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The Shahid

‘I am now in a catastrophic personal situation. Several death threats have been sent to me. … On the websites condemning me there is a map showing how to get to my house to kill me, they have my photo, the places where I work, the telephone numbers, and the death warrant. … There is no safe place for me, I have to beg two nights here, two nights there. … I must cancel all scheduled events. The authorities urge me to keep moving.” In the wake of an outrageous attempt to punish him for the views that he fearlessly writes and speaks, these desperate words were written last week by Tony Judt. No, wait, here comes the fact-checker. Sorry. Wrong martyr for truth. The words were written by Robert Redeker, a teacher of philosophy in a high school in Toulouse who wrote an article in Le Figaro in September claiming that there are aggressive and bigoted elements in the Koran and is living in hiding, under police protection, as a result. Last week also brought the news of the murder of the unimaginably valiant Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow. But here, where the fish are always jumpin’ and the cotton is always high, the all-devouring controversy has been the cancellation of a talk by Tony Judt on “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” at the Polish Consulate in New York as a consequence of a communication from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “The phone calls were very elegant but may be interpreted as exercising a delicate pressure,” the Consul General of Poland in New York told The Washington Post. Since I am satisfied that this was an attempt to interfere with the free expression of Judt’s thinking, I have signed a high-minded letter of protest to the ADL. (The ADL’s legitimate inquiry into whether the Polish government was endorsing the Mearsheimer-Walt view of the world could have been made after Judt’s talk.) Judt has a perfect right to the expression of his opinion. But that is not the end of the matter. There remains the substance of his opinion, and the shabbiness of it.

In a series of hot-headed e-mails sent to a variety of e-mail chains, one of which included myself and the rest of which were forwarded to me in the spirit of the free exchange of ideas, Judt misreported some of the facts of the case. Abraham Foxman, whom he insanely calls a “fascist,” did not speak to anybody at the Polish consulate, as Judt claims he did, and neither Foxman nor anybody else at the ADL promised to “smear the charge of Polish collaboration with anti-Israeli anti-Semites all over the front page of every daily paper in the city.” In one e-mail Judt paranoically maintains that The New York Sun learned of the incident within ten minutes, in another e-mail within seven minutes. Also, the newspaper is not owned by Rupert Murdoch—but the fascists are all alike, aren’t they? Here is Judt on October 4: “Maybe you really do have to have grown up under Communism to recognise the house style of a demagogic rag like the New York Sun … and yes, it helps to have read Kafka to know what it feels like to go to bed a liberal, secular historian of Jewish background and wake up the next morning an anti-Semitic Israel-denier.” Only somebody who did not grow up under communism and did not read Kafka could have written that sentence, or someone romantically involved with himself. Similarly, on October 3: “the public space for non-conforming opinion in this country is closing down.” And “whatever your views of the Middle East I hope you find this as serious and frightening as I do. This is, or used to be, the United States of America.” Amerika! So let us be clear. The censorship of Tony Judt is not working. He is one of the least suppressed, repressed, and oppressed intellectuals who ever lived. If there is life on Mars, it knows what he thinks. The fact that a position is unpopular does not mean that it is unknown. Dissidents should have thicker skins. (Many years ago, after I wrote something especially vicious against the Israeli settlers, I received in the mail a package of feces in aluminum foil. It stunk.) Anyway, Judt exaggerates his dissidence, the unpopularity of his anti-Bush, anti-war, and anti-Israel views, which are by now banalities. And his suggestion that he is not an “Israeldenier” is, quite simply, a lie. “When and where did I ever negate Israel’s right to exist?” he indignantly asks Omer Bartov, just about the only one in this orgy of digital piety who refused to preen and insisted upon the factual basis of opinion. October 23, 2003, is when, The New York Review of Books is where. I have never met anybody of any persuasion who believes that Judt’s call for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in “Israel: The Alternative” was not a call for the abolition of the Jewish state.

I wonder whether the shahid of Washington Square and his champions have spoken or signed anything against the boycotts of Israeli academics; but I will leave the double-standards research to others. The more significant point is that what Judt was prevented from delivering at the Polish consulate was a conspiracy theory about the pernicious role of the Jews in the world. That is what the idea of “the Lobby” is. It is Mel Gibson’s analysis of the Iraq war. It is not just an analysis of the impact of aipac on particular resolutions and policies: such an analysis requires a detailed knowledge of American government, specifically of Congress, that I suspect Judt does not possess and that his fellow heroes Mearsheimer and Walt have been shown to lack. It is a larger claim, a historical claim, a claim about a sinister causality, about the power of a small group to control the destiny of a large group. And it is a claim with a sordid history. Is it an anti-Semitic claim, or just a claim with an anti-Semitic past? I am told that at the recent debate about “the Lobby” at Cooper Union in New York, the moderator, Anne-Marie Slaughter, began by stipulating that the question of anti-Semitism was off the table, which was an attempt to inhibit the discussion. Tony Judt is not an anti-Semite, and bully for him. But here he is, on October 6, describing Joe Lieberman as “very ostentatiously Jewish.” What the hell does that mean? Is Barack Obama very ostentatiously black? A person’s politics is not just a reflection of a person’s origins, of course; but Judt’s writing about Israel and its Jewish supporters is icily lacking in decency, in hesed, a word that even an unostentatious Jew can understand. No amount of sympathy for the interests of the Palestinians requires this amount of antipathy to the interests of the Israelis. There are more scrupulous, more humane, more complex, and more helpful things to do with one’s freedom.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.