Tony Judt, Historian And Author, Dies At 62 Judt was best known as a public intellectual for his essays on contemporary politics and American foreign policy. More recently, he became a lightning rod for his criticism of Israel. He died Friday of complications from Lou Gehrig's disease.
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Tony Judt, Historian And Author, Dies At 62

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Tony Judt, Historian And Author, Dies At 62

Tony Judt, Historian And Author, Dies At 62

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GUY RAZ, host:

Much to his presumed irritation, historian Tony Judt, who died on Friday, will for now be remembered for one word: anachronism. It'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, a fiercely passionate historian of Europe whose book "Post-War," on the history of the continent after 1945, became an instant classic.

And he made it his mission to try and unpack the nuances of 20th-century history, as he explained to Charlie Rose in a 2008 interview.

Mr. TONY JUDT (Historian; Author, "Post-War"): I think if you say to the average educated American or European, have we learnt anything from the 20th century, they'll tell you, yes: never again, Munich, appeasement, Pearl Harbor, totalitarianism, the whole series of sort of Auschwitz references to essentially bad news or moral lessons from the 20th century that blinds us to much of what we really don't know about the 20th century. And therefore, we end up with the wrong lessons.

RAZ: Two years ago, Tony Judt was diagnosed with ALS. It's better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. It eventually left him wheelchair-bound, and 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.

In it, Judt recalled how he became a committed Zionist during the days leading up to the 1967 Six-Day War.

Mr. JUDT: 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.

RAZ: Tony 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, coming to identify as a universalist social democrat. .

Mr. RASHID KHALIDI (Professor of Middle East History, Columbia University): I think he was one of the most important intellectual historians of our era, and he was also, I think, also one of the most courageous public intellectuals of his generation.

RAZ: That's Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Middle East history at Columbia University and a friend of Tony Judt. 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.

His 2003 essay on Israel caused a firestorm when Judt called for a single, bi-national Jewish-Arab state in the Middle East. He lost many friends over that essay. Again, here's Rashid Khalidi.

Mr. KHALIDI: I think that he thought he was performing a public service. I think he felt that there is so much misinformation that it would be inevitable that anybody who said frankly and bluntly things that people in the United States really don't want to hear, many people at least don't want to hear, would necessarily and inevitably make him very unpopular. And I don't think he cared about it.

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

Mr. MARK LILLA (Professor, Columbia University): Tony' view on that, I think, was just wrong. It was a product of his own passion and experiences, I imagine. I thought it contradicted many of the other things that he had written, but that was that.

RAZ: Tony Judt was someone I also had a chance to know, if briefly. He was combative and serious but also very funny and self-deprecating. He used to joke that in the 1970s, left-wing radicals in Britain used to call him a fascist, and here in the U.S., he was often accused of being a Marxist.

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

Mr. JUDT: Tony Judt was 62 years old. His last book, "Ill Fares the Land," was a meditation on social democracy. He believed in its power until the end.

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