Not long ago, I told an older colleague of my admiration for Christopher Hitchens, the Anglo-American author, journalist and public intellectual who finally succumbed to esophageal cancer Thursday at the age of 62. I acknowledged to my friend, a fellow Zionist, that Hitchens was bad on at least one issue - Israel. "That's a pretty big issue," he replied.
Indeed it is, at least for those of us who care about the survival of the Jewish State. And it was a big issue for Hitchens, who, for years from his perch at The Nation, in public debates, or in the book he coauthored with the late Columbia University professor Edward Said ("Blaming the Victims"), attacked Israel with the vituperation he usually reserved for some of his most loathed targets, from Henry Kissinger to Mother Teresa.
However, Israel became less of an issue for Christopher over the past decade. Its diminishing salience, I believe, was a result of the increasing threat he perceived in the form of radical Islam, and what he undoubtedly recognized as the hijacking of the Palestinian cause by those committed not to secular nationalism but religious jihad.
In the days when a Marxist group like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was able to play a prominent role in the struggle against the occupation, and when Christian Arabs could creditably claim to be spokesmen for that struggle, it was easy for Christopher to trumpet the Palestinian cause alongside other Third World liberation movements, which, as a socialist with an international conscience, he felt a natural duty to support. But the Palestinian cause took a harder claim on his conscience as the movement became more and more defined by bloodcurdling cries for the murder of Jews and the victory of Islam. Like the left in general, it wasn't Christopher who abandoned the Palestinians, but the Palestinians who abandoned him.
Christopher's self-appointed role as the intellectual bard in the war against "Islamofascism," a term he did not create but nonetheless popularized, did not translate into a newfound love for Israel. I remember him telling me over drinks one night that he could never accept the premise of a Jewish homeland. Never mind philosophically, physically the state of Israel looked "impermanent" and "temporary." This did not mean that he wished its disappearance - far from it; one of the great services Christopher performed was exposing the intellectual fraudulence of Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor, widely cited by the mainstream media as some sort of expert on all things Middle Eastern, who has repeatedly claimed that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's promises to destroy Israel are the result of warmongering mistranslations. What Christopher meant, rather, was that Zionism was a "stupid, messianic, superstitious idea," as well as a tragedy, in that it resulted in the displacement and ongoing travail of the Palestinians.
Any friend or admirer of Christopher's had to make allowances for differences - sometimes grave ones - in opinion. For me, the greatest difference in opinion was Israel. The title of a November 2010 Slate column, written in protest at Israel's refusal to bow to the Obama administration's demands on settlement construction, "Israel's Shabbos Goy," was particularly grating; some critics accused it of being outright anti-Semitic. Likewise, his frequent reference to "General Sharon," a democratically-elected leader of a democratic country, was obnoxious. But if Christopher could be a withering and, at times, unfair critic of Israel, he was also one of the most eloquent foes of anti-Semitism and anti-Semites. For those who say that Hitchens had a "Jewish problem," or was a self-hating Jew, I simply ask that you watch or read his Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture from March 2010.
Perhaps Christopher took a personal interest in anti-Semitism after he discovered, in December 1987, that he was Jewish. "On hearing the tidings, I was pleased to find I was pleased," he later wrote in an essay entitled On Not Knowing the Half of It. Hitchens learned that his mother, who had died some 15 years earlier, was the descendant of an immigrant from Breslau who moved to the English Midlands in the late 19th century. "I was glad to learn that, while they sought to assimilate, they did not renounce," he wrote.
But Christopher's loathing of anti-Semitism was too deeply rooted in his appreciation of enlightenment values to be categorized as a form of special pleading. As he wrote in that same essay, anti-Semitism is "the common enemy of humanity, and one had always regarded it as such, as much by instinct as by education. To claim a personal interest in opposing it seemed, especially at this late stage, a distinct cheapening of the commitment." In other words, all men had a duty to oppose anti-Semitism, particularly gentiles. And Christopher's hatred for the ancient zealotries of the Hebrew Bible coexisted with an appreciation for the Jewish "tradition of reason and skepticism," which, whether he liked it or not, originated with the Talmud. There were few men who better exemplified that greatest of Jewish attributes - argument - which, admittedly, he had not gained "by means of the genes."
Earlier this month, I happened to be attending a conference in Houston, Texas, where Christopher was receiving treatment at the renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center. "Isn't this rather a comedown from your usual haunts and patrols?" he wrote, before signing off, "As always, and hoping for a glimpse." The day after my arrival, the foreboding email appeared in my inbox: "Alas I'm in relapse ... sorry." Two weeks later, he passed away.
It is impossible to imagine this world without Christopher. But I am eternally grateful that I experienced so much more than a glimpse of this remarkable, brilliant, generous, tender and - yes - Jewish man.
James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor for The New Republic.