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Stanford scholar assesses the late Tony Judt

Posted by Christopher Shea  September 17, 2010 11:04 AM

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Steven J. Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish culture and history at Stanford, pronounces the late Tony Judt a "great historian" as well as a friend--though the friendship ended the moment Judt published his famous/infamous article in the New York Review of Books, "Israel: The Alternative," which argued that Israel should abandon its status as a Jewish state and invite Palestinians as co-equals into a secular, pluralistic, cosmopolitan nation. "'The Jewish Daily Forward' likened Judt's article to an atomic explosion," Zipperstein writes. His own view is that the essay "gave voice and clarity to a turn against Israel by
intellectuals worldwide." He could not abide being friends with the leader of such an intellectual movement.

The essay, the Stanford historian notes, also changed Judt's career. Before, he was an academic's academic:

I remember his telling me--ruefully, but with obvious exasperation--about attending a book party for Sam Tanenhaus's 1997 biography of Whittaker Chambers and the surprise he felt, on stepping into the room filled largely with New York intellectuals of a neoconservative bent, that few recognized him.

But people certainly did not fail to recognize Judt after the Israel essay and its sequels in the same vein:

Had he been more equivocal with regard to Israel, the essay that made him famous wouldn't have had anything like the same punch, certainly not the same astonishing, widespread impact. He was a great student of career trajectories. His essays on Camus, Arendt, Eric Hobsbawm, and others chart their ups and downs in calculations as sharp, in their own way, as those of an astute stockbroker. [my emphasis]

Zipperstein finishes that passage by saying, "I don't suggest, of course, that his stance on Israel was calculated to win influence ... " No, of course not. What kind of cynic would suggest that Judt's hunger for greater influence is the subtext of the essay; or, for that matter, that it might be the very thesis of the essay?

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