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Volume 1, Issue 3 (October 2007 / Cheshvan 5768)
Article 4/10

Blushing for the Jewish State:
The Case of Tony Judt
By Benjamin Balint

Abstract: Another generation of anti-Israel intellectuals is coming into its own. To understand what this portends, we might do well to listen to the pronouncements of Tony Judt, historian première classe and representative of a new group that dangerously restyles old ideas.


Tony Judt, the accomplished New York University historian, brings both impressive lucidity and considerable learning to his uncommonly readable studies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century social history.

Yet never is Judt more emphatic than when he addresses the subject of Israel. Two months after 9/11, he wrote: “The Israel-Palestine conflict and America’s association with Israel are the greatest single source of contemporary anti-U.S. sentiment.”[1] The war on terrorism, he later said, “has put U.S. foreign policy into Ariel Sharon’s back pocket.” Or, using a more vivid metaphor, the U.S. has “voluntarily attached itself to a leash marked ‘terrorism’ with which Sharon can jerk it to and fro at will.”[2]

Not only does the Jewish state bring unpleasantness to Americans: by Judt’s lights “Israel today is bad for the Jews.”[3] Just over a hundred years after Herzl expressed the hope that antisemitism would ebb with the establishment of a Jewish state, Judt declares that in fact the Jewish state exacerbates antisemitism:

It is the policies of Israeli governments, especially in the past two decades, that have provoked widespread anti-Jewish feelings in Europe and elsewhere... Israel is not the state of all its citizens, much less all its residents; it is the state of all Jews. Its leaders purport to speak for Jews everywhere. They can hardly be surprised when their own behavior provokes a backlash against... Jews.[4]

The Jewish state, Judt says, is dysfunctional and morally corrupt, so much so that “even if I felt threatened as a Jew,” as he told the Forward, “I would never want to go to Israel.”[5] He writes that after 1967, Israelis yielded to “a self-satisfied arrogance” and an “overweening superiority” in which “their aggressive nationalism was paired with a sort of born-again, messianic Judaism.”[6] “An anachronistic Israeli conflation of land with security,” he says, has burdened the country with “a post-’67 irredentist eschatology” and has turned it into:

    a place where sneering 18-year-olds with M-16s taunt helpless old men (“security
    measures”); where bulldozers regularly flatten whole apartment blocks (“rooting out terrorists”); where helicopters fire rockets into residential streets (“targeted killings”); where subsidized settlers frolic in grass-fringed swimming pools, oblivious of Arab children a few meters away who fester and rot in the worst slums on the planet... [Israel] has lost everything in domestic civility and international respectability, and has forfeited the moral high ground forever.[7]

Israel’s new security fence, Judt adds, like the late Berlin Wall, merely “confirms the moral and institutional bankruptcy of the regime it is intended to protect.”[8]

Much of this is familiar territory. But in a widely reprinted and much cited piece in the New York Review of Books,[9] Judt calls into question not this or that Israeli policy, but the very idea of the Jewish state.

To do so, Judt faults Israel with artificially importing “a characteristically late-19th-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers and international law.” But unlike European states that evolved from fin de siècle nationalisms into a multinational European Union, Israel has not moved on. An “ethno-religious” state that privileges its Jewish citizens and seeks to preserve its Jewish character is an anachronism “in an age when that sort of state has no place.” Judt has a specific, if not very detailed “alternative” in mind. “The time has come to think the unthinkable,” he says: replacing the Jewish state with “a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs.”


Yet surely if anything is passé it is binationalism itself—and the old Marxist equation of Zionism with reactionary bourgeois nationalism on which it often depends. Judt’s critics point out that far from the new and “unthinkable” idea Judt apparently takes it to be, binationalism has been thought, and rethought.[10] It was espoused in one form or another by the tiny organizations Brit Shalom and Ihud (founded respectively in 1925 and 1940),[11] by early notables like Judah L. Magnes,[12] Ernst Simon,[13] Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Henrietta Szold, Hugo Bergmann, and Joseph Horowitz,[14] and later by Hannah Arendt.[15] But in the face of Arab terrorism, rioting, and adamant opposition to Jewish immigration, not to mention the idea’s rejection by Arab nationalists, the “one state, two peoples” idea passed into disrepute.

Today, binationalism is almost universally rejected by both sides (with exceptions like the maverick Haim Hanegbi and Arab Knesset member Azmi Beshara).[16] Salim Tamari, director of the Institute for Jerusalem Studies, offers one explanation: “All the major Islamic groups find [binationalism] an anathema, since they reject the idea that the Israelis (or the Jews for that matter) constitute a nationality.”

