I last saw him at the New York Public Library in June 2010, days before he learned of his illness. There, in the NYPL’s magnificent main building, he spoke about his recent autobiography (“Hitch-22”), making a point of saying that he wanted to write it at a not-yet-advanced age, because you never know when you’ll breathe your last. He was about three weeks older than I.
I frequently read his articles and essays with great interest, and I was amused by his brilliant exposé of Mother Teresa. I disagreed about as often as I agreed with his positions. In particular, I did not agree with his stubborn defense of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and of George W. Bush, even though I fully appreciated the human rights considerations which motivated his support for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. (Full disclosure: I initially supported the run-up to the invasion, until the US lost the vote in the UN Security Council and insisted on unilateral military action; I rejoiced at Saddam’s overthrow for humanitarian reasons, but also came to know that the terribly ill-advised decisions of US “proconsul” Paul Bremer– to fire Saddam’s military and to bar even lowly Bathist Party members from government jobs– made Iraq’s sectarian civil war inevitable.)
The JTA’s obit article on Hitchens is particularly interesting to me, as it focuses upon his long and complicated track record regarding Jews, Judaism and Israel:
…. Regarding Israel, he allied himself in the 1970s and 1980s with Palestinian nationalists and called himself an anti-Zionist.
As an atheist, he engaged with Judaism as he did with other faiths – with disdain for what he saw as a corrupting, malign irrationalism.
Yet in later years ….He developed a grudging appreciation for a democracy in a region he saw burgeoning with radical theocrats.
He also detected among some of his fellow Israel critics a tendency toward anti-Semitism….
…. Hitchens was 38 when his maternal grandmother revealed to his younger brother Peter that she was Jewish.
He told The Observer in 2002 that the revelation “thrilled” him – living in Washington, he had acquired a passel of Jewish friends. Moreover, he had had a dream of being on the deck of a ship and being asked to join a minyan.
Despite his rejection of religious precepts, Hitchens would make a point of telling interviewers that according to halacha, he was Jewish.
Hitchens’ proclivity, his insistence on pleasing no one but himself, was evident this summer when his target was a small group of pro-Palestinian activists aiming to breach Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip on the anniversary of the Israeli raid on another flotilla that claimed the lives of nine Turks and earned Israel international opprobrium.
He could not resist tweaking Israel for a tendency to blunder into confrontation. “Since Israel adopts a posture that almost guarantees a reaction of some sort in the not-too-distant future, and since there was such a frisson of violence the last time the little fleet set sail, there’s no reason for it not to become a regular seasonal favorite,” he wrote in Slate.
But then he went on to note the activists[‘] ties or sympathies with the Hamas-led government in Gaza, also noting Hamas’ embrace of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. “This disgusting fabrication is a key foundational document of 20th-century racism and totalitarianism, indelibly linked to the Hitler regime in theory and practice,” he wrote. “It seems extraordinary to me that any ‘activist’ claiming allegiance to human rights could cooperate at any level with the propagation of such evil material.”
He continued: “The little boats cannot make much difference to the welfare of Gaza either way, since the materials being shipped are in such negligible quantity. The chief significance of the enterprise is therefore symbolic. And the symbolism, when examined even cursorily, doesn’t seem too adorable.”