Hitchens got it wrong on Israel

It doesn't seem all that long ago that, at a Jewish Book Week event, I met Christopher Hitchens. We parted with him saying that we should get to know each other better. But we never did. He went home to the United States and before we could meet up, he fell ill. I will always regret it. Friends of mine, who knew him well, attest that he was great company. Still, at least I have his books, and they are great company too.

It was at this event that I learned what Hitch, as he was known, found out late in life, that he was of Jewish descent. He discussed his pride at the discovery with his friend Martin Amis, who has a Jewish wife and children. When Hitch died, his brother Peter wondered aloud how two brothers from a modest background, with no learning and few books to sustain them, should have developed as they did. How could they have both emerged very different from each other, but two of the great arguers, readers and essayists of their time?

It does raise the possibility - doesn't it - that Jewish character traits of bookishness, argumentativeness and intellectual spirit are genetic. That explanation is controversial, but it is at least as convincing as anything either brother might be able to offer.

I think that Hitch intuited this and that it partly explained the pleasure in his discovery of his ancestry. But I think he also enjoyed finding out about his Jewish background because he loved a scrap. And he didn't doubt that Jews were in a scrap. He saw the need to fight antisemitism and was very clear sighted about its extent and its origins. He was a valuable leader of those on the left who despaired at the tolerance to antisemitic ideas shown by their comrades. And we will miss him now he has gone.

He loved a scrap and didn't doubt that Jews were in one

But he was no supporter of Israel. He thought it a historical error. He claimed that he would not have been in favour of it even if there were no Palestinians there. In his opinion the best protection for Jews is to secularise the societies that they live in. While sharing some of his pessimism about Israel's prospects, I think he was wrong about the need for the state.

Let's start with a very practical reason. Israel is necessary because you can't protect Jews by throwing collected works of journalism at our enemies. Even when they are full of clever epithets. The state was created and recognised because for many Jews in the 20th century there was, simply, nowhere else to go. There may be other places where Jews can, theoretically, be safe, but they haven't always thrown open their doors to welcome us. Israel was made necessary precisely because the security of Jews cannot rely entirely on world opinion to see off those who would do violence to us.

In one of his recent essays on Israel, Hitch concluded by suggesting that moving to the US might be the best way of protecting Jews. Or perhaps becoming the US - his wording is (I suspect deliberately) a little unclear. But while this works as polemic, it isn't as impressive when treated as serious advice.

But there is more to it than that. Hitch was an atheist and thought it wrong to base a way of living on what he regarded as ancient superstition. There are two responses to this. The first is that his is one opinion, but most Jews have quite another. We seek the right to worship in peace and security, but we seek more. There has to be one place in the world - just one - where Jewish symbols and religious practice are public institutions. Every other kind of state exists, after all.

The other response is that few humans, even atheists, are immune from the need for a community they can belong to. For much of his life Hitch was a Trotskyist and, since I can't think he found the ideas of great practical value, I can only conclude that he must have found the community of Trotskyists comforting. I suspect the doctrinal debates provided him with the sort of company and sustenance others get from religion.

I'd love to know what he would make of such a theory. He had such a wonderful way with an argument. What a tragedy that his voice is now silent.

Daniel Finkelstein is Executive Editor of the Times

    Last updated: 11:26am, December 29 2011