Those who did favor binationalism, on the other hand, often did so precisely because it would bring about the defeat of the Zionist project: Yasir Arafat (who in his 1974 “olive branch” speech to the UN dreamt of “one democratic state where Christian, Jew, and Muslim live in justice, equality, fraternity, and progress”); Noam Chomsky from 1967 until he jettisoned the idea in the mid ’70s;[17] and Edward Said.[18]

For this reason, Judt’s exercise in wishful thinking, as Michael Walzer notes, would serve merely to replace one nation-state with another.[19] In the new state, the survival of the Jewish minority would depend upon the not exactly proven tolerance of its Arab governors. Nearly 900,000 Jews have been uprooted from Arab countries since the 1940s.

Judt’s performance as an engaged intellectual is even less graceful on the question of nationalism and democracy. Here Judt assumes an inherent contradiction between the Jewish identity of the state and its democratic character. But it seems clear that democracies may legitimately reflect the preferences of the majority (in this case by maintaining the Jewish character of Israel), so long as they do not thereby infringe on the rights of the minority.[20] Israel’s Declaration of Independence promises that the state will act for the benefit of all its inhabitants; that it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace; that it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; that it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; that it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.[21]

One can legitimately argue that Israel ought better to fulfill these promises. (To take one example, it should certainly reduce the gap in per-capita investment in education that currently separates Arab and Jewish students.) But one cannot reasonably assert that the state’s Jewish character necessarily precludes equal treatment.[22]

Indeed, the idea that a pronounced national identity is necessary to democracy stretches from J.S. Mill’s Considerations on Representative Government (1861) to the contemporary political philosopher Ghia Nodia. “The political cohesion necessary for democracy,” the latter argued, “cannot be achieved without the people determining themselves to be ‘the nation.”[23]


Outside of the Israeli context, Judt himself calls attention to the peril—and the futility—of trying to put nationalism behind us. In a slim book called A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe,[24] Judt acknowledges the return of nationalisms and admits that the nation-state is “the only remaining, as well as the best-adapted, source of collective and communal identification.” A “truly united Europe,” he says with some skepticism, is so unlikely that it would be “unwise and self-defeating to insist upon it.” Elsewhere, he puts it this way:

From Spain to Lithuania the transition from past to present is being recalibrated in the name of a “European” idea that is itself a historical and illusory product... But what will not necessarily follow is anything remotely resembling continental political homogeneity and supranational stability.[25]

All of this brings us closer to Judt’s naked double standard. Judt expects of Israel precisely the supranationalism which he considers illusory and unwise in Europe.[26] As he has himself remarked: “it is not the state that is anachronistic ... but the Zionist version of it.”[27] If European unity by means of “supranational stability” is a “grand illusion,” despite a common cultural heritage and commitment to democratic values, how much more so a comity imposed upon Israelis and Palestinians, who do not share these?[28]

The answer turns on another question: why might a first-rate mind indulge in such double standards? Fortunately, Judt himself tells us, and thereby reveals yet another layer of inconsistency.


In his impressive book, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956,[29] Judt paints a devastating portrait of what he calls “the opinions and silences of a generation of Left intellectuals in the era of high Stalinism.” He recounts in unsparing detail the failure of postwar French writers adequately to respond to Soviet totalitarianism, repression, tyranny, state antisemitism, anti-Semitic purges, labor camps, and the East European show trials of 1947-53 (especially when the accused were convicted of “nationalism,” as they often were). He depicts the thinkers’ insouciance, cowardice, conformism, disingenuousness, and their “insufferably superior moral tone.” He offers fascinating examples— in men like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty—of a community “distinguished by its unique mix of political urgency and moral airiness,” an entire generation sunk in bien-pensant progressivism, in “self-imposed moral anesthesia,” and in alienation from its own culture. These otherwise incisive philosophers, he says, emptied their energies into passionate polemics characterized by “a hidden and half-admitted fury,” and “immodest and immoderate language.” But most of all, these anti-anti Communists engaged in what Judt calls “double-entry moral book-keeping”; they cultivated an “epistemological double vision, which made it possible to explain Soviet behavior in terms not invoked for any other system.”

“What is at issue here,” Judt says by way of trying to account for these failures, “is not understanding, the cognitive faculty usually associated with intellectuals, but faith.” These leading lights of the fellow-traveling intelligentsia signed away their critical faculties, Judt suggests, “to give some meaning to their ‘little private histories.” “Their engagements and affiliations,” he says, “smack less of a sense of collective moral responsibility or a desire to influence public sentiment than of the need to give themselves a clean social and political conscience.”

