Ideas in good faith

A historian of remarkable confrontational disposition, Tony Judt will be long remembered for his polemical writings.

Published : Jun 10, 2015 12:30 IST

“When the fact changes, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

—John Maynard Keynes

PARALYSED from the neck down with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as motor-neuron disease, Tony Judt, commentator on international politics and historian of exceptional subtlety, died in 2010 at the age of 62. Having been a professor of French History at Cambridge and Oxford for most of his life, he moved to the United States in the later part of his life when he began to engage meaningfully with international issues and politics. The remarkably controversial body of work of one of the finest historians of our time is a testament of his passionate engagement and intellectual intensity marked by ethical openness.

Since Judt’s death, three significant books authored by him have appeared. I particularly enjoyed his moving memoir, Ill Fares the Land and Reappraisals, which focus on 20th-century Europe in recorded history and remembrance. His conversations with Timothy Snyder, the historian, published in a book entitled Thinking the Twentieth Century , takes us to the heart of some of the central events in contemporary history. Recently, his wife Jennifer Homans put together some of his most intellectually vibrant essays and reviews on the Palestinian conflict, the U.S.’ foreign policy and the state of social democracy in the 21st century, which appeared in TheNew York Review of Books , The New Republic and The Financial Times over the past two decades.

A historian of remarkable confrontational disposition, he will be long remembered for his polemical writings, especially his book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 , a wide and in-depth study of post-War European history.

I had the opportunity to meet him and discuss the situation in the Balkans and West Asia. He was as vehement about the irrational stance taken by Israel as he had been in his controversial essay “Israel: The Alternative” (2003), in which he accuses Israel of being a “belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-state”. A nation-wide uproar, accusing him of being anti-Semitic, did not make him alter his position though it left him disturbed as he had once been a staunch Zionist and loved Hebrew. The book under review contains eight of his essays on Israel, the Holocaust and the Jews, in which he recounts his utmost disillusionment with Zionism and its extreme position that will move the Israeli nation “to the road to nowhere”, a title of one of his essays on the West Asian conundrum.

Over the years, Judt gradually moved away from the two-state solution and argued in “Israel: The Alternative” that there were now “too many [Israeli] settlements, and too many Palestinians”. According to him, the solution lay in the only alternative of bi-national states in which you cannot possibly deny the existence of Israel nor expunge Palestine. Palestinians, Judt predicts, will have their state eventually; the “occupied territories will come under Palestine rule”; and “the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories [would be] foredoomed, . . . most of them . . . dismantled, as many Israelis privately acknowledge”. If this were to happen, Jerusalem will become a common capital necessitating stability and shared security concerns of both the protagonists. It is wishful thinking to look forward to times of cooperation and peace. It is sheer optimism to imagine Hamas turning from a terrorist organisation into a political party, ready to negotiate.

Citing the example of Algerian independence, Judt argues that if the French could hand over power to a black majority in Algeria, why should it not be possible in West Asia? The hardliners in Israel take shelter under ancient history, which establishes the “primordial presence of an ancient Jewish state on the territory of modern Israel”.

Others take the pretext of the Holocaust massacres that legitimise such a claim on Palestinian territories. The pleading of its geographical location is yet another reason for Israel’s adamant stance: “We are vulnerable, they say, so surrounded by enemies, that we cannot take any risks or afford a single mistake. The French could withdraw across the Mediterranean; South Africa is a very large country.”

And finally, the support of the U.S. for its ally is sufficient enough to give Israel the stamina and courage to stand up against any political solution that might jeopardise its national security or sovereignty.

Critical of U.S. hegemony

Understandably, Judt is critical of the U.S.’ hegemony, comparing it humorously, but aptly, with an SUV: “Oversized and overweight, the SUV disdains negotiated agreements to restrict atmospheric pollution. It consumes inordinate quantities of scarce resources to furnish its privileged inhabitants… [and] exposes outsiders to deadly risk in order to provide for the illusory security of its occupants.”

Israel, indeed, possesses the military and political initiative to bring about a solution but that can happen only when it rids itself of the complex of being “a small victim-community”. Judt maintains: “Their astonishingly incompetent political leadership has squandered thirty years since the hubris-inducing victory of June 1967. In that time Israelis have built illegal compounds in the occupied territory and grown a carapace of cynicism: toward the Palestinians whom they regard with contempt, and toward a U.S. whose erstwhile benevolent disengagement have manipulated shamelessly.”

It is rightly argued that in an age of cross-border cultural exchange and open pluralist democracies, Israel’s intolerance is an anachronism, a state that takes refuge behind the controversial electronic fence that “like the Berlin Wall, confirms the moral and institutional bankruptcy of the regime it is intended to protect”. Israel indeed is a “mono-religious/ethnic state” within a global culture of pluralism and multiculturalism.

Judt is more a historian than a reviewer. His review of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes damns the Marxist historian of misconceptions of the history of the century, especially the brutality of Stalinism and the Cold War which, as he points out in another essay on the Cold War, had its positive fallouts, especially the strengthening of the European state system, which had been threatened by the rise of Prussia. The Cold War, for Judt, was therefore “not a problem but a solution”.

On the Balkans, he argues against the European construction where “everything is imagined, represented, constructed, Orientalised”.

In another essay, he takes up Norman Davies’ book Europe: A History and tears it apart for its “embarrassing and egregious errors”. He writes that Davies’ book is “not just full of error, disproportion, prejudice, resentment, and boastfulness, it is also strikingly conventional”.

In Europe: The Grand Illusion (1996), Judt looks into the future of the European Union (E.U.) arguing against the tight integration of nations in Europe that would reduce poor nations to a marginalised, disenfranchised status. This has indeed been realised considering the rise of opposition to the E.U. and its oppositional camps comprising “winners and the losers”: “For what is ‘Brussels’, after all, if not a renewed attempt to achieve the ideal, efficient, universal administration, shorn of particularism and driven by reason and the rule of law, which the reforming monarchs… strove to install in their ramshackle lands?”

As Homans writes in the introduction, what matters most to the reader is a reaction to Judt’s ideas expressed in “good faith”, rather than simply a response to Judt the man. His writings on Israel were, as puts it, “free of calculation and manoeuvre, intellectual or otherwise. A clean, clear, honest account”.

His work is indeed underpinned by the “individual moral responsibility”, by the principles Judt found in Albert Camus and his reflective writings. It is hard to disagree with the compelling logic of his arguments that underscore the bad faith of the U.S., which has lost all its global trust through its uncalled-for interventions in Iraq or Afghanistan, aborted wars, regimes of persecution and surveillance and the handling of the peace process in West Asia.

Judt died a sad man, leaving behind a world without good faith, a world “where humanitarians provide cover for legally ambiguous armed occupation, and where the United Nations, in the words of David Rieff, has become a ‘toothless old scold … a de facto colonial office to U.S. power … used like a piece of fancy Kleenex’ to clean up after the American interventions accompanied with widespread collateral damage. The choice we are left with is either ‘imperialism or barbarism’.”

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