The Trials of Tony Judt

Even as ALS tightens its grip, the Leftist historian remains outspoken

By Evan R. Goldstein
The Chronicle Review

On a Monday evening in mid-October, the historian Tony Judt appeared onstage at the Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, in Greenwich Village. “I hope you don’t mind if I begin by shooting the elephant in the house,” he said, speaking from an electric wheelchair, wrapped in a black blanket, with a Bi-Pap breathing device attached to his nose. “As you can see,” he continued, his voice gravelly and labored, “I’m paralyzed from the neck down, and also use this rather ridiculous-looking tube on my face to breathe.”

A little more than a year ago, Judt was diagnosed with a progressive variant of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a fatal condition that gradually destroys a person’s ability to move, breathe, swallow, and talk.

In 2005, just four years earlier, the professor of European history at New York University had reached the pinnacle of his career with the publication of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin Press), his highly acclaimed account of Europe’s rebirth after World War II. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was selected by The New York Times as one of the top 10 books of the year. Beyond academe, Judt had achieved renown as a political essayist and a formidable combatant in the quarrels between the left and right and within the left. He is perhaps best known as a harsh critic of Israel and the most prominent advocate of the creation of a single, binational state—the so-called one-state solution to the struggle between Palestinians and Israelis, a position that has earned him both plaudits and scorn.

Judt’s appearance in October was part of an annual lecture sponsored by the Remarque Institute, a cross-disciplinary center he created in 1995 to foster greater understanding between America and Europe. Richard Sennett, a professor of sociology at New York University and a friend of Judt’s, says the lecture was a “legacy speech,” an opportunity for Judt to reflect on a “lifetime spent wrestling with what it means to be on the left.”

It would be Judt’s first time speaking to the general public from a wheelchair. As he dryly puts it later, “I’m aware that I look like a complete basket case.” When he rolled out onstage, a tense hush fell upon the more than 700 people in the theater. Judt had decided that the logistics of working from a prepared text would be too difficult to manage. Instead he would speak completely from memory. Would his concentration wander? Would he be able to ignore his unquenchable thirst, unscratchable itches, unrelievable muscle aches?

He began by joking, referring to himself as “a quadriplegic wearing facial Tupperware” and promising not to use overdramatic hand gestures. The tension abated, and Judt moved into the substance of his talk, “What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?”

Judt called attention to America’s and Europe’s worship of efficiency, wealth, free markets, and privatization. We live, he said, in a world shaped by a generation of Austrian thinkers—the business theorist Peter Drucker, the economists Friedrich A. von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Joseph Schumpeter, and the philosopher Karl Popper—who witnessed liberalism’s collapse in the face of fascism and concluded that the best way to defend liberalism was to keep government out of economic life. “If the state was held at a safe distance,” Judt said, “then extremists of right and left alike would be kept at bay.” Public responsibilities have been drastically shifted to the private sector. Americans and, to a lesser extent, Europeans have forgotten how to think politically and morally about economic choices, Judt warned, his fragile, British-accented voice growing louder. To abandon the gains made by social democrats—the New Deal, the Great Society, the European welfare state—”is to betray those who came before us as well as generations yet to come.”

The lecture, which lasted nearly two hours, yoked together a few themes that have long preoccupied Judt: the role of intellectuals and ideas in political life, and the failure of both Americans and Europeans to understand and learn from the past century. (We live, Judt has written, in an “age of forgetting.”) He concluded his remarks on a pragmatic note. “It would be pleasing—but misleading—to report that social democracy, or something like it, represents the future that we would paint for ourselves in an ideal world,” he said, carefully pronouncing each word. “It does not even represent the ideal past. But, among the options available to us in the present, it is better than anything else to hand.”

The standing ovation was tremendous. “I was initially shocked by the disjunction between his intellectual capacity, which is completely undiminished and in many respects unequaled, and the physical degradation,” says Richard Wolin, a professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who was in the audience. “But after five minutes, I lost sight of any physicality and focused on his words and their importance.” He adds, “It was one of the most moving scenes I have ever witnessed.”

