A furious row has been raging in the international Jewish community
over the rights and wrongs of criticising Israel. At its centre is a
British historian who accuses his fellow Jews in the US of stifling
any debate about Israel. His opponents say his views give succour to
anti-Semites. One thing's for sure: any appearance of consensus over
the Middle East has been shattered.
The new Jewish question
Sunday February 11, 2007
The New York Observer
On 3 October last year, the distinguished British-born historian Tony
Judt was preparing for a public lecture when the telephone rang. He
was due to give the talk, entitled 'The Israel Lobby and US Foreign
Policy', at the Polish consulate in New York in less than an hour. The
caterers were already there. But when he picked up the phone he was
informed that his lecture had been suddenly cancelled.
He was also told that Abraham Foxman, the national director of the
Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was on the phone to the Polish consul.
Whether the call from the ADL was the cause of the cancellation would
become the subject of heated debate in the days and months to come.
Foxman labelled such accusations 'conspiratorial nonsense'; however,
the Polish consul, Krzysztof Kasprzyk, later acknowledged that he had
been contacted by a number of Jewish groups - including the ADL and
the American Jewish Committee (AJC) - who were concerned about Judt's
'The phone calls were very elegant but may be interpreted as
exercising a delicate pressure,' Kasprzyk said. It didn't take him
long to see how it might look for Poland, given its history, to be
fostering arguments that in certain spheres of American intellectual
life have been conflated with anti-Semitism.
'They do what the more tactful members of the intelligence services
used to do in late Communist society,' Tony Judt says of the ADL when
I speak to him from his home in New York. 'They point out how foolish
it is to associate with the wrong people. So they call up the Poles
and they say: Did you know that Judt is a notorious critic of Israel,
and therefore shading into or giving comfort to anti-Semites?'
In the New York Jewish press, the episode was dubbed - with a
debatable degree of sarcasm - 'l'Affaire Judt'. Certainly, not
everyone felt Judt was a latter-day Dreyfus. The New York Review of
Books published an open letter to Abraham Foxman in Judt's defence,
which was signed by 114 intellectuals, many of whom disagreed with
Judt on the Middle East yet felt that his right to free speech had
been indefensibly curbed. But Christopher Hitchens, reminiscing about
an occasion when a talk of his own was cancelled for similar reasons,
cried out: 'What a chance I missed to call attention to myself!' - not
the sort of opportunity Hitchens is in the habit of passing up - 'Once
again, absolutely conventional attacks on Israeli and US policy are
presented as heroically original.'
In the past two weeks, the Judt Affair has entered an entirely new
gear. In an essay written by the Holocaust scholar Alvin Rosenfeld and
published by the American Jewish Committee, Judt's views - and those
of other 'progressive Jews' such as the American playwright Tony
Kushner and the British academic Jacqueline Rose - were expressly
linked to anti-Semitism. That row was reported in the New York Times,
giving it an unprecedented prominence, and since then the story has
opened the floodgates of a debate that until now has been shrouded in
fear. Americans have long been in the grip of a cultural taboo that is
characterised by Judt as follows: 'All Jews are silenced by the
requirement to be supportive of Israel, and all non-Jews are silenced
by the fear of being thought anti-Semitic, and there is no
conversation on the subject.'
Philip Weiss, a bold polemicist whose New York Observer blog,
MondoWeiss, has been besieged by posts on the subject since he
addressed it last week, has even gone so far as to declare a new
movement. His account of it embraces the new forum for dissent,
Independent Jewish Voices, which was launched in Britain last week by
an eminent group that includes Eric Hobsbawm and Harold Pinter. In
launching its manifesto, Independent Jewish Voices has taken the 40th
anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as an
occasion to create 'a climate and a space in which Jews of different
affiliations and persuasions can express their opinions about the
actions of the Israeli government without being accused of disloyalty
or being dismissed as self-hating.' One of its founding principles is:
'The battle against anti-Semitism is vital and is undermined whenever
opposition to Israeli government policies is automatically branded as
'A lot of people, like Tony Judt, have been doing brave work here in
the US for a while,' Weiss tells me. 'What has happened specifically
is that for once, the mainstream is paying attention.'
He dates the beginning of this back to last March, when an explosive
article about the influence of the Israel lobby on American foreign
policy, written by two American political scientists, Stephen Walt and
John Mearsheimer, was published in the London Review of Books (having
originally been turned down by the Atlantic Monthly). The response to
the piece was so overwhelming - and so coloured by accusations of
anti-Semitism - that the LRB decided to host a debate on the subject
in New York last September. That debate was sold out; Tony Judt, one
of the speakers, gave an exceptionally eloquent performance, in the
course of which he said it was significant that the event had been
hosted by a London publication. Public conversation on the issue had
been so absent in America, he suggested, that it could only be opened
up by importation.
