Interview: Tony Judt

The controversial British-born historian, whose critics call antisemitic and a self-hating Jew, speaks out


● 'The UK is tacky, commercial, obsessed with bling. It lacks k, a sense of purpose'
● 'The internet leaves us fragmented and vulnerable'
● 'People are directionless'

He is the world-renowned historian and author who enraged American Jews with his controversial views on the perilous future of Israel. He also has challenging things to say about Western society, the internet, and the new Lib-Con coalition. Born in the East End, Judt studied history at Cambridge and is currently professor of European Studies at New York University. He is also a sufferer of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a form of motor neurone disease which has left him paralysed from the neck down for the past 16 months. Too ill to conduct a face-to-face interview, he agreed to an email exchange with the JC's New York correspondent, Paul Berger.

PB: As I was calling at your apartment last month an ambulance arrived. Please can you tell me your current state of health.

TJ: I was taken into intensive care for respiratory problems. I am now out, somewhat weakened but still functional as you see. This is very much in keeping with the way ALS goes: in long static periods followed by short, sharp declines.

PB: How has your battle with ALS changed your outlook on life? Was it a contributing factor to the passionate beliefs about social democracy you outlined in you book, Ill Fares the Land?

TJ: In every way - and in no way. Everything about my life is different, of course, but the way I see the world and think about it has not radically changed. It may, however, be that my passion for social justice has been sharpened by a sense of mortality. The choice is to care more or less. I care more. I don't think there is anything in Ill Fares that I would not have said anyway, but perhaps with less urgency.

PB: How has being trapped in your body - as you have described it - affected your approach to thinking, writing and trying to influence people?

TJ: I write differently - I have to. I think it all out in advance and then dictate it, which makes for a slightly different style and tone, without necessarily changing content. I am forced to be less social and engaged, more reflective and self-interrogatory, because I lie alone on my back for many hours a day and night. I don't think I see the world differently, but I know the world sees me in a new way and I try to incorporate that into what I say. Above all, limited voice and strength means I have to pick my fights.

JB: The sentiment behind the Ill Fares the Land - that we in the West have become too individualistic - is a rather depressing one. Do you believe that a reversal is possible?

TJ: Yes, in this way I am an optimist. I don't believe in cycles but I do believe in the reversion to older forms of thought on various occasions in history, albeit in new guises. The trick is to find a way to believe in the past without simply seeking to go back there.

JB: You say society has lost it way and that fewer young people today subscribe to the major "isms". Does that have to mean that they are directionless? Is it not possible that the diminution of enormous movements is a benefit to society?

TJ: It could. And I am not in favour of the big "isms" for their own sake. But what I mean by directionless is that people seem not to have a larger sense of collective purpose - even if they do for something good, they do it on a micro scale. This fragmentation is fine in an age of prosperity and confidence. But in an era of fear or insecurity, it worries me because I see political divisions and the exploitation of these as a likely outcome of such fragmentation. You can't create a social world out of random private good intentions - and the same is true of isolated one-issue political enthusiasms. Otherwise you don't have a society.

JB: You claim that the internet atomises. But sites like Facebook and Twitter do the opposite. Through links/posts people, sometimes with very loose associations, feed each other news from a broad spectrum of sources.

TJ: Most of the evidence seems to suggest that people who rely primarily on such posts, links, blogs and likewise are better informed about the world they care about and the people who share their interests, but have almost nothing in common with people who don't. So you get a narrower but deeper spectrum of shared perspectives, but a much more fragmented and vulnerable broad space - the space in which people live politically and socially rather than via their computer.

PB: On the one hand, you argue that young people should become involved in politics. On the other hand, you say that today's politicians are ineffectual and looking to line their own pockets. How are young people, in Britain say, supposed to get involved in the political process if their party political choices are so dire?

TJ: I don't have an easy answer. I do believe that we are at a much more significant turning point than we realise - more like those moments in the past (1790s, 1840s, 1910s) when young people completely broke from traditional social or political organisations and formed new ones.

The point is to recognize the need to act politically - rather than abandoning politics because contemporary choices are so unappealing. If enough people in England are disillusioned with all the options - and see the steady decline in voter turnout over the last 30 years as a case in point - then there is a clear majority for something new. The important thing is not to casually dismiss the "political process" - that way lies something much more dangerous, which is part of what I was writing about.

PB: What do you make of the recent UK election result? Could the Lib-Con coalition move the UK back towards a more socially responsible society?

TJ: Maybe. My fear is that the combination of economic pressure and political caution will work against this. Both parties are coalitions in which there is a substantial presence of uninteresting and unoriginal political activists as well as young and bright thinkers. In some ways, one would wish that the defeat of Labour had forced it into a more self-critical appreciation of the damage it had done to the credibility of radical politics in the UK. But I fear the defeat was not serious enough for that. Still, if the coalition blocks some of the contemporary slippage towards loss of civil rights, then it will have done good. But there will have to be a lot harder thinking about what "society" means before the big, broad promises turn into anything worthwhile. And Conservatives are not typically disposed to this kind of radical rethink.

