Sunday, August 24, 2008

REFLECTIONS ON THE FORGOTTEN TWENTIETH CENTURY

By Tony Judt

Penguin, $29.95, 448 pages

REVIEWED BY PAUL HOLLANDER

This massive, thought-provoking and well-written collection consists of pieces (mostly review essays) published mainly in the New York Review of Books between 1994-2006. It includes reviews of biographies or autobiographies of Koestler, Primo Levi, Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Louis Althusser, Edward Said, Hobsbawm and Whittaker Chambers. Points of departure for the other essays are (books about) recent European history, the Arab-Israeli conflict and American foreign policy. Carefully calibrated judgments and thoughtful reflections alternate with impassioned denunciations and occasional blind spots.



The major preoccupations of the author include learning from the past, the differences between Europe and the United States, the proper functions and role of the state in democratic societies and what he considers the post-Cold War “triumphalism” in the United States. The shortcomings of American liberal intellectuals and the sins of Israel are other prominent themes. The blind spots show up in his treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A former youthful supporter of Israel - who spent “much time in the mid 1960s” in an egalitarian kibbutz - Tony Judt holds Israel predominantly responsible for the conflicts with its Arab neighbors. His long list of Israeli misdeeds is unmatched by a comparable awareness of or attention to the misdeeds on the other side. Except for the Yom Kippur war of 1973 he claims that all other wars were “wars of choice” initiated by Israel, amazingly overlooking the attack on Israel by several Arab states upon becoming a state in 1948.

Nor is much, if any consideration given to the long-standing Arab denials of the right of Israel to exist or to the more recent political violence targeting civilians and stimulated in part by an unfathomable religious fanaticism. His thinking is apparently determined by a perception of Israel as “an armed state” confronting and oppressing “a stateless people,” that is, an image of the powerful against the powerless. But these stateless and allegedly powerless people have nurtured a multiplicity of well-armed, well-organized and determined groups and movements committed to the destruction of Israel generously funded by Iran and Syria and earlier the Soviet Union. In this polarized victim-aggressor scheme, the Palestinians are the most deprived and oppressed group on the face of the earth “who fester and rot in the worst slums of the planet.”

Even if this unlikely proposition were true, Israel could not be held single-handedly responsible for these lamentable conditions also found in abundance in many Arab countries. Elsewhere, Mr. Judt writes about Israel “fencing helpless people whose lands they conquered into Bantustans” and of the “star of David emblazoned upon a tank” as “the universal shorthand symbol for Israel” that has of late “suffered … an unprecedented degradation of its moral image.” While it is true that Israel’s image has been declining ever since it won the Six Day War, Mr. Judt himself has made, of late, a notable contribution to this on these pages and elsewhere; it is in fact difficult to separate his own views from the negative global assessments he refers to. But he is right in arguing that one can be a critic of Israel without being an anti-Semite. I would add that hostility to Israel in left-liberal circles is inseparable from anti-American, anti-Western and anti-capitalist sentiments.

Mr. Judt also believes that American liberal intellectuals sold out to the Bush administration by supporting, or insufficiently protesting the Iraq war (and the associated violations of civil liberties); many of them are also charged with overlooking the misdeeds of Israel. The major culprits mentioned are Paul Berman, Peter Beinart, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, Leon Wieseltier, David Remnick, Thomas Friedman, Jean Bethke Elshtain and Michael Walzer. European intellectuals criticised on similar grounds are Adam Michnik, Vaclav Havel and Andre Glucksman.

Mr. Judt also holds a dubious belief in the “disappearance of intellectuals” - meaning those who at earlier times “applied themselves to debating and influencing public opinion and policy.” He exaggerates the post-communist “triumphalism” of American intellectuals, at any rate the extent and durability of these attitudes. But his charge of a predilection among neo-conservatives for “a binary division of the world along ideological lines” cannot be easily dismissed. It remains an open question to what degree and in what ways Islamic fanaticism and radicalism threatens Western values and institutions and in what ways these threats are comparable to those posed earlier by communist totalitarianism. I do share with him a dislike of the concept of “Islamo-Fascism” both because it is imprecise and because of its affinity with the old leftist usage designed to discredit by attaching the “fascist” label to phenomena that had little to do with it.

But there is more to this book than attacks on Israel, the Bush administration and neoconservatives. Mr. Judt raises important questions about “our newfound worship of the private sector and the market” and its similarity to correspondingly unfounded beliefs of earlier generations in public ownership and planning. He may even be right in suggesting that “a healthy democracy, far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends on it.” Unlike other leftist supporters of the powers of a benevolent state, he is well aware that “history is the history of more than just class struggle, and the economic identity of social beings that was so central for nineteenth century social theorists … is now distinctly peripheral for ever more people.”

As to learning from the past, he believes that the lessons of the Cold War are not applicable to the present and that the greater aversion of Western Europe to military solutions to present-day problems may well lie in its direct experience of war, and other horrors, whereas the United States “had no direct experience of the worst of the 20th century - and is thus regrettably immune to its lessons.” He is probably also right about the prospects for a re-emergence of some variety of Marxism at a time when “an uncertain liberalism shorn of confidence and purpose” prevails in much of the Western world. Moreover “since no one else seems to have anything very convincing to offer by way of a strategy for rectifying the inequities of modern capitalism, the field is once again left to those with the tidiest story to tell and the angriest prescriptions to offer.”

While Mr. Judt clearly prefers the moderation and generosity of the welfare states of Western Europe to American society (though he chose to live here) he is well aware that the European left “has no articulated vision of a good, or even better society.” Having become familiar as a young man with the classics of Marxism he was “immune to the wide-eyed enthusiasm with which Marxist revelations were greeted” by those discovering them for the first time in the 1960s and ‘70s. This knowledge also helped him to take a proper measure of Louis Althusser and those still venerating him: “What does it say about modern academic life that such a figure can have trapped teachers and students for so long in the cage of his insane fictions. …”

Except for the subject of Israel, Mr. Judt is a judicious and nuanced thinker and by no means the stereotypical leftist intellectual whose critical impulses vanish when exposed to the rhetoric of self-styled socialist systems and movements and their supporters. One can only guess that his harsh critique of Israel is colored by the loss of youthful ideals and expectations Israel could not live up to.

Paul Hollander is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His last book is “The End of Commitment: Intellectuals, Revolutionaries and Political Morality” (2006).

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