Tony Judt interview, as requested

This was written for the Guardian, which for some reason never used it; the only other one of my profiles to suffer that fate was Benny Morris. I suspect that fear of endless I/P thrashes played a role in both decisions, though this also coincided with a redesign and a change of section editors. In any case, I like it.

Tony Judt was changing trains in Vienna when the Berlin Wall fell and he realised that his life up till then was history. It was, a moment of revelation for a professional historian: that past became fully visible only once the future that everyone expected had been wrenched away. It took him ten years more before he could start to write his 900 page history of Europe since 1945, and the work was interrupted for nine months by illness. But the result is one of those rare works which makes one understand that the past was just as undetermined as the future now seems.

Starting in the ruins of Europe with foreign armies everywhere, _Postwar_ traces the outbreak of the Cold War, and the extraordinary amnesiac recovery into prosperity of Western Germany and France; the collapse of British power and the almost accidental emergence of the European Union. The half century of apparently natural peace, stability and progress between 1950 and 2001 emerges in sharp relief from the shadows around it.

Judt’s own life covers much of of the grounds of the book: he was born in 1948, the son of a refugee from Belgium and a hairdresser from the slightly earlier immigration to the East End. His father ended up as a bookseller after trying numerous other trades. Both his parents had left school at fourteen, but retained a lively interest in ideas. They were part of a tradition of self-educated working-class radicals which did much to shape the world in which he grew up. In 1966 he went up to Cambridge on an exhibition to read history.

In the summer of 1967, seeing that war was coming, he went out to Israel as a kibbutz volunteer and served in the army, mostly as an interpreter, since he spoke French and Hebrew as well as English:

“I was 19 years old, and it was romantic and fun. But it was also an eye-opener. I saw an Israel I hadn’t seen before, because before then I mostly knew the kibbutzim and lived among aged socialist pioneers, which was a version of Israel you could continue to believe in before 67 if you had a certain kind of limited vision. It was no longer possible after ’67 … I was an enthusiastic young Marxist Zionist, a category which probably doesn’t exist any more, but it seemed to exist then (laughs) and for the first time encountered an Israel I didn’t know: an Israel of ‘We’ve got the guns; we’ve got the land. We’re on top and we’ll never give it back now.’ Even at the age of nineteen, I could see this was going to be a problem.”

After his degree in Cambridge, he went to Paris, where he studied at the elite Ecole Normale Supe´riore, and made some lifelong friends:

“It was wonderful. Here I was, in the forcing house of the French intellectual elite, most of whom looked like shit in the morning – the contrast between what they could do with their heads and the state of their bodies was remarkable. I spent a wonderful year there. Got lots of work done in the archives, and watched Maoism playing itself out, because this (69-70) was the great year of Maoism when the charms of China were written all over the walls of the Ecole.”

His book is rich and full of flavour, but there are little flakes of ginger, and sometimes chili sprinkled through the chocolate: he thinks less of most French politicians than even Mrs Thatcher, but he understands and appreciates the French administrative class almost from the inside:

“Despite the moral and military catastrophe of Vichy, the elite survived intact, in a way. The war was a national humiliation, and the army came out of it full of _ressentiment_ and bitterness, which shows itself of course in the colonial wars, in Algeria and Vietnam; and for French Jews, it was a calamity, obviously, and for the economy it was not good, but … the one thing that stayed absolutely intact was that sense of elite confidence — that, precisely because of the mess we have been through, we know what has to be done.

“France is the paradigm case of the general European phenomenon after the Second World War, which is that most of the good stuff that happened was very undemocratic. Decisions were taken in which the people had no say whatsoever; very often the politicians had no say either.”

His thesis, and his first book were both studies of French history; and when he returned, he was offered a fellowship at Kings’ College, Cambridge, where he stayed for six years before leaving for Berkeley:

“Berkeley was marvellous. I had a convertible Ford Mustang and drove up and down the coast, and, you know, it was the good life, and I might well have stayed.

“I came back from Berkeley largely because the wife of the moment didn’t want to stay there.”

He has been married three times, latest and lastly to Jennifer Homans, the dance critic of the New Republic, with whom he has two children. At Oxford

“I had to recalibrate myself as a teacher of contemporary politics and contemporary political theory. That was very good for me, because I learned a lot of stuff I only really knew second-hand. It probably explains the beginnings of the background to this book because until then I hadn’t done modern stuff at all.

“After seven years — seven very good years — I was offered a job at New York University; and at the time it was doom and gloom over here. The Thatcher university cuts had come; there was no money for graduate students; and I thought, why not go to New York and see what it’s like?”

Having grown up in a failing empire, he is caustic about the liberal imperialist idea that America can take over the kind of role of world policeman that Britain aspired to in the nineteenth century: “Niall Fergusson is talking absolute nonsense when he has this fantasy of America somehow replicating Britain’s imperial role: they have no desire to do it; they don’t have a colonial class, and they have never even imagined empire in that capacity.

“It’s a profound misunderstanding both of the difference between the early nineteenth century, which is when the British began that, and the late twentieth century; but also between the two cultures: the British imperial class — caste — hundreds of thousands of people eventually — was born of Victorian society. American society is not going to generate such a class of person in the first place, even if it wanted to, and no one has the desire to.”

