Peter Jukes discusses history, life and justice with the late Tony Judt—a master of morally charged rhetoricby Peter Jukes / July 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Tony Judt and friend in Israel in 1967: being an ex-Zionist has helped him tackle the controversial issue of America’s relationship with Israel.
Tony Judt died, surrounded by his family, on the the evening of August 6th, 2010. The New York Times obituary can be read here. A full transcript of Peter Jukes’s interview—the last in-depth interview Judt undertook before his depth—can be read on our website here.
Though not one to run shy of controversy, Tony Judt—historian, thinker, professor; commentator on the French left, American identity politics, Israel and much more besides—has never been one of those controversialists whose opposition can be predicted. In the many times I’ve heard him speak, I have never been able to guess in advance what he would say next.
Part of this unexpectedness is no doubt due to his career spent dealing with the exigencies of history rather than the sweeping formulations of philosophy or cultural theory. Born in London in 1948, Judt took a doctorate in history at Cambridge before moving to Paris to study at the Ecole Normale Superieure. His first book, Socialism in Provence 1871-1914, appeared in 1979 and explored a small slice of time in forensic depth. Next came a series of essays on the French left, followed by a book on postwar French intellectuals; it was only gradually that Judt moved on to larger canvasses. As he put it to me: “My first non-academic publication—a review in the Times Literary Supplement—did not come until the late 1980s. And it was not until 1993 that I published my first piece in the New York Review of Books. So that’s a 25-year learning curve.”
I interviewed Tony by email earlier this year (a full transcript of this exchange is available here). The motor neurone disease he was diagnosed with in 2008 has rendered him quadriplegic and he dictated his replies to an assistant. Tony and I have known each other for 12 years, having met at the 1998 Remarque Forum—a conference he sponsored as professor of history at New York University and the first of what would become almost an annual institution, devised to keep the transatlantic dialogue alive after the cold war. The event itself, located at a remote retreat on the border between Florida and Georgia, was no typical academic conference but comprised an eclectic mix of writers, entrepreneurs and other European and American professionals on top of the historians and political scientists—from a former ballet-dancing Swedish cultural attache to a neuroscientist who would go on to be the CNN doctor.