Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘Palestine’ Category

The Case Against Cases For or Against a Jewish State, or How Nation-States are like Big Macs

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We’ve got a guest post here from Gruber, who is doing his PhD in modern Israeli history.

By Gruber

Last night when I was out to drinks with some friends of college, one of my close friends, who happens to be Israeli-born and works for an Israel-advocacy organization asked me flat out “Do you think there should be a Jewish state?” This is not an unfamiliar question, especially in light of all the recent brouhaha regarding the American Jewish community and Israel, provoked especially by Peter Beinart’s now infamous article and the Gaza Flotilla fiasco, which PhD Octopus has certainly examined before.

Of course, I had provoked this question to a certain extent, as I make no attempt to conceal my views on Israel/Palestine, especially among friends and family who I know consider me a radical when it comes to the topic, and accordingly may make snarky comments about the conflict that are framed playfully enough to avoid a full-blown argument which I know will devolve into back and forth yelling. So after comparing his disproportionate response to a small prank with Israeli policy, my friend stopped and asked me to answer this to-the-point question. “Do you think there should be a Jewish state?” After attempting to engage in a round of semantic acrobatics and careful qualifications, he demanded that I first answer the query with a simple yes or no. “No”, I said unhesitatingly. I quickly followed up however, saying that neither do I believe there should not be a Jewish state. Read the rest of this entry »


Written by David Weinfeld

May 16, 2011 at 14:46

Passover Reflections on Judaism and Identity

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by Weiner

I have mixed feelings about the Jewish holiday of Passover. I absolutely love the seders, but I hate the other six days without bread.  You can insert the standard jokes about matzoh causing constipation here, as the goyim don’t seem to be aware of this. I’m also bothered by the capitalist cooptation of the holiday, and of kashrut in general. Jewish dietary laws have become a means to jack up prices. Even more egregious, on Passover, products emerge like kosher for Passover cakes and cereal, which kind of defeat the purpose of the whole holiday and exemplify the notion of obeying the letter of the law, but not the spirit.

Still, every year, despite my reservations, and despite being a secular-minded atheist, I endure eight days of the bread of affliction. Why?

The reasons I tell people are the same reasons I practice any Jewish rituals in my own modified and modernized Reconstructionist Jewish way, from fasting on Yom Kippur to lighting Shabbos candles on Friday nights. It all boils down to three things:

1) Observing these rituals connects me with a sense of my own personal past. That is to say, it is something I grew up doing, and so I feel some obligation to continue practicing the rituals, and derive some joy from fulfilling that obligation and keeping up the tradition. And I’m a historian, so my personal history is important to me.

2) Observing these rituals connects me to the long arch and narrative of Jewish history. In some way, shape, or form, Jews all over the world have been performing these same or similar rituals for thousands of years. I derive pleasure from feeling connected to this historical chain. Again, I’m a historian, so this makes sense.

3) Jews all over the world still today perform these rituals. So by performing them myself, I feel connected to a global Jewish community, which fills me with warmth and pride.

In my mind, these reasons all operate within the framework of Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist Judaism, which posits that Judaism is an evolving religious civilization. Reconstructionism endorses full equality for women, gays and lesbians, converts, and Jews of patrilineal descent. Kaplan argued that Jewish law should get a vote but not a veto. His movement makes room for atheism, progressive Zionism and a great deal of diversity within its inclusive tent.

These reasons also have a lot to do with the dreaded “I” word, “identity,” the bete noir of many academics. But they also have a lot to do with the “C” word. No, not that one. I’m talking about “community,” which is held in a much more favourable light.

I guess I care a lot about my identity and my community, and more broadly about identity and community in general. And that of course seeps into my historical work, which is specifically about Horace Kallen and Alain Locke, but more generally about changing intellectual understandings of Jewish and African American identity and community.