PB: Turning to Israel, during the past decade, the country's standing in the world has sunk to new lows. How influential would you say your own writing on Israel has been and how do you feel about the role you have played in highlighting Israel's transgressions? You were, after all, an early and influential critic.

TJ: I don't know how influential I was - I probably came a bit too early. I think that most of the damage has been done by Israel's own astonishing political incompetence, together with the calamitous failure of the US to hold them back from their own mistakes. Plus, I think that as we move ever further from the war and the Holocaust, the clichéd justifications for abstaining from criticism of Israel mean less and less to a new generation. They already meant nothing to much of the world, and now young people in Europe and the US are similarly detached from the automatic defence of a Jewish state. I did nothing to advance this process, except perhaps provide people with a language in which to understand it.

PB: Looking back on Israel: The Alternative (an article Judt wrote in 2003 for the New York Review of Books in which he called on Israel to become a bi-national rather than a Jewish state, and which attracted a wave of criticism with Judt being attacked as a self-hating Jew), do you still stand by your assertions?

TJ: I would only change two things. I would make clearer than I did that I don't call for the "end of Israel" or anything stupid like that. I merely insist that the way Israel is heading is anachronistic and self-destructive and that within the foreseeable future a single state will be its best hope for survival as a democracy. The second thing I would emphasise is that I was not so much calling for a single-state solution - whose difficulties are perfectly clear to me, for Arabs and Jews alike - as I was pointing out that Israel's own behaviour was making it unavoidable. I think I was absolutely right about that - as a whole raft of commentators, including one ex-prime minister, have since confirmed.

PB: Given the history of animosity between Palestinians and Israeli Jews do you believe that the two sides could live together peacefully or would a bi-national state mean, in effect, the mass emigration of Jews from the region?

TJ: See above. I think we are going to see a steady emigration of liberal, Western-oriented Jews from Israel in any case, as the country moves ever closer to a theological form of authoritarian democracy based on ethnic division and religious criteria for citizenship. But I don't believe that a bi-national state is possible under the current leadership, who would force the emigration issue for Jews or Arabs. In that sense, I am more pessimistic than I was even six years ago.

PB: In a recent blog, Jeffrey Goldberg, of The Atlantic magazine, - a moderate voice in the American pro-Israel camp - cited your "disproportionate hatred of Jewish nationalism". Can you understand how your strident criticisms of Israel comes across to many as unfair?

TJ: Yes and no. All nationalists think that criticism of them is disproportionate and unfair, whereas criticism of their opponents is perfectly reasonable. I don't hate Jewish nationalism any more than I hate Italian nationalism, but obviously Jewish nationalists hate me more than Italian nationalists do! I can see why I arouse resentment, however. I am openly and proudly Jewish, I have lived in Israel, I speak (poorly) Hebrew and I even volunteered for auxiliary military service in the Six-Day War. That makes it a bit hard to call me antisemitic, a self-hating Jew or someone who has never cared for Israel. But people do try all the same. Mostly, however, I think it's that I am actually quite reasonable which arouses paroxysms of anger. I don't call for boycotts, I don't argue for the "illegitimacy" of the Jewish state (whatever that means) and I don't believe all the blame is on Israel's side. If that's hatred, no wonder people dislike me.

PB: Finally, have you missed the UK at all?

TJ: I have lived here [in New York] since 1987. I miss the UK until I go back there, at which point I am reminded of why I was glad to leave. It seems to me a small, angry, confused and increasingly divided and centre-less country, with neither a sense of purpose nor a sense of identity. I also find it tacky, commercial, physically unappealing and obsessed with "bling". I think the UK lost a lot in the '70s and '80s and has not gained much in return.

PB: Going back to ALS, in a recent radio interview you described it as your worst nightmare, a disease you had pondered many years before you were diagnosed. How have you come to terms with the fact that you have ALS? And, mentally, how do you cope with the limitations it places on you and on your family on a day-to-day basis?

TJ: I don't know. I guess I am used to it so I don't think of it on a daily basis. I suppose I have an underlying anger and derive energy from that. As to limitations, I just incorporate them, with occasional bursts of frustration: since everything – everything – is different, the whole world has shifted gear. My main focus in the family is to try and maintain the appearance and, with some success, the reality of normal relations with my teenage sons. They have been marvelous and this helps a lot.

PB: You speak of people needing a larger sense of collective purpose. Is there any movement in any part of the world today that you can point to that embodies this ideal? What concrete example would you hold up to young people to say: "This is how it should be done"?

TJ: I think aspects of the European Green movement and the better organised end of the climate activists represent the right combination of clarity of thought, precision of goal and intelligence of organisation. But they too have their downsides – local parochialism, over-emphasis on single issues, however important, etc. But I don't see anything better on the horizon.

