The Trouble with Hitchens
When the celebrated columnist and author Christopher Hitchens passed away yesterday at the age of 62, the encomia started pouring in almost immediately. Most of this praise is deserved, as the acumen of Hitchens's muscular criticism and the wit of his ripostes will be with us for a long time to come.
The praise comes not just for his work, but for his character. Christopher Buckley saw Hitchens, a famous disbeliever—indeed, a crusader against God—as himself possessed of a great soul. Perhaps a Jewish soul: When Buckley encountered the partially Jewish Hitchens at a bar mitzvah, "the word 'Shalom' sprang naturally from my lips."
And there's the rub. While we are told not to speak ill of the dead, it is no less crucial to have the record of their lives straight. Critics' personal affection for Hitchens should not obscure the fact that he had a troubling bête noire in Judaism and indulged freely in some of the most barbarous and defamatory stereotypes about the Jewish people. One year ago, Benjamin Kerstein laid bare Hitchens's views of Judaism, the Jewish people, and the Jewish state in Jewish Ideas Daily. We reprint his essay (originally titled "Christopher Hitchens's Jewish Problem") here, in hopes that readers will see the mixed legacy of this most epicurean epikorus for what it is. —The Editors
The fact that Christopher Hitchens has a problem with the 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. But it is nonetheless the case, and there is little sense in denying it.
The sixty-one-year-old Hitchens, a native of Great Britain and a recently naturalized U.S. citizen, is one of the most widely read and admired columnists in America, as well as a celebrated author who, in the words of the New York Times, "embraces the serious things, the things that matter: social justice, learning, direct language, the free play of mind, loyalty, holding public figures to high standards."
Hitchens's career began on the radical Left, with a strong affinity for the legacy of the Communist ideologue Leon Trotsky and his followers. His real gift, however, was not for ideology but for polemic, and his blistering prose quickly made him a literary celebrity, first in the pages of Britain's New Statesman and then, after he emigrated to America, as a regular columnist at the Nation. Before long, Hitchens's colorful opinions and even more colorful public image became fixtures of mainstream publications like Vanity Fair and the Atlantic.
For much of his career, Hitchens was known as a ferocious critic of American power and American policy. But in the 1990s, with the war in the Balkans and the long campaign to secure American intervention against the Serbs, he began a slow turnabout that would come to a head on September 11, 2001. Following the 9/11 atrocities, and the conspicuous failure of many of his left-wing comrades to acknowledge the guilt, and the threat, of radical Islam, Hitchens split from the Left for good, becoming one of the most vocal and, in conservative quarters, most prized supporters of the war on terror and American intervention in Iraq.
As a result of this about-face, Hitchens is now loathed both by his former comrades on the Left and by apologists for radical Islam. At the same time, many conservatives have proved willing to overlook his less palatable opinions: his implacable hatred of religion, for example, or his claims that Mother Teresa was morally depraved and that Henry Kissinger should be tried for war crimes. Nonetheless, it has been hoped that, along with his turn against the Left, Hitchens might have mellowed somewhat on the Jewish question, and in particular on his longstanding antipathy toward Israel. But this was not to be, as he took care to remind the world in a November 15 essay in the online magazine Slate, enchantingly titled "Israel's Shabbos Goy."
In this article, Hitchens's trademark indignation was aroused by the Obama administration's offer to Israel of various benefits in exchange for a moratorium on settlement building. Any such deal would have had to be approved by Israel's coalition government, one of whose members is Shas, a Sephardi religious party whose founder and spiritual leader is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. The once-formidable scholar, referred to by Hitchens with typical subtlety as "this elderly Sephardic ayatollah" and a "scrofulous medieval figure," is now in his nineties and, as evidenced by some recent nasty remarks about non-Jews, much in need of retirement. For Hitchens, however, Ovadia Yosef and his attitude toward Gentiles are not the real problem. The real problem is Judaism itself:
The only mystery is this: why does the United States acquiesce so wretchedly in its own disgrace at the hands of a virtual client state? A soft version of Rabbi Yosef's contemptuous view of the Gentiles is the old concept of the 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 [i.e., America] actually volunteering a bribe to do the lowly work!