And that’s why I post so much about intermarriage, and Zionism, Jewishness, and identity. Because I feel heavily invested in the struggle for Jewish continuity, even if I try to not let that distort my analyses as an academic historian. And so I tend to devalue ideologies like Marxism or extreme libertarianism, which deny significance and merit to cultural differences.

I try to be objective in my work, as I believe objectivity is often undervalued or downright ignored in today’s academic climate. Still, I admit that my biases do seep in. And if I do have one bias, I guess I should proclaim it loudly here, on this openly biased blog: I think ethnic particularlism is good. By ethnic I mean ethnic, religious, and cultural particularism.

Not always good though. When it becomes violent, chauvinistic nationalism that leads to murder and genocide, it is bad. I try to separate between the benign particularism that comes from  lighting Shabbos candles and the pernicious particularism that emerges when right-wing Zionists tell Arabs they can’t live in certain neighbourhoods. And I think the two are probably and unfortunately connected in ways that should and do make me uncomfortable, even if I can’t quite explain those connections.

In his book, The End of Faith, militant atheist Sam Harris argues that religious “moderates” are almost as much to blame for the ills of faith as religious extremists, because they provide moral legitimacy to religion itself, the source of violent fundamentalism. I actually have some sympathy for this argument, and yet here I am, a passionate if moderate ethnic particularist, giving legitimacy to my more violent and extreme brethren.

But maybe it has to be this way.

Let me illustrate with a little anecdote from my college days. Back then, I moderated an Arab-Jewish student dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In some ways it was your typical Arab-Jewish student dialogue, featuring a smattering of left-wing Jews and wealthy, often Christian Arabs getting together to bash Israel. There were of course numerous important exceptions to that, which made it a rewarding if frustrating experience. One of those exceptions was, on the surface, one of those left-wing Jews, and I mean really left-wing: lived in the Dudley Co-op, active in radical student movements, strongly opposed to American hawkish foreign policy, very concerned with social justice and very critical of the Israeli government. And yet, during one dialogue session, she followed the more vociferous anti-Israel sentiment to its logical conclusion, and proclaimed she didn’t like it.

If peace in the Middle East means there would be no Jews, then I would rather there be war, forever.

I can’t say that I disagree. Because my sense of Jewish identity and Jewish community is one of the many things that provide meaning in my life. And I think these forms of communal identification and affiliation make the world interesting.

Written by David Weinfeld

April 19, 2011 at 10:13

Dueling Protests, Israel, Palestine, and Kif Kef (Kit Kat)

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by Weiner

Walking outside in the rain by New York University’s Bobst library, I encountered two protests at the corner of Washington Square South and Washington Square East. One, on the south side of the street near Bobst, was the Free Gaza protest, complete with its makeshift apartheid wall. The other, on the north side of the street, near the Starbucks, was the Zionist counter-protest.

Both groups looked relatively orderly, alternating shouted slogans. The Free Gaza crowd shouted things like “Not Another Dime for Israel’s Crimes!” And the more basic “What Do We Want? Justice! When Do We Want It? Now!” The Zionist group, on the other hand, shouted things like “Invest in Peace” and held signs that read “Boycott = Hypocrisy.”

I examined both of the protests, read through some of the signs, grabbed a free Kit Kat (actually, the Israeli version, Kif Kef) and then left. I used to be deeply invested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Read about it all the time, wrote about it, organized an Arab-Jewish dialogue group on campus while in college. I don’t do that stuff any more. I feel removed from it. Not too removed to feel nothing at all, but removed enough not to be as passionate as those standing in the rain.

Politically, I’m still a Zionist, but my policy preferences probably run closer to those standing by the fake apartheid wall. Actually, one fellow holding up a sign with the Zionist crowd probably came closest to summing up my views: “Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine, Pro-Peace.” See I’m a strong two-state solution guy, but think it’s in Israel’s best interests, morally and pragmatically, to make major concessions to the Palestinians, end the occupation, increase Arab and other minority rights within the Jewish state, and recognize an independent Palestine. My Zionism makes me pro-peace.