Tony Judt, who has made a career of identifying the moral irresponsibility of intellectuals past, when it comes to Israel plainly exhibits much the same species of irresponsibility. The faith in Judt’s case, however, is a counter-faith, and it takes its nourishment from that oldest of counter-faiths: Christian anti-Judaism.


For what is most striking about Judt’s views is the resemblance they bear to some old antisemitic canards. He depicts a sinister Ariel Sharon, whom he calls “Israel’s dark Id,” yanking around the U.S. on a leash and manipulating President Bush like a “ventriloquist’s dummy.”[30] He criticizes Senator Hillary Clinton for “ostentatiously prostrating herself before the assembled ranks of AIPAC.”[31]

More deeply, however, Judt’s insistence on the Jewish state’s “anachronism” edges toward a secular version of Christian supersessionism. Where once Christians wanted Jews to acknowledge the obsolescence of Judaism, Judt wants them to recognize the obsolescence of the Jewish state (“an oddity among modern nations”). Where Christianity considered the Jewish faith refuted by theological history, Judt deems the Jewish state revoked by political history.[32] Where once Christians accused Jews of stubbornly refusing the inexorable advance of Religion toward messianic fulfillment, Judt charges Israel with declining to yield to the inexorable progress of History toward enlightened universalism.[33]

In both cases, Jews are resented for atavistically refusing to “conform to the times.” “In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will...” Judt writes, “where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel is truly an anachronism.” This seems merely another way of calling into question Jewish “difference” and exceptionalism by calling upon Jews to shed particularism. Israel is merely the new ground upon which the old battle over Jewish distinctiveness is being waged.


The French critic Julien Benda wrote in 1932: “Intellectuals of all countries, you must be the ones to tell your nations that they are always in the wrong by the single fact that they are nations... [The Roman philosopher] Plotinus blushed at having a body. You should blush at having a nation.”[34] In the end, Judt’s selective anti-nationalism amounts to a specially applied endorsement of this sentiment. Judt, in short, blushes for the Jews.

Zionism, of course, emerged precisely from disappointment with nationlessness. Count Clermont-Tonnere, among the chief advocates for Jewish emancipation in the French National Assembly, famously summed up the promise of emancipation in 1791: “To the Jews as individuals, everything; to the Jews as a nation, nothing”—and ever since, many Jews have rushed to shed their distinctive identities.[35]  They yearned to join themselves, if not to another nationalist identity, then to an emancipated “supranational” human society. Political Zionism – as it was first advanced by Leon Pinsker and Theodor Herzl—began in the painful recognition that no such society exists, or is ever likely to exist.

Many Europeans took from the ravages of the twentieth century a lesson concerning the dangers of unbridled nationalism.[36] Jews, however, who suffered not a little from that century, derived the opposite conclusion: had they possessed a state with which to defend themselves, had they not been thrown on the benevolence of other nations, the Holocaust would not have raged so destructively. Jews learned that universal human rights are meaningless unless rooted in a state capable of enforcing them; that a sense of national belonging can offer not only physical survival, but also cultural regeneration; that the national Jewish mission, far from denying the universal human mission, can do much to encourage it—and since the days of the biblical prophets in fact has.[37] The Jews learned—and are now proving—that not every exercise of national self-determination is imperial expansion, nor is every nationalism a chauvinism.[38] They learned, finally, that Diaspora statelessness is historically anomalous—and that they need no longer blush in overcoming it.

To unlearn these lessons, as more and more intellectuals in these days of high anti-Zionism urge, might prove to be the true anachronism.

A version of this essay appeared in The Jewish Divide over Israel, edited by Edward Alexander and Paul Bogdanor (New York: Transaction Press, 2006).

About the Author
Benjamin Balint, a writer based in Jerusalem, has contributed to Commentary, the Forward, Haaretz, the American Scholar, Policy Review, the Claremont Review of Books, and the Wall Street Journal.

© Covenant - Global Jewish Magazine 2007


[1] Tony Judt, “America and the War,” New York Review of Books, November 15, 2001.

[2]  Tony Judt “The Road to Nowhere,” New York Review of Books, May 9, 2002.

[3] Tony Judt “Israel: The Alternative,” New York Review of Books, October 23, 2003. This increasingly fashionable sentiment, of course, is hardly Judt’s alone. In January 2005, for instance, Avi Shlaim, Amira Hass, and Jacqueline Rose argued in a public debate for the proposition: “Zionism today is the real enemy of the Jews.” In the post-debate vote, the London audience, by a margin of 355 to 320, agreed. “Is Zionism Today the Real Enemy of the Jews?” International Herald Tribune, February 4, 2005.

