NEW YORK // Tony Judt, the renowned historian and New York University professor who has been called "the intellectual's intellectual", enjoys what he called "living on the edge". "Outsiders, people who read me in the newspapers, think of me as this crazed, left-wing Jew who's pro-Palestinian, a friend of Edward Said, who hates Israel," he said, referring to the late Palestinian academic. "But within the university, people think of me as this crazed, old-fashioned, white liberal who believes in high standards, lots of hard work, meritocracy, tough grading, etc. So I like being difficult to catalogue."
Prof Judt, 62, is a specialist in European history and the author of several well-received books, including Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. But in recent years, the British-born professor who moved to New York in 1987 has achieved notoriety outside academia for his criticism of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. Since 2002, he has written a series of articles, mostly in the cerebral and liberal New York Review of Books, attacking Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, questioning the suitability of a two-state solution to end the conflict and discussing the possibility of Israel becoming a one-state democracy.
His views have drawn fierce attacks from right-wing American Jews, who have dismissed him as a "self-hating Jew" eager to appease those who would wish Israel to disappear into the sea. He remains unapologetic about his analysis of Israeli policy and continues with a full schedule of writing and teaching that is remarkable because he is effectively quadriplegic. Suffering from a motor neurone disorder, Lou Gehrig's disease, his muscles are wasting away. He is confined to a wheelchair and needs breathing assistance in the form of a pump.
But he suffers no pain or loss of sensation. His mind is as alert as ever, so he continues to work, dictating his words to a secretary. He is now writing a series of memoirs for The New York Review of Books, the first of which last month described very movingly how he spends many hours of each night awake, unable to move, and how he tries to seek escape through memory. "This is one of the world's worst diseases but at the same time, it doesn't affect my mind. You don't feel pain so you can work as long as you've got your voice," he said during an interview in his sunlight-filled study overlooking New York's Washington Square. "With a reasonably energetic secretary, you can do quite a lot of work, which I do."
With understated fashion, he said: "It doesn't take courage. I would get bored otherwise." He said the number of hate-filled e-mails and letters sent to him had decreased in the last couple of years but he did received a "flurry" of them after he wrote an opinion piece for the Financial Times last month headlined "Israel must unpick its ethnic myth". He argued that Israel's insistence of identifying itself as a Jewish state was "misguided" and dysfunctional" and it needed to develop much more inclusionary policies, particularly given that at least a fifth of its citizens are Arab.
But he has also drawn accusations of simplicity or inaccuracy for his views, such as: "If an American president decided to land with as much force on Aipac [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and the organised, extreme pro-Israel groups in this country as [then-president Bill] Clinton did on the Provisional IRA, it would be over in six months. Israel would be looking for ways to compromise with Washington."
Despite receiving letters of support from such racists as David Duke, the white supremacist and anti-Semite, Prof Judt is undeterred in expressing his views. "I just think I can do nothing about you. I'm just going to keep saying what I believe," he said. "The one thing that did hurt, that continues to hurt because it still happens occasionally, is the kind of person, almost always from this country, never from Israel, who writes and says we can find a way to blow up your kids."
Prof Judt grew up in a secular "classic immigrant Jewish socialist but anti-Communist family" in north London. His parents left school at 14 but were "autodidacts" and their home was filled with left-wing books. As a teenager, he spent several summers on a kibbutz in Israel and worked as a volunteer translator for the Israeli army in the Six Day War. Soon afterwards, he became disillusioned with Israel's militaristic ethos and has hardly visited the country since.
"But I've always made it very clear that it would be an utter absurdity to say that Israel should not exist. Israel does exist, it's a country. The question is what its policies should be," he said. "In any case, most of my efforts have been addressed at American rather than Israeli policy because Israel can handle its own policies. My problem is that I live in a country unable to conduct a rational policy in the Middle East."