Tony Judt's speech on the Israel/Jewish lobby at the University of Chicago has already been criticized here and here. But more (much more) remains to be said, in particular about Judt's views on telling the truth. He rates truth-telling highly: much of his speech is about the importance of telling the truth as we see it, however uncomfortable that is for the hearer or for the teller. But there is a remarkable asymmetry between his estimate of the importance of his telling the truth as he sees it, and his estimate of the importance of others, especially his critics, telling the truth as they see it.
Judt says that he, and those who share his views, have to tell what they take to be the truth, even if this means that they end up in bed with the wrong people, with racists and anti-Semites, for example. This is unfortunate and uncomfortable, he remarks, but that's just tough - we have to put up with the discomfort:
[Y]ou can't help other people agreeing with you for their reasons... You have to say what you know to be true and be willing to defend it on your grounds and then accept the fact that people in bad faith will accuse you of having defended it or aligned yourself with the others on their grounds - that's what freedom of speech means - it's very uncomfortable. It puts you in bed sometimes with the wrong people.Judt is certainly right about one thing - we have to tell the truth, as best we can, even if this generates enthusiastic agreement from people with whom we'd prefer to have absolutely nothing to do. Now, the truth according to Judt is that there is something very like a Jewish conspiracy to dominate American public policy. He is, however, clearly aware that there is a problem about finding himself in agreement with racists and fascists and anti-Semites, people who believe in Jewish conspiracies for, as he describes it, the wrong reasons. He locates this problem in the fact that such agreement causes discomfort to the brave academics who believe in Jewish conspiracies for the right reasons and who tell us all about them. This narcissistic approach, with its primary concern for academics' comfort zones and their desire not to be tainted by association with racists and conspiracists, seems to blind Judt to a rather different problem with saying things which racists and anti-Semites are delighted to agree with. After all, Judt's discomfort and dislike of bad company are of primary concern to Judt alone. The real, and serious, problem with what he says is that it helps racists and anti-Semites - it gives them aid and comfort and credibility, and thereby assists their efforts to spread their views.
Because Judt is a respected historian, his words may be quite influential in this way. They may confer not only credibility but also legitimacy on others, often quite sinister others, who agree with them, and this is an issue he should at least be alert to. His real position, and what he should have said had he really been displaying the commitment to truth which he is so anxious to claim for himself, is this: You have to say what you know to be true and be willing to defend it on your grounds, and then accept the fact that you'll be encouraging and strengthening racism and anti-Semitism.
Saying this would at least have the advantage of honesty, and of facing up to the genuinely disturbing consequences of the kind of view Judt endorses. And it would also allow us to consider whether the claim is true: whether stating (alleged) truths which racists agree with just does commit us to accepting the consequent encouragement we offer to racism. And as soon as we consider that, we can see that there are a wide variety of alternatives for us here, even if we maintain our determination to voice such (supposed) truths. Firstly, we can consider more carefully whether they really are accurate enough to count as truths. Judt, for example, declares that the Israel Lobby, alone among all the other lobbies, denies its own existence and seeks to silence criticism by others. Had he acknowledged the fact that he's giving aid and comfort to racists, this might have worried him enough to check whether his claims are actually true - see the masthead of AIPAC here (something Norm has already pointed out), and also this item. When one of the most notable organs of the Israel lobby declares on its front page that it is indeed an Israel lobby, and when one of the most prestigious academic publishers in the UK pulls a book which has already been published, as a result of pressure from a well-funded Saudi billionaire, Judt's claims about the unique self-denying and silencing aims of the Israel lobby seem implausible. Had he acknowledged the fact that his claims are likely to promote racism, this might have encouraged him to re-consider their plausibility. After all, one of the reasons why we reject racist claims is that we think they are largely false.
Secondly, explicit acknowledgement that one's own views not only coincide with but also strengthen those of racists and fascists might lead one to make strenuous efforts to distance oneself from these unwelcome companions, rather than merely giving what amounts to a fatalistic shrug at the prospect of their company. Judt could, for example, have spent some time pointing out that we shouldn't generalize about whole races and ethnicities; that even if (as he thinks) the Israel lobby is out to silence its critics, it clearly isn't very good at doing so, as his own eminence and frequent public pronouncements, and the success and wide dissemination of the work of Mearsheimer and Walt, reveal; that in the past the deployment of traditional stereotypes of malign Jewish power and secret influence, of the very kind which he is now claiming are literally true, has been widespread, false and productive of unspeakable horrors. To make these points would, of course, have diminished the rhetorical power of his thesis, but since these points are true, they might have helped ameliorate some of the harmful effects, which he surely can't welcome, of his various assertions about Jews and the Israel lobby.
Judt is quite silent about the way in which telling what he sees as the truth is likely to encourage racism - those consequences just aren't the important thing for him. But he's not at all silent about the consequences of his critics telling what they see as the truth. Some of his critics want to charge Judt with being anti-Semitic, or at least with encouraging anti-Semitism, and Judt thinks that his critics should refrain from making this kind of charge. Too many people, according to Judt, make such charges against those who are hostile to Israel, and this, he thinks, degrades the Holocaust, increases anti-Semitism, and undermines the conditions which make the life of the American Republic worthwhile. (That is, the Jews themselves - he specifically mentions the Anti-Defamation League - will be to blame if anti-Semitism increases, and they threaten the life of the state, too. This is indeed familiar stuff, and Judt is right in thinking that he is in bed with some very unpleasant companions.) In effect, Judt says that his critics should censor their own views - the truth as they see it - in order to avoid being like the ADL and (so he claims) effectively promoting anti-Semitism. But he's quite clear that he mustn't be asked to censor his views in order to avoid effectively promoting anti-Semitism - this would be moral blackmail and an attack on precious academic freedom and will also as a matter of fact... promote anti-Semitism!
We might begin to feel at this point that there are more charges of anti-Semitism-promotion going on here than one debate can reasonably contain. But the truth or otherwise of Judt's charge against his critics is not what I'm focusing on here. The significant thing is the fact that he's making it: this demonstrates that Judt thinks it's permissible, and indeed a part of truth-telling, for him to raise the spectre of promoting anti-Semitism against his critics. But if others do this against him, that's moral blackmail and silencing and an intolerable affront to academic freedom. Others, he says, ought to be reluctant to share the behaviour or the attitudes of those who engage in such deplorable practices; but if Judt himself finds that he's in bed with the anti-Semites, sharing the views of those who engage in some exceptionally dubious practices, well, that's just too bad.
Really, by the end of his speech Judt does seem to be suggesting that though the company of racists and conspiracists and anti-Semites is uncomfortable, at least it's better than the company of the ADL. It's hard to see this remarkable deployment of double standards as the brave defence of academic freedom which Judt purports to be conducting, and it's also hard to respect his preferences in the matter of unwelcome company. (Eve Garrard)