[4] Tony Judt, “Goodbye to All That?” Nation, January 3, 2005 (parentheses and second ellipses in the original).

[5]  Nathaniel Popper, “Embattled Academic,” Forward, December 26, 2003.

[6] “After Victory,” New Republic, July 29, 2002. For a list of the many factual errors Judt makes in this piece, see Michael B. Oren’s reply, New Republic, September 30, 2002.

[7] Tony Judt, “The Rootless Cosmopolitan,” Nation, July 19, 2004.

[8] Tony Judt, “Israel: The Alternative,” New York Review of Books, October 23, 2003.

[9] “Israel: The Alternative,” October 23, 2003. Reprinted, for example, as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, October 10, 2003; as “Israël: l’alternative,” Le Débat, January/February 2004, republished on Al-Awda.org, the website of the Palestine Right to Return Coalition (http://www.al-awda.org/judtonbinationalstate), and discussed in “Die Alternative,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, November 12, 2003.

[10] Judt’s best critics on this score are Ran Halévi, Alain Finkielkraut, and Leon Wieseltier. Ran Halévi, “Israel and the Question of the National State,” Policy Review, April 2004; Alain Finkielkraut, “Juifs, donc anachroniques,” L’Arche, April 2004 [French]; Leon Wieseltier, “Israel, Palestine, and the Return of the Bi-National Fantasy: What is Not to be Done,” New Republic, October 27, 2003.

[11] At no point did either organization count more than 100 members.

[12] In a letter to the editor of Commentary, October 1948, for instance, Magnes called for a federated, binational “United States of Palestine.”

[13] In “The Costs of Arab-Jewish Cold War,” Commentary, September 1950, Simon described Ihud as an organization of “intellectuals who in their political thinking had gone beyond the notion of the state, believing that the social and political conditions of modern life required broader and more comprehensive forms of national and social organization.”

[14] For an account of how these figures’ binationalist ideology influenced Israel’s founding generation, see From Brit Shalom to the Ihud: Judah Leib Magnes and the Struggle for a Binational State in Palestine by Joseph Heller (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2004 [Hebrew]).

[15] In The Jew as Pariah, Arendt (before the establishment of Israel) called Zionism a “sectarian ideology” that borrowed “categories and methods of the nineteenth century,” and that asked for a state “only when the whole concept of national sovereignty had become a mockery.” More consistently—and subtly—than Judt, she based her opposition to nationalism on a kind of universalism, and thus sought to drive a wedge between the state and the nation. As she put in an essay entitled “The Nation”:
The state, far from being identical with the nation, is the supreme protector of a law which guarantees man his rights as man, his rights as citizen, and his rights as national... Of these rights, only the rights of man and citizen are primary rights, whereas the rights of nationals are derived and implied in them.
Arendt recommended instead a binational state that incorporated a “federated structure [based on] Jewish-Arab community councils.”

[16] Another contemporary defense of binationalism comes from Georgetown law professor Lama Abu-Odeh: “Palestinians would be far better off economically, in my view, if they attached their legal claims directly to the resources of the state of Israel as national budget (to be distributed, after a struggle, equally and justly among its national subjects, Jews and non-Jews alike), rather than hoping to benefit from the pursuit of national economic development within the boundaries of a nominally independent Palestinian state” (“The Case for Binationalism,” Boston Review, December 2001/ January 2002). See also Michael Tarazi, “Two Peoples, One State,” New York Times, October 4, 2004.

[17] See, for example, his Peace in the Middle East? Reflections on Justice and Nationhood (New York: Pantheon, 1974). These days, Chomsky advocates a “no-state” solution, based on the recognition that the nation-state system has been one of the most brutal and destructive creations of Europe and its offshoots, imposed by force on much of the rest of the world, with horrendous consequences for centuries in Europe, and elsewhere until the present. For the [Middle East], it would mean reinstating some of the more sensible elements of the Ottoman system (though, obviously, without its intolerable features) (“Advocacy and Realism,” ZNet, August 26, 2004,

[18] In Said’s words: “[Theodor] Adorno says that in the twentieth century the idea of home has been superseded. I suppose part of my critique of Zionism is that it attaches too much importance to home…. Why do you think I’m so interested in the binational state? Because I want a rich fabric of some sort, which no one can fully comprehend, and no one can fully own.” (“My Right of Return: An Interview with Edward Said,” Ha’aretz Magazine, August 18, 2000). See also Said’s “The One-State Solution,” New York Times Magazine, January 10, 1999.