The tone of unrestrained invective in these passages is part of Hitchens's cachet as a writer. The substance, however, is very ugly stuff indeed, composed out of some of the most barbarous and reactionary stereotypes of the Jewish people. In one paragraph alone, Hitchens evokes an image of the Jews as preternaturally crafty, hypocritical, manipulative, supremacist, animalistic, and morally diseased creatures who, with the help of their corrupt talents, set themselves to exploiting Gentiles for financial gain and "cackle" with glee at the resultant spectacle. Nor is this sort of defamation particularly unusual for Hitchens, who has been writing similar things for years and, for the most part, getting away with it.
Hitchens's bestselling atheist jeremiad, God is Not Great (2007), provides an excellent overview of its author's sentiments on the topic of Jews and Judaism. While the book is ostensibly opposed to all religions equally, Hitchens goes out of his way not merely to criticize Judaism but to portray it in the ugliest possible terms, invoking many of the classic themes of anti-Semitism in order to do so.
He informs us, for example, of the "pitiless teachings of the God of Moses, who never mentions human solidarity and compassion at all," and whose Ten Commandments have nothing to say about "the protection of children from cruelty, nothing about rape, nothing about slavery, and nothing about genocide." Indeed, according to Hitchens, "some of these very offenses are . . . positively recommended" by the God of the Hebrews, with far-reaching historical consequences. According to Hitchens, the Jews' genocidal God and His order to drive the Canaanite tribes out of the land of Israel form the basis not only of a "19th-century irredentist claim to Palestine" but of the current debate among Israeli rabbis over "whether the demand to exterminate the Amalekites is a coded commandment to do away with the Palestinians." Who these rabbis might be, the extent of their influence, and whether anyone listens to them are questions that go mostly unaddressed.
For Hitchens, the evils he lists are not just religious tenets; they are ingrained in the Jews themselves. The rituals and practices of Judaism, he charges, are debased by the Jews' obsession with money, as exemplified by the "hypocrites and frauds who abound in talmudic Jewish rationalization" and who operate according to the principle: "'Don't do any work on the Sabbath yourself, but pay someone else to do it for you. You obeyed the letter of the law: who's counting?'" (Hitchens's world abounds, apparently, in dutiful shabbos goyim.) Circumcision, he claims, is the "sexual mutilation of small boys" and "most probably a symbolic survival from the animal and human sacrifices which were such a feature of the gore-soaked landscape of the Old Testament." As for anti-Semitism, the Jews brought it on themselves. "By claiming to be 'chosen' in a special exclusive covenant with the Almighty," Hitchens writes, "they invited hatred and suspicion and evinced their own form of racism."
Hitchens's loathing for Judaism, or rather the grotesque caricature he refers to as Judaism, is particularly evident in his treatment of Hanukkah, a holiday marking the 2nd-century B.C.E. victory of a Jewish revolt led by the Maccabees. For Hitchens, the Maccabees' defeat of the Hellenistic regime of Antiochus Epiphanes was a disaster, because Antiochus, far from being a villainous tyrant, had "weaned many people away from the sacrifices, the circumcisions, the belief in a special relationship with God, and the other reactionary manifestations of an ancient and cruel faith."
To put it kindly, this is false; for the rather less benign details, one may consult I Maccabees and Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews. In brief, the "weaning away" lauded by Hitchens involved the forcible suppression of Jewish culture, religion, and ritual, along with torture, imperial occupation, and mass murder, including the slaughter of children: in other words, the very things that this self-proclaimed global humanist violently denounces whenever the Jews are not involved.
For Hitchens, the Jewish rejection of Hellenistic Greek culture in favor of what he calls "tribal Jewish backwardness" constitutes something like a crime against humanity. This belief is an important one, and he appears to have come by it very early on. In his recently published autobiography, Hitch-22, he laments that, in the world-historical struggle between Athens and Jerusalem, the former tragically lost out to the latter's "stone-faced demand for continence, sacrifice, and conformity, and the devising of ever-crueler punishments for deviance." The fact that, historically speaking, the "ever-crueler punishments for deviance" were inflicted by Athens upon Jerusalem, and not vice-versa, is something that, for Hitchens, is apparently not worth mentioning.
