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The Tenth Man

The key to Christopher Hitchens wasn’t his iconoclasm; it was his desire for belonging—and the proof can be found in an unexpected place

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Hitchens, 2006. (Christian Witkin)

And so now he is back in Dublin, dreaming of being a writer, spending his time harassed by the lesser intellects that surround him. Indeed, before the first 30 pages of Ulysses are done, Stephen encounters a shocking amount of anti-Semitism—shocking especially given that Stephen is not Jewish, and that Bloom does not appear for a few chapters. “I don’t want to see my country fall into the hands of German Jews either,” declares the obnoxious English friend of Stephen’s obnoxious Irish roommate, apropos of not very much, “That’s our national problem, I’m afraid, just now.” Stephen’s prime interlocutor in Chapter 2, his boss at the school he teaches at, is even worse. “They sinned against the light,” this Mr. Deasy says. “And you can see the darkness in their eyes. And that is why they are wanderers on the earth to this day.” He adds: “Mark my words, Mr. Dedalus. England is in the hands of the Jews. In all the highest places: her finances, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay.” So frequently and bizarrely is the theme taken up, it is almost as though everybody thinks Stephen is a Jew.

***

When Hitchens was Stephen’s age, he too believed he was not a Jew, though his intellectual development would have suggested otherwise. His heroes were Marx, Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg. He believed Marx, Freud, and Einstein to be, as he put it, “the three great anchors of the modern, revolutionary intelligence.” When Hitchens told his grandfather—his father’s father—that he was a Labour man, and was lectured to about all the foreign names among the party’s ranks (“Sidney Silverman, John Mendelson, Tom Driberg, Ian Mikardo”), this only, Hitchens remembers, “confirmed my grandfather’s view that there was something almost axiomatically subversive about Jewishness.” As importantly, Hitchens credited the Jews with his treasured atheism. He even perceived religious Jews to be the least sickly of monotheists: “Unlike other nations or peoples,” he argued, “Jews were among the witnesses to the alleged lives and preachings of Jesus and Muhammad, and turned away from men they deemed false Messiahs.”

Hitchens’ trip to Athens in November 1973 proved fateful for reasons beyond the obvious. In the midst of his personal carnage, he began reporting on the public carnage being carried out by the ruling military junta. This in turn led to extensive reporting on the Cyprus question, which in turn led to his first area of reportorial expertise, his first book, and his first wife, Eleni Meleagrou, a daughter of prominent Greek Cypriot leaders. How could he start reporting on the news in the midst of this horrible tragedy? Well, he replied, the news was a tragedy, too: “It turns out, as I have found in other ways and in other places, that the separation between personal and public is not so neat.”

During this time, Hitchens and his friends—the poet James Fenton, the novelist Ian McEwan, the critic Clive James, a grab-bag of other pretty English young things including Anna Wintour (whom he briefly dated) and Tina Brown, and most of all his best friend Martin Amis—established themselves as London’s youthful intellectual establishment. In 1982, Hitchens was in the United States, and The Nation made him its Washington, D.C., correspondent—a position, Hitchens happily noted, that once belonged to the great muckraking radical I.F. Stone (yet another Jewish hero). Hitchens’ biweekly columns dabbled in conspiracy theories, indictments of the military-industrial complex, and other anti-authoritarian and vaguely left-wing commitments that, lumped together, were distinguished solely by idiosyncrasy. He scorned Mother Teresa and Henry Kissinger. He flirted with being pro-life, and not only defended the Holocaust denier David Irving’s right to free speech but praised certain aspects of his histories. At times, he adopted apparently contradictory or just plain outlandish positions for the sake, it seemed, of making himself distinct. The only person who could have agreed with Hitchens on everything was somebody pledged to agreeing with Hitchens on everything. In his beliefs, he was deliberately solitary.

Then, at the age of 38, in the middle of the voyage of life, a series of events followed in fast succession that changed his knowledge of himself, his personal life, his career, and his intellectual development. In late 1987, Hitchens learned that he was Jewish. When his younger brother, Peter, introduced his Jewish girlfriend to their maternal grandmother—Dorothy Hickman, née Levin—she took the occasion to announce that this nice young lady was marrying within the faith. Hitchens’ brother (presently a rather staunch Christian) told his brother this.

In December 1987, his father died. In Hitch-22, the two events—Hitchens’ self-revelation about his heritage and his becoming orphaned—are disclosed in the same paragraph.

And something else was happening, too, outside of the walls of Hitchens’ own psyche: The demise of the Cold War was written on the wall, and the emergence of a new threat revealed itself to him in a strikingly personal way. On Feb. 14, 1989, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, issued his famous fatwa calling for the death of Hitchens’