For Jews, few ideals are more exalted than that of the “intellectual.” But if there is any correlation between intellect and goodness, or good sense, it is defied — and mystified — by Christopher Hitchens and his attitudes toward Israel and Judaism. An intellectual and often dazzling writer, he was often completely merciless in his scathing dismissals of both Zionism and Judaism in ways that were often more incendiary than intellectual. A vigorous, unyielding atheist, on top of that, his friendship was valued by the Zionists and rabbis who knew him best, who prayed for him as he lay dying, and who mourn their loss of a friend.
And yet, how to reconcile a love for Zionism and Judaism with the contempt of one so brilliant? Of course, history — from ancient Greece to Vichy France — is littered with intellectuals who looked at Jews, even intellectual Jews, with contempt, even a threat. Hitchens was respectful and friendly to individual Jews; he only had unbridled contempt for some of their ideas. Knowing this, one rabbi said he could be friends with Hitchens; he just couldn’t invite him to his shul.
By all accounts, Hitchens, who died Dec. 15 of esophageal cancer at age 62, came of age as a leftist, a Marxist even, who had an unexpected change of heart after 9/11, supporting the war in Iraq, supporting George W. Bush for president and refusing to be politically correct about the Islamic threat — a threat he called “Islamofascism.” But while Hitchens became supportive of the American right, he never abandoned the left’s critique of Israel.
As Hitchens said in an 2003 interview with FrontPage magazine, “One of the advantages of a Marxist and internationalist training is that it exposes one to the early writings of those Jewish cosmopolitans who warned from the first day that Zionism would be a false messiah for the Jews and an injustice to the Arabs. Nothing suggests to me that they were wrong on these crucial points.”
James Kirchik, a contributing editor to The New Republic, wrote in Haaretz, that Israel “became less of an issue” for Hitchens, as Hitchens saw radical Islam hijacking Palestinian politics.
Sam Freedman, a writer for The New York Times, e-mailed, “My sense is that Hitchens was evolving from his lockstep pro-Palestinian position, partly because of his views about Islamist terrorism and partly, I can only conjecture, because of belatedly discovering his Jewish heritage. He never completely reversed course on Israel and Palestine, but he certainly moved a substantial distance from Edward Said, who’d been a co-author/editor with him.”
But Kirchik recalled Hitchens, over drinks one night, telling him he could never accept the premise of a Jewish homeland, a “stupid, messianic, superstitious idea.”
The Christian Science Monitor, in memoriam, printed 10 of Hitchens’ “more memorable quotes,” including: “I am an anti-Zionist. I’m one of those people of Jewish descent who believes that Zionism would be a mistake even if there were no Palestinians.”
Of Jewish descent? Hitchens was raised a Christian before becoming an atheist, and didn’t even discover that his mother was Jewish until he was middle-aged. “I was pleased to find I was pleased,” he wrote.
To be an anti-Semite, he said, was to be a “moral idiot.” History has shown that “Judaeophobia is an unfailing prognosis of barbarism and collapse, and the states and movements that promulgate it are doomed to suicide as well as homicide.” Today, Palestinian anti-Semitism is an “obscenity … not to be explained away by glib terms like despair or occupation, as other religious fools like Jimmy Carter — who managed to meet the Hamas gangsters without mentioning their racist manifesto — would have you believe.”
And yet, if not anti-Semitic, he was anti-Jewish in ways more crude than philosophical. To take Chanukah as an example, Hitchens described the holiday as “the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness,” celebrating “fundamentalist thuggery” and “the imposition of theocratic darkness.” Preferring hyperbole and insult to intellectual analysis, Hitchens concluded, “When the fanatics… won [and] Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was terribly retarded.”
With his slash-and-burn style, he described the United States as Israel’s “Shabbos goy… the non-Jew who is paid a trifling fee to turn out the lights or turn on the stove, or whatever else is needful to get around the more annoying regulations of the Sabbath. How the old buzzard must cackle when he sees the gentiles actually volunteering a bribe to do the lowly work! And lowly it is,” wrote Hitchens, “involving the tearing-up of international law and U.N. resolutions and election promises, and the further dispossession and eviction of a people to whom we gave our word…. [We] will most certainly be made to regret it. For now, though, the shame.”
He rhetorically asked Israelis, in Slate: “Without God on your side, what the hell are you doing in the greater Jerusalem area in the first place?”
Intellectual? Some might think these rants sounded more like Helen Thomas or Mel Gibson, except they were ostracized while Hitchens’ rants were considered witty, erudite and pass the brandy. Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, e-mailed, “Yes, he was given a pass for these borderline anti-Semitic cheap shots about Israel and Judaism, primarily because he was a member of the club. We sometimes paid the price for Hitchens’ belatedly discovered Jewishness, which he clearly had difficulty dealing with.”
In 2010, in the online Jewish Ideas Daily, Benjamin Kerstein wrote, “The fact that Christopher Hitchens has a problem with Jews has been an open secret for years. No one much likes to talk about it, and for various reasons his journalistic peers have remained silent on the subject.”
Rabbi David Wolpe, a Jewish Week contributor who often debated Hitchens, noted in a Jewish Journal article Hitchens’ “hostility” to Israel, but was silent about it when writing about Hitchens for Slate.
Another debating partner of Hitchens, Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, did not mention Hitchens’ anti-Zionism either, in his memorial column for Fox News, but Boteach did write of an “anti-religious screed” by Hitchens, in which Hitchens charged that Jewish courts in Israel had ruled that a Jew may not save the life of a non-Jew on the Sabbath. It was one of many lies and half-truths that Hitchens used to depict Judaism.
Challenged by Rabbi Boteach, Hitchens offered a source that “turned out to be a famous fraud,” said Rabbi Boteach. “I was incensed and wrote Hitchens that he had always prided himself on the truth and had to correct the false information he had disseminated. He wrote back that he would amend the assertion in the book’s next printing,” but “our relationship cooled.”
Boteach told us, by telephone, that he nevertheless prayed and urged prayers for Hitchens during his illness, and Hitchens was touched by the gesture even as he dismissed its efficacy.
Rabbi Wolpe e-mailed The Jewish Week that his relationship with Hitchens ended up having limits, as well, despite how much he appreciated Hitchens’ “charm and kindness.”
Said Wolpe, Hitchens “had spent too much time with the Palestinians and was too sympathetic to them to believe Israel’s narrative. … I think he retained many of the attitudes of the left, even as he moved away, and was unable to retool his views toward Israel. It is why I never invited him to the shul [Sinai Temple], much as I liked and admired him in other ways.”