But it is not these views which are the cause of his notoriety in New York intellectual circles. Very few Americans take their empire seriously, and the ignominious collapse of the neocon project in Iraq has diminished that number still further. The one piece of American foreign policy in the Middle East that has got him into real trouble is his argument about Israel. From his first moment of disillusionment as a volunteer in 1967, he has been an opponent of the occupation of the West Bank, and now he believes that it has been fatal for the original Zionist project.

“The real tragedy is that it has taken thirty years to get Israelis and Palestinians to acknowledge the need for two separate real states. Israelis to recognise the Palestinians exist, and need their own state on real land; Palestinians to acknowledge that they should have their own state, and can’t wait for Israel disappear. Now that we are at that point politically, [but] in fact, two states are impossible. The land is now too intertwined, the water is intertwined, although it’s mostly in Israeli hands. The Israeli economy needs cheap Palestinian labour. The Palestinians need Israeli employment. Effectively we have a single state today. It’s just that is has first and second class citizens. So it seems to me that the only possibility is some kind of federal state. We cannot realistically expect to have a Jewish state on the territory that is currently occupied by the Jewish state, and expect it to be democratic. You can have a Jewish state that is not democratic. Or you can have a democratic state that is no longer insistent on its primarily Jewish character. But you can’t have both. Or, you can have ethnic cleansing.”

“Yet we continue to talk about Israel as a Jewish state, as a democratic state, where the only problem is caused by Hamas’s failure to recognise Israel. If it weren’t for the fact that the worst catastrophe has happened to the Palestinians, one would say that Israel has brought upon its own head a catastrophic situation, in which the moral as well as the sociological conditions for stable democracy has been radically corroded.”

These views he can, and does, publish in Israel. But in New York, or in the USA generally, it is very much harder to get them heard. He has been accused by one of President Bush’s speechwriters of “genocidal liberalism”. His quarrels with the right-wing Jewish lobby have become the stuff on international academic uproar, most recently when more than 100 academics signed a letter condemning two of the biggest American Jewish organisations, which had intervened to stop him lecturing at the Polish consulate in New York.

“People like me have to speak out because we can — people will scream at us, ‘You’re a self-hating Jews’ and ‘You’re an Israel-denier’ and whatever else they yell. But we are less vulnerable than the non-Jewish critic of Israel and that’s why we have to speak.

“In my grimmest moments, what I see happening is a version, over time, of what happened in the Roman Empire — that you’re going to have this annoying, disruptive little state, in the far eastern edge of the empire, in this case the American Empire, which the Americans are eventually going to realise is doing them no good. At that point, Israel will be in serious trouble unless it changes too. Because Israel has no other real friends in the world, thanks to its behaviour. That wasn’t true thirty years ago. It is true today.”

This entry was posted in Journalism, War. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Tony Judt interview, as requested

  1. Simple Country Vicar says:

    That was a real joy to read.
    You don’t write enough of these.

  2. That’s an excellent piece, Andrew. Thank you.

  3. Have you seen the latest NEW YORK REVIEW of BOOKS?

    Judt is very ill. Thus, I was especially happy to see this appreciation of his work.

  4. acb says:

    Thanks Michelle. I, too, saw the NYRB piece, and was horrified.

  5. Elliott Noyes says:

    Thank you for this very nice piece on Tony Judt. I, too, read the NYRB piece very recently (tonight, actually), and was horrified.

  6. anna lanyon says:

    This is a wonderful piece, but the news of Tony Judt’s illness is devastating. I only learned about it last night. His essay about his illness in the NYRB is very moving and from what he writes, I fear he may (or will) be silenced by his illness.

    Meanwhile, for those who like his work, I especially recommend his ‘Reappraisals’. I have read and reread it many times.

  7. While I do not write letters to the editor or responses to writers or journalists, I am compelled to say to you, that my heart broke after reading your essay in the NYRB regarding your illness (ALS).
    But I disagree with you regarding Israel; given the horrors of WWII I tend to forgive most Jews, even those with whom I have little sympathy (Chasidim and other ultra-religious and violent types). And I forgive Israel, who still adheres, more than most countries, to the tenets of Hillel and the greaat Jewish thinkers.

  8. Tim Koranda says:

    I’m very sorry to learn of Mr. Judt’s condition, which I read about in the New York Review of Books. He is our greatest thinker on history. And a true man of principle. I’ve been assiduously digesting his work for nearly twenty years and never cease to marvel at it. After reading his piece, Night, I picked up the Book of Job and read it again, in its entirety. I pray that his health will return to him and know that I am praying for a miracle. What matters is how the Book of Job ends.

  9. demetrius says:

    Tony Judt was a sad human being when it came to relationships. Married four times, he went against NYU code and should have been fired for sleeping with his grad student Jennifer Homans, but because he ultimately married her they let him off. Funny that he was also involved with a woman in California for 8 years at the same time he was courting Jennifer Homans. He kept it a secret from both women. One day his children will know that behind this great intellect was a lying, cheating S.O.B.

  10. TINA says:;attitude..that..JUDGES.a;;;;into;;;;mentality;;….particularly…in..the;;USA.

Comments are closed.