as well. I didn't agree with his conclusions, by the way, but the essay cast the phenomenon of Zionism in a new light.

I first heard the name “Tony Judt” when I was a graduate student at UC-Berkeley in the late 1970s, and I took an immediate dislike to it. It was uttered to me by a female student whom I was (briefly) dating. She was enrolled in one of Judt’s classes, and the rapt enthusiasm with which she described his course made it clear that she was a lot more impressed with him than she was with me. Deservedly so, I suspect. So without laying eyes on the man or reading any of his scholarship, I decided I didn’t like this Judt fellow very much.

I remained vaguely aware of Judt’s work after that, but his scholarly interests didn’t overlap with most of mine and he was mostly a name I remembered with a certain vague disregard. The Committee on Social Thought considered him for a position during the years I taught at the University of Chicago, but I was in a different department and didn’t devote much attention to the issue at the time.

Fast forward to the fall of 2003. John Mearsheimer and I were beginning work on our study of the “Israel lobby,” and we read with interest Judt’s essay in the New York Review of Books entitled “Israel: the Alternative.” In it he portrayed modern Zionism as manifestation of 19th-century ethnic nationalism, a world-view he judged increasingly inappropriate to the post-modern, globalized world of the 21st century. Israel was increasingly an “anachronism,” he wrote, and he suggested that a brighter future lay in replacing Zionism’s ethno-religious exclusiveness with a more inclusive liberal democracy. In other words, Israel should evolve into a multi-ethnic liberal democracy instead of remaining an explicitly “Jewish state.” The illiberal leadership of the New Republic greeted the piece by tossing Judt off their masthead (where he had previously been listed as a “contributing editor”), and he and his family reportedly received several death threats as well. I didn’t agree with his conclusions, by the way, but the essay cast the phenomenon of Zionism in a new light.

And then in 2006, our lives intersected on three separate occasions. The first conjunction came after John Mearsheimer and I published “The Israel Lobby” in the London Review of Books in March 2006. The furor was immediate, and my co-author and I were denounced by a wide (and predictable) array of critics. To our surprise, however, the New York Times said nothing about the controversy, and neither did any of its columnists. And then, on April 19, I opened the Times‘s op-ed page and found an eloquent defense of our article by the same Professor Judt to whom I had taken an unwarranted dislike back in grad school. 

Judt’s op-ed didn’t endorse all of our conclusions, but he agreed that the lobby’s influence had become a taboo subject in discussions of U.S. foreign policy and this situation was not healthy for the United States or for Israel. Judt’s balanced and supportive intervention opened the door to a more reasoned discussion of the issue, and from that point forward the tide of discourse began to turn.

The second intersection came a few weeks later. In one of those small ironies that make life interesting, Judt’s book Postwar and my book Taming American Power were both finalists for the Council on Foreign Relations’s Arthur Ross Book Prize. This juxtaposition might have been an occasion for resentment — especially after he won — but Judt’s book was so obviously superior to mine that his receipt of the award left no sting at all.  

Postwar is easily the best history of post-World War II Europe yet written, and it provides a compelling account of how a battered and divided continent rebuilt, rose again, and charted a new course for itself. It weaves social, political, and cultural commentary in a clear and compelling narrative, but there are fascinating detours along the way and no shortage of heroes and villains to identify and assess. It is a tour de force that demonstrates Judt’s broad and deep learning, sharp critical powers, and a masterful command of language.

And then, in September of that same year, Judt joined Rashid Khalidi and John Mearsheimer to debate the topic of the lobby with Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross, and Shlomo Ben-Ami at Cooper Union in New York.  You can watch the entire debate here, and if you do, you’ll see that Judt simply dominates the event. He is eloquent, charming, learned, eminently reasonable, and altogether compelling.

These events brought us into direct contact at last, in the form of several brief email exchanges. We agreed at one point to meet for a meal when I was next in New York, but somehow the opportunity never materialized and we had no further contact for many months. I heard he was on sabbatical and there were a few rumors that he was ill, though he continued to produce essays and comments on a variety of subjects.

Earlier this year, we all learnt what was the matter. As you can read about here, Judt is suffering — a word that seems wholly inadequate — from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. ALS is a fatal neurological disorder that eventually leaves its victims completely paralyzed, yet leaves their cognitive functioning unimpaired. The body gradually cease to work, while the mind is fully aware.

To say that Judt has shown great courage in the face of this cruel turn of the cards would be an understatement. Case in point: last year, a group of scholars solicited his signature for an open letter defending the principle of academic freedom in the case of political scientist Neve Gordon of Ben Gurion University in Israel. (You can read more about the Gordon affair here). Not only did Tony quickly offer his signature, he also provided a vastly-improved rewrite of the original draft and took it upon himself to recruit several other signatories. All this at a time when one could easily have forgiven him for focusing on his own circumstances.

In addition to completing a new book, Ill Fares the Land, on the future of social democracy earlier this year, he has devoted part of the past few months to composing a series of brief memoirs, appearing in each new issue of the NYRB. These memoires have ranged over an array of topics: his youthful fascination with trains, the joys of crossing the Channel, his Jewish identity, sexual mores in England, the dubious pleasures of various ethnic cuisines, the radicalism of the sixties, and several others. These recollections are a delight, combining rich description and self-deprecation in equal measure, along with the analytical clarity that suffuses his scholarship and a deep affection for his subjects. I read them aloud to my wife as we prepare dinner, and she is now as dazzled by his writing as the woman I knew back at Berkeley was impressed by his lectures. But this time around, I share in her admiration.

Professor Judt and I have never met; it seems likely now that we never shall.  One day his voice will fall silent, possibly to the secret delight of a few of his adversaries but to the public sorrow of his many friends. I continue to hope that day lies far in the future, so that this brilliant historian and courageous public intellectual can continue to broaden our horizons and challenge dubious verities.  

Note: One of Tony’s former students is conducting a cross-country bicycle ride to raise money for ALS research. You can read about his efforts here, and if you are so moved, make a contribution. 

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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