About a month later, I meet Judt at his apartment, on the upper floor of a tall brick building near Washington Square Park, where he lives with his wife, the dance critic Jennifer Homans, and their two teenage children. A sign on the door asks visitors to wash their hands. Judt’s nurse, a young man, silently leads me through the spacious, immaculate wood-floored apartment to a book-lined study, where Judt is waiting in his wheelchair, head against a tan pillow, hands on lap, feet bare and swollen. At 61, he has close-cropped hair and a graying beard. Dressed in a maroon T-shirt and flannel pants, he peers out through circular glasses. A wireless microphone is affixed to his left ear. Though we are sitting only a few feet apart, his nurse flips the power switch, and Judt’s faint voice suddenly booms out of a nearby speaker.

“We have watched the decline of 80 years of great investment in public services,” he says. “We are throwing away the efforts, ideas, and ambitions of the past.” It is plainly difficult for him to speak, but he is doggedly eloquent. His eyes, forced to do the work of his entire body, are strikingly expressive; when he gets excited, he arches his brows high and opens them wide, which he does when he says, “Communism was a very defective answer to some very good questions. In throwing out the bad answer, we have forgotten the good questions. I want to put the good questions back on the table.”

I ask how he felt after the lecture. “Elated,” Judt replies simply. Some friends and colleagues had encouraged him to scrap his planned remarks and speak instead about ALS. “I thought about it,” Judt says, “but I have nothing new to say about ALS. I do have something new to say about social democracy, and by saying it in my condition I can maybe have some influence on people’s understanding of sickness.” He takes a deep breath. “There is something to be said for simply doing the thing you would do anyway, doing it as well as you can under the circumstances, and getting past the sympathy vote as soon as possible.”

Judt was born into a lower-middle-class Jewish family of Marxist anti-Communists. They lived in London’s East End, a historically Jewish section of the city. “Anti-Semitism at a low, polite, cultural level was still perfectly acceptable,” Judt recalls. Fearing that their teenage son was too socially withdrawn, his parents, in 1963, sent him to a summer camp on a kibbutz in Israel. Judt became a committed Zionist. “I was the ideal convert,” he says. A leader in left-wing Zionist youth movements, he even delivered a keynote address at a large Zionist conference in Paris when he was only 16 years old. (A smoker at the time, he seized the opportunity to denounce smoking by Jewish adolescents as a “bourgeois deviation.”) In 1967, a few weeks after the Six-Day War, Judt volunteered as a translator for the Israel Defense Forces on the Golan Heights. He was surprised to find that many of the young Israeli officers he worked with were “right-wing thugs with anti-Arab views”; others, he says, “were just dumb idiots with guns.” Israel, he came to believe, “had turned from a sort of narrow-minded pioneer society into a rather smug, superior, conquering society.”

Disillusioned, Judt returned to England, where he had already tested out of his final year of high school, and gained early acceptance to the University of Cambridge. Later he continued his studies at the École Normale Supérieure, in Paris, where he met Annie Kriegel, a heroine of the Resistance and an influential historian of Communism. “She had an intellectual methodology that combined abstract analysis with very close attention to circumstance. It was neither political science nor history, but it combined the best of both,” Judt says. Around the same time, he struck up a correspondence with George Lichtheim, a German-born historian of socialist thought. “A very brilliant, very depressive character,” Judt recalls. “His writings on Marxism had a huge impact on me in terms of subject matter, style, and approach.” Judt dedicated his recent collection of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (Penguin Press, 2008), to Kriegel and Lichtheim.
 
Judt’s first book, La Reconstruction du Parti Socialiste: 1921-1926, a detailed analysis of the French Socialist Party’s break with Communism, was published in 1976 in France. Three years later, Cambridge University Press released Socialism in Provence, 1871-1914: A Study of the Origins of the Modern French Left, a nuanced analysis of why the peasants of lower Provence, battered by economic misfortune, had joined the ranks of the French socialist movement. Such questions received a more comprehensive treatment in Marxism and the French Left: Studies in Labour and Politics in France, 1830-1981 (Oxford University Press, 1986). Those early books solidified Judt’s reputation as a bright young political historian. The following year, he left the University of Oxford for the history department at NYU.