But I guess that’s what bothers me about protests like this. I’ve been in the Ivory Tower a long time now (going on 5 years as a grad student), but this sort of sloganeering abandons all nuance, and that irks me. Israel has committed its share of crimes. But so have the Palestinians. And sure, we should “invest in peace.” But Israel’s the one with the power to end the occupation, and they should do it already. I love Israel, but I also support justice for Palestine, which seems to be the more pressing cause.

Still, emotions come into play. I’m not immune to Albert Camus’ sentiment: “I believe in justice, but I’ll defend my mother before justice.” And my mother, metaphorically, is hanging out with the Zionists, handing out Kif Kef. And that piece of chocolate is probably the most I got out of these dueling protests. Apparently, though, Kit Kat is one of the companies people who oppose Israeli policy are supposed to protest. I ate it anyway. Give me a break.

Kit Kat - barred

Written by David Weinfeld

April 5, 2011 at 14:21

“Victory for Academic Freedom” but Meh for Middle East Scholarship

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by Weiner

Just a quick update on this story: Brooklyn college has rehired Kristofer Petersen-Overton. I’m pleased with this result. He should not have been fired. Though if you follow the comments on my previous post on the topic, you’ll see that I’m less than impressed by Petersen-Overton’s syllabus. This may be a “victory for academic freedom,” as P-O claims on his website, but it’s hardly a victory for Middle East scholarship. At best it’s a meh.


Written by David Weinfeld

February 3, 2011 at 18:11

In Praise of Objective Scholarship

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by Weiner

Taking a little study break yesterday, I leafed through a discarded edition of the New York Post, sifting through stories about The Jersey Shore castmembers going “back” to Italy and Donald Trump potentially buying Tavern on the Green when I stumbled upon this headline: “‘Anti-Israel’ prof canned.” The editors should probably have put quotation marks around the word “prof” as well, since, as the story notes, the teacher in question, Kristofer Petersen-Overton (pictured here), is not a professor but a doctoral student at CUNY Graduate Center. He was fired from a course he was teaching at Brooklyn College on Middle East politics.

Exactly who made the decision to fire him, or why he was fired, remains unclear. CUNY spokesman Jeremy Thompson says it’s because Peterson-Overton was not “sufficiently qualified” as he still has a long way to go in his PhD program. That may be true. But Peterson-Overton claims the motivation was political, and points to the involvelement of Democratic assemblyman Dov Hikind, who apparently contacted Brooklyn College president, Dr. Karen Gold, and complained of Peterson-Overton’s anti-Israel bias in the classroom. This may also be true.

Frankly, with the limited information I’ve looked through on the case, I can’t really form an opinion. The examples Hikind cites in his letter do not seem particularly egregious, and are par for the course among academic critics of Israel. Explaining suicide bombing is the task of the academic. Whether one condones it or not is irrelevant. Hikind seems incredibly hyperbolic, and Petersen-Overton’s work seems uncontroversial. Here’s Hikind:

Of great concern to me is one of Mr. Petersen-Overton’s papers entitled Inventing the Martyr: Martyrdom as Palestinian National Signifier, which endeavors to justify and condone Palestinian suicide bombings as a means of “struggle and sacrifice” (p. 3) against “Israeli occupation” (p. 2). Mr. Peterson-Overton writes, “Although the martyr has come to define not only innocent non-participants killed in the crossfire, but also those who die voluntarily [emphasis his] for the nation as a human bomb, both are equally honored by virtue of their death alone-a phenomenon that speaks volumes about the symbolic importance of martyrdom in Palestine” (p. 19).

He further states, “I believe the act of martyrdom has become an incredibly powerful national signifier. . . .I argue in this final section that martyrdom in Palestine is viewed as yet another conscious and unequivocal form of sacrifice for the nation” (p. 19). In short, Mr. Peterson-Overton romanticizes the notion of suicide bombings and the bombers themselves, and undermines the only democracy in the Middle East.

