It’s been hardly a week since Tony Judt died, and Anglo-American intellectual life already feels poorer. He was diagnosed two years ago with amyotropic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease; within a year he had been reduced, as he wrote, to a ‘cockroach-like existence’, unable to move. Yet he continued to write and stir things up, producing a flurry of probing autobiographical essays (which he was forced to dictate); delivering from his wheelchair a stunning lecture on social democracy at New York University, which left some members of the packed audience in tears; and publishing an expanded version of the lecture as a book, Ill Fares the Land, a robust critique of free market ideology. He was so visible, and so lively on the page – in the New York Review of Books, in the London Review, in the Guardian, in the New York Times – that his death still came as a shock.
I became friendly with Tony in 2003, and we would meet now and then for a whisky in his office at New York University or at his flat. He was an arresting presence: as lean and muscular as his prose, with a bald head and a taste for turtlenecks that gave him a Foucauldian air. He had a tremendous appetite for conversation, and a contagious energy. ‘I’ve never really had an intellectual home,’ he once said, which surprised me: he was, after all, a regular contributor to the New York Review and the director of a transatlantic research centre at NYU, the Remarque Institute. But his criticisms of American foreign policy and, even more so, of Israel had led him to be viewed as a heretic, if not a traitor, in once sympathetic quarters. New York suddenly felt less cosmopolitan and less hospitable, and he told me he was spending more time in Berlin and Paris to ‘breathe the European air’.
In 2004, I edited a piece Tony had written as an introduction to a collection of Edward Said’s writings on the ‘peace process’. That essay, published in the Nation as ‘The Rootless Cosmopolitan’, was a moving portrait of a thinker (and friend) with whom he obviously felt considerable affinity. It was composed with Tony’s usual lapidary precision, and I hardly touched it. Still, I was anxious about the few small changes I had made, so I tried to reassure him in an email by saying they were so minuscule he wouldn’t even notice them. The reply came swiftly: ‘Dear Adam, you can be sure that I will notice them.’ And so he did. Words mattered to Tony, even the most trivial email. His emails, like everything he wrote, were witty and pungent, but saltier than his published work (and not infrequently unpublishable). On Bernard-Henri Lévy: ‘The most irresistible aspect of BHL is that you don’t need to waste time parodying, mocking or caricaturing his “work”.’ He does it for you.’
The Middle East, naturally, came up frequently, as did his sudden notoriety on the Jewish question. After giving a talk on Gaza at his son’s high school, he joked that after his appearance ‘no doubt Dalton funding will collapse (and not just because the school was in bed with Bernie Madoff).’ He never complained about the attacks on him as a ‘self-hating Jew’, preferring to defuse them with irony. He loathed self-pity. But when he was diagnosed with ALS in the summer of 2008, he allowed himself to say:
I do sometimes in the still of night wonder what it will be like to be imprisoned inside a helpless and useless body, unable to communicate, swallow or breathe without mechanical assistance… but then I have no intention of waiting around until that point. I am no Stephen Hawking, and to the extent that I do have a theory of the universe it says that mere existence itself is not a justification for living.
In his published work, Tony challenged you to think harder, to re-examine your assumptions and pieties. In the 1990s, he excoriated the self-deceptions of French leftists, above all Sartre, who, despite everything they knew – and despite their own criticisms of Stalinism in practice – continued to imagine that the Soviet Union embodied a more humane future. This led some to mistake Judt as an opponent of the left: hence the sense of delighted surprise on the left, and furious betrayal on the right, when he turned his ire to Bush’s ‘war on terror’ and, more controversially, to the intransigence and brutality of America’s closest ally, the state of Israel.
But there was a consistency to Tony’s critique of Communism and Zionism. Both, in his view, were echo chambers, indifferent and indeed hostile to dissent, in which imaginary collectives – the world proletariat, the Jewish people – were exalted at the expense of reason, justice, truth, individual liberty. Having splashed around in his youth in the pools of pioneer Zionism and academic Marxism, he recognised the similarities between the ‘useful idiots’ of both camps, and had no time for either. If his criticisms of Israel were especially resented by liberal Zionists, it’s because he couldn’t be dismissed as a reflexive gauchiste, having never sung the praises of, or covered the crimes, of left-wing dictatorships or Third World revolutions. He was morbidly amused by the cult of Hugo Chávez, and once wrote to me that ‘the intimation in certain quarters that the effective (and only) choice today is Chavismo or Grover Norquist is part of what troubles me.’
After his essay ‘Israel: the Alternative’ came out in the New York Review in 2003, I rang everyone I knew to ask if they’d read it. ‘The Middle East peace process is finished. It did not die: it was killed,’ the piece began. Mincing no words, it was classic Judt. Binationalism, he proposed, might be the only way to protect the rights of both Arabs and Jews in Palestine – and to save Israel from itself. ‘The very idea,’ he admitted, ‘is an unpromising mix of realism and utopia, hardly an auspicious place to begin. But the alternatives are far, far worse.’ He told interviewers that he was taken aback by the rancour of the reaction, but I doubt he was too surprised, and I think he rather relished it. Like many, I already miss him.