I saw Christopher Hitchens speaking on his new memoir, “Hitch-22,” at the New York Public Library last week. He’s erudite, clever and full of himself, but also entertaining. He adored his mother, who killed herself in a suicide pact with a lover. He had a difficult relationship with his father, a retired Royal Navy officer, who was rather gruff and very much a Tory.
His mother insisted that he get a top-notch education and went beyond the family’s economic means to send him to public (i.e., private) boarding school and then on to Cambridge. He was not born to the ruling class, but his mother insisted explicitly that he should be part of it.
He himself was an ardent leftist from his youth. He’s broken ranks with the hard left over support for Western interventions against murderous international forces (e.g., Serb ultra-nationalists, Afghan Taliban, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) and over his opposition to Islamist extremism—whether in the form of al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran. He’s long championed the Palestinian cause, but is capable of nuanced and intelligent analysis in this regard. He spoke of his friendship with the late Edward Said, the famed American-Palestinian intellectual, and his feeling that Said was less than total in his condemnation of Islamist terrorism (both opposing and excusing it).
His maternal grandmother, who outlived both his parents, told him, about 20 years ago, of the family secret that his mother was born Jewish.
He has a Christian-informed anti-religious bias. (I’ve read his entertaining and powerfully-written indictment of Mother Theresa, but not his anti-religious manifesto, “God Is Not Great.”) When asked about Israel’s “attack” on the flotilla, he said that this was really a “micro-event” in the larger scheme of things. He also denounced the Turkish Islamists who were part of the flotilla, as well as the current Turkish government for cozying up to Hamas and Iran, and criticized the way Western media sources call the flotilla Islamists, “activists.”
But he also curtly said that Israel will never be a normal state and that the Jews will never be a normal people—“nor should they be.” Because the Jews prove that “there is no redemption.”
The reaction to this harsh-sounding pronouncement was a stunned and puzzled silence in the large, sold-out hall at the NYPL’s main branch. In discussing this after, my companion and I agreed that he objectified Jews with this statement, making them symbols in his own play—that of a devout atheist who was brought up as a nominal Christian. If there’s any compassion he feels for the Jews, it’s illustrated in his denunciation of various personages he dislikes as “antisemites”—such as the poet, T.S. Eliot, and some fringe political figures.