'When Walt and Mearsheimer were published in London,' Philip Weiss
continues, 'I said: something's changing.' Since then, the publication
of former president Jimmy Carter's book, Palestine: Peace Not
Apartheid, and the attention given to Rosenfeld's accusations in his
AJC article, have proved, in Weiss's view, that 'there's no question
that something has changed. One of the excitements of what's going on
right now is that people who have had feelings about this and have not
expressed them are popping up all over. It's personally very stirring
to me that this is happening. I can't believe it.'
In fact, the debate is so current that the online magazine Slate has
come up with a quiz entitled 'Are You A Liberal Anti-Semite?' (Sample
question: 'Which state's offences against humanity bother you most? a)
Sudan b) Israel c) Massachusetts'.) One of the prizes is dinner with
Tony Judt is, in the words of a fellow historian, 'one of our most
dazzling public intellectuals'. As a prominent professor at New York
University and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books,
the New York Times and The Nation, he has a strong and widely heard
voice. His latest book, Postwar - a magnificent, opinionated and vast
history of Europe since 1945 - was voted one of the 10 best books of
last year by the New York Times. A talented forger of links between
thinkers from countries all over the world, Judt worked tirelessly
after 1989 to bring together eastern European and American
intellectuals, and he solidified these efforts by founding the
Remarque Institute at NYU in 1995 to promote the study and discussion
of Europe in America. A natural polemicist, he brought with him to New
York an Oxbridge tradition more pugnacious than is generally
characteristic of American academic life, and found himself - after
years spent concentrating on European history - drawn back into an
engagement with the Middle East.
In 2003, Judt wrote an articulately provocative piece for the New York
Review of Books entitled 'Israel: The Alternative', in which he
argued, among other things, that Israel was 'an anachronism' that was
'bad for the Jews' and should be converted into a binational state.
The offices of the New York Review were inundated with letters as a
result. Last year, Judt wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times in
which he argued that America's fear of anti-Semitism when discussing
Israel wrought tremendous damage. As the page was about to go to
press, the editor rang him up. 'Just one thing,' he said, 'You are
Jewish, aren't you?'
Judt was born in London in 1948. Growing up Jewish in 1950s Britain,
as he has said, he came to know a thing or two about anti-Semitism.
His mother was from London and his father, who was born in Belgium,
had come there as a stateless person. Judt was brought up in what he
describes as 'a fairly standard left-wing Jewish secular political
environment', but with close links to his Yiddish-speaking
grandparents, all of whom were eastern European Jews, from Romania and
Russia and Lithuania and Poland. As a teenager, he joined a left-wing
Zionist organisation and became very active in the kibbutz movement,
living in Israel on and off for a large part of the early 1960s.
'What changed for me,' he says now, 'was that in 1967 I went out as a
volunteer at the time of the Six Day War; after the war was finished I
volunteered for auxiliary military service and I ended up as a sort of
informal translator for other volunteers up on the Golan Heights. And
there for the first time I began to see another face of Israel that
had been camouflaged from me by my enthusiasm for the idealism of the
kibbutz movement.' He became, he recalls, quickly very detached from
Israel. 'And in fact when I was a student in Paris I became involved
in 1970 with Palestinians and young Israelis, trying to organise
groups to talk about peace settlements and ending the conflict.'
Last week, as he looked over the list of signatories of the new
British network, Independent Jewish Voices, Judt says he was struck by
how many of them are people who have not in the past identified
themselves publicly as Jewish. 'Of course they're Jewish,' he
clarifies, 'but it was not part of their public identity tag. And now
they feel - and I would share this sentiment - a need to say, look: if
it helps you understand just how bad things have got in the Middle
East, I am willing to act not as a freestanding historian but as a
Jew. I don't normally like to act as though being Jewish was who I am,
but it's a kind of inverse moral blackmail that forces you to go the
Speaking from Bloomington, Indiana, where he is a director of Indiana
University's Jewish Studies Program, Alvin Rosenfeld tells me that his
essay 'does seem to have struck a raw nerve'. 'I've been accused of
wanting to shut down debate and stifle free speech,' he says, 'and
none of that is true. I stand strongly for vigorous debate and open
discussion. What in the past was said behind the hands and on the
margins of society has been coming into the mainstream of discourse,'
Rosenfeld adds, echoing the sentiments of those he attacks, 'Now one
can deal with it. And that's one of the things I set out to do.'
Though Rosenfeld is careful not to say in his essay that anti-Zionism
and anti-Semitism are identical, he does state that 'Anti-Zionism is
the form that much of today's anti-Semitism takes, so much so that
some now see earlier attempts to rid the world of Jews finding a
parallel in present-day desires to get rid of the Jewish state.' He
labels the work of Judt, Rose, Kushner et al 'This Jewish war against
the Jewish state.' I ask him if he would say that an increase in
anti-Zionist sentiment might be caused by Israeli policy. 'I doubt
it,' he replies. 'As I read these people, it strikes to the heart, not
of particular policies, but the idea of a sovereign Jewish state in
the Middle East. I think it goes to the question of Israel's origins
'Oh that's nuts,' Judt counters, 'I've never said Israel doesn't have
a right to exist. I'm not actually sure that anyone in what we would
call the respectable political mainstream ever has.'
