Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Tony Judt is Right about Memory of the Holocaust

Many of you will be aware of Tony Judt's torturous relationship with Israel, indeed, with his extreme unease with it as a Jew himself. A few years ago he went so far as to express the view that it is an anachronism with the implication that it should disappear, perhaps in order to relieve himself of association with it.

Well, in typical form for a Jewish intellectual, he turns out to be more complex and tortured than initial impressions had indicated. At some point I will write about the large book he wrote not long ago, Postwar. This evening, however, I'd like to point to an article he has just published in the New York Review of Books, with the intriguing title The 'Problem of Evil' in Postwar Europe.

He starts out badly, I felt, by more or less praising Hannah Arendt for her book Eichmann in Jerusalem - indeed a truly seminal book, but also a weak book, partly because of its systematic misrepresentation of the facts of the Holocaust, and mostly for the afterthought of its subtitle, where she introduced the important phrase 'The Banality of Evil'. But then at the end I noticed that he adapted the article from a speech he gave in Germany as the recipient of a Hannah Arendt Prize; anyway, the first paragraph actually isn't particularly essential to the rest of the article.

Somewhere further down he takes a swipe or two at Israeli policies, which he continues not to like, and a swipe at the Bush administration, which is mandatory for an article in the NYRB. OK. Other than that, however, I found myself agreeing with at least 80% of the article, and I recommend a careful reading of it. In the old days, when Shalmi Barmore was the head of the education department at Yad Vashem, (which means, before 1993), we would have printed out piles of copies of such an article and discussed it in our seminars; there is much truth in it. No longer being at Yad Vashem, I can only hope the present staff still remembers Shalmi's legacy of searching for valuable insights wherever they might be found.

My single serious argument is that Judt is still downplaying the antisemitism at the very heart of the Islamist's war against humanity, as evidenced for example by the writings of Said Qutb from the 1950s and 1960s, long before the Six Day War gave the Arabs the excuse of an Israeli occupation as the source of all ill. Here we really do differ.

But it's still a good article.

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