December 21, 2011
Of all the eulogies and essays about Christopher Hitchens that have appeared following his death Dec. 15 at age 62, one is particularly pernicious.
“The Trouble With Hitchens,” by Benjamin Kerstein, surfaced on a Web site called JewishIdeasDaily.com. In it, he accuses Hitchens of being anti-Semitic.
Someone far, far more astute than I could make hash of such nonsense.
Unfortunately, that someone just died. So I’ll give it a shot.
Kerstein acknowledges that over the course of his lifetime of intellectual discourse and writing, Hitchens traveled far from his youthful left-leaning anti-colonial, anti-Zionism to find common cause with neo-cons later in life. But Hitchens’ acid criticisms of Judaism, the religion, and Zionism as a movement, according to Kerstein, still warrant labeling him a particularly sneaky kind of anti-Semite.
There are, according to Kerstein, long passages in Hitchens’ best-selling “God Is Not Great” that seem to single out Judaism for the original sin of institutionalizing monotheism.
“Hitchens goes out of his way not merely to criticize Judaism but to portray it in the ugliest possible terms,” Kerstein writes, “invoking many of the classic themes of anti-Semitism in order to do so.”
“Circumcision, [Hitchens] 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.’ ”
News flash: Hitchens despised all religion, and in making an argument, any argument, he pulled no punches. (Another news flash: Circumcision is a form of partial sacrifice — which is much more enlightened than actually killing someone).
It isn’t brain surgery to troll through Hitchens’ writings and pull out the sentences that are most critical of Judaism and Israel. But that doesn’t prove Hitchens is anti-Semitic; it does show that Kerstein is fishing.
I met Hitchens three times. Once, I moderated a debate between him and Rabbi David Wolpe on whether religion is good. Another time, I moderated a panel on which Hitchens, Rabbi Wolpe, Rabbi Brad Artson and author Sam Harris debated “Is There an Afterlife?”
I’ll leave it to Rabbi Wolpe, who became close with Hitchens, to voice his own memories of Hitchens in the eulogy he wrote for The Journal (on Page 33).
But the second time I met Hitchens is the most relevant here. It was on the occasion of the eighth annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture, which Hitchens delivered at the request of Ruth and Judea Pearl, parents of the late, esteemed journalist, at UCLA on March 3, 2010.
Kerstein alludes to the lecture, but dismisses it as too little, too late. I couldn’t disagree more.
In it, Hitchens, who didn’t discover that he, himself, was Jewish until age 38, and who married a Jewish woman, made a case in his talk that the Jewish gift to the world of the art forms of argument, skepticism and cosmopolitism is precisely what anti-Semites seek to destroy.
“I was late in discovering some occluded parts of my heritage, and I once wrote that anyone who wanted to defame the Jewish people would, if they were doing so, be defaming my wife, my mother, my mother- and father-in-law and my daughter. So I thought I didn’t really have to say anything for myself, but I did add that in whatever turn of voice the question was put to me — whether it was friendly or hostile — ‘Was I Jewish?’ I would always answer, ‘Yes.’ The denial in my family would end with me.”
Hitchens went on to dissect exactly what anti-Semitism is. Is criticizing Israel anti-Semitic? Hitchens asked. No — unless you deny the right of Israel to exist. Is questioning the facts of the Holocaust anti-Semitic? No — unless you question its basic occurrence, too. Is monotheism anti-Semitic? Yes, said Hitchens, at least two-thirds of it is.
“It’s the very bitch, I’m saying, anti-Semitism,” Hitchens continued. “This plague is very protean and very durable and very volatile. Just as you think it’s been eradicated, up it pops again, surges. It’s exploded with or without the existence of the State of Israel, with or without finance capitalism, for which Jews were blamed, and with or without communism, for which, amazingly, Jews were simultaneously blamed.
“Our task is to call this filthy thing, this plague, this pest, by its right name,” Hitchens said of anti-Semitism, “to make unceasing resistance to it, knowing all the time that it’s probably ultimately ineradicable, and bearing in mind that its hatred toward us is a compliment and resolving some of the time, at any rate, to do a bit more to deserve it.”
Hitchens once said that the role of the journalist is to “go out and make mischief.” I suppose this is his corollary — the role of the Jew is to deserve the hatred of people who embrace conformity, blind acceptance and unexamined belief.
If Kerstein, like too many Jews today, wants to create litmus tests for what makes one sufficiently pro-Jewish or pro-Israel, Hitchens reminded us, by his words and life, that there is that other kind of Jew, the Jew among Jews, who like Jacob, wrestles not just with God, but especially with God.
Part of wrestling is resistance, and part of wrestling is embrace. Over his too-short life, Hitchens, like most Jews I know, treated his heritage and his People to both.
After the afterlife debate, I wanted to introduce my son, then a high-school senior, to Hitchens, and say goodbye.
“My son is a big fan,” I said to Hitchens.
“Oh,” he said, reaching for my son’s hand. “Don’t be fan, be a critic. Be a doubter. Find faults. Argue.”
Christopher Hitchens, alav ha-shalom.