After learning in 1987 that his mother was Jewish, Hitchens embarked on his “roots” trip to Poland, to try to find out about his unknown relatives. The earliest ancestor he could trace was a Nathan Blumenthal, who decamped for England in the mid-19th century. Hitchens wondered about the remaining family’s fate during the Holocaust, but found that every Blumenthal he could find “had wound up on the transports to Auschwitz.” And he concludes, “So that was that.” As admirable as Hitchens’s concerns are about the injustices suffered by the Palestinians, he seems strangely unable to empathize with the “tribe.” He says, for example, that if anti-Semitism were to rise in the U.S., he would stay put and resist and would detest himself if he “fled from it in any direction.” But it’s all too easy to make such an assertion in the safe environment of today’s America; the Blumenthals of 1942 would have been happy to have an Israel to go to.
Hitchens believes that the notion that the “Jews made the desert bloom” — a “stock” phrase his mother repeated — is false, because it implies that the Palestinian Arabs were “desert dwellers” when they were in fact “the agricultural superiors of the Crusaders.” Once that might have been so, but by the time the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state in 1947, it no longer was. Every commission sent to study the area and make recommendations noted the incredible progress the Jews had made in land reclamation and development. The reaction of an American member of one such commission was not uncommon: “I feel like getting down on my knees before these people. I’ve always been proud of my own ancestors who made farms out of the virgin forest. But these people are raising crops out of rock!” It was President Truman’s hope as well that Israel would be able to contribute to the development of the vast arid lands of the Middle East.
Hitchens did, however, come to differ with his old friend and erstwhile ally, the late Palestinian spokesman and American professor Edward Said. For Hitchens, it was one thing to defend Palestinian rights, another to join those advocating jihad and Islamofascism. His break with Said intensified over Said’s and other leftists’ opposition to the U.S. effort to fight for the Muslims in Bosnia. NATO and American bombing of the Serb aggressors, they argued, “could not by definition be a moral or ethical action.” Hitchens admits, in a kind of Kronstadt moment:
I had wanted the moral arithmetic to add up, while still hoping that it could somehow be made to do this on the “left” side of the column. In Bosnia, though, I was brought to the abrupt admission that, if the majority of my former friends got their way about non-intervention, there would be another genocide on European soil. . . . This was an exceedingly clarifying reflection. It made me care much less about the amour propre of my previous loyalties.
By the time of Said’s death, the two were no longer speaking. Said had accused Hitchens of being a racist. Hitchens was not invited, nor did he intend to go, to Said’s funeral. He says he now experiences “a violent sense of repulsion” when he hears leftist apologetics and is more inclined to take on the “crimes and blunders” of the Left than those of the Right.
Hitchens’s decision after 9/11 to support the Iraq War showed his determination to think independently of any camp. He gives us a careful analysis that blows away the claim that the Bush administration lied our nation into war. He also satisfied himself “that those within the administration who were making the case for ‘regime change’ were sincere in what they believed and were not knowingly exaggerating anything for effect.”
Whether or not one likes the positions Hitchens takes on events and people, one can only admire his resolve to be his own man. My hope is that after continued reflection, he will reconsider some of his remaining positions that stem from the old Trotskyist Left. He gives us grounds for hope, writing that he favors “continual doubt and self-criticism.” But even if he does not, he is a voice to treasure and to take seriously. Christopher Hitchens will continue to challenge and entertain us. He will also attempt to enlighten us, and we know he is smart — he has that British accent.