Tony Judt's Final Word on Israel

The worst consequence of an attack on Iran -- an extreme form of Israel's foolishness hitherto -- would be the final alienation of American sympathy. Already major military figures like [David] Petraeus have gone on record as seeing Israel as a "strategic liability." Attack Iran and Israel becomes an intolerable burden upon America's increasingly fragile role in the world. This would be a very big mistake to make.

Why do you think Israel, as a state, still hasn't gotten over its existential fears, over its self-concept as "victim?"

Obviously it has not. But it has gone from genuinely believing itself to be threatened to exploiting that "threat" to serve unworthy and foolish goals. As a result, no one outside Israel takes seriously the threat to its existence, which is bad for Israel should such a threat ever arise. The identification of Israel with Auschwitz (and of its enemies with Nazism) is not only obscene, but self-defeating. Until 1967 it was semi-plausible, despite running counter to the equally self-serving image of "macho Jews" who would never "go like sheep to the slaughter." Since 1967 it is a ridiculous claim and looks it.

In your view, in the bigger picture, what is Israel's role and place in the history of the Jewish people?

My first response is that of Zhou En Lai when he was asked what was the significance of the French Revolution and replied, "It's too soon to tell."

Another perspective, the long one, would be to say that Israel is behaving very much like the annoying little Judean state that the Romans finally dismantled in frustration. This classical analogy may be more relevant than we think. I suspect that in decades to come America (the new Rome) will abandon Israel as annoying, expensive, and a liability. This will leave Israel to its own resources or to making friends with anyone who will deal with it (as it once did with South Africa). That in turn will make it a very unpleasant place for Western liberals and democrats, who will loosen their ties with it. No doubt it will survive, but it will mean less and less to Jews elsewhere as people forget the original impulse and historical circumstances surrounding its founding.

As to the future of Jews in the diaspora, they (we) will once again be the predominant community (once again as in classical times). I think Israel will grow increasingly marginal for most Jews, though I don't quite know what their Jewish life will look like either in a secularized world. In a way, we may be entering a new Middle Ages where the only way to preserve Jewish cultural and religious traditions will be to live in separate ghetto-like spaces (gated communities) closed off from the surrounding majority. That is already the case in parts of America.

We are now about a year into the Obama era. Is President Barack Obama "good for the Jews?" For Israel?

Obama could have been good for Israel and Jews if he had followed through on his Cairo speech and original intentions. But despite expectations, he caved in to Netanyahu and is now bad for Israel in the sense that he does nothing to stop it behaving badly to its own detriment. By not following through on his appeal he let people down who had hoped for a new start. And by allowing Israel to continue with settlements, or protecting Israel at the UN, he has made more enemies in Arab lands. In that sense, the dynamic is not very different than it was before, except that the tone is more polite. And of course, his Afghanistan mess makes him look like Bush, albeit nicer. On the whole, I would say he has failed here.

After your binational state proposal, many felt the need to publicly denounce you, even famous liberals. How hard was this for you?

Not at all. Since people took to calling me "Belgian" as a synonym for "anti-Semitic European," or "Self-Hating Jew," I assumed that they had nothing very interesting to say. Since liberals would often say one thing to me in private but something different in public for fear of being thought "anti-Semitic", I never much cared about their criticisms either.

On the whole I don't mind taking a minority view: I've always done this. And many of the people who slapped me down for my criticisms of Israel were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq war. So I suspect I was on the right side twice-over. The only criticisms I took seriously came from Israel, from reasonable people who had good grounds for disagreement. I suspect ground is starting to open up in America, as people gently put their heads above the parapet and risk criticizing Israel without getting shot.

In recent writing and interviews, you relate a lot to your unique sense of a limited future. How has this changed the way you see history and current politics?

I don't think it's changed it at all, though it may have shifted the balance of my writings and interests. I don't think I have altered my views on history or politics, though of course given my circumstances I have to ration my contributions and try to focus on the things that either matter most or that I have the best chance of influencing.

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Merav Michaeli is a columnist for Ha'aretz.

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