How to Honor Tony Judt

Judt proved capable of supporting Israel by criticizing its faults

Several days ago, renowned historian Tony Judt died after a long bout with ALC.  The man was an academic giant whose work had immense pressure on both the development of my political views and my intellectual growth.  Though he should be remembered for so much more, Judt was particularly famous for the remarks he had on Israel.  In his youth, Judt was a devout supporter of the Israeli state and even volunteered as a driver and interpreter for the IDF during the 1967 war.  As he aged, though, Judt’s views on Israel evolved as he began to see Israel as a “belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno state.”  In 2003, Judt famously wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books calling for a bi-national solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – an article that, though written six years ago, is possibly more relevant today.

It seems to me that a fine way to honor the life and work as someone as important to the intellectual community as Tony Judt would be to reiterate how correct he was in 2003, despite the sometime vicious critiques that followed.  The essay, entitled “Israel, The Alternative,” argued for the creation of a bi-national Israeli-Palestinian state on two grounds.  First, Judt argued that the concept of an ethno-religious basis for a state was antiquated and more suitable for the early 20th century:

The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European “enclave” in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state”—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

There were many that saw this as disputable; why focus on Israel when Saudi Arabia, for example, has a culture where non-Muslims are seen as inferior?  Judt explains that Israel is juggling its ethno-religious identity with its devotion to democracy (something Saudi Arabia certainly doesn’t claim to do) and is somehow masking the inevitable clash between two mutually exclusive identities.  Israel, argues Judt, can choose between its democratic character and its ethno-religious character.

[tweetmeme] Judt’s second argument for the creation of a single bi-national state is that the peace process, born out of the Oslo Accords and the implementation of the ‘road map,’ was walking closer and closer to its inevitable doom.  The continual occupation and colonization of the West Bank has created a situation where there are simply too many Palestinians and too many settlers for the process to be reversed:

Israeli liberals and moderate Palestinians have for two decades been thanklessly insisting that the only hope was for Israel to dismantle nearly all the settlements and return to the 1967 borders, in exchange for real Arab recognition of those frontiers and a stable, terrorist-free Palestinian state underwritten (and constrained) by Western and international agencies. This is still the conventional consensus, and it was once a just and possible solution.

But I suspect that we are already too late for that. There are too many settlements, too many Jewish settlers, and too many Palestinians, and they all live together, albeit separated by barbed wire and pass laws. Whatever the “road map” says, the real map is the one on the ground, and that, as Israelis say, reflects facts. It may be that over a quarter of a million heavily armed and subsidized Jewish settlers would leave Arab Palestine voluntarily; but no one I know believes it will happen. Many of those settlers will die—and kill—rather than move.

Fast-forward seven years and the situation has changed very little: settlements continue to grow; the direct talks are premature; Palestinians are still being corralled into smaller portions of the West Bank; Palestinian politics is now sharply divided between Fatah and Hamas; and Israeli government is unable to decide how much support to give settlers.  With Israeli settlements controlling 42% of the West Bank, settlers vowing not to leave Palestinian land and Palestinian politics slowly pushing the authoritarian envelope, it is difficult to believe that the negotiations will produce any meaningful outcome.

Meanwhile, the expansion of Israel continues.  With over half a million settlers in Palestine, the number of Israeli colonists has increased 40% since 1972 and the Jordan valley – with the exception of Jericho – is slowly being annexed (95% of the valuable, fertile land is off limits to Palestinians).  It does not take much imagination to envision a day in the not too distant future wherein a viable Palestinian state is no longer possible.  Should this day come, what is the alternative?

In his essay, Judt points to three possibilities for the future of the Israeli state:

In one vital attribute, however, Israel is quite different from previous insecure, defensive microstates born of imperial collapse: it is a democracy. Hence its present dilemma. Thanks to its occupation of the lands conquered in 1967, Israel today faces three unattractive choices. It can dismantle the Jewish settlements in the territories, return to the 1967 state borders within which Jews constitute a clear majority, and thus remain both a Jewish state and a democracy, albeit one with a constitutionally anomalous community of second-class Arab citizens.

Alternatively, Israel can continue to occupy “Samaria,” “Judea,” and Gaza, whose Arab population—added to that of present-day Israel—will become the demographic majority within five to eight years: in which case Israel will be either a Jewish state (with an ever-larger majority of unenfranchised non-Jews) or it will be a democracy. But logically it cannot be both.

Or else Israel can keep control of the Occupied Territories but get rid of the overwhelming majority of the Arab population: either by forcible expulsion or else by starving them of land and livelihood, leaving them no option but to go into exile. In this way Israel could indeed remain both Jewish and at least formally democratic: but at the cost of becoming the first modern democracy to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project, something which would condemn Israel forever to the status of an outlaw state, an international pariah.

Today, does Israel face a different choice?

Before I came to Palestine, I held the view that a bi-national, one-state solution was folly; that the two populations had lived through far too much hatred and violence and that the discrimination against Palestinians was far too pronounced in certain Israeli sectors to be reversed.  However, since living here, the adjectives I use to describe the one-state solution have evolved from ‘impossible’ to ‘probable.’

Tony Judt correctly saw the inevitable clash between a growing Israeli expansionist movement and peace just as clearly as he perceived the inability of Israel to be Jewish and democratic.  As the current peace process crumbles (as it predictably will), Judt’s ideas and views will prove to be prescient.  In addition to remembering the man as a great scholar, we should also remember that he was a man who desperately wanted to save Israel from herself and her own internal contradictions.

Photo from Recorte and JezBlog

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