Upon word of the great Anglo-American provocateur and man of letters Christopher Hitchens’ passing (1949 – 2011), the editors of the most excellent webzine Jewish Ideas Daily elected to re-publish an essay by the Tel Aviv writer Benjamin Kerstein, on his so-called “Jewish problem”.
Citing his back catalogue of anti-clerical literature as well as relationships with spurious characters including Israel Shabak and Gore Vidal, Kerstein concludes that Hitchens’ problem is his implicit distinction between the “good Jews and the bad Jews”. As an opponent of religious autarky and orthodoxy, Hitchens’ 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’ problem is his implicit distinction between the “good Jews and the bad Jews”
Hitchens was indeed disgusted by elements of Judaism – in particular circumcision, which he referred to as the “sexual mutilation of small boys” – which are considered unobjectionable by most, outside of San Francisco at any rate. And, he was certainly appalled if not by Judaism itself then by what as a Protestant atheist he would call the Old Testament, a book in which “the ground is forever soaked with the blood of the innocent” and where no-one “seems to have any idea of a world beyond the desert”.
It might be more accurate to argue that he had a confused relationship with Judaism, by virtue of these strident opinions operating in tandem with his late-in-life discovery of his own halacha-defined identity, of which he was proud and pleased. To call him an anti-Semite, as Kerstein implies, would be ridiculous. Not only was Hitchens clear that he did not wish to vanquish religion entirely (a matter on which he disagreed with fellow horseman Dawkins), but as Marc Tracy has noted his intellectual idols were indeed largely Jewish: Marx; Trotsky; Luxembourg; Freud; Einstein. By arguing that by indulging Spinoza and discarding Moses, Hitchens was in some form anti-Jewish, surely it is Kerstein who is making the distinction between good and bad Jews.
But whilst Hitchens was not anti-Semitic, nor anti-Jewish, he was certainly an anti-Zionist, and an open one to boot. Particularly after September 11 and the emergence of Hamas as a force in Palestinian politics, he danced awkwardly and rarely satisfactorily between recognising Israel’s right to exist but not the philosophy the state is founded upon, a “nineteenth-century irredentist claim to Palestine that has brought us endless trouble up to the present day”. With this, Hitchens engages with the worst kind of anti-Israeli prejudices, namely those which argue that Jews who returned to what Herzl called the “ever-memorable historic home” are wholly responsible for the land’s current condition.
Whatever one may think of Hitchens’ anti-Zionism, developments in Israel both recent and in the near-past have at least proven him prescient and correct on two important points: that the occupation of the West Bank, a “moral and political catastrophe”, would given time result in a coarsening of Israeli civil society; and that, well, religion poisons everything.
Ari Shavit recently exclaimed in Haaretz that Israel has “never been so ugly”; nowhere has this hideousness been more viscerally on display than in Beit Shemesh, where the intersection of religion and power has allowed the creation of what MK Tzipi Hotovely referred to as a “de facto autonomous state inside the State of Israel”. Here, attempts have been made by parts of the town’s Haredi community to impose a separation of the sexes by forcing women onto a different side of the street. And, of course, there is the 8-year-old American schoolgirl Na’ama Margolis, who has been repeatedly spat on for her so-deemed immodest dress.
Netanyahu has argued that events in Beit Shemesh – as well as additional evidence for the coarsening of Israel society including “price tag” attacks on mosques and the recent assault on IDF troops by settlers near Qalqilya – should not be used in order to paint a caricature of the Haredi community as a whole. “We must not generalise,” Netanyahu was quoted by the Jerusalem Post as saying. “To include [all haredim] in the violence of a marginal, law-breaking group would be irresponsible”.
Whilst the attempt to prevent the divide between religious and secular widening into a chasm is noble, the effect of his remarks is to absolve the Haredi community of having to undergo any introspection or reform from within. What Netanyahu said in effect was these events are not the fault of ultra-Orthodoxy, but of those acting in the name of it.
Hitchens would argue that the evil in those desecrating mosques or subjugating women and little girls to second-class status can be found in the books from which they derive their authority. In response to news of a female soldier being called a ‘slut’ on a bus in Jerusalem, Hitchens would undoubtedly point to the Tenth Commandment – “Thou shalt not covet…” – for lumping “the wife in with the rest of the chattel” and making them property of men along with the servile class.
For this, Hitchens was perhaps the wrong messenger to deliver misgivings about Israel’s extended stay in the West Bank following the Six Day War. After all, he was still of the view until almost the very end that the advent of Zionism had resulted in “Jews becoming colonisers at just the moment when other Europeans had given up on the idea”. But when faced with the evolving, noxious reality on the ground, his rather questionable interpretation of Zionism does not make some of his other conclusions any less valid.