Tony Judt: Free Speech Martyr

Tony Judt, the brilliant NYU historian of modern Europe and public intellectual par excellence, is now officially consecrated in American life as a free speech martyr. This is unfortunate. And it seems that we can blame this situation on the outrageously short-sighted and stupid intervention of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress.

Though the details are somewhat in dispute, it is certain that an event last week at which Judt was the main speaker (titled “The Israel Lobby and American Foreign Policy”) was cancelled. The event was hosted by an independent nonprofit organization that typically holds its events in the rented confines of the Polish consulate in Manhattan. Apparently, when the ADL and AJC got word of the gathering, the called the Consul General to at least voice their displeasure, and at most hurl threats, that the Polish government would house such a gathering. Within hours the event was canceled.

The Polish Consul General diplomatically claims that the calls were “very elegant but may be interpreted as exercising a delicate pressure.” However delicate the pressure, Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, was evidently satisfied enough by the cancellation to remark, “I think they [Polish consulate] made the right decision. He’s [Judt] taken the position that Israel shouldn’t exist. That puts him on our radar.”

All of which brings me to 2003. You see, it is impossible to understand this latest kerfuffle without journeying back to 2003. October, to be precise. It was then that Tony Judt took to the influential pages of the New York Review of Books and penned an instantly controversial essay in which he argued that we have moved beyond the parochial notion that the nation-state is the locus of political life.

Harder words followed.

Judt proceeded to declare the very idea of a Jewish state as hopelessly “rooted in another time and place.” As Judt describes it, the transnational ethos of our age demands that Jews, once again, invest their trust in the collective humanity of civilization (and, more specifically, the political competence and decency of Palestinians).

“In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel is truly an anachronism. And not just an anachronism but a dysfunctional one.”

The Jews, it seems, were late to the party. But not just late, irremediably late. Judt warned his readers that, “the time has come to think the unthinkable.” He sermonized that the troubles between Israelis and Palestinians had but one prudent remedy: bi-nationalism.

Now, I disagree with Judt. I think he both unfairly singles out Israel as a political anachronism, and I think he fundamentally misreads the situation of Jews around the world (not just, say, those that dwell in Manhattan). But I can do no better than merely pass along Leon Wieseltier’s refutation of Judt’s essay.

But now it is 2006, and Judt is back with vengeance. He is claiming that it was not only the Polish consulate event that has been cancelled due to “Jewish” pressure. I have no way of knowing right now how much of this is hyperbole and how much of it fact (for instance, the head of the nonprofit who had their event canceled last week made some very strong, very outrageous statements in the immediate aftermath. This prompted the consulate to release a statement refuting her account and claiming that she apologized to them for her intemperate – fabricated?- account of what in fact happened. She is now apparently not returning media queries).

But I do know that out public discourse has been cheapened by the fact that Tony Judt was denied a microphone and an audience. He is not some hack bomb-thrower who will be marginalized and discredited. I disagree profoundly with his views on Israel and the Middle East. But I do not question his intellect or his sincerity. His arguments should not be silenced, they should be challenged. His critique is not going away.

Explore posts in the same categories: Israel/Palestine

3 Comments on “Tony Judt: Free Speech Martyr”

  1. […] I feel compelled to add my own pontificating to this Tony Judt foofaraw (actually, I’d say it qualifies as an arglebargle), though I do of course concur with my partner-in-thought-crime’s comments on the matter. First, it seems obvious to me that, while their being a little coy about it, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee applied behind-the-scenes pressure on the Polish Consulate in an effort to have Tony Judt’s talk cancelled. Shame on them for their efforts and shame on the Polish Consulate for caving to the pressure. How do you say “chilling effect” in Polish? […]

  2. abhcoide Says:

    Well said Small-D. Free of speech is just that…”free”.
    So no criticism of Israel is allowed by the Anti-Defamation Legue.
    What exceptionalism!
    No other country in the world is immune from criticism. The are abusing the memory of those who died sixty years ago for the dirty political ends of a major military power.
    It’s simply wrong.

  3. ERG Says:

    I agree that people are free to criticize Israeli policy. Tony Judt did cross a line when he criticized Israel’s right to exist. That being said, Judt has the right to argue that binationalism is the right course for Israel. As I made clear I think he is wrong. I also suspect we do not agree on much else when it comes to Israel save Tony Judt’s right to criticize it. I think it crass and really beside the point to mention the Holocaust, when it has played no role in the current dispute.

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