In a moving portrait of the eminent historian, Evan R. Goldstein traces the trajectory of Tony Judt’s career from his adolescent Zionism to the more recent controversies surrounding his advocacy of a bi-national state in Israel-Palestine—and, of course, the decades of original and invaluable political and intellectual history in between. One thing that becomes clear through all this is that, polemics and public spats aside, Judt remains, in his own eyes, a historian first and foremost:

“I wasn’t looking to become a public intellectual,” Judt insists, though he concedes that people might have trouble believing that. As a young man, he says, he was content with being a well-paid professor at elite universities: “I enjoyed teaching, and sitting in an armchair—feet up, with a glass of wine and a cigarette—reading books.”


“Tony is a man who thrives on controversy,” says Richard Sennett. When I read that quote to Judt, he balks. “Richard is being a bit mischievous,” Judt replies without smiling. He concedes that he has “always been verbally provocative” but that he doesn’t seek out controversy. A day after our meeting, Judt followed up in an e-mail message: “I hate publicity, celebrity, fame, and notoriety, all of which are associated with controversy in its public form. But, in fairness, all my life I’ve been rather upfront with my opinions and never hidden them on grounds of conformity or (I fear) politesse. However, until the wretched Polish consulate affair, I don’t think I was ever controversial—I was certainly not known outside of the hermetic little world of the academy, and my contrarian scholarly writings aroused no great fuss.”

Read the entire essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education.