[19] Michael Walzer, “An Alternative Future: An Exchange,” New York Review of Books, December 4, 2003.

[20] Hebrew University professor Ruth Gavison has argued:
The principles of democracy, individual rights, and equality before the law do not necessitate a rejection of the Jewish character of the state. On the contrary: The fact of Israel’s democratic nature means that it must also be Jewish in character, since a stable and sizable majority of its citizens wants the state to be a Jewish one.
(“The Jews’ Right to Statehood: A Defense,” Azure, Summer 2003).

[21] Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

[22] See Amnon Rubinstein and Alex Yakobson, Israel and the Family of Nations: The Nation State and Human Rights in Israel and Around the World (Tel Aviv: Schocken, 2003).

[23] Ghia Nodia, “Nationalism and Democracy,” in Nationalism, Ethnic Conflict, and Democracy, ed. Larry Diamond and Marc Plattner (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 8. Francis Fukuyama (on page 23 of that volume) suggests that nationalism and democracy “are in fact two sides of the same coin.”

[24] Tony Judt, A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996).

[25] Judt, “The Past is Another Country: Myth and Memory in Postwar Europe,”  in István Deák, Jan T. Gross, Tony Judt, eds., The Politics of Retribution in Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 317.

[26] Amos Oz notices the hypocrisy here: “It took [the Europeans] a thousand years to make peace,” he told the New Yorker. “Even as they wag their fingers at us like a Victorian governess, they have a history of rivers of blood.” “The Spirit Level,” by David Remnick, New Yorker, November 8, 2004.

[27] “An Alternative Future: An Exchange,” New York Review of Books, December 4, 2003.

[28] The historian Omer Bartov notes that Judt neglects to mention that Germany still bases its citizenship on a law dating back to 1913, which defines Germans by blood and heritage, and that a majority of Germans today support the idea of minorities accepting the Leitkultur [primary culture] of the land. (Letters, NYRB, December 4, 2003).

[29] Tony Judt, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). Originally published as Passé imparfait: Les Intellectuels en France, 1944-1956 (Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1992).

[30]  Tony Judt, “The Road to Nowhere.”

[31] Scooping Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, Judt writes that “Israel and its lobbyists have an excessive and disastrous influence on the policies of the world’s superpower,” as if once again the cunning Jewish mind is coercing the world to do its will. “The New World Order,” NYRB, July 14, 2005.

[32] It is no coincidence, if we are right, that Berkeley professor Daniel Boyarin’s book-length study of Paul culminates in his fiercest critique of Zionism (chapter 10 of A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994]). Paul’s theological project, Boyarin says, aimed primarily at overcoming human difference. “There are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Jesus Christ,” Paul declares in Galatians 3:28. Paul’s view, in Boyarin’s reading, comes as a reaction to the Judaic ethnocentric “tendency towards contemptuous neglect for human solidarity.” From this Boyarin develops his anti-Zionism: “modern Jewish statist nationalism has been...very violent and exclusionary.” Jews ought rather practice “self-deterritorialization” and embrace a “subaltern” status, advice one reviewer observed “resembles nothing so much as Augustine’s prescription for Jewish subordination” (Jay M. Harris, Commentary, June 1995).

[33] “In the nineteenth century History replaces God as the all powerful force in the destiny of men,” remarks François Furet, “but only in the twentieth century do we see the political madness caused by this substitution.” Le Passé d’une illusion: Essai sur l’idée communiste au XXe siècle (Laffont/Calmann-Lévy, 1995), 45. Cited in Alain Finkielkraut, In the Name of Humanity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 63.

[34] Discours à la nation européenne (Gallimard, 1992), 71. Cited in Finkielkraut, 98.

[35] Arthur Hertzberg, in his book The French Enlightenment and the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), finds a deep and pervasive hostility to the Jews even among their self-declared emancipators. On the same subject, see also Ronald Schechter, Obstinate Hebrews: Representations of Jews in France, 1715-1815 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

[36] “The Second World War,” John O’Sullivan remarks, “was caused by the colliding ambitions of the two great transnational ideologies hostile to nationalism: Nazism, with its belief in a racial hierarchy transcending nations, and communism, with its belief in a class hierarchy transcending nations.” John O’Sullivan, “In Defense of Nationalism,” National Interest, Winter 2004-5, 33-40.

[37] In the last sentence of The Jewish State, Herzl writes, “Whatever we attempt there for our own welfare will spread and redound mightily and blessedly to the good of all mankind.”

[38] As Mark Lilla remarks, “the legitimacy of the nation-state should not be confused with the idolatry of the nation-state” (“The End of Politics,” New Republic, June 23, 2003). 


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