In short, Judaism is to blame for everything Hitchens hates about monotheism as a whole. "As a convinced atheist, I ought to agree with Voltaire," he writes of the father of Enlightenment anti-Semitism,
that Judaism is not just one more religion, but in its way the root of religious evil. Without the stern, joyless rabbis and their 613 dour prohibitions, we might have avoided the whole nightmare of the Old Testament, and the brutal, crude wrenching of that into prophecy-derived Christianity, and the later plagiarism and mutation of Judaism and Christianity into the various rival forms of Islam.
"Most of the time," he concludes, "I do concur with Voltaire, but not without acknowledging that Judaism is dialectical."
That tacked-on caveat about Judaism's "dialectical" quality may seem curious, but Hitchens gives a good indication of what he means by it in describing the type of Jew he does find acceptable. These are the "non-Jewish" Jews like Spinoza, Trotsky, and, one imagines, the partially Jewish Christopher Hitchens himself. Needless to say, separating the Jews into "good" Jews and "bad" Jews has a rather nasty provenance, but Hitchens has indulged in the exercise on more than one occasion. Concerning, for example, the 2003 terrorist bombing of the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul, he wrote with ostensible sympathy that "The worshippers were not killed for building a settlement in the West Bank: they were members of a very old and honorable community who were murdered for being Jews." The implication that, had the Jews of Neve Shalom been building a settlement in the West Bank, murdering them would have been perfectly acceptable, points to where Hitchens's dialectics can lead.
It is also true that, on occasion, Hitchens has been outspoken in condemning anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, even a cursory examination reveals that these condemnations tend to be highly selective—so selective, in fact, that they often appear to be little more than an exercise in bad faith. For the most part, Hitchens condemns anti-Semitism when doing so can serve as a weapon against those he dislikes: e.g., certain right-wingers, certain left-wingers, radical Muslims, people who support radical Muslims, the Catholic church, or Christian evangelicals. When anti-Semitism serves his purposes, however, he is perfectly willing to make use of it and to engage in apologetics on its behalf.
Indeed, Hitchens's concept of anti-Semitism is itself a largely self-serving fantasy. "Because anti-Semitism is the godfather of racism and the gateway to tyranny and fascism and war," he has said, "it is to be regarded not as the enemy of the Jewish people but as the common enemy of humanity and of civilization and has to be fought against very tenaciously for that reason." In other words, Hitchens appears to be opposed to anti-Semitism only to the extent that it has nothing to do with the Jews but serves as a proxy for other evils. Given that anti-Semitism, whatever else it may be, is most certainly the enemy of the Jewish people, to decline to condemn it on that basis is, in effect, to decline to condemn it at all.
Hitchens has also proved quite willing to rationalize or explain away anti-Semitism when it is practiced by his friends or by those on his side of an argument. A notable beneficiary of his indulgence, as far back as the 1980s, was the leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky, who found himself in trouble after signing a petition defending the French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson. Criticized by a group of French intellectuals, Chomsky shot back that he was merely standing up for Faurisson's right of free speech, not his opinions, and attacked his critics as enemies of that right. In this he was duly parroted by Hitchens, who asserted that "the 'fact' here is that Chomsky defended not Faurisson's work but his right to research and publish it."
This too was false. The petition Chomsky signed, and from which Hitchens himself quoted extensively, was clearly written by a Holocaust denier and presented Holocaust denial as a perfectly acceptable form of historical inquiry. This was what Chomsky's opponents criticized—not his defense, such as it was, of Faurisson's right to free speech.
Something similar occurred in the case of the British pseudo-historian David Irving, a self-declared fascist who has also described himself as "a hardcore disbeliever" in the Holocaust. In 1996, when St. Martin's Press declined to publish Irving's biography of Joseph Goebbels, Hitchens rushed to announce that the press had "disgraced the business of publishing and degraded the practice of debate." He also asserted that Irving "has never and not once described the Holocaust as a 'hoax.'" This was obviously untrue, since Irving had been publicly denying the Holocaust for nearly a decade. Nor was "the Irving suppression," as Hitchens dubbed it with his usual bombast, anything more than a simple case of a publisher deciding, on fairly firm grounds of intellectual and moral integrity, not to publish an extremely bad book.