PB: You say that your limited voice and strength mean that you have to pick your fights. Why then, given your lack of affiliation with the Jewish community, do you continue to write about your Jewish identity, American Zionism and the State of Israel?

TJ: Because I don't care about community identification. Whereas I do care about ethics, justice and Judaism (in my case as an ethic of personal commitment). Plus this is a "fight" where people will listen to me, so it's worth getting involved. Moreover, I think that Israel's self-destructive behaviour could – Samson-like – wreck a lot of other things too, as well as contribute to terrorism and instability, so it's a big topic.

PB: You have called for a binational state in Israel. But I have trouble imagining one. What would this state look like, politically and socially? Is it really possible, given the extremists on both sides?

TJ: It's probably not possible now, thanks to extremism on both sides. If it did come into being, it would need to be a federal state, with crossover rights for both communities. Of course it's theoretically an option – far worse and older communal and ethnic disputes have been resolved that way (see, historically, Northern Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland and even – with limited success – Spain). The chief reason it looks impossible in the Middle East is because Jews especially claim that this is a unique case. But it is not.

PB: What about Israel's position in the Middle East, threatened by so many different factions – Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran? Is it possible that Israel is unable to come to a rational, fair and peaceful solution with its adversaries given the region's history and tensions?

TJ: Nonsense. Hamas and Hezbollah are perfectly manageable instances of a very representative kind of extreme "terrorist" movement that eventually gets brought into the negotiations – no one would have thought anyone could "come to terms" with the PLO or IRA 20 years ago. Hold your breath: within a generation everyone will be talking to Hamas, if they aren't already. As for Iran: if Israel were half awake it would be making friends there. The Shiite regime and the national majority are far more worried by the instability on their frontiers (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan) than they are by Israel, which is a convenient diversion and symbol for a declining regime. Historically, Israel was friends with Tehran and should be again. No Iranian government is going to make war on Israel – unlike Hezbollah, a state with a territory has everything to lose. Iran is a red herring.

PB: What do you make of the analogies made by left-wing activists between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa? Do you think there is any truth to it? And is there a danger that it does more harm than good?

TJ: Of course there is an analogy – it was made by [former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert. Nothing to do with left-wing activists. I have no idea if it does more harm than good, but if you look at what is happening on the West Bank it is simply true. That's the harm. Moreover, Israel's collaboration in South African apartheid-era nuclear programs just reinforces the appearance. Conversely, it is not an identical situation. But it's moving in that direction. And to blame the messenger seems a little ostrich-like.

PB: You have written a lot about Israeli missteps, abuses and creeping extremism, and about America's failure to lead Israel toward peace. But what about Palestinian failures? How do you account for peace in the face of Palestinian extremism, particularly the rise of Hamas? And is it not true that the Palestinians have missed enormous opportunities for peace, particularly at Camp David?

TJ: Palestinians have made as many mistakes as Israelis, though not the same kind. But Israel is the established state, has all the power, all the resources and all the land. What do the Palestinians have except their capacity to make stupid mistakes and refuse compromises?

PB: I think you may have offended a vast swathe of UK readers with your scorn for the country today. But I would hazard a guess that many people may also nod their heads in agreement. I find it interesting that many of your criticisms - tacky, commercial, physically unappealing and obsessed with bling - are precisely the terms used by people in the UK to criticise America. What's your view of America today? Does it get a rough ride in the UK? And do you see a way for the UK to regain its sense of identity in the future?

TJ: I think America has a different set of problems. It is blind to its own defects (which the UK is often not). It is in even greater physical decline and political stagnation than England, and lacks the proximity of Europe to act as a stimulus to reform in certain areas. On the other hand, it is a bigger and wealthier country than the UK and could in principle rise above its historical shortcomings, whereas it is very unclear to me exactly what the future of Great Britain holds. America remains powerful, Britain weak. America has a clear, if over-stated and un-self-critical identity, whereas no one knows even if Britain exists (endless debates about its break-up), whether it is part of Europe and what, if anything, it should do in the world. If I had to bet, I would say that America – for all its stupidities – has a better future.

Pedal power

A former student of Tony Judt has been so shocked by the effects of ALS on the man he calls his "mentor and close friend" that he is raising thousands to fund research into a cure for the disease.

Saul Goldberg says he has watched Judt be transformed from a fit and active man into "a frozen body in a wheelchair" since he was diagnosed in 2008.

Under a campaign called Move for ALS, Goldberg is currently cycling across the United States - from Seattle to New York - to raise money for Project ALS, a charity that has poured millions into scientific programmes researching ways to tackle the disease.

"I believe that, during my lifetime, a cure can be discovered," he says.

Donations to the campaign can made at www.moveforals.com

Last updated: 2:28pm, June 3 2010