Kirsch v. Judt

In Tablet magazine, Adam Kirsch reviews a collection of essays by the late Jewish leftist Tony Judt. A committed leftist, Judt took his utopian logic to its natural conclusions (e.g., the multiculturalism-is-good mantra, the end of Israel as a Jewish state, etc.)

Kirsch, however, does not let dreamy utopianism (i.e., universalism) cloud the importance of his Jewish identity (i.e., particularism):

For the real subject of [Judt’s] essay—and this turns out to be true of all of Judt’s most passionate essays—has little to do with actual Middle Eastern politics. It is, rather, a dramatization of the crisis of conscience that many liberal Jews now find themselves suffering with regard to Zionism. For Judt, Zionism is an ethnic nationalism, and if there is one thing 21st-century liberals pride themselves on, it is their rejection of ethnic nationalism. As Judt writes, we live in an age “when that sort of state has no place”: “In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel truly is an anachronism.”

What is striking about this is how deeply unhistorical it is, coming from a historian. For of course, we do not live in such a world—not in 2003 and still less in 2015. What may be true of the more cosmopolitan quarters of Europe and America is far from true in the Middle East, where Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, and Kurds are now engaged in a massive sectarian war stretching from Lebanon to Turkey. And as the rise of anti-immigration and nationalist parties in Europe suggests, even there the appetite for multiculturalism is dwindling. For the Jews of Israel to stake their future on joining a multinational state, just at the moment when all such states in the Middle East are unraveling in civil wars, would be madness—or, as Judt himself acknowledges, “an unpromising mix of realism and utopia.”

Judt’s statement only makes sense when it is taken to apply, not to Jews in Israel or to nation-states in general, but to Jews in the West, who indeed have “multiple elective identities.” What he is resisting is the obligation to put Jewish identity, as expressed in Zionism, above other identities—as an American, a European, a liberal, a cosmopolitan. In other words, Judt is rediscovering one of the oldest tensions in Judaism, the tension between universalism and particularism; and he finds it impossible to tolerate. “Israel: The Alternative” is a statement of profound impatience, of the desire for Israel to disappear so that the obligations of Jewish solidarity can also disappear.

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