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Remembering Christopher Hitchens

Considering the plethora of obituaries written for Christopher Hitchens in the last number of days by people for more qualified than I, I am hesitant to add my two cents to the mix. Nonetheless, I think it may be beneficial to attempt to write such an article from my perspective as a Yeshiva College student, dealing exclusively with the issues pertinent to our community.

A prolific author and journalist, Hitchens was one of the most visible public intellectuals of our generation. Above all else, perhaps the view with which he is most associated is his categorical rejection of religion. His 2007 book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, became an instant hit and took only three weeks to reach the number one spot on The New York Times bestseller list. As the title would imply, the book is one long brutal attack on religion, with some criticisms carrying more legitimacy than others. His critiques of Judaism are particularly unforgiving, and I have no doubt that many YU students would find his understandings of certain Jewish practices to be severely misinformed and thus harshly misrepresented in the book.

Yet, I think we would be remiss were we not to appreciate the value in engaging with the work itself, or in watching the countless hours of debates on YouTube between Hitchens and various defenders of religion. Debating against opponents ranging from Shmuley Boteach to Tony Blair, Hitchens argued with an energy, sharpness and sophistication that separated him from anyone courageous enough to challenge him. (The one time I was privileged to watch him debate in person was an exhilarating experience.) Whatever one thinks of the positions that Hitchens took, it is undeniable that he was both a brilliant rhetorician and writer, and it is essential that the criticisms raised by Hitchens not be ignored but confronted. After all, a good orator is not one with whom we agree but one who forces us to question and rethink, and Hitchens is invaluable in this regard.

Regarding the content of his message itself, one complaint of mine is that much of the criticism heaped onto religion should instead be refocused as an attack on fundamentalism. There is religion that is non-fundamentalist and there is fundamentalism outside the realm of religion, and the real danger to humanity stems from fundamentalism. Belief in God or adhering to a religion does not preclude one from being morally upright or progressive, and in many cases it can be conducive towards acting in such a manner. His attacks should have been more finely focused on the dangers posed by fundamentalists who categorically reject the notion of reconsidering their core beliefs while adopting retrogressive world views. By focusing his message on the enterprise of religion itself, the reaction of many religionists was simply to dismiss his criticisms entirely. Still, I think much of his criticism of contemporary religion is indeed valid and I would encourage YU students to gain exposure to his views.

His Israel record is particularly troubling. Hitchens described himself as an anti-Zionist, and rejected the notion that the Jewish people should have their own nation-state in the land of Israel. This position of his is the one which I find most troubling, considering that Hitchens was perhaps the most recognizable advocate for the national rights of small peoples, especially for the rights of the Kurds to have an independent state in Kurdistan. He was consistently a fierce critic of Israeli policy as well. However, though he was of the opinion that Israel was born in sin, he maintained that once Israel was accepted into the community of nations it has the right to remain. These positions need not indicate that he was an enemy of the Jewish state: Hitchens was one of the most damning critics of Israel’s enemies, be it Hamas, Hezbollah, or Iran. At a time when the crew of the infamous flotilla to Gaza was being hailed by many as a humanitarian mission, he adamantly refused to refer to its members as merely “activists” and instead exposed their links to Islamist organizations. Moreover, he had been one of the most vocal political commentators writing and speaking about the need to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons, calling for American military intervention against Iran’s nuclear facilities if necessary.

Hitchens spoke out forcefully against anti-Semitism, penning it as the “godfather of racism and the gateway to tyranny and fascism and war.” He went further: “It is to be regarded not as the enemy of the Jewish people alone, but as the common enemy of humanity and of civilization, and has to be fought against very tenaciously for that reason, most especially in its current most virulent form of Islamic Jihad.” His Daniel Pearl memorial lecture, in which he declares the lines above, is a must-watch YouTube video on the topic of anti-Semitism. An obituary written for Hitchens by David Frum recounted a story in which Hitchens was invited to a meal at the Palm Beach’s Everglades Club, which was infamous for its rejection of Jews. When the waiter came to ask Hitchens for his order, he caused a scene by demanding that he be given the kosher menu. Such was his modus operandi, never to shy away from confrontation with those whom he deemed wrong.

In my mind, though there is plenty on which we disagree, Christopher Hitchens stands out as a voice of moral clarity in a world lacking many other such figures. When it came to issues on which we saw eye-to-eye, I enjoyed having the weight of his articulation on my side; on issues on which we disagreed, he expressed his views in such a manner that it pushed me to further explore and convincingly defend my own position. More than ever, at a time when many in the West are willing to adopt radical interpretations of post-colonialism, doubt the contributions of their own society to the world, and capitulate to threats from Islamists, his determination to speak up in defense of Western civilization is of great importance. There was no one better suited to take down the likes of a Noam Chomsky or a George Galloway than Christopher Hitchens, and his absence will most surely be felt.