Even the symbols of Nazism seem to exercise Hitchens in strikingly counterintuitive ways, depending on who is deploying them. Remarking on the use of swastika flags by pro-Palestinian protestors, Hitchens publicly claimed to be "sickened" but then admonished his audience to remember that "this is an auction of imagery that was started by [Menachem] Begin and other Israeli extremists who once openly and regularly compared the PLO to the Nazi party." By way of contrast, on a 2009 visit to Beirut, Hitchens went out of his way to deface a swastika displayed by a pro-Syrian fascist party, endangering his traveling companions in the process. The contrast serves as something of an object lesson in Hitchens's selective outrage: When a swastika is the symbol of an obscure Lebanese political bloc, nothing, including the safety of others, must be spared in order to destroy it. When a swastika is brandished by pro-Palestinian activists, it is an understandable reaction to the rhetoric of "Israeli extremists."
The truth is that, beneath the surface platitudes, Hitchens's attitude toward the Holocaust and Nazism, like his attitude toward anti-Semitism, is disturbingly bizarre; but it is of a piece with his general attitude toward the Jews, Judaism, and their enemies.
There is, of course, no issue on which Hitchens's anti-Semitism has been more aggressive and outspoken than that of Zionism and Israel. That Hitchens hates Israel has long been known, and he has made no secret of it. Indeed, it practically leaps off the pages of his Slate article as well as countless other essays and interviews. Somewhat less well known is the extent to which this antipathy appears to be based on Hitchens's embrace of the racist proposition that the Jews have no homeland in Israel (and thus, by definition, no homeland anywhere).
According to Hitchens, the widely held delusion that the Jews are a people with the same rights as any other is a direct result of the deleterious influence of Judaism itself. As he puts it: "The only actual justification offered" for Zionism "is that God awarded the land to one tribe a good many years ago, and of course this appalling racist and messianic delusion . . . only makes a terrible situation even worse." In reality, one is constrained to point out, there is a bit more than God involved, such as the existence of a Jewish nation in the land of Israel for centuries, its sovereignty ended only by genocide at the hands of Roman legions; the centrality of Israel and especially Jerusalem to Jewish thought and culture; the fact that only the land of Israel has ever been regarded as the Jewish homeland by both Jews and non-Jews (including Muslims); and various other significant and notably secular historical facts.
Many of Hitchens's claims against Zionism go far beyond simple distortion. About Theodor Herzl, for example, he tells us: "If I could rewind the tape, I would stop Herzl from telling the initial demagogic lie (actually two lies) that a land without a people needs a people without a land." In fact, Herzl never wrote this. Hitchens's claim otherwise is no less false than his subsequent assertion that "If you give the most cursory attention to the writings of Herzl and [Max] Nordau and other founders of the Zionist movement, or if you read the memoirs of Yitzhak Rabin closer to our own day, you will notice at once that . . . they wanted [the Arabs'] land, and wanted it without its inhabitants." Herzl, in fact, hoped that the Arabs would be integrated as equal citizens in a future Jewish state, as did most of the "other founders of the Zionist movement," and Yitzhak Rabin never advocated an Israel emptied of its Arab citizens but publicly denounced such sentiments. One is not permitted to "lie about history," Hitchens once lectured a supporter of Israel, a rule that appears to be forgotten when it comes to Hitchens himself.
One likely reason behind Hitchens's hatred of Zionism is the (to him) irritating fact that the movement succeeded despite the opposition to it of many of the "non-Jewish" Jews he so admires. "One of the advantages of a Marxist and internationalist training," he has stated in an interview, "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." This assertion is either tragic or absurd, considering that the Jewish cosmopolitanism glorified by Hitchens ended in the Auschwitz gas chambers, while the despised Zionists went on to found a relatively strong, prosperous, and culturally vibrant nation-state.