More and more, Judt became engaged in an internal quarrel among leftists about their failure to look honestly at Communism. “Tony was always attuned to a certain kind of blindness on the extreme left toward the Soviet Union,” says Sennett. That concern informed Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 (University of California Press, 1992), a merciless exposé of several left-wing luminaries—Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and the Roman Catholic philosopher Emmanuel Mounier (founder of the magazine Esprit), among others—for what he saw as their reckless and naïve fellow-traveling. Reviewed on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, the work was praised as “a forthright and uncommonly damning study.” Numerous other commendations followed. (In The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century, a companion volume to Past Imperfect published in 1998 by the University of Chicago Press, Judt traced an opposite tradition—anti-Communist and genuinely independent—in French political life.)

Past Imperfect emerged at a moment, after the revolutions of 1989, when a new generation of Anglo-American scholars, wary of the excesses of postmodernism, took a fresh look at the intellectual legacy of the French left, says Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University. At the time, such a rethinking was already under way in France, he says, but “there was still a cargo cult in the American academy around Foucault and Derrida.”

Judt was traveling in France when he received word of the Times review. “I got back to New York, and I was a star of stage and screen,” he recalls, a few minutes after summoning his nurse to adjust the angle at which he was sitting in his wheelchair. (In obvious discomfort, Judt nonetheless apologized for having to briefly suspend the interview.) “Suddenly”—he continues, picking up the conversation—”I was an expert on intellectuals.” By year’s end, he had contributed several essays to The New York Review of Books. Commissions poured in from other publications.

“I wasn’t looking to become a public intellectual,” Judt insists, though he concedes that people might have trouble believing that. As a young man, he says, he was content with being a well-paid professor at elite universities: “I enjoyed teaching, and sitting in an armchair—feet up, with a glass of wine and a cigarette—reading books.”

Once coaxed into the public arena, Judt has earned a reputation as a hard-hitting polemicist. Consider a 2006 essay for the London Review of Books—”Bush’s Useful Idiots”—in which he chided prominent liberal thinkers—Jean Bethke Elshtain, Michael Ignatieff, and Michael Walzer, among others—for having acquiesced in President George W. Bush’s “catastrophic foreign policy.” Mincing no words, Judt wrote:

“Liberal intellectuals used to be distinguished precisely by their efforts to think for themselves, rather than in the service of others. Intellectuals should not be smugly theorizing endless war, much less confidently promoting and excusing it. They should be engaged in disturbing the peace—their own above all.”

In response, Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale University, and Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia, drafted a manifesto, signed by a number of prominent academics, that dismissed Judt’s claims as “nonsense on stilts.” Everyone who signed, they pointed out, had “opposed the Iraq war as illegal, unwise, and destructive of America’s moral standing.”

Elsewhere, Judt has described the cold-war historian John Lewis Gaddis’s “thumbnail sketches” of Communist doctrine as “clunky and a bit embarrassing,” and has written that The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman’s “portentous, Pulitzer-winning pieties are always carefully road tested for middle-brow political acceptability,” and that the eminent British historian Eric Hobsbawm, a longtime Communist, “refuses to stare evil in the face and call it by its name.” Last year Judt won the Orwell Prize, awarded annually in recognition of journalism that has best achieved George Orwell’s aim to “make political writing into an art.” The citation praises him as a “controversialist.”

Early in 2002, when Judt was at home recovering from radiation and surgery to treat cancer in his left arm, he became “more and more worried about the failure of Israel to do the right thing.” In May of that year, The New York Review published his first major statement on the Middle East conflict, the solution to which, he contended, was obvious: two states, the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, and no right of return to Israel for Palestinian refugees. Judt fingered Israel for the bloody impasse, provocatively likening its actions to those of France in its colonial war against Algeria. By 1958, he noted, the damage that French policy was inflicting on the Algerians was surpassed by the harm France was inflicting upon itself. Israel, he wrote, was in a similarly dire predicament.

