In praise of nuanced debate
Tony Judt’s one-state solution has sparked anger, but his intellectual energy is welcome
Last month, I received a puzzled text message from an intelligent friend who is a leading political commentator on a national newspaper. He had just read an article in the FT by Tony Judt of New York University (NYU), who seemed to be expressing some sympathy with the controversial views of Professor Sholmo Sand who, in turn, has challenged the Zionist narrative of Jewish history.
The writer of the text was confused as to why Judt appeared to be buying into Sand’s version of Jewish history with its emphasis on conversions and ethnic mixing. I explained that this alternative history fitted in with Judt’s long-held opinion that a one-state solution was the best way to resolve the Middle East crisis because it rejected the notion of Jewish exclusiveness.
As someone who has followed Judt’s writings over a number of years in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) — where he has advocated a one-state solution to the Middle East conflict — the FT article (although difficult to follow) was not that surprising. Judt essentially was saying that Israel’s insistence on an exclusive claim to Jewish identity has proved a “handicap” in reaching a deal with the Arabs.
In Judt’s view, it reduces all non-Jewish Israeli citizens and residents to second-class citizens. Judt’s robust opinions have made him something of an outcast in New York society. In an interview in the Guardian last weekend, he noted sardonically: “Today I’m regarded outside NYU as a looney-tunes, leftie, self-hating Jewish communist; inside the university I’m regarded as a typical, old-fashioned white male liberal elitist.”
As a writer and teacher, Judt is as forceful as they come. The Guardian records that at a recent lecture at NYU, more than 1,000 people showed up to hear him make a plea for the positive virtues of social democracy. What made the talk even more remarkable was that it was made by a man in an electric wheelchair, with a blanket wrapped around his body with a breathing tube attached to his nose.
Self-deprecatingly, he noted that the last time he had been seen at a public lecture he was bouncing around the stage fit and healthy. But over the last year he had been brought low by a particularly nasty strain of motor neurone disease.
In the Guardian interview, conducted in Judt’s Washington Square apartment, he recalls an upbringing which began in Putney in south-west London. Between the ages of 15 and 21, he developed an obsessive interest in Zionism and was encouraged by his parents to go off to Israel and try Kibbutz life.
He embraced it with zeal and, just after the Six-Day War in 1967, he found himself with the IDF on the Golan Heights. The whole experience, he now says, “immunised him against the unthinking ideology of Zionism”.
He tells Ed Pilkington that his proposal of a one-state solution to the Middle East conflict has landed him in hot water in New York but he finds “much more intellectual tolerance in Israel itself”. He adds: “I don’t have a bad conscience. I know exactly who I am. I’m Jewish. I have never been conflicted about it, never been religious, never been embarrassed.”
Perhaps Judt’s harshest and most influential article on the Middle Eastwas published in the NYRB in October 2003. It opened in a typically uncompromising way. “The Middle East peace process is finished. It did not die: it was killed. Mahmoud Abbas (then PM) was undermined by the President of the Palestinian Authority (Yasir Arafat) and humiliated by the Prime Minister of Israel.”
Judt went on to suggest that the time has come to think the unthinkable. The Oslo process and the two-state solution “is already doomed”. The true alternative facing the Middle East is “between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated bi-national state of Jews, Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians”.
It is a harsh argument and one which has placed Judt on the intellectual fringe when it comes to the Middle East. What Judt writes alienates many in the American Jewish community and no doubt in the UK too now that he occasionally writes in the FT.
But despite the bite in what Judt has to say about the Middle East, he manages to raise the quality of the debate and challenge the easy Palestinian narrative of occupation.
Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail