My last two “Good Fences” columns on Oliver Stone and Tony Judt kicked up an unusual volume of reader feedback, most of it hostile, much of it downright vitriolic and occasionally incoherent. And some of it was instructive and chastening.
I usually prefer to keep my peace and let the dialogue play itself out, but I’m responding here for four reasons. First, the comments follow some interesting patterns that teach us something, I think, about the community. Second, some of the serious objections deserve a serious response. Third, I got some very warm messages off-line from colleagues of Judt’s at New York University, including several leading Judaic Studies scholars, that are worth sharing. Fourth, I found that I made a mistake in the Judt column that needs to be corrected.
It’s shouldn’t be surprising that the negative comments outnumbered the positive ones. That’s the Internet for you. That said, it’s fascinating how emphatic the protests were to these two columns. In both cases I was defending prominent liberals against charges of antisemitism and extreme, eliminationist anti-Israelism. I’ve written a lot of pieces challenging conventional wisdom in the Jewish community, but they rarely get this kind of outpouring. People seem to get especially exercised when they’re told that an enemy isn’t an enemy. Some of us just can’t stand hearing that they’re not hated.
It’s also fascinating how many people raised objections that actually had been asked and answered in the column. Several readers wanted to know why Tony Judt never publicly protested being called an Israel-hater if he wasn’t one — this despite the fact that the article specifically stated that he protested repeatedly. Some readers objected that he shouldn’t have waited to proclaim his Jewish identity until he was on his deathbed, though in fact he didn’t wait and there’s nothing to suggest that he did. My conversation with him about his continuing bond with Israel took place in 2006, when he was at the height of his powers (for all he knew), two years before he learned he was sick.
More substantively, several readers echoed the thought which I’ll quote from a friend who wrote privately, namely that I
whitewashed a man who caused immense damage to Israel in Europe. His words were misinterpreted as anti-semitism because he could not express himself without vitriolic hyperbole.
Frankly, I don’t think Israel’s detractors in Europe needed Judt to sour them on Israel. European anti-Israelism has its own deep resources of home-grown hostility to draw upon. But it’s true, as a friend of Judt’s acknowledged to me (below), that the anti-Israel left was as quick as the pro-Israel right to think he advocated Israel’s elimination.
There’s an interesting difference between the reactions to Oliver Stone and to Tony Judt. Stone generated 43 on-line comments from 31 different readers. The breakdown: 23 negative comments, 8 positive. Of the 8 positive comments, 3 defended Stone because they believed Jews conspire to run America and were glad he had the guts to say so (I had argued that he didn’t mean to say that). The other 5 agreed that Stone hadn’t meant to attack Jews. In effect, 23 readers wrote in to attack me for saying Stone wasn’t antisemitic, while 5 defended me for saying it.
The responses to my Tony Judt article were the reverse: 18 readers praised me for defending him, while 11 attacked me. But you wouldn’t know that from the comments on the website. Nearly everyone who didn’t like the article said so on line to share it with the world. Most of those who liked the article wrote to me privately (that is, to the email address posted on line).
I learn two things from this. First, there were fewer defenders for Stone, a notably fuzzy thinker who made an off-hand, clumsy comment and quickly apologized, than for Judt, a widely admired thinker whose views were grossly, repeatedly misrepresented over a period of years. The attacks on Stone were dumb. The attacks on Judt were, as many people wrote to me, tragic.
Second, our hawks shout louder, more urgently and more publicly than our liberals. Maybe that helps explain why the community votes so liberal but sounds so conservative.
Also noteworthy: The off-line, positive responses to my Judt article were often quite personal. Several were from Jewish friends and NYU colleagues of Judt’s, thanking me for telling the truth about the real Tony Judt. For example, this note from Lawrence Schiffman (see his bio here:), chair of NYU’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, a professor of biblical and rabbinic literature and one of the world’s leading experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls:
Just a note to say, as an NYU colleague of Tony Judt, that you got it all right. It’s tragic that he became so disallusioned and that he wrote so strongly, but he could never give up the attachment. I participated in a Hebrew conversation (small talk) with him and a bunch of NYU faculty and when he left one said “all the Zionists” meaning that in some way he belonged with the rest of us.
This next is from Ronald Zweig (bio), director of NYU’s Taub Center for Israel Studies and a professor of Israel Studies, Hebrew and Judaic Studies:
I had more than one occasion to talk to Tony Judt about Israel. I fully agree with what you wrote — his views were not only more sophisticated than the crude criticism of him, they were also backed by an affinity for Israel. The Jewish establishment never understood this when they demonized him, and the intellectual Left didn’t either, when they lionized him.
Now, I said I had made a mistake in the Judt article. I wrote: “In one 1983 essay he called Israel ‘a belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-state’.” In fact, he wasn’t writing about Israel in 1983. The quote comes from the 2003 article that made all the waves, “Israel: The Alternative” — and the point he was making was actually the opposite of what’s presented. Here’s the full quote from the article:
In today’s “clash of cultures” between open, pluralist democracies and belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states, Israel actually risks falling into the wrong camp.
Note that Israel “risks falling into the wrong camp.” That is, it is not in the wrong camp, but it might fall into it at some point in the future. Rephrasing it, the world is divided between pluralist democracies ad intolerant ethno-states, and Israel is not in the second group.
By way of confession, the reference to a phantom 1983 article labeling Israel “belligerent” etc. appeared in an Associated Press obituary article, which also said Judt “called for the two sides to be joined under a single government” — which, as I wrote, he never did. As is the way with A.P. articles, it was reprinted all over the place. I saw it in several places while preparing my own article, saw the mistakes (not 1983, not labeling Israel belligerent, not “calling for” a single state) and made a note of it. Later, while writing, I looked for some of his nastier observations, saw the words in my notes and badda-bing, a mistake was born. Or, rather, replicated.