Judt’s historical analogy drew sharp rejoinders. “If Israel resembles French Algeria, why exactly should Israel and its national doctrine, Zionism, be regarded as any more legitimate than France’s imperialism?” asked the political writer Paul Berman. That was a good question. A few months later, Judt revised his position. “The time has come to think the unthinkable,” he proclaimed in a widely disseminated essay in The New York Review. The two-state solution—a Jewish state and an Arab state—”is probably already doomed,” and the least-bad option remaining was for Israel to convert from a Jewish state to a binational state. “The depressing truth,” Judt wrote, “is that Israel today is bad for the Jews.”

According to Benny Morris, a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and author of One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict (Yale University Press, 2009), Judt’s essay placed the one-state idea “squarely and noisily on the table of international agendas.” The Forward described it as “the intellectual equivalent of a nuclear bomb on Zionism.” Within weeks, The New York Review had received more than 1,000 letters to the editor. Suddenly, says Robert Boyers, editor of the quarterly Salmagundi and an observer of the liberal intellectual scene, Judt was a major voice weighing in on the Middle East. Indeed, if the death of Judt’s friend the literary critic Edward Said, in 2003, left a “yawning void” in the national conversation about Israel, Palestine, and the Palestinians, as Judt has suggested, then it is Judt himself who has filled that void.

And like Said, who also advocated a one-state solution, Judt has become a very public target for criticism. An op-ed essay in The Jerusalem Post accused him of “pandering to genocide.” Omer Bartov, a professor of European history at Brown University, dismissed the binational idea as “absurd”; Walzer, co-editor of Dissent magazine, derided it as an escapist fantasy that “offers no practical escape from the work of repressing the terrorist organizations and withdrawing from the Occupied Territories.” Steven J. Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish culture and history at Stanford University and a close friend of Judt’s for a quarter of a century, blasted the article as “one more in a long series of calls (perhaps the silliest yet) for Jewish self-immolation.”

The most trenchant critique is that Judt’s embrace of binationalism echoes the reckless, unrealistic style of trafficking in ideas that he condemned in Past Imperfect. “I, too, wish everyone was a cosmopolitan Kantian, and we had one huge democracy for the brotherhood of all mankind,” says Gadi Taub, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of a forthcoming book, The Settlers and the Struggle Over the Meaning of Zionism (Yale University Press). “But these are two peoples (Jews and Palestinians) severely traumatized by the lack of national independence.” To argue that such a situation lends itself to shared sovereignty in a binational state is, says Taub, “the strikingly irresponsible kind of thing that intellectuals sometimes do for their own convenience vis-à-vis their own conscience. In reality, a one-state solution will doom Israelis and Palestinians to a permanent civil war.”

Judt seems unconcerned that his public image is now so tied to his views on Israel. “Google me,” he says nonchalantly. “You will end up at the binationalism essay straightaway.” He goes on to observe that “to the outside world, I’m a crazed, self-hating Jewish left-winger.” Joking aside, Judt is not entirely comfortable in his role as the public face of the anti-Zionist crowd. “I wouldn’t call myself anti-Zionist, because there are openly anti-Semitic people who use anti-Zionism as a cover,” he explains. Some of them, like the white nationalist David Duke, have reached out to him, prompting accusations that he is giving intellectual cover to bigots. Despite such “foul vilification,” says the Columbia historian Fritz Stern, “Tony has, if anything, only become more outspoken.”

There have been efforts to silence Judt. In October 2006, a lecture he was to give at the Polish consulate in New York was abruptly canceled following complaints by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. The ensuing crush of media attention placed Judt at the center of a free-speech fracas. The story was picked up by the press in France, England, and Poland; “Judt at War,” declared a headline in The New York Observer, which quoted Judt denouncing the ADL’s national director, Abraham H. Foxman, and some other leaders of American Jewish organizations as “illiberal lying bigots” and “fascists.” More than 100 prominent scholars and intellectuals, many of whom disagree with Judt’s views, signed a petition denouncing the “climate of intimidation” that surrounded the cancellation of his lecture.

