Saturday, April 14, 2012

Who's Afraid of Tony Judt?

This post is prompted by Phillip Adams' Late Night Live discussion with US historian Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands) and prominent Australian author and academic (politics) Robert Manne on April 10. The topic: Thinking the 20th Century: the life & work of Tony Judt.

Born in the UK of Jewish parents, Judt was a highly acclaimed historian and essayist who died in tragic circumstances in 2010. (See my 7/8/10 post Tony Judt (1948-2010) RIP.)

As it happened, much of the discussion that night focused on Judt's controversial essay, Israel: The Alternative, published in The New York Times Review of Books in 2003.

What particularly struck me was the extent to which both Snyder, who had helped the stricken Judt put together his last book, Thinking the 20th Century, and Manne, who stated that Judt was "by far the contemporary intellectual I feel most connected with," sought to distance themselves from that essay. It had me thinking: here it is 2012, and two highly educated men, professing nothing but the highest regard for Judt and his example, still found the content of that essay (I presume alone of all Judt's writings) too hot to handle, such is the baneful and chilling influence still of the Zionist thought police on Western liberal intellectuals.

Because neither Snyder nor Manne could bring themselves to grapple seriously with what Judt had to say in his Israel essay, most of which, I hasten to predict, they would have accepted without demur if the subject had been South African apartheid, I intend to address the essay (including its flaws) before moving on to our two intellectuals' instructive reaction to it.

Judt correctly put his finger on George W Bush's reduction to the role of "a ventriloquist's dummy, pitifully reciting the Israeli [Sharon] cabinet line: 'It's all Arafat's fault'."

He correctly described the Palestinians as being "corralled into shrinking Bantustans."

He correctly located the Zionist movement in the wave of ethnographic nationalist movements which sprang up following the collapse of the Habsburg and Romanov empires and which sought to carve out ethnically homogenous states from the rubble of those empires, often at the expense of "inconvenient local minorities, who were consigned to second-class status." It is in this context that Judt famously observed: "The very idea of a 'Jewish state' - a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded - is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism."

So far so good. It is in his discussion of Israel's 'democracy', however, that Judt stumbled. Failing to note that Israel can only claim to be both Jewish and (at least formally) democratic because the vast majority of Palestinians were expelled beyond its 'borders' in the period from 1947-1950, he concluded that, given the rising Palestinian birthrate in the occupied territories and among its own remnant Palestinian population, Israel would eventually end up with a de facto Arab majority and can therefore only remain Jewish and democratic if it becomes "the first modern democracy to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project."

Unfortunately, at this point, Judt completely overlooked the full-scale Zionist ethnic cleansing of the late forties which enabled Israel to claim that it was both Jewish and democratic in the first place. To omit this (probably not deliberately) was a cardinal error indeed and constitutes the real problem with Judt's essay. His failure to further factor in the legal right of all ethnically-cleansed Palestinians to return to their homeland within pre-1967 Israel only makes the earler omission worse.

Judt's argument that the time has passed for a two-state solution - "there are too many settlements, too many Jewish settlers, and too many Palestinians, and they all live together, albeit separated by barbed wire and pass laws" - has only grown in credence since he made it almost 12 years ago.

As has the relevance of the following statement: "The true alternative facing the Middle East in coming years will be between an ethnically cleansed greater Israel and a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians."

And this: "But what if there were no place in the world today for a 'Jewish state'? What if the binational solution were not just increasingly likely, but actually a desirable outcome? It is not such a very odd thought. Most of the readers of this essay live in pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural."

That is not to say that Judt sees a one-state solution to the conflict as a cakewalk, as he made clear in his conclusion: "To convert Israel from a Jewish state to a binational one would not be easy, though not quite as impossible as it sounds: the process has already begun de facto. But it would cause far less disruption to most Jews and Arabs than its religious and nationalist foes will claim. In any case, no one I know of has a better idea."

Now observe how first Timothy Snyder and then Robert Manne duck and weave when reminded by Phillip Adams of Judt's argument for a one-state solution and his assessment of Israel as an anachronism:

"There you're onto an important thing in this book about the way Thinking the 20th Century works. It doesn't work by way of me telling Tony how smart he is and how I agree with him about everything and how wonderful Tony Judt might be. It works as a long argument between him and me which I think... [Adams, interrupting: But that's what makes it work. If it wasn't that it could have become an exercise in being sychophantic.] Yeah, frankly it would have been disrespectful to the way Tony and my relationship always was and the way he was in the wider world. But that's just all by way of saying I didn't particularly think that that was intellectually Tony's most impressive achievement. I mean he published it right around the same time he published an essay about Belgium where he thought the one-state solution that is Belgium will not work. So the suggestion that a one-state solution in Israel is plausible when it's not plausible in Belgium, which is after all a much nicer neighborhood, struck me as not particularly convincing. But it really goes back to your previous question because what I think he was doing was not so much criticising Israel - you know the debate about the one-state/two-state in Israel is sort of old hat - what he was trying to do I think was to begin a serious conversation in the US about what Israel is, might be, should be, and that he failed in that I think speaks badly about us [ie the Americans]. But that he tried to do it and that he had the optimism about us that you could just talk about these things in principle as opposed to ad hominem, that's the kind of optimism you have to have if you want to be an intellectual in politics."

OMG! Is Belgium still standing? Thank God for nicer neighborhoods. Hm, I wonder what made Palestine a not-so-nice neighborhood?

"[Adams: Robert, your view on this issue?] I was hoping you'd ask. Look, I don't think he was right about the one-state solution. I think it's one of the moments of political naivety which is very rare for Tony Judt. On the other hand... it seems to me that his understanding of what went wrong with Israel was profoundly important and he's asked by Timothy in the book whether he thinks he's courageous for having been a lone voice in the mainstream, deeply critical of the drift of Israel and he says 'No, not at all. I might've been a bit more honest than other people but I wasn't particularly courageous in that'. But what he saw and the central truth of all this is that when Israel made the decision in 1967 to hold on to the West Bank and Gaza it made a catastrophic decision for its future, and that everything that one could've thought from then about what would happen has happened, and I think he's a very important intellectual for the fact that he saw how deeply wrong that decision was and what flowed from it, and even though I don't think in any way it's his most distinguished writing, it's very important writing because I think it shows hard-headedness and courage. I think he was wrong to say he wasn't courageous. In Australia it's easy to say certain things and you only get a little bit knocked about. He was, as I understand it, severely taken apart by his own peer group, the liberal Jewish intellectuals and I think history will show him to have been absolutely right in his fundamental judgment on what had gone wrong with Israel from 1967 onwards in particular."

In his essay, Judt's focus is not on how Israel supposedly 'lost its way' only after the 1967 conquest and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. There is no suggestion in it, as Manne would have us believe, of the soft-Zionist conceit whereby Israel's fabled 'soul' was doing just fine until sullied by the fateful decision to remain in occupation of the Palestinian territories it had conquered in 1967. But by leading us down this particular garden path, Manne conveniently sidesteps Judt's two key arguments: that, in a multiethnic and multicultural world, the blatantly ethnographic Israel is an anachronism; and that, however difficult the transition to a binational state in Palestine/Israel, it is still the least traumatic and most desirable outcome.

Despite Manne's stated admiration for Judt's intellectual courage, he has always shied away from dealing with the core issue of the Middle East conflict - the morality of establishing an ethnographic, apartheid state in the land of another people. There's no way, it seems, he's prepared to risk being severely taken apart by his own peer group by going there.

Clearly, he's no Tony Judt.

[See also my 2/9/11 post on Manne, Who Speaks for Palestine?]

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