Farewell to Tony Judt
I met Tony Judt in his office in the fall of 2006. That was the only time we met. It was my first semester as a doctoral candidate in History and Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, and I was eager to meet him. I knew little of his work then, but I had read his now infamous article in The New York Review of Books, provocatively titled, “Israel: The Alternative,” where he called Israel, like all ethnic nation-states, an “anachronism,” and seemed to advocate a single, bi-national state as the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I didn’t agree with him then, and I don’t agree with him now. Nonetheless, the article impressed me immensely. This paragraph in particular inspires much of my own work, even if I constantly question its validity:
In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel is truly an anachronism.
I’m obsessed with the dreaded “I” word; that is, “identity.” Judt’s journalistic writing, more than his scholarship, has helped frame numerous questions in my mind. Furthermore, though my focus is on American Jewish history, I also study intellectual history more broadly, with a particular interest in French intellectual history, more specifically, a comparison between French and American reactions to the Dreyfus Affair. Professor Judt seemed an ideal man to talk to. When I applied to NYU, I listed him as one of the professors I hoped to work with.
That desire was not borne out. Even in 2006, when he seemed the picture of health, he warned me in that very meeting that he would be “frequently away,” with speaking engagements across the country and globe. Other NYU faculty members warned me of this possibility as well. When NYU president John Sexton introduced professor Judt at a brilliant lecture on Israel at the law school in December of 2006, he applauded Judt’s commitment to teaching, especially to teaching undergraduates, and the pronouncement made me bitter. In my first three years as a graduate student, when I was required to do coursework, Judt taught undergraduate courses frequently, but only one class at the graduate level, in the spring of 2009, a joint venture with his wife Jennifer Homans, that focused more on art than intellectuals. I chose not to take it, and so I was never his student.
Of course by that point, he had fallen ill, tremendously ill, and looking back at it now I feel stupid and selfish for my own bitterness, my misplaced anger towards him, and indeed my error in not studying with him in that final opportunity I had to do so.
In that time, between my first and only encounter with him and his death, I came to appreciate his writing, and his arguments, more and more. He turned his focus to the inequality in our modern world, the promise and peril of social democracy, most brilliantly in a lecture he delivered in October of 2009 at NYU, titled “What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy.” I was in the audience that day, and though I’m an atheist, I swear Judt seemed like a prophet, addressing a few thousand people from his wheelchair, with a device to help him breathe attached to his face. His speech was a rallying crying to the non-Marxist, social democratic left, preaching to the choir for sure, but inspirational nonetheless. The lecture became the basis for an article in the NY Review of Books, and later a full-length book, Ill Fares the Land, published earlier this year.
I haven’t read the book. I have, however, read Kristen Loveland’s excellent commentary on it. She agrees with much of Judt’s economic analysis, as do I. What “infuriates” her, and me, is “his disparagement of identity politics surrounding race, gender, and sexuality as ‘selfish individualism’ [which] suggests that he himself is not willing to give non-strictly-economic injustices their full weight.” She is also annoyed when Judt criticizes Jewish and African American and other students who go to college and “study themselves,” eat by themselves, live in dorms together, and isolate themselves more generally. This impetus, in his mind, fosters social division, rather than cohesion.
This of course hits home. I’m a Jew studying Jews. I didn’t know I would get here, but here I am. And sometimes I feel stupidly parochial about this, and what Judt says rings true. And yet I wonder if Judt’s own struggles with his identity were playing out in his very words. For in addition to turning to social democracy in the last few years, Judt also turned inward, in a brilliant series of essays for the NY Review of Books. He identified with the “edge people,” on the margins of different communities, without a single, stable identity. In an essay on his Jewishness, he wrote that his Judaism “is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling: the dafka-like quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known.”
I’ve written about this before in regards to Judt, and I’m never quite sure what to make of his self-reflections, be they about Judaism, academia, or anything else. In his most recent (and possibly last) published NY Review piece, he wrote that at Kings College, Cambridge in the 1960s he acquired an “abiding respect for teachers who are indifferent to fame (and fortune) and to any consideration outside the supervision armchair.” That was not Tony Judt. He always seemed to fancy himself an intellectuel, a modern-day Dreyfusard, a preeminent “public intellectual” (the term “public” being redundant) who would speak truth to power on the most serious issues of the day, question authority and the accepted truths and dogmas of the intelligentsia, on Israel or anything else. He frequently courted controversy, calling out liberal supporters of the recent Iraq war (such as myself) as “Bush’s Useful Idiots.” In a recent New York Magazine profile, he said “I’ve always been willing to say exactly what I think,” and he’s been both loathed and admired for it.
I admired him. Judt may not have been “indifferent to fame,” but through his powerful speaking and magnificent writing, his brilliant expository essays, his rigorous scholarship, and his touching and insightful personal reflections, he was our teacher, and an excellent one at that. The world’s greatest living historian is now dead. He will be missed.
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