On the Death of Christopher Hitchens: 1949-2011. R.I.P.

One of the main differences I had with him was over Israel, and what I thought was his failure to appreciate the Jewish state and the fight of its people for survival. My own review of his memoir called him on the contradictions of his position, and was sharply critical of his writings about the topic. I expected him to be more than upset. Instead, he phoned me to say that “I expected nothing less from you,” and promised to think about the points I made. Later, he told my wife and I that he had read and learned a great deal about the topic from the book we had written on Harry S. Truman and Israel’s birth.

At a debate I attended at Georgetown University between Hitchens and his old Trotskyist comrade from Britain, Tariq Ali, the two came to blows of the fiercest nature. When audience members and Ali referred to Israel’s leaders as Nazis, Hitchens responded that the charge was a slander against a people whose leaders were defending themselves against aggression, and although one might oppose the policies of Likud, its representatives could not be condemned in such vicious terms. A critic of Zionism who obstinately refused to understand the principles of its proponents, Hitch was clearly softening a bit and departing from the kind of venom he once used against Israel himself.

Yes, he had a dark side, alluded to here by my friend David Horowitz, who over the years had been in regular dialogue with Hitch, and whose own organization Hitchens often appeared at and spoke for -- despite the fact that he did not consider himself a man of the political Right.  But Hitchens privately tried to rethink some things. He continued to admire Victor Navasky, and seemed oblivious to Navasky’s denial about the sins of the Old Left, and his belief in the innocence of Alger Hiss. When Hitch seemed upset about the news that I.F. Stone at one point was working for the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB), I gave Hitchens the long article by Max Holland, a Nation editorial board member, that convincingly argued for Stone's guilt. Hitchens told the friend who gave him the piece that if Holland thought Stone was guilty, there must be something to it.

Hitchens befriended many of the young journalists who came to know and admire him. Speaking of one common friend in particular, he said: “Isn’t it terrific that there are people like him here to carry on our fight?”

A short while back, my own son told me that his work took him to a conference, where he heard a wonderful talk by Alex Hitchens on al-Qaeda. Michael, my son, did not realize that was Hitchens’ son, and that I had actually met Alex at Hitchens’ apartment where my wife and I went to bring him lunch, and where despite his suffering from chemotherapy, he acted as the wonderful host he was and tried to carry on as if nothing was wrong. Mike told me that Alex’s talk was brilliant, and that he and Alex exchanged business cards and talked afterwards for some time. I told this to Hitchens, who was thrilled to learn of how circumstance had brought our two sons together, and that the new generation was concerned with the same issues and bonding over the new fights that had to be won in the future.

Christopher was a bundle of contradictions, a “contrarian” for life as he put it himself, a man who was charming, witty, a wonderful guest and raconteur, and a man who simply could not put up with hypocrisy and tyranny. I miss him greatly, and like so many others who knew him only from his writing, mourn his loss. R.I.P. And if you meet St. Peter and he asks you why you were not a believer, like the late Sidney Hook, you can tell him: “You didn’t give me enough evidence.”