Tony Judt, Historian And Author, Dies At 62

Much to his presumed irritation, historian Tony Judt, who died on Friday, might be remembered for one word: anachronism.

That's what he called the idea of a Jewish state in Israel in a widely read essay in the New York Review of Books. But Tony Judt was, first and foremost, an intellectual historian.

His book Postwar, about the history of Europe after 1945, became an instant classic. And he made it his mission to try to unpack the nuances of 20th-century history.

From Zionist To Universalist Social Democrat

Two years ago, Judt was diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. It eventually left him wheelchair-bound. He had to use a machine to help him breathe.

That was evident a few months ago, in an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. During the interview, Judt recalled how he came to become a committed Zionist during the days leading up to the 1967 Six-Day War.

"I went to live on a kibbutz, and I'd idealized the world of collective, agrarian work, where everyone was equal, everyone contributed, that all this awful European intellectual stuff just fell away."

Judt was Jewish by birth. He was born in the East End of London to a secular family. Early on, Zionism was his religion, but he became disillusioned with it over time. He came to identify as a universalist social democrat.

"I think he was one of the most important intellectual historians of our era," said Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Middle East history at Columbia University and a friend of Judt's. "He was also, I think, one of the most courageous public intellectuals of his generation."

Though Judt's primary research focused on French intellectual history, he became better known as a public intellectual for his essays on contemporary politics and American foreign policy.

Not Afraid To Be Controversial

His 2003 essay on Israel caused a firestorm. In it, Judt called for a single, binational Jewish-Arab state in the Middle East. He lost many friends over that essay.

"I think he thought he was performing a public service," said Khalidi. "I think he felt there is so much misinformation that it would be inevitable that he was saying things frankly and bluntly that people didn't want to hear [and] would inevitably make him unpopular. I don't think he cared about it."

Mark Lilla, also a professor at Columbia and a friend of Judt's, disagreed with the premise of the essay, but he thought it was unfair to judge Judt's entire career on that single issue.

"Tony's view on that I think was wrong," said Lilla. "It was the product of his own passions and experiences. I thought it contradicted many of the other things he had written, but that was that."

Judt was someone I also had a chance to know. He was combative and serious, but also very funny and self-deprecating. He used to joke that in the '70s, left-wing radicals in Britain used to call him a fascist, and in the U.S., he was often accused of being a Marxist.

"I think if I'm controversial it's not because I set out to be," said Judt. "It's because I've never felt comfortable being part of someone else's mainstream community."

Judt was 62 years old when he died. His last book, Ill Fares the Land, was a meditation on social democracy. He believed in its power until the end.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.