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The Ideological Arrogance and Historical Ignorance of Christopher Hitchens

Posted on November 24 2010 9:00 am
Seth Mandel is the former managing editor of four New Jersey-based newspapers, where he won awards for his coverage of the Middle East and Russia. He has appeared on Shalom TV's current affairs roundtable. He is currently based in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @SethAMandel

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Remarking on the intellectual vanity of Christopher Hitchens’ atheist crusade, Ross Douthat once quipped that “If the world were to end tomorrow in the hail of fire, I’m confident that one of the last things to be heard on Earth, before the meteor hits, would be the sound of Hitchens and [evangelical minister] Tim LaHaye both shouting in perfect unison: See, I told you so!

The point was that perhaps Hitchens’ pride had become a liability, for he seemed to believe that events that actually hurt his case proved him right. Those who have followed his work will be familiar with this. In his atheist manifesto, God is Not Great, Hitchens attempts to prove that religion is child abuse. To buoy his argument, he offers “the repellant original offer of the defenseless boy Isaac on the pyre.”

He is referring, of course, to the Akeidas Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac–the test God gives to Abraham to bring his son as a sacrifice. Leaving aside the fact that the test was never carried to completion, even casual students of the Torah know that Isaac was 37 years old at the time. Far from being the “defenseless boy” that Hitchens claims, Isaac was an adult, and therefore the example actually spoils Hitchens’ argument: the Akeida is an example of an adult exercising his free will.

Hitchens, a man of clear and often bracing brainpower, has let his quest become so single-minded that he brings this mix of arrogance and ignorance to any question of religion–especially the Mideast conflict and Israeli policy. Thus, we are treated to this Slate column, titled “Israel’s Shabbos Goy” and published Monday, about the indignity of offering Israel incentives to make concessions.

What seems to be bothering Hitchens at the outset is the religious nature of the Jewish state’s governing coalition. He begins by trying to paint the Orthodox Jews in Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition as crazy fanatics. He starts with Shas minister Eli Yishai. Yishai’s values are beyond the pale, Hitchens suggests, because he said that the only Jewish converts that carry “the Jewish gene” are those who convert according to Orthodox standards, and Hitchens links to an article comparing the comment to Nazi propaganda. In addition to the offensive Nazi comparison, Hitchens is denigrating the fact that Orthodox Jews insist on following halakha–Jewish law.

This makes Hitchens–not Yishai–appear the intolerant one. Next, Hitchens moves on to everyone’s favorite Israeli bogeyman, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. In order to paint Lieberman as an extremist, he says Lieberman believes the whole peace process is a “waste of time,” and links to a speech Lieberman gave at the U.N. Hitchens really should have read that speech, because in it Lieberman speaks of the need for a “final status agreement” based on land swaps, and the need “to raise an entire new generation that will have mutual trust.”

In fact, as is widely known, Lieberman has always been a strong supporter of a two-state solution. Breezing along, Hitchens then shows how simple a final status agreement would be: he says Lieberman has a curious distinction in that he “does not live in the country whose foreign ministry he heads,” instead residing in the “settlement of Nokdim.” You see, Hitchens has just drawn the borders for us!

But if this is supposed to give us the impression that Lieberman is out to take as much land from the future Palestinian state as possible, it fails on that front as well. As the left-wing newspaper Haaretz reminds us, “For years, Lieberman has been repeating that for the sake of an agreement, he would be willing to evacuate his own house in Nokdim.”

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