To a great extent, such violent hostility appears to be driven not by the delusions of Zionism but by the delusions of Christopher Hitchens. In a remarkable piece of bluster, he once wrote that "if anti-Jewish fascism comes again to the Christian world—or more probably comes at us via the Muslim world," he would not repair to Israel because "I already consider it an obligation to resist it wherever I live. I would detest myself if I fled from it in any direction." The obvious truth behind this swaggering fantasy is that if "anti-Jewish fascism" were to rise again, Hitchens would most likely share the fate of almost everyone who followed his recommended course the last time such a dilemma presented itself. His complacent formula for permanent Jewish victimization calls to mind something his hero George Orwell once wrote about pacifism: that it "is only possible to people who have money and guns between them and reality." Much the same, and worse, appears to be true of Hitchens and his anti-Zionism.
Without taking anything away from Hitchens's native gifts as a polemicist, it is not difficult to pinpoint the source of many of his poisonous attitudes toward the Jews and Judaism. He has done so himself many times by naming the late Israel Shahak as his "beloved guide, in the superior sense of that term," occupying a place in his pantheon of intellectual heroes next to Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, and, of all people, Gore Vidal. "He was never interviewed by the New York Times," Hitchens lamented after Shahak's death, "and its obituary pages have let pass the death of a great and serious man."
Unfortunately, the "great and serious man" was barking mad. This is made apparent by the merest glimpse into Shahak's magnum opus, Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, which Hitchens has recommended as a reliable guide on matters Jewish. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece of anti-Semitic literature, whose thesis is quickly summarized: Judaism is racist and evil; as a result, Zionism is racist and evil; as a result, Israel is racist and evil. For Jews to cease to be racist and evil, they must divest themselves of Judaism.
To support this thesis, Shahak spins a lengthy conspiracy theory according to which the ancient rabbis cooked up the Talmud in order to create "one of the most totalitarian societies in the whole history of mankind." Here are a few characteristic passages:
* "[B]oth before and after a meal, a pious Jew ritually washes his hands, uttering a special blessing. On one of these two occasions he is worshiping God, by promoting the divine union of Son and Daughter; but on the other he is worshiping Satan, who likes Jewish prayers and ritual acts so much that when he is offered a few of them it keeps him busy for a while and he forgets to pester the divine Daughter."
* The "dominant feature" of talmudic Judaism "is deception—deception primarily of God, if this word can be used for an imaginary being so easily deceived by the rabbis. . . . Together with the deception of God goes the deception of other Jews, mainly in the interest of the Jewish ruling class." Indeed, "Marx was quite right when, in his two articles about Judaism, he characterized it as dominated by profit-seeking."
* Zionism, along with Orthodoxy, is the true successor of "historical Judaism." Both are "sworn enemies of the concept of an open society." Indeed, a Jewish state "cannot ever contain an open society. It can [only] become a fully closed and warlike ghetto, a Jewish Sparta, supported by the labor of Arab helots, kept in existence by its influence on the U.S. political establishment and by threats to use its nuclear power."
And so on in the same vein, including the revelations that Martin Buber was a mass murderer and that American Jews—who are all racists—became involved in the civil-rights movement only in order to further Jewish interests.
To anyone who has read Hitchens, much of this will sound familiar enough: at various times he has repeated whole passages from Shahak, occasionally word for word. The line about "Arab helots," for example, is a particular favorite. He is also, as we have seen, especially fond of Shahak's idea that there are some exceptional Jews "who have internalized the complex of ideas which Karl Popper has called 'the open society.'"
We have returned to the good Jews and the bad Jews. The good Jews are those who rid themselves of any semblance of a particular Jewish identity. The bad Jews are those, secular or religious, who choose to remain who they are, and are therefore corrupted by the racism, chauvinism, power worship, and hatred of Gentiles inherent in Judaism itself. It is worth pointing out that, according to these criteria, almost all Jews are bad Jews.
Indeed, this final point is the essential one, because it goes to the heart of Hitchens's attitudes toward Judaism. Like Shahak, Hitchens's vision is of a world in which there will be no more Judaism. One should be honest about what this means: it means the religious, cultural, political, and social extinction of the Jews as Jews. In the world as Hitchens would have it, the Jew would cease to exist.
Hitchens often makes much of the necessity of facing truth as it is, and of not making convenient excuses for looking away. As he often quotes Orwell, "to see what is under one's nose needs a constant struggle." Indeed it does. In the present case, the anti-Semite is under all our noses, and it is well worth the struggle to see him.
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer living in Tel Aviv.
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