The Magazine

As Bad as the French

The New York Review of Books's inimitable coverage of the Middle East.

May 13, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 34 • By FRED SIEGEL
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THE New York Review of Books has a fabulous record of getting it wrong. These are the characters who announced "The End of American Affluence" in 1997, just as the economy was ascending into the stratosphere. They were sure that welfare reform would lead to bodies in the streets; sure that Giuliani-style policing would produce a reign of terror; sure that the Gulf War would bog down in trench warfare reminiscent of World War I; sure that the war against the Taliban would end up another Vietnam; sure that Yasser Arafat, for whom they've displayed infinite understanding, is a man of peace with no connections to terror. And then there's the matter of EgyptAir Flight 990. You probably believed the scientists at the National Transportation Safety Board who said the crash was a pilot suicide. But like the Egyptian government, the NYRB knew better, and in a three part series, lit crit professor Elaine Scarry explained that the plane, like others in recent crashes, had been shot down by secret electromagnetic forces emitted by the U.S. military.

Now, in line with the reasoning of the Arab world and its European toadies, the NYRB is onto an even bigger Israeli conspiracy. The cranky Ms. Scarry wrote with scant knowledge of aerodynamics; crankier-yet Tony Judt writes on the Arab-Israeli conflict with even scantier knowledge of the Middle East, not to mention a lit crit sense of causality that insists it was Ariel Sharon who sabotaged the peace process and plunged Israel and the Arabs into war. Judt's May 9 article "Israel: The Road to Nowhere" provides a case study in the Gallic art of erasing facts with logic.

The Belgian-born Judt, a professor of history at New York University who is a regular writer for the New York Review of Books, begins by asserting that the outlines of a peace were obvious to all after the Camp David and Taba negotiations. "If this is the future of the region," he asks, "then why is it proving so tragically hard to get there?" His answer is that an Israel obsessed with its own uniqueness, manipulating the legacy of the Holocaust, the trauma of September 11, and U.S. support--and led by its "dark Id, Ariel Sharon"--has "largely deprived itself of credible Palestinian interlocutors."

Those who are bound by mere facts and chronology remember that Ehud Barak was prime minister when Arafat, according to U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross, repeatedly rejected an offer for 97 percent of the West Bank. Arafat's rejection and subsequent attempt to better his position through terror drove Barak from office and revived Sharon's moribund career. But the significance of terror is far from Judt's fevered mind. He refers to Hamas solely as a "community based organization." Only two-thirds of the way through his screed, after he's devoted considerable attention to analogies with the French war in Algeria, does Judt mention Palestinian terror, and then only in passing. He compares Sharon to Victor Hugo's implacable Inspector Javert and Arafat to the noble but hounded Jean Valjean. There is a good deal to argue about when it comes to Ariel Sharon, particularly when it comes to the settlements, but what sort of mind would morph Arafat into Jean Valjean?

When it comes to Israel, the pathologies of the NYRB and Judt know few bounds. By systematically ignoring radical Islam, Palestinian suicide bombings, and the roles of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran, Judt can insist that it's not only Sharon but Israel's "liberal intelligentsia," whom he likens to Pontius Pilate, who are "chiefly to blame for the present crisis."

In the case of Judt, who's gone out of his way to minimize the anti-Semitic violence in Europe, the pathology involves an interesting inversion. He is the disease of which he proclaims himself the cure. Judt made his academic mark by explaining how the left-wing French intellectuals of the 1950s defended Stalin by denouncing America. He accused Jean-Paul Sartre and his allies of "insouciance in the face of [Soviet] violence." "Sartre," said Judt, "characteristically responded to things [he] found embarrassing by ignoring them." Sartre was, in sum, morally bankrupt and intellectually dishonest.

Judt writing about the Middle East has become Sartre at his worst. Substitute Arab for Soviet and Judt for Sartre, and what you have is insouciance in the face of Arab terror, which Judt and the New York Review of Books characteristically ignore in order to apologize for Arafat and attack Sharon. In sum, Judt has taken the European position on Israel, a position that is morally bankrupt and intellectually dishonest.

Fred Siegel is a professor at the Cooper Union for Science and Art in New York.