Tony Judt, 62

Tony Judt, scholar of European history, dies at 62

Tony Judt's book
Tony Judt's book "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945" was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. (New York University Via Associated Press)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2010

Tony Judt, 62, a well-regarded scholar of European history who became one of the most controversial public intellectuals of recent with his critical statements about Israel, died Aug. 6 at his home in New York. He had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

Mr. Judt was an English-born historian who spent most of his professional life in the United States and had been a professor at New York University since 1987. He began his career as a scholar of the economic practices of 19th- and 20th-century France and expanded his portfolio to encompass all of European history. His 2005 book, "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945," is considered a landmark study, examining the political, social and cultural efflorescence across Europe since World War II.

Besides his scholarly work, Mr. Judt wrote frequent essays for the New York Review of Books and other publications, covering a wide range of topics, including a recent series of personal accounts of his struggles with ALS.

"In contrast to almost every other serious or deadly disease," he wrote, "one is . . . left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one's own deterioration."

Later in the essay, titled "Night," he wrote: "There is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving. The pleasures of mental agility are much overstated."

But even as he became completely paralyzed, Mr. Judt retained and further developed his mental agility, learning ancient memory exercises, as he imagined a mental castle from which his thoughts could be retrieved. In March, New York magazine declared that he had "the liveliest mind in New York."

In his final public speech in October 2009, with breathing tubes in his nose, he questioned why American society seemed to be in decline and why the social advances of the 1960s, from racial justice to public broadcasting, were coming under threat.

"Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so?" he asked from his wheelchair.

Mr. Judt's provocative writings about Israel, though only a small portion of his work, stirred the greatest amount of public dispute. In his youth, he had been an avowed Zionist and had lived in Israel. Over time, he changed his views and, by 1983, was writing that Israel was a "belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno state."

He incurred even greater ire with a 2003 essay in which he called for Israel to include Arabs and Jews equally as part of the government, or a "one-state solution." Three years later, he baldly declared, "The depressing truth is that Israel today is bad for the Jews."

His critics condemned him for calling for the abolition of the Jewish state, and Leon Wieseltier wrote in the New Republic that Mr. Judt "has become precisely the kind of intellectual whom his intellectual heroes would have despised."

"Oh, that's nuts," Mr. Judt responded. "The issue is not whether Israel has a right to exist . . . The question is what kind of a state Israel should be. That's all."

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