“Tony is a man who thrives on controversy,” says Richard Sennett. When I read that quote to Judt, he balks. “Richard is being a bit mischievous,” Judt replies without smiling. He concedes that he has “always been verbally provocative” but that he doesn’t seek out controversy. A day after our meeting, Judt followed up in an e-mail message: “I hate publicity, celebrity, fame, and notoriety, all of which are associated with controversy in its public form. But, in fairness, all my life I’ve been rather upfront with my opinions and never hidden them on grounds of conformity or (I fear) politesse. However, until the wretched Polish consulate affair, I don’t think I was ever controversial—I was certainly not known outside of the hermetic little world of the academy, and my contrarian scholarly writings aroused no great fuss.”

There was a fuss, however, when in 1979 the journal History Workshop published an attack by Judt, then a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, on the field of social history. “A whole discipline is being degraded and abused” by the postmodern turn toward identity and feminist history, he wrote. (The essay, he tells me, placed his bid for tenure in jeopardy.) By the early 1980s, his displeasure with the field had evolved into a deep malaise. It was around that time that he met the Czech dissident Jan Kavan, living in exile in London, who in later years would serve as foreign minister and deputy prime minister of the post-Communist Czech Republic.

Through him and others, Judt, who had since moved to Oxford, developed an interest in Czechoslovakia and, more broadly, in Eastern Europe. He bought a copy of Teach Yourself Czech, studied for two hours every night, and enrolled in language classes at the university. By the mid-80s, he was competent in Czech, and in 1985 he traveled to Prague as part of a group organized by the English philosopher Roger Scruton and the Jan Hus Educational Foundation, an Oxford-centered organization that supported samizdat publishing and other clandestine cultural activities in Czechoslovakia. During that visit, the first of many, Judt helped smuggle in banned books and lectured to crowded rooms in private apartments. It was there that he recovered his passion for the politics and history of Europe.

When he first arrived at NYU, in 1987, “there was a sense that if you had good ideas, they would let you act on them,” Judt says. So in 1995, when he was weighing a “very tempting” offer to join the Committee on Social Thought, at the University of Chicago, he proposed pursuing his interest in European and American relations by setting up the Remarque Institute. NYU, eager to keep him, agreed. With typical self-assurance, Judt told the university, “Give me 10 years, and I will give you a world-famous institute.”

According to Wolin, Judt has succeeded by nurturing a continuing conversation—through conferences, workshops, and fellowships—among European and American academics. “If you’re a European scholar of modern politics and history, and you want to be known in America, Remarque is a rite of passage,” Wolin says. Fritz Stern, who is on the institute’s board, adds that “Tony has turned it into a major international center.” The institute’s reputation is almost inextricably tied to that of Judt, for good and ill. (Two board members resigned after he came out in favor of a binational future for Israelis and Palestinians.)

In Judt’s mind, however, his “greatest achievement” is his book Postwar. In 1945, Europe lay in ruins. Some 36.5 million of its inhabitants died between 1939 and 1945. Most of those who survived were starving or without shelter; Germany had lost 40 percent of its homes, Britain 30 percent, France 20 percent. Yet in the next 60 years, Judt writes, Europe had improbably become “a paragon of the international virtues,” and its social model—free or nearly free medical care, early retirement, robust social and public services—stood as “an exemplar for all to emulate.”

Postwar tells the story of how that happened. The book is ambitiously organized to combine the whole of the postwar history of Europe—Western and Eastern—into a single conceptual framework. The result is not a work of dispassionate scholarship. In the preface, Judt describes his approach as an “avowedly personal interpretation” of the recent European past. “In a word that has acquired undeservedly pejorative connotations,” he writes, Postwar is “opinionated.” Judt’s thesis, developed through 900 pages, is this: Europe remade itself by forgetting its past. “The first postwar Europe was built upon deliberate mis-memory—upon forgetting as a way of life.” And there was much to forget: collaboration, genocide, extreme deprivation.

