Fighting Words

How Uninviting

Tony Judt’s persecution complex.

Tony Judt

In January of this year, I was invited by a group called the Republican Jewish Committee to come and speak at a public meeting. The subject was the U.N. “oil for food” program or, to give it another name, the means by which the corruption of the United Nations had actually helped Saddam Hussein to finance many of the French, Russian, and British friends of his regime. I was eager to say more about this appalling scheme, and it didn’t matter to me that I had little else in common with the group that had been kind enough to offer me a platform. A date was booked, a place arranged (an old temple in downtown D.C.), and I even remember telling the organizers that I also do this for a living and would expect a modest fee.

At about the time that pre-publicity for the event had gotten under way, Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America began to raise a stink. If I picked up the phone in those days, it was invariably to hear a reporter from the Forward, or some other such paper, asking me to comment on his comments. Klein didn’t appreciate some of the things I had said about Israel and Israeli policy over the years. He was empurpled by the idea that a conservative Jewish group would even consider inviting me. It didn’t matter to him that I wasn’t even being asked to comment on Zionism, let alone on the ultra- Jabotinsky Zionist faction of which he is the bugle. The upshot was that the meeting was canceled. I received even more calls from the Republican Jewish Committee, in which they spoke critically of Klein, alluded in the most heartfelt way to the scheduling conflict that had suddenly arisen, and assured me most warmly that the invitation still stood. And then the telephone fell mercifully silent.

I wasn’t born yesterday, and I have sources of my own within Washington’s Jewish community, so it didn’t take that long to discover what I already knew, which was that I had not been the accidental victim of a scheduling conflict. So, we can score one for Morton Klein, and we can cancel that tiny check that I had earmarked for my favorite charity (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan).

I think that Klein and the Republican Jewish Committee were well within their rights. I have a perfect right, which I would defend to the death, to express my views on the question of Palestine. But I do not have a perfect right to express that opinion—which would have had to come up, even in a discussion of Iraq and the degeneration of the United Nations—at a meeting of a private group that takes the opposing view. Nor do I have an absolute right to criticize Theodor Herzl and all his works from a podium belonging to a neutral organization. Such outfits have their own right to pick and to choose and even to reconsider.

What a chance I missed to call attention to myself. I now can’t open my e-mail or check my voicemail without reading or hearing about the repression visited on professor Tony Judt of New York University. It seems that he was booked to speak at a meeting sponsored by a group called Network 20/20 at the Polish Consulate in New York and had his event canceled when the relevant Polish diplomat decided that the evening might be—given professor Judt’s views on Israel—more trouble than it was worth. I now hear of a fulminating letter, signed by no fewer than 114 intellectuals, that has been published in the New York Review of Books (there’s glory for you) in which this repression is denounced. How dare the Polish Consulate refuse the heroic dissident Judt a platform! And how dare the Anti-Defamation League, or its chief spokesman Abraham Foxman (it’s not quite clear who called) even telephone the Poles to complain?

I live my life without reference to Foxman. He was a leading mourner at the funeral of the fascist bigmouth Meir Kahane, and he took donations of $250,000 from the fugitive scumbag Marc Rich and did some lobbying of Bill Clinton in respect of a pardon (which caused William Safire to demand that he resign his post, which he has not). Who is such an abject sap as to require a kosher stamp from such a man? And what is the ADL, which is supposed to counter slanders against Jews, doing in the first place by taking a position on Jewish criticism of Israel? Yet the 114 signatories make indignant squeals, crediting the ADL as “an organization dedicated to promoting civil rights and public education.” No doubt they believe themselves to be ironic. And so they are, inasmuch as they give literal credit to Foxman. But on what basis can they demand that criticism of Israel be granted as of right on those square feet of New York City that constitute Polish soil?

The astonishing extent of this brouhaha recalls the reception accorded to the John Mearsheimer-Stephen Walt critique of Jewish-American influence on U.S. foreign policy. And the two episodes are, in fact, somewhat related. Once again, absolutely conventional attacks on Israeli and U.S. policy are presented as heroically original. Once again, it is insinuated that the bravery of those making the point is such as to draw down the Iron Heel. Once again, no distinction is made between private organizations and the public sphere. Mearsheimer and Walt ended up complaining of persecution because they got a rude notice from Alan Dershowitz! Such self-pity.

Professor Judt has a podium of his very own, at the Remarque Institute at New York University. He once invited me to speak there. He would not have invited me if I were a Kahane supporter and, though I defend the right of the Kach Party to hold its own meetings, I would protest if it were allowed to use the Remarque Institute for this purpose. This distinction seems worth making, at a time when free expression has much deadlier enemies who succeeded, for example, in preventing any of the editors who signed the Judt letter, as well as the magazine in which their letter appears, from publishing the Danish cartoons. To do that would have taken some nerve. This protest does not.