The last time I saw Christopher Hitchens speak publicly in Los Angeles, he argued against God and religion. This time, delivering the eighth annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLA on March 3, he sounded a warning against a resurgence of anti-Semitism.
A standing-room-only audience of more than 400 people turned out to hear the British-born author, who was introduced by Judea Pearl, an emeritus professor of computer science at UCLA and founder, with his wife, Ruth, of the foundation that carries the name of their son, the Wall Street Journal reporter slain by terrorists in 2002.
If the stakes of the issue weren’t already apparent, Hitchens took the stage and immediately made them so. He pointed out that he himself hadn’t discovered his own Jewishness until he was 38. At that point in his life, he resolved, “Whatever tone of voice the question was put to me, whether it was friendly or hostile, ‘Was I Jewish,’ I would always answer ‘yes.’ “
Daniel Pearl, Hitchens pointed out, answered that question with his life.
“I pause to remember how proudly and how bravely and how nobly he refused any sort of refuge in denial,” Hitchens said.
Then, moving from the noble to the absurd, Hitchens screened TV news footage of actor Mel Gibson denying to a Jewish interviewer that he had ever made any anti-Semitic comments and asking the man if he didn’t “have a dog in this fight.”
Gibson, Hitchens said, is one of the more memorable faces of a hatred that is again ascendant.
“From the Muslim ghettos in Europe, to the proclamations in the Middle East, to the pronouncements of the Russian Orthodox church,” Hitchens said, “to Ratzinger himself, now pope, restoring to the ranks the formerly excommunicated members of the Society of Pope Pius ... it’s all coming back and needs to be confronted.”
“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.”
Hitchens parsed anti-Semitism further. Is being anti-Israel necessarily anti-Semitic? 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 — Jews will never be forgiven for seeing Jesus as “just a crackpot rabbi and also a grave blasphemer, and Muhammad as a warlord. ... You shouldn’t want to be forgiven for getting a thing like that right, but don’t go to any mushy ecumenical outreach meetings with these people. It’s a waste of time.”
Don’t invite Christopher Hitchens and expect kumbaya.
In fact, the talk reiterated points Hitchens made in a Nov. 19, 2008 essay, but now with the added audiovisual effect of Gibson.
“I certainly don’t think it was the booze,” Hitchens said of the actor’s Malibu traffic-stop tirade. “But I can say that if whiskey made you anti-Jewish, the Pearl family would not have invited me to address them.”
Anti-Semitism endures, Hitchens said, because Jews represent cosmopolitanism, skepticism, the search for uncomfortable truths and creativity.
In this regard, Hitchens said, anti-Semitism can even be flattering.
Hitchens the atheist is a proud nonbeliever; Hitchens the Jew has adopted none of the rites, rituals or beliefs of his newfound faith, aside from a refined sense of imminent danger. He quoted Victor Klemperer, the German Jewish diarist whose writings eerily predicted the Holocaust: “You know, we Jews are seismic people.”
Wednesday’s talk was presented by the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, the Daniel Pearl Foundation and the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA. There and at a private dinner at philanthropist Ron Burkle’s home later, Hitchens didn’t entertain a load of contrary evidence that his seismograph may be off:
An Anti-Defamation League survey over the past two years shows levels of anti-Semitism have remained steady in seven European countries tested and actually declined in England.
A 2009 Pew poll found very slight increases in negative opinions toward Jews in Europe. Opinions about Muslims in almost all of these countries are considerably more negative than are views of Jews.
And, according to a Gallup poll released the same week Hitchens took the stage at UCLA, American support of Israel is at its “highest level in nearly 20 years.”
Few intellects are as potent as Hitchens’, but his central point is less nuanced than nerve-racking. Mel Gibson, after all, is not a threat — he’s a punch line. Hitchens demands proof of God but takes anti-Semitism on faith.
That leaves Hitchens’ final point — vigilance — as his strongest.
“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 on Anti-Semitism
Transcript of The Eighth Annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecyure
March 3, 2010
I can’t tell you how much of an honor it was for me to be asked by the Pearl family to do this, and I want to say to them how many people said to me when they heard or read that I was coming things that made it plain how they regarded the loss of your son as personal.
Whether they were Jewish or not, whether they were Americans or not, whether they were interested in the first amendment or whether they were journalists or not, there was something about the manner of his passing that will always remain with us. If I lived in an uncivilized society, today could have been for me a kind of martyr’s day. I was just taken by some very courteous and gallant young cadets to see the Veteran’s Memorial on the other side of this campus, where is commemorated second lieutenant Mark Daly, a young man who gave his life in Kurdistan a few years ago for the liberation of Iraq, and wrote very movingly to me about it and his service, and a man who I was hoping to meet and his family. I’m very pleased now to count as I now with great pride claim the Pearls as if not family very close friends, and I thought to myself after I go to this memorial I have to go and speak for Danny, but justice at Mark’s scattering of his ashes, there will be today no ululations, no wailings, no shooting in the air, no tossing of the coffin on the shoulders of a mob, no hoarse, brutal cries for revenge and suicide and murder. No, we won’t have that. Instead, we’ll have honest, decent, modest, brave people trying to deal with their grief and trying to apply reason to the crises that led to their deprivation, and I think that marks if you like part of the boundary between civilization and barbarism that this lecture is designed to patrol and I would say enforce.
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