Judt politely declines to entertain any suggestion that there is something heroic in what he has accomplished. “It’s not heroic. Heroism consists of doing things you don’t have to do and that cause you tremendous cost that you’re willing to accept in order to do the thing you feel you have to do. It doesn’t cost me anything to write. Where I do think I deserve merit points is for sheer strength of will. The natural thing to do is to say ‘fuck it’—to lie down with a whiskey and watch old movies. It takes willpower to say, ‘I’ll be happier if I do this than if I just lie there, bored.’ ”
Judt’s academic reputation rests on the 2005 publication of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. It was an enormous success: The Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who is collaborating with Judt on a follow-up book, calls Postwar “the best book on its subject that will ever be written by anyone”; Louis Menand, reviewing the book in The New Yorker, wrote that Judt’s scope was “virtually superhuman.” Postwar recounts two related stories: How Western Europe banished political extremism by building a robust welfare state, and how Eastern Europe first succumbed to and later released itself from communist rule. The book hinges on a series of painful ironies, each of which Judt pins down with precision. He both exposes the self-serving myth of European resistance to the Nazis during the war and acknowledges that it was precisely on the basis of such myths that a ruined Europe was able to restore itself. He also observes that because war, genocide, and ethnic cleansing had separated the fractious, ethnically diverse regions of Eastern Europe into tidy, homogenous nation-states, “the stability of postwar Europe rested upon the accomplishments of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler.”
Judt regards himself as a teller of hard, impolite truths. “I’ve always been willing to say exactly what I think,” he declares. To wit: His own NYU history department used to be mostly “dull and p.c.”; most other historians are unable to write “to save their lives”; and public intellectuals who aren’t an expert in something are “blah-blah generalists—and then you’re David Brooks. And you’re garbage.”
“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?” —“Israel: The Alternative,” The New York Review of Books, 2003
In his writing, Judt has a way of electrifying the atmosphere around intellectual debates, flinging shards of rhetoric sharp enough to shatter myths. Among his targets over the years: communism, the postmodern academy, French intellectuals, fellow liberals, fellow Jews. In 2006, he published an article in the London Review of Books accusing the American liberal intellectual class—singling out by name David Remnick, Peter Beinart, Leon Wieseltier, Michael Ignatieff, and Paul Berman—of a collective abdication of their critical responsibilities, calling them “useful idiots” of the Bush administration. In response, dozens of liberals who had opposed the war signed a manifesto denouncing the piece as “nonsense on stilts.”
To some extent, Judt’s Iraq essay could be read as payback for the sharp exchanges that had occurred three years earlier in response to another bombshell he had thrown. In an infamous article in The New York Review of Books titled “Israel: The Alternative,” Judt declared, “The depressing truth is that Israel today is bad for the Jews.” For Israel to remain a Jewish state, he wrote, it would be all but impossible to remain a democracy: The demographics of “Greater Israel” (which includes an overwhelmingly Arab population in the occupied territories) will soon make this logically impossible. Yes, Israel could dismantle its settlements, but this appeared to Judt a fantasy: “Many of those settlers will die—and kill—rather than move.” Or Israel could forcibly expel its Arab population, “but at the cost of becoming the first modern democracy to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project.” The alternative Judt floated was to establish Israel as a binational state—in effect, to give up on the Zionist project entirely.
Upon its publication, Judt was branded, as he puts it, as “a crazed, left-wing, anti-Zionist and self-hating Jew,” stripped of his contributing editorship at The New Republic, and labeled by Leon Wieseltier, his close friend and the editor there, as someone who had called for “the abolition of the Jewish nation-state.”
This is not a particularly helpful sobriquet for a Jew living in Manhattan, and Judt disputes the characterization of his essay (he was describing an emerging reality, he says, not advocating a solution). But to “think the unthinkable,” as he urged his readers to do about Israel’s future—and to say it aloud—has been Judt’s self-assigned mission. “I think intellectuals have a primary duty to dissent not from the conventional wisdom of the age (though that too) but, and above all, from the consensus of their own community,” he says. “So liberals should look especially hard at the uninterrogated assumptions of liberalism. Otherwise we are just hacks for a party line. If I have an Archimedean ethical standpoint, it really just consists of telling the truth as I see it even if I don’t much care for the implications, or if it offends my friends and my political allies.”