In this interview just before his death last year, the historian discusses his controversial views on Israel, the country's future, and a life of disputation
Undated photo of Tony Judt / AP
In July 6, 2010, one month to the day before his death, I sat down with the British historian Tony Judt in his New York study to film an interview. He was positioned in a special bed in which he spent much of his time, completely immobilized by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. The interview was part of a larger film project, with director Gaylen Ross, about Israel and the U.S. and American Jewry. It was, for me, a profound and deeply personal conversation.
Despite his illness, Judt agreed to let me interview him over email as well. What follows here is our lengthy conversation, conducted over several emails. As an Israeli who is deeply distressed by the state of my country, and as a journalist who feels more and more helpless in trying to bring change through my work, I felt a strong intellectual and emotional propinquity to Judt. We share similar views and perspectives about Israel. Between the two of us, he was the grown-up , he was the celebrated historian; I admit I was hoping for answers.
Before I left the filmed interview, I asked Judt how he would act, and what he would do, if he were today an Israeli Jew, teaching at Tel Aviv University, thinking the way he does, publishing the things he writes?
"I don't think I would have done anything different from what you and my other colleagues from Haaretz and academia are doing" he said, "History always happens to us and nothing ever stays the same." And then I had to go.
A year has now passed. Israel is enduring a social upheaval that gives some hope for change, but its relationship with Turkey and Egypt are in severe crisis, the Palestinians are working on a unilateral independence declaration to present at the UN, and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called Prime Minister Netanyahu an ungrateful ally to the U.S. and a danger to Israel. Reading Judt's words in light of the events, feels like reading a chilling prophecy. Our exchange started about two weeks following Israel's controversial raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla.
How do you see Israel's actions in the Flotilla affair?
The characterization that comes to mind is "autistic." Israel behaved in a way that suggests it is no longer fully able to estimate, assess or understand the way other people think about it. Even if you supported the blockade (I don't) this would be an almost exemplary case of shooting oneself in a painful part of the anatomy.
Firstly because it alienates Turkey, who Israel needs in the longer run. Secondly because it was undertaken in international waters and largely at the expense of civilian victims. Thirdly because it was an overreaction. Fourthly because it had the predictable effect of weakening the case for a blockade rather than strengthening it.
In short, this is the action of a country which is fast losing touch with reality.
The raid on the flotilla was far from being the worst of Israel's behavior over 40 years of occupation, yet the international response to it was the most grievous. Why do you think that is?
I agree. But what happens in small West Bank towns, in the Israeli Parliament, in Gazan schools or in Lebanese farms is invisible to the world. And Israel was always very good at presenting the argument from "self-defense" even when it was absurd. I think that Israel's successful defiance of international law for so long has made Jerusalem blind and deaf to the seriousness with which the rest of the world takes the matter.
"The identification of Israel with Auschwitz (and of its enemies with Nazism) is not only obscene, but self-defeating"
Finally there is the question of cumulation. From the Six Day War to Lebanon, from Lebanon to the settlements, from the settlements to Gaza, Israel's credibility has steadily fallen - even as the world's distance from Auschwitz (the favorite excuse) has lengthened. So Israel is far more vulnerable today than it would have been twenty five years ago.
What do you tell those who say Israel has willingly withdrawn from Gaza and everything that has happened since proves the Israeli claim that there's no partner for an agreement?
I tell them that they are talking nonsense, or else prevaricating. Israel withdrew from Gaza but has put it under a punishment regime comparable to nothing else in the world. That is not withdrawal. And of course we all know that there are those who would like to give Palestinians "independence" but exclude Gaza from the privilege. That too was part of the purpose of the withdrawal.
There is a partner. It may not be very nice and it may not be very easy. It's called Hamas. In the same way the provisional [Irish Republican Army] was the only realistic "partner for peace" with whom London could negotiate; Nelson Mandela (a "terrorist" for the Afrikaaners until his release) was the only realistic "partner for peace"; the same was true of "that terrorist" ([according to Winston] Churchill) Gandhi; the well-known "murderous terrorist" Jomo Kenyatta with whom London fought a murderous war for five years before he became "a great statesman"; not to mention Algeria. The irony is that Washington knows this perfectly well and expects negotiations with Hamas within five years. After all, Israel virtually invented Hamas in the hope of undermining the PLO; well, they succeeded. But they are the only ones who can't see what has to happen.
You advocated for a binational state. What does your binational state look like? How does it work?
I don't know. What I do know is that since I wrote that in 2003, everyone from Moshe Arens through Barak to Olmert has admitted that Israel is on the way to a single state with a potential Arab majority in Bantustans unless something happens fast. That's all that I said in my essay.
But ok, since it looks as though Israel is determined to give itself this future, what will it look like? Hell. But what could it look like? Well, there could be a federal state of two autonomous communities -- on the Swiss or Belgian model (don't tell me the latter doesn't work -- it works very well but is opposed by Flemings led by people very much like [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman). This could have crossover privileges and rights for both communities, but each would be autonomous. I think this would work better than a mixed single-state, and it would allow each community to set certain sorts of religious and other regulations according to its taste.