Translated into 19 languages, Postwar has been received by critics as a masterpiece. “A remarkable book,” declared the Harvard University English professor Louis Menand in The New Yorker. “The writing is vivid; the coverage—of little countries as well as the great ones—is virtually superhuman; and, above all, the book is smart.” According to the Oxford political theorist Alan Ryan, Postwar has the “pace of a thriller and the scope of an encyclopedia.” Krzysztof Michalski, a professor of philosophy at Boston University and rector of the Institute for Human Sciences, in Vienna, where Judt is a permanent fellow, says, “Tony is one of the few first-rate Western intellectuals with a nonideological interest in Eastern Europe.”

By last February, Judt could no longer move his hands. “I thought it would be catastrophic,” he recalls matter-of-factly. How would he write? He discovered that a lifetime of lecturing—often without notes and in complete sentences and full paragraphs­—had trained him to think out loud. He can now, “with a bit of mental preparation,” dictate “an essay or an intellectually thoughtful e-mail.” Unable to jot down ideas on a yellow pad, Judt has taught himself elaborate memorization schemes of the sort described by the Yale historian Jonathan D. Spence in his 1984 book, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. Like Ricci, a 16th-century Jesuit missionary to China, Judt imagines structures in his head where he can store his thoughts and ideas. The basic principle: Picture entering a large house; turn left and there is a room with shelves and tables; leave a memory on each surface until the rooms fills. Now head down the hall into another room. To retrieve your memories, to reconstruct a lecture or recall the content and structure of an article, you re-enter the building and follow the same path, which should trigger the ideas you left behind.

“It works,” Judt says. In fact, he tells me, his mental acuity has grown stronger over the past year. He compares his situation to that of a blind person with uniquely sensitive ears, or of a deaf person with extraordinary eyesight. “I knew it to be theoretically true that when you are deprived of everything else, the thing you are not deprived of gets better,” he says. “But it has been very odd to experience that in practice.” After a moment, he goes on: “I’m a 61-year-old guy, I’m not as sharp as I was when I was 51. But the things I could do last year I can do better this year.”

He recently signed a contract to expand his lecture on social democracy into a short book, which he hopes will be published in the late spring. “I’ve got a huge amount of mental energy,” he says. Colleagues and friends are understandably protective of Judt and are wary of commenting on his physical decline. (“You’re not going to write about his illness or the fact that he’s dying,” Sennett says at the outset of our conversation, more as an order than a question.) The life expectancy of an ALS patient averages two to five years from the time of diagnosis.

At bedtime, having been maneuvered from his wheelchair to his cot and positioned upright, his glasses removed, Judt is left alone with his thoughts. In recent months, they have turned to his youth—the charms of a curmudgeonly grade-school German-language instructor, the shifting cultural mores of Cambridge in the mid-60s, the comforting solitude of a train ride. At the encouragement of his friend Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European studies at Oxford, he has crafted those “little vignettes from my past” into a series of autobiographical sketches.

In one moving essay, recently published in The New York Review, Judt addresses directly his life with ALS. “Helplessness,” he writes, “is humiliating even in a passing crisis—imagine or recall some occasion when you have fallen down or otherwise required physical assistance from strangers. Imagine the mind’s response to the knowledge that the peculiarly humiliating helplessness of ALS is a life sentence (we speak blithely of death sentences in this connection, but actually the latter would be a relief).”

Before I leave his apartment, as night falls, I ask him why he decided to write such a personal account of his illness. He pauses, inhales deeply, and says, without drama or self-pity, “This is an imprisoning disease, and every now and then there is a desperate desire to break out of the prison and tell people what it is like.” Judt takes another deep breath. “The disease is like being put in prison for life, no parole, and the prison is shrinking by six inches every week. I know that at some point in the future it’s going to crush me to death, but I don’t know exactly when.”

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