OVER THE last months before his much-lamented death in August 2010, Tony Judt talked at length with Timothy Snyder, his friend and fellow historian. Their conversations, published after Judt died as Thinking the Twentieth Century, were about “the politics of ideas,” the subject of the book on which Judt had embarked after Postwar, his splendid history of Europe since V-E Day, but which he knew he would not live to write. Some of these political ideas had affected him personally, in particular Zionism. As a schoolboy in London and a Cambridge undergraduate, Judt had been not only a committed supporter but also an energetic activist in Dror, a small socialist-Zionist group. He spent summers working on a kibbutz and in 1967 flew to Israel in the hour of peril as the Six-Day War began.
The story of Judt’s disenchantment with Israel and Zionism is well known, culminating in a 2003 essay in the New York Review of Books in which he concluded that Zionism, as a version of late nineteenth-century nationalism, had itself become anachronistic in a twenty-first century of open borders and multiple identities. In Thinking the Twentieth Century, Judt talks again at some length about these questions, and there is one particularly arresting passage. Despite his own early indoctrination in the socialist variant of Zionism, “I came over time to appreciate the rigor and clear-headed realism of Jabotinsky’s criticisms.”