Putting quotation marks around “occupation” is just silly, and it doesn’t seem like Peterson-Overton “romanticizes” anything, at least not in the examples displayed here. Of course, I haven’t read the whole work and can’t speak to its quality. Still, Hikind may be crying wolf here.

Nonetheless, this story underscores the importance of the much-maligned notion of objective scholarship. It’s something I still proudly believe in. And, coincidentally, there’s no better example of this than Benny Morris, scholar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (I recognize people think Morris is biased; I think they’re wrong).

File:Benny morris.jpgMorris (pictured right), an Israeli national and IDF veteran, was a leader of the New Historians who uncovered the records of Israeli atrocities committed upon Palestinians in the 1948 War of Independence. He did this on the 1980s, where he placed himself squarely on the political Left. Since 2000 and the collapse of the Camp David talks, however, he has moved to the right, and made extremely politically incorrect (to put it mildly) statements about the desirability of Palestinian expulsion back in 1948.

And yet, his history works are still used, frequently, by anti-Zionist scholars and activists to undermine and criticize the Israeli state. His scholarship is well-regarded (though not without its detractors, Left and Right) precisely because it does not conform to his political views.

Indeed, if you read the late Tony Judt‘s scholarship, especially his magisterial Postwar, you’ll be struck at how moderate he sounds, especially compared to his more polemical and explicitly political articles in the New York Review of Books.

And that’s how teaching and scholarship at the university level should be. I remember reading Leslie J. Reagan’s When Abortion Was a Crime, an excellent book until the last section, when Reagan outlined her reason for why legalized abortion is a good thing.

Which it is. Of course I agree with her political views on abortion. But those views are not relevant to the history of abortion law in the United States. My ideal history book on any topic is one in which the author’s views remain a mystery. When making decisions about policy, we should be informed by history. But that history should be as unbiased, as objective as possible. In the same vein, the best teacher on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one whose political views on the topic remain unknown.

I had such a professor as an undergraduate. Political scientist Eva Bellin taught a lecture course I took on “Comparative Politics of the Middle East” and a seminar I took on “The Struggle for Israel/Palestine.” Interestingly, she’s now a professor at Hunter College, which of course is part of the CUNY system. I wonder what she thinks about Brookyln College’s recent controversy.

All this led me to think about the recently deceased Daniel Bell, a child of Jewish immigrants and Trotskyite at City College and one of the leading “New York Intellectuals.” In the New York Times obituary for Bell (pictured below), the author quoted from his famous work, The End of Ideology, and his distinction between “scholars” and “intellectuals.”

As both a public intellectual and an academic, Mr. Bell saw a distinction between those breeds. In one of his typical yeasty digressions in “The End of Ideology,” he wrote: “The scholar has a bounded field of knowledge, a tradition, and seeks to find his place in it, adding to the accumulated, tested knowledge of the past as to a mosaic. The scholar, qua scholar, is less involved with his ‘self.’

“The intellectual,” he went on, “begins with his experience, his individual perceptions of the world, his privileges and deprivations, and judges the world by these sensibilities.”

In some measure Mr. Bell may well have been referring to himself in that passage — his intellectual persona self-consciously winking at its detached scholarly twin with whom it conspired in a lifetime of work and experience.

As many have noted, the term “public intellectual” is redundant. By definition, intellectuals are supposed to engage the public, emerge from the Ivory Tower and comment on the issues of the day. When Emile Zola and other popularized the term intellectuel in France surrounding the Dreyfus Affair, it was supposed to imply a detached figure, unencumbered by official ties to government, military, or church, dedicated only to Truth and Justice and other lofty universal (French) ideals.

As Bell would have it, and I think rightly, it is in fact the scholar who is supposed to be “detached,” his only loyalty to the university’s mission of objective scholarship. The intellectual is a political figure, staking out a moral decision. The scholar only presents data and evidence, and lets intellectuals and policy makers decide what to do with it.

