August 8th, 2010
Last October, the historian Tony Judt was brought onstage at New York University’s Skirball Center in a wheelchair, his arms and torso wrapped in a blanket, his face partially obscured by a breathing tube. In this hobbled state, Judt delivered a bracing talk about the modern worship of the market, which he reminded his audience was “an acquired taste,” not an inescapable human condition. He spoke for nearly two hours, without any notes, sprinkling in quotes from Keynes, Adam Smith and other thinkers, in what turned out to be his final public lecture.
Judt died on August 6 after battling amyotropic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gherig’s disease, for more than a year. He was 62 and, as befit a prolific scholar and public intellectual who never shied away from controversy, he did not go quietly. In a matter of months the NYU lecture was expanded into a book, Ill Fares the Land; a string of evocative essays blending memoir and historical reflection appeared in the New York Review of Books (NYRB); op-eds and interviews were published in numerous publications, from the Guardian to the New York Times to this magazine [“Talking With Tony Judt,”  May 17, 2010]. The disease that reduced Judt to a quadriplegic did nothing to diminish the power of his voice, which fused erudition and moral passion in a way that seemed only to deepen as his illness worsened.
Born in London in 1948, Judt grew up in war-shattered Britain in a Jewish household steeped in Marxism, an experience he would later say inured him to sectarian politics. He was a man of the left who belonged to no party or ideological faction: a collection of his essays from the last twenty years, Reappraisals, includes a withering assessment of the historian and unrepentant Communist Eric Hobsbawm, and a pungent attack on American liberals who supported the Iraq War. Judt opposed that war but supported NATO intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, not because he lacked clear principles but because, as he told the British magazine Prospect recently, “I don’t believe that one should have one-size-fits-all moral rules for international political action.”
It was the view of a historian whose judgments were grounded in the messy whirl of human experience rather than the shifting political currents of the day. As he explained in the introduction toReappraisals, Judt feared that we have entered a new “age of forgetting,” in which social safety nets are shredded by politicians with no appreciation for the achievements of the modern state (universal health care, social equality) and no memory of the cataclysms and political derangements wrought by mass insecurity during the twentieth century. The sense that history was ignored and untaught fueled a strain of pessimism in Judt. Yet he never succumbed to the smug fatalism that has led so many academics to talk only among themselves.
To people with narrower minds and allegiances than his, Judt will be remembered solely, and bitterly, for the critical words he penned about Israel, in particular a 2003 essay in the NYRB calling for a one-state solution to the Palestinian conflict. A secular universalist who abandoned Zionism after a passionate flirtation during his youth, Judt’s essay earned him the loathing of the American Jewish establishment and led to predictable accusations that he viewed his heritage with indifference, maybe even embarrassment. As he recently made plain in a moving essay about a distant relative, Toni Avegael, who died in Auschwitz (and after whom he was named), this could scarcely be less true. “Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling,” he wrote. “I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish.”
The author of these words was, to me, not only a source of inspiration but also a friend. We met through the Remarque Forum, a transatlantic colloquium that Judt presided over through the Remarque Institute at NYU, which he directed. As participants in these discussions can attest, although he could be caustic in print, in person Tony was wry, warm, witty. He was also a lover of dialogue who believed the exchange of ideas across borders and cultures was inherently valuable. As in his writing, which was elegant, muscular and astonishingly wide-ranging, Tony spoke in graceful sentences while moving effortlessly across time and space, but he also took an intense interest in what people from different places, shaped by diverse experiences, had to say. The enduring image I hold of him is at the head of a discussion table, moderating a conversation about the role of religion in public life at a ranch in rural Texas, surrounded by guests that included a human rights advocate from western Europe, an African-American minister from San Antonio and a scholar from Turkey. Tony’s sleeves are rolled up, his eyes focused, vigorously engaged in the world he did so much to disturb, enrich and enlighten.