Text size

 

Christopher Hitchens, one of the most important journalists in the English-speaking world (a columnist for Vanity Fair, a contributing editor to The Atlantic), is of two minds about the Islamic Arab world. Or, rather, for him it is divided in two - the Palestinians and all the rest.

About "the rest," he is fairly clear (as in his just-published book, "Hitch-22: A Memoir): It is a world riddled by corruption, violence and brutal autocracy, gradually falling into the grip of a nihilistic or medieval Islamism that is challenging the core values of the West - liberalism, democracy, tolerance and equal rights for women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities.

Hitchens broke ranks with his leftist colleagues (he had long written for the British New Statesman weekly, and later, the U.S. weekly The Nation) and famously supported both of the Gulf wars: in 1991 and 2003.

Hitchens has condemned the Sudanese Arabs for murdering their Christian and animist kinsmen in Southern Sudan and in Darfur, and the Iraqi Arabs (and Muslim Turks) for killing and oppressing the Kurds.

Indeed, he has written books on the Kurdish struggle for independence and on Cyprus in which he was critical of the 1974 Turkish invasion and ethnic cleansing of the northern third of the island.

Most recently Hitchens has expressed sympathy for a possible Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities (calling it an act of self-defense).

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?

Moreover, throughout Hitchens seems to accept the Palestinians' definition of themselves as "natives" struggling against an "imperialist" foreign enemy.

But what of Jewish residence in the Land of Israel between the 12th century B.C.E. and the late Byzantine period (5th and 6th centuries C.E.)?

And what of Jewish residence and "nativeness" in Palestine since 1882, nearly 130 years ago? If residence grants rights, surely Jewish residence counterbalances Arab residence in Palestine since 636 C.E.

And if it is conquest that affords a claim to territory, then how is the Arab conquest in the 7th century, by blood and fire, any more morally cogent than the Jewish conquests of 1200 B.C.E. or 1948/1967?

Hitchens needs to take a long, hard look at Palestinian history and at the nature, behavior and aims of the Palestinian national movement.