Tony Judt passed away last Friday after a torturous two year struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease – a degenerative neurological condition to which there is no cure. Best known for his book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Judt flirted with both Marxism and Zionism during his days as a student at Cambridge before becoming a consistent defender of social democratic principles. A vocal critic of Israel and a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, he caused a wide ripple of controversy in 2003 with the publication of his essay “Israel: The Alternative,” where he called for a one-state solution to the conflict.
Judt first went public with his disease last fall, when he addressed an audience at NYU’s Remarque Institute, which he established in 1995. The lecture, titled “What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?” and given with clearly visible effort on Judt’s part, for by then he could no longer move or breathe on his own, received wide acclaim as kindling a hope for a return to a form of social democratic politics based on commonly shared principles and public goods. I expressed some qualified reservations about Judt’s reasoning upon hearing the lecture and reading its transcription in the New York Review. Yet there’s no question that it will go down as a testament to his legacy as a public intellectual – one who straddled the line between academia and timely commentary in a way that few were capable of.
One can’t help but have the feeling Judt still had much more to say and write. He deserves to be remembered as one of the best and brightest intellectuals of our time.