The Disconnect of Hitch-22

Is Christopher Hitchens calling for six million Jews to pack up and leave Israel?

[amazon 0446540331 full]

Christopher Hitchens, with a pen like an épée, has a good eye and tongue. In his recently published memoir, Hitch-22, he calls Jimmy Carter a "pious born-again creep" and Yasser Arafat, quoting Edward Said, "the Palestinian blend of Marshal Petain and Papa Doc."

Throughout, he is scathing about "Islamist murderers; the most plainly reactionary people in the world". Often and mistakenly, he bemoans, they are referred to by "slothful and stupid" Western liberals as "radicals". But he is talking about the lowlifes who flew into the twin towers on 9\11 and those harassing Christians and fellow (moderate or wrong-sect) Muslims around the globe, from the Philippines and Thailand to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Morocco and Madrid and London.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, are mostly portrayed as blameless, indeed virtuous, victims.

In Hitchens's mind there is a complete disconnect between the murderous Islamists and the Palestinian cause. He seems unaware that "jihadism"—hatred of the infidel and a desire to kill him—to a great degree underlay the Palestinian assault on Zionism through the 1920s-1940s (perhaps it is not incidental that the leader of the Palestinian national movement during these years, Haj Amin al Husseini, was a Muslim cleric), and that, to this day, the religious impulse plays a powerful role in their ongoing crusade against Israel. In the West Bank-Gaza elections of 2006 the Islamist Hamas trounced the ostensibly secular Fatah (and I say ostensibly because captured failed Fatah suicide bombers from the Second Intifada of the early 2000s usually described their motivation as strongly tied to the expectation of meeting 71 dark-eyed virgins in heaven. No secular humanists here).

Beyond this, Hitchens seems to suggest that the Zionist enterprise in toto was immoral—white imperialists simply stealing land from hapless, productive natives—and is, in any case, doomed.

Some facts: Both Jews and Arabs are "native" to Palestine. The Jews lived there from the twelfth century BC to the second century AD and, again, from the end of the nineteenth century to the present. Arabs have lived in Palestine from the seventh century until the present, at some point in this time span becoming the "native" majority, then, in the twentieth century, becoming (again) a minority. If residence gives just claim, then both peoples have it, and the Jewish majority at the moment affords a slighly stronger claim. And if it is conquest that underwrites claim, then the Arab conquest of the seventh century should be no stronger than the Jewish conquest of 1200-1,000 BC and (again) the twentieth century. At best, the Arabs can claim a draw—but they have twenty-two countries, and the Jews only (a disputed) one. Need also provides good moral grounds for territorial claims.

Hitchens approvingly quotes a metaphor suggested to him by Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg: A man (the Zionist Jew), to save himself, leaps from a burning building (anti-Semitic and Holocaust Europe) and lands on an innocent bystander (the Palestinians), squashing him. To which Hitchens adds—and he leaps and leaps and leaps onto the back of the savaged bystander for four generations.

But the metaphor is defective; indeed, somewhat disingenuous. In fact, it should read: As the leaping man falls to the street, the bystander looks up and notices him and tries, repeatedly, to stab him to death even before he splatters on the pavement (vide: the bouts of Arab violence against the Jewish settlers in 1920, 1921, 1929, 1936-1939 and, of course, 1947-1948). No innocent bystander here. Moreover, offered successive compromises (in 1937, partition of Palestine with a Jewish state on only 17 per cent of the land; in 1948, partition with the Arabs getting 45% of the land; and in 2000, partition with Arabs getting 20%)—the Palestinians consistently said, "No." Not one inch for the man leaping from the burning building. No empathy, no generosity, no compromise. So, true, the leaper fell on the bystander, again and again and again. But the violent and unempathetic and ungenerous bystander was an agent in his own undoing, again and again and again.

Hitchens is pained (as I am) by the daily humiliation of Palestinian life under occupation. But he takes no account, and offers none, of why Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in the first place (the Jordanians fired from the West Bank into Israel; the Egyptians, who ruled Gaza, tried to strangle Israel); and makes no mention of the fact that Israeli governments, repeatedly, starting with Begin's and Sadat's 1978 offer of "autonomy" for the Palestinians and ending with Barak's and Clinton's 2000 offer of a two-state solution, tried to end the occupation and get off the Palestinians' back, only to be turned down by intransigent Palestinian leaders.

In his passages on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Hitchens's tone is all wrong. Not all Israelis have been and are land-grabbing and covetous settlers. Most, in 1967 and since, have been driven by genuine fears and existential security considerations. Palestinians, given half a chance, slaughtered Jews in Hebron in 1929 and rocketed Israeli border towns after Ariel Sharon evacuated the Gaza Strip in 2005, and, I fear, will do their worst if given a chance in the future.

Enfin, Hitchens seems to be calling on the six million Jews of Israel to pack up and leave, given that their enterprise is morally dubious and politically-militarily untenable, not to say Second Holocaust–­dangerous. And this is at odds with things he has been saying more recently in media interviews. Clarification is in order.