'He says that,' says Rosenfeld, 'but it's not true. In his writings he
calls not for a two-state solution but for the dissolution of the
state of Israel and a one-state solution, and everyone knows that in
no time at all, were such a scenario to come about, Jews would be a
minority within this newly configured state, and would be at the mercy
of a population that's not likely to treat them gently. Tony Judt is a
kind of political fantasist, it strikes me.'
'The issue is not whether Israel has a right to exist,' Judt says
plainly, 'Israel does exist. It exists just like Belgium or Kuwait or
any other country which was invented at some point in the past and is
now a fact. The question is what kind of a state Israel should be.
Anti-Zionism has, like Zionism itself, a long and complicated history.
'The thing that we tend to forget,' Judt explains, 'is that until the
Second World War, Zionism was a minority taste even within Jewish
political organisations. The main body of European Jews was either
apolitical or integrated, and voting within the existing countries
they lived in. So to be anti-Zionist, at least until the late 1930s,
was to be lined up with most Jews. It would make no sense to think of
it as anti-Semitic.
'After the Second World War, for a fairly brief period - from let's
say 1945 to about 1953 - the overwhelming majority of Jews who were
politically thinking were Zionists, either actively or
sympathetically, for the rather obvious reason that Israel was the
only hope for Jewish survivors. But then many of them, like Hannah
Arendt or Arthur Koestler, both of whom were Zionists at various
points, took their distance, on the grounds that it was already clear
to them that Israel was going to become the kind of state that as a
cosmopolitan Jew they couldn't identify with.
'Ever since then, there has been an unbroken tradition of non-Israeli
Jews who regard Israel as either unrelated to their own identity or
something of which they sometimes approve, sometimes disapprove,
sometimes totally dislike. This range of opinion is not new,' Judt
concludes. 'The only thing that's new - and it's a product of the
post-Sixties - is the insistence that it's anti-Semitic.'
Judt tells a story about an Israeli journalist who was in Washington
in the 1960s. 'The Israeli ambassador was retiring, and the journalist
asked him what he thought was his biggest achievement. The ambassador
said: "I've succeeded in beginning to convince Americans that
anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism." There has been a progressive emergence
of a conflation,' Judt explains. 'It didn't just happen naturally. And
it was pushed quite actively in the Seventies and Eighties, to the
point at which it became so normal in this country that it was for a
while the default assumption. It's really only in the last five to
eight years that it's started to be questioned.'
The actions of very pro-Israel Jewish organisations - for instance,
making carefully placed phone calls relating to certain public
speakers - are, Judt believes, now born of panic rather than confidence.
'They've lost control of the debate,' he says. 'For a long time all
they had to deal with were people like Norman Finkelstein or Noam
Chomsky, who they could dismiss as loonies of the left. Now they're
having to face, for want of a better cliché, the mainstream: people
like me who have a fairly long established record of being Social
Democrats (in the European sense) and certainly not on the crazy left
on most issues, saying very critical things about Israel. They're not
used to that, so their initial response has been to silence people if
they could, and their second response has been to ratchet up the
anti-Semitic charge.' Judt thinks it's telling that the New York Times
'is willing to report these issues and let reporters quote both sides.
In the past, you would have had silence.'
Whether this will have any effect in Washington is another matter. The
political influence of AIPAC (the pro-Israel lobby, American Israel
Public Affairs Committee) is as strong as it ever was, and Judt argues
that since it's not worth going out on a limb on Israel from
Congressmen's point of view, change has to happen at a presidential
level. Hillary, he says, 'is pretty gutless on this'; she has already
given two gung-ho speeches to AIPAC. It's not a topic Barack Obama has
yet picked up on, Judt adds, but Obama was brave enough to oppose the
Iraq war from the outset, so it's possible that he would take a
courageous stance elsewhere in the Middle East. 'A presidential
candidate has to feel that once he or she gets into office - they
wouldn't dare open their mouths while they're running for election -
they don't stand to lose very much in public opinion if they put
pressure on Israel,' Judt says
In Postwar, Judt writes of Europe that 'After 1989, nothing - not the
future, not the present and above all not the past - would ever be the
same.' Is there a moment like that, I ask him, in this situation? 'I
think so,' he replies. 'It's not as tidy a moment as 1989 in Europe.
But I think one could say that after the Iraq war, for want of a
better defining moment, the American silence on the complexities and
disasters of the Middle East was broken. The shell broke and
conversation - however uncomfortable, however much slandered - became
possible. I'm not sure that will change things in the Middle East, but
it's changed the shape of things here. Even five years ago, I don't
think it would have looked the way it does now.'
He sounds almost optimistic.
'Well,' he sighs, 'I do my best.'
WORLD VIEW NEWS SERVICE
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