People seem to love author and cultural critic Christopher Hitchens for precisely the reason other people seem to hate him: he has an opinion, and a strong one, about almost everything. His new memoir, “Hitch-22,” is chock full of them, too. And when he appeared at at the 92nd Street Y on Tuesday night, in a chat with his close friend Salman Rushdie, that fact was not glossed over.
As Rushdie pointed out in his opening remarks: “I’m struck by how eclectic your dislikes are,” saying that Hitchens ridicules Mother Teresa in his memoir (he wrote a scathing book about her too), and also Bill Clinton. Yet, Rushdie added, “You like Margaret Thatcher, but you dislike God.”
Some explanation was in order, and Hitchens took to it with characteristic aplomb. He said that his opinions stem from no particular ideological commitment, except perhaps one: “Basically, I’m committed to skepticism,” he said. “What you think is much less important than how you think,” he said.
That idea, like many others he shared Tuesday night, closely echoed the content of his book. “Hitch-22” follows Hitchens’ physical and intellectual journey, from Marxism to muscular U.S. interventionism, to meetings with Sandinistas and Hezbollah militants. Several chapters are devoted to his glamorous friendships, including Rushdie, James Fenton, Martin Amis and, before their harsh parting of ways, Palestinian rights’ champion Edward Said.
Given the space devoted to all of his famous friends, some critics have derided the book as an abandonment of a memoir’s main purpose: to reveal one’s personal life. Minimal space is given to his family life — he’s married, with three kids. But at least one figure gets the two whole chapters: his mother, Yvonne Hickman.
She committed suicide when he was 23, and it was not until Hitchens was 38 that he found out she was Jewish. “Well, I’ve got something to tell you,” Yvonne’s mother Dorothy told Hitchens’ brother. “So are you.”
It was Hitchens’ brother Peter who then revealed the information to him, and while Hitchens has written about his Jewish heritage before, “Hitch-22” rehashes it at great length. He writes that his mother’s decision to hide her identity from him was based on her total commitment to his becoming a proper English gentleman.
“She wanted me to pass,” he told Rushdie, repeating what he wrote in the book. “You be the judge of how well that worked out,” he added, coyly. (An Oxford grad who has since become an American citizen, the answer is not obvious.)
At the Y he described a Jewish-heritage tour he did of Poland after he learned he was part Jewish. His grandmother was born Dorothy Levin, in Liverpool, to an Orthodox Jewish family that emigrated from Breslau, Germany, in the 1840s. (Dorothy’s husband converted to Judaism to marry her.) Describing the smallness of Breslau today, Hitchens noted the absurdity of recently disgraced White House reporter Helen Thomas, whose angry tirade suggested that Israel’s Jews should all go back to “where they came from.” Breslau, Hitchens pointed out, was “where Helen Thomas thinks all Jews should live,” eliciting big laughs from the crowd.
But some of what he writes in the book — and didn’t say in the talk with Rushdie — would likely not have gone over so well. For instance, he discovers that one of his distant Jewish relatives, David Szmulevski, a survivor of Auschwitz, later became a member of Poland’s Communist Party secret police. “He never once alludes to this in his account [in his own memoirs] of being forced out of Poland in 1967, preferring instead to blame historic anti-Jewish prejudice for the whole business.”
Polish Communists, many of them Jews like Szmulevski, committed atrocities against Germans after the war, Hitchens writes. “Many of the penal labor camps constructed by the Nazis were later used as holding pens for German deportees by the Communists,” he writes, “and some of those who ran these grim places were Jewish.” He goes on: “Nobody from Israel or the diaspora who goes to the East of Europe on a family-history fishing-trip should be unaware of the chance that they will find out both much less and much more than the package-tour had promised them. … But real history is more pitiless even than you had been told it was.”
His views on Israel are no less pitiless. Though a strident critic of Israel’s present foe — radical Islam — he holds no punches about his disillusionment with Zionism. He remembers in his student days being on the side of Israel, on the eve of the Six-Day War. “It seemed to me obvious that here was a tiny state, clinging to the seaboard of the Eastern Mediterranean, and faced not with defeat but with existential obliteration,” he writes.
But he has since changed his views. He realizes that Zionism, premised on the belief that it would protect Jews from anti-Semitism, is a shibboleth. In part, he believes this because anti-Semitism is “ineradicable and as one element of the toxins with which religion has infected us.” (Hitchens’ contempt for organized religion was on full display in his neo-atheist manifesto, “God Is Not Great.”)
But there is also his experiences visiting Israel. While the Zionist dream of Jews running their own affairs — they are their own policemen, their own soldiers, their own politicians — has been realized, he sees their power is now being used for ill. On the advice of liberals Israeli friends like Amos Elon and Margalit Avishai, he visits the West Bank only to find everyday squalor and despair.
When he reports back on his findings to another journalist and friend, Jeffrey Goldberg, a prominent defender of Israel, their discussion is revealing. “Suppose that a man leaps out of a burning building and lands on a bystander in the street below,” Goldberg asks Hitchens, over lunch, in a passage from his memoir. “Now, make that burning building be Europe, and the luckless man underneath be the Palestinian Arabs. Is this a historical injustice?”
Hitchens answers with a highly conditional “no,” adding, “but only on these conditions. The man leaping from the burning building must still make such restitution as he can to the man who broke his fall, and must not pretend he never landed on him.” In other words, Hitchens goes on, “Do not tell the Palestinians that they were never fallen upon and bruised in the first place. [And] do not shame yourself with the cheap lie that they were told by their leaders to run away.”
His critique of Zionism often takes on the trope of Talmudic rhetoric, with his opinions given as rhetorical questions: “Why else does Israel daily beseech the often-flourishing Jews of other lands, urging them to help the most endangered Jews of all: the ones who rule Palestine by force of arms?” And, “Why else, having supposedly escaped from the need to rely on Gentile goodwill, has Israel come to depend more and more upon it?”
At the conversation with Rushdie, it appeared that Hitchens’ Talmudic knowledge wasn’t entirely lacking, either. He described a fabled Talmudic session of one of his youthful heroes, Leon Trotsky, ne Lev Davidovich Bronstein, and born into an Orthodox family in Ukraine.
Growing up in Ukraine, Hitchens told the crowd, Trotsky was one of the brightest students in his yeshiva. After years of Talmudic study, he was up for a final exam and was given what was supposed to be the most difficult rabbinic question of all. A mysterious bird flies overhead and then spits on the ground. Trotsky waits for the question, shaking with anticipation. “Is the spit kosher or treif?” the rabbi asks.
At that moment, Hitchens said, Trotsky got up and left. The Jewish religion was not for him, Hitchens added, but Marxism proved no better.
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