Tony Judt on the kind of Judaism we should admire

The death last year of British historian Tony Judt was a deep loss for those of us who crave intelligent debate of world affairs and especially the Middle East.

The Atlantic has just published his last interview and Judt is shown, despite his last years being afflicted with a horrible disease, with a clarity of thought about Zionism and what Judaism has become:

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.

If it could look so good, why would it be hell?

Because it would start from a very bad place. It would begin with Jews running the place in the name of a Jewish state, defined by Orthodox Rabbis and controlled by an army whose officer core is increasingly permeated by religious and settler communities. No Arab would feel remotely safe, much less equal or a citizen in such a “single state”. The Arabs’ lack of property, rights, status and prospects would either make them a sullen and potentially violent underclass or else the best of them would try to leave. This is no good basis for integration, though it is of course what some of Israel’s present leaders privately desire. And then there would be Gaza…

Can you see or understand why Israelis are afraid?

Yes, but only in the sense that someone who has been brought up to fear and hate his neighbors will have good reason to be frightened at the thought of living in the same house with them. Israelis have created a generation of young Palestinians who hate them and will never forgive them and that does make a real problem for any future agreement, single- or two-state.

But Israel should be much, much more afraid of the Israel it’s creating for itself: a semi-democratic, demagogic, far-right warrior state dominated by racist Russians and crazed rabbis. In this perspective, an internationally policed and guaranteed federal state of Israel, with the same rights and resources for Jews and Arabs, looks a lot less frightening to me.

Can you see why American Jews are fearful as well of that?

No. This is the fear of the paranoid hysteric – like the man at the dinner table in the story I wrote in the New York Review who had never been to Israel but thought I should stop criticizing it because “We Jews might need it sometime.” American Jews — most of whom know nothing of Jewish history, Jewish languages or Jewish religion — feel “Jewish” by identifying unthinkingly with Auschwitz as the source of their special victim status and “Israel” as their insurance policy and macho other. I find this contemptible — they are quite happy to see Arabs killed in their name, so long as other Jews do it. That’s not fear, that is something between surrogate nationalism and moral indifference.

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.