Like Bell, and Tony Judt, we can wear different hats. As Weiner, the blogger, I take political and moral positions all the time. As a doctoral candidate attempting to produce scholarship, and as teaching assistant attempting to instruct students, I try to be unbiased and objective, at least in my presentation. To both aspects of my personality inform each other? Sure. But I still try to keep them distinct as much as I can.

Of course, some people believe “objective” scholarship is illusory. Peter Novick wrote an entire book, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, dedicated to showing that objectivity in academia is like “nailing jelly to the wall”, at best a fanciful dream, and perhaps not even a noble one.

Well gosh darn it I still believe in that noble dream. Is absolute, unbiased objectivity impossible? Probably. We all have our biases and it’s hard to put them aside completely. But we should still strive for that goal, like the concept of the limit in calculus (which as a humanities person, I admittedly don’t understand all too well), endlessly approaching our destination without getting to it. Maybe the project is Sisyphean, but I’m gonna give that boulder a few more runs up the hill.

Written by David Weinfeld

January 28, 2011 at 10:19

Middle East Mixup in NYU History Course Offerings

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by Weiner

For those New York University undergraduates interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a great course offered by the history department is available on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11:00 am: Zachary Lockman‘s “Palestine, Zionism, and Israel.”

Of course, if you’re really interested, you can stick around until 2:00 pm, and then attend David Engel‘s “Zionism and the State of Israel,” offered by the very same history department.

That’s a bit strange, don’t you think? Two courses on almost the same topic, offered only a few hours apart by the same department?

I’m sure both courses will be excellent. I’ve never studied with Lockman but I saw him speak and I was very impressed. I took Engel’s superb graduate level class, “History of the Jews of Russia and Poland,” and his undergraduate course on the Holocaust regularly gets rave reviews. Undoubtedly the professors will offer different and interesting perspectives, and probably use some different material. Still, it seems absurd to offer two history courses on roughly the same topic during the same year or semester, let alone the same day.

I don’t blame either professor. From what I’ve heard, neither one even knew the other one was going to offer the course. I blame the terrible lack of communication between the NYU History Department, which I belong to, and the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies (the co-sponsor of Engel’s course) which I also belong to. For all I know, there may also be a lack of communication between NYU’s Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies department (MEIS, the co-sponsor of Lockman’s course) and the History department as well.

I know that the uneasy relationship between Skirball and History has been an on-going problem, in terms of arranging qualifying/comprehensive exams, prospectus defenses, course requirements and other bureaucratic issues.

There’s also a problem, though, concerning the lack of communication between Skirball, where David Engel has a chair, and MEIS, to which Lockman is affiliated. The problem is apparent in the very names of the departments. MEIS has Lockman, who is an expert on Israel-Palestine, but it doesn’t really have any Israel Studies. Those belong in the Taub Center, which is affiliated with Skirball. In fact, Skirball has several students, some historians, others not, who are getting their PhDs in Israel Studies. At the same time, the Skirball department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies does not have any faculty who know Arabic or who has any training about the larger Middle East from a non-Jewish perspective.

Israel is part of the Middle East. Islam is not the only religion in the region. To understand Israeli history, some knowledge of Arabic language, Arab culture, Islam and the larger Middle East is essential. The divisions between the two departments, Skirball and MEIS, which often seem to operate within isolation of each other, hampers NYU students’ education.

It also speaks to larger issues more important than two similar courses being offered in the same day. If NYU can’t coordinate these two departments to work together, getting the people of the Middle East to live together peacefully seems even more out of reach. You never know though. Netanyahu and Abbas are talking. Maybe academics are more divided than those outside the Ivory Tower. In any case, talking is an important first step, for politicians and professors.

Written by David Weinfeld

September 9, 2010 at 18:52

Farewell to Tony Judt

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by David

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.

Written by David Weinfeld

August 8, 2010 at 18:32