Christopher Hitchens, Benny Morris, and the Palestinians

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THE SPINE SEPTEMBER 30, 2010

Christopher Hitchens, Benny Morris, and the Palestinians

I met Christopher Hitchens at a party nearly three decades ago, shortly after he arrived in the states. The late (and very much missed) Eric Breindel and I were going out to Chinese dinner in a restaurant some place on Third Avenue in the fifties. Somehow, we invited Chris or maybe he invited himself. He was funny. But that was not enough for me. I didn't like his left-wing politics...and, frankly, I didn't like his later right-wing politics either.

Hitchens is now sick, apparently quite sick, and on this last of the Days of Judgement I've slipped in a prayer for his recovery. "A guten kvitel," they call it in Yiddish. Maybe it'll help. Still, this is not likely to please Hitchens. He is, after all, one of the most famous and unabashed atheists of the era. And, besides, he does not cotton to things Jewish - despite the fact that his mother is Jewish which, according to the rabbis, means that he is Jewish, too, poor boy. Since I take my petitions to God more or less seriously, I hope he won't be too offended by my supplications. Anyway, I came to synagogue with a long list.

Benny Morris has written an article on Hitchens in this morning's Ha'aretz. The truth is that anything written by Morris is important. We've published him many times ever since 1988, when, with his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1847-1949, he virtually founded the school of "new historians" of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Six years later he "Revisited" his first book, and has been continuing his chronicles and interpretations of the struggle ever since. The left despises him, as does the right. I believe him to be the master exegetical annalist of the struggle...and the most convincing.

And he has now taken on Hitchens. This is not exactly a big thing...or even a worthwhile target. But it is a noticeable phenomenon. For here is an atheist who very much disdains Islam, and quite as much as he disdains Christianity. But even Hitchens recognizes that Christianity is less a threat to civilized life (and to religious disbelief) than millenarian Islam. In fact, Islam gets no quarter from this journalist who now claims his mark and identity as "an American patriot."

Except, of course, for the Islam of the Palestinians and the Palestinians of Islam.

Yet he still has a soft and blind spot for the Palestinians, who can apparently do no or little wrong (similar to the attitude of Western leftists toward the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, despite their occasional massacres of Catholics, the internal purges by Communists of liberals and POUM-supporters, etc.).

In "Hitch-22" Hitchens approvingly cites (and expands) a metaphor coined (I think) by Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent for The Atlantic: A man (the Zionist Jew), to save himself, leaps from a burning building (anti-Semitic and Holocaust Europe) and lands on an innocent bystander (a Palestinian), crushing him. To which Hitchens adds - and the falling man lands on the Palestinian again and again (the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza, the suppression of the intifadas, the construction of settlements in the territories, etc.).

But the metaphor is disingenuous, and it requires amplification to conform to the facts of history. In fact, as the leaping man nears the ground he offers the bystander a compromise - let's share the pavement, some for you, some for me. The bystander responds with a firm "no," and tries, again and again (1920, 1921, 1929, the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 and the 1947-48 War of Independence), to stab the falling man as he descends to the pavement. So the leaping man lands on the bystander, crushing him. Later, again and again, the leaping man, now firmly ensconced on the pavement, offers the crushed bystander a compromise ("autonomy" in 1978, a "two-state solution" in 2000 and in 2008), and again and again the bystander says "no."

The falling man may have somewhat wronged the bystander, but the bystander was never an innocent one; he was an active agent in and a party to his own demise.

In "Hitch-22" this is somehow omitted. Rather, the often-enlightened Hitchens (who provided a roof and haven for his friend Salman Rushdie when he was under an Islamist death sentence, and who speaks quite forthrightly about "Islamist murderers" and cowardly, naive or deluded Western liberals bent on appeasing these "murderers"), fails to note the continuous, powerful religious impulse underlying the Palestinian national struggle since its inception in the 1920s. (What other national liberation movement in modern times, with the exception of that of the Greek Cypriots, was led by a cleric?). Who, if not the Islamists, won the Palestinian general elections in 2006?

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