Lunch with the FT: Tony Judt

By Graham Bowley

Financial Times

Published: March 17 2007

Wistfully, Tony Judt admits he misses Europe. That seems to be one reason why he chose Cafe de Bruxelles in New York's Greenwich Village for our lunch. It is on a street of British shops where nostalgic expats can munch on fish and chips, or sip cups of tea. The cafe itself is a long, low, slightly grubby sun-washed place, where a sign outside lists mussels specialities. Inside, pictures on the walls evoke the Palace of Justice and various other Brussels sights.

At just after midday, Judt, who is 59, walks through the door and shuts the police sirens of Greenwich Avenue behind him. As professor of European studies at New York University, he is one of the most prominent liberal academics in the US. Yet he appears an unassuming, bookish man, wrapped up against the Manhattan cold in a lumpy, unstylish coat and cap. He has a beard of greying stubble, a broad balding head, an intelligent pale face, a precise handshake and smile - an intellectual. Not at all, I think, the incendiary figure who has recently drawn the ire of some Jewish groups in New York City by arguing that an “Israel lobby” influences US policy towards the Middle East and shuts down proper debate about it.

Judt wanted an early lunch because he has to meet some of his students in the afternoon, just around the corner on Washington Square - where he works and also lives with his second wife and two sons, aged 12 and nine. At this hour, we have Cafe de Bruxelles to ourselves. The polite waiter points to a table set in the middle of the room and warns us that a party of 10 will arrive soon. With a nod, Judt picks his way to a small table tucked away in the furthest, quietest corner.

“In the worst moments I have had death threats, and much worse, threats against my family,” says Judt, after he sits down opposite me and begins to describe the reactions to his writing and his talks. “These people would call up my office and they would say, 'Tell Tony Judt he had better not let his kids out on the street,' or 'Tell Tony Judt this is Hitler calling and he says, Congratulations.'” He winces and shakes his head. “I didn't think I knew until then just how deep and how uniquely American this obsession with blocking any criticism of Israel is. It is uniquely American.” Not European, not Israeli.

He adds: “People accuse me of wanting to see the abolition of Israel, which is nonsense. Israel exists. The question is what kind of state is it going to be in future years, what kind of laws is it going to have for first- and second-class citizens?”

Judt, who is Jewish, grew up in a stoutly middle-class family in London. In an impressive academic career, he went to King's College, Cambridge, Paris's Ecole Normale Superieure, Berkeley and Oxford. He moved to New York in 1987 to teach European history and French studies, when, he says ruefully, “the study of France was still a fashionable and desirable activity and not something you had to hide your head in shame about.”

His last book, Postwar, is a fluid history of Europe since 1945. It tells of the continent's rise from the ashes and the emergence of the European Union, which he is rather bullish about. The book was nominated for a Pulitzer prize, and was one of The New York Times top 10 books of 2005. Part of his job in New York, he says, is to explain Europe to Americans - people accuse him of forever trying to “sell” Europe to Americans, he says - as well as to explain America to Europeans. It is a tough job, Judt says, when, in their worldviews, the two are growing further apart.

Judt seems to be concerned with divisions. As well as the “vertical” separation between Europe and the US, he says, there are widening “horizontal” chasms within countries - between wealthy jet-travelling elites and the rest of the population.

“We probably face a world that is divided much more horizontally than vertically. We have a class of world travellers - as the medievals might have called them, 'clerks' - who speak Latin, or English, and feel at home in Tokyo, New York or Singapore. Underneath are the 'villains', the serfs, who don't speak English, who don't travel - beyond the occasional cheap vacation flight abroad - and who are still very much in a national, local cultural world. They are as much separated from their own airport people as from serfs of other countries.”

It is the gaps between cultures that concern Judt most, and especially the division between America and Europe.

One aspect of that rift is their attitude to Israel. On October 3, Judt was due to give a talk to an independent think- tank, called Network 20/20 about the “Israel lobby” in the US. The event was being held at the Polish Consulate in New York. Hours before he was scheduled to stand up, the consulate cancelled the talk, under pressure, Judt alleged, from influential Jewish groups in New York such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

The cancellation brought outraged support from a roster of Judt's fellow academics and intellectuals. They said there had been an attempt to intimidate and shut down free debate - seeming to prove the point that Judt had wanted to make. A 114-signature letter was written to Abraham Foxman, the prominent national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and published in The New York Review of Books. But it is still not clear who telephoned whom, when, and to apply what sort of pressure during the incident, which The New York Observer called “l'affaire Judt”.

The ADL and AJC said they did not force the consulate to call off the talk. Still, they openly welcomed the outcome. For his critics, Judt is part of a worrying and dangerous trend, one of a number of liberal intellectuals, many of them Jewish, whose outspoken criticism of Israel, and whose support for Palestinians, they argue, provides ammunition for far more dangerous opponents. This, they believe, comes at a time when Israel's existence is probably as precarious as it ever has been.

Sitting at our table, Judt throws up his hands and says the debate at times must seem like “a weird inter-Jewish dispute about Israel”. But it has had personal consequences. He has lost two close friends, including Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, a magazine for which Judt used to write.

“Apparently, the line you take on Israel trumps everything else in life,” Judt says, quite sadly.

It has made his domestic life more difficult, too, because his wife, Jenny, a former ballerina, is The New Republic's dance critic. “The editor calls up and says, 'Jenny, we would like a piece and give my regards to Tony,' and she feels kind of squidged.”

In Cafe de Bruxelles, the party of 10 arrives. Around us the room fills with laughter and loud voices. Judt comes to the restaurant quite regularly. But this lunchtime one of his favourite dishes, carbonade de boeuf, is not on the menu. He looks disappointed. The waiter says he will consult the kitchen anyway. We order two Belgian blonde beers. Sipping them, we wait in suspense until the carbonade, heavy in gravy and cabbage, is laid on the tablecloth.

“I shall enjoy this as you can't imagine,” Judt says with a laugh. His critics “think I am some sort of weird far-out, provocative figure”, he says. “But this is down the line, mainstream, winter Belgian food.”

I wait for my chicken crepe. As we pick at a shared cup of frites in the middle of the table, Judt tells me more about his past.

His mother was a hairdresser. His father came from Antwerp. Members of his father's family had been killed in the Holocaust. His father, he says, “was talented at many things but making money was not one of them. Eventually he discovered a talent for bookselling - just at the point that Barnes & Noble and the like were sweeping away smaller booksellers.”

As a teenager, Judt became involved in leftwing Zionism. In 1967, he travelled to Israel as a volunteer during the Six Day War. He worked as a translator of French and Hebrew, and drove captured Syrian trucks. “Up on the Golan Heights, I met and heard officers talking, and for the first time I was seeing a side of Israel I had managed to turn a blind eye to,” he tells me. “Until then, the dominant rhetoric in Israel had still been that you didn't disparage the Arabs, you believed in socialism and equality. Now it was straightforward anti-Arab sentiment. What began in 1967, and accelerated in a great tumble through the mid-1970s, was the rise of a different Israel: hard-line, rightwing, very often religious, believing they had a real-estate pact with God. It was very ugly, at least I found it very ugly.”

In those years, he says, America didn't care so much for Israel. France was the great friend of Israel, he says, providing jets for the Israeli air force. But that changed, he says, due in part to the rise of identity politics in the US. This, he argues, eventually had an effect on American foreign policy.

“America at that time had a very low collective public consciousness of the Holocaust,” he says, eating the carbonade carefully. “People were not reading Primo Levi. They were not even reading Anne Frank. It became possible, fashionable and in the end almost necessary to identify yourself - Irish-American, Italian- American, Native American, Asian-American. Part of it was because of the rise of the culture of the victim but also because it was a way of being part of the new multicultural space.”

You couldn't just be Jewish-American, however, he says. To create an identity, he says, Jewish people instead tied themselves to the Holocaust and to Israel. “So it became very much a threat to American-Jewish identity to unravel one of these.”

The party of 10 has gone. The restaurant is quiet again. There is only a single diner next to us, reading The New York Times.

Judt says he doesn't lie awake at night worrying about his critics. But, still, he seems to me to carry a sense of anger and despondency about him. He admits that although he likes many Americans, he does not altogether like America. “Tom Friedman is talking through his hat. The world is not flat at all. The world is shaped still in many ways as it was in my generation by culture, by the place you grew up, by the assumptions you make about the place of religion in public life, about the relative importance of the state and the individual.”

Judt says he really has to make his student meetings. His next work projects, he tells me, include a book about 20th-century thought, and a theme likely to keep him clearer of controversy - a history of railways. When he was growing up in London, he loved riding the train into the countryside.

We drink our espressos and march out east across the traffic- clogged avenues towards Washington Square.

As the breach with Europe widens - “Now we are passing through a period of America's simultaneous withdrawal and resentment at the world,” he says - he knows for sure which side he wants to be on.

“I am tempted at least twice a day to go back to Europe,” he says.

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Cafe de Bruxelles, Greenwich Village, New York

2 x beers

1 x carbonade de boeuf

1 x chicken and mushroom crepe

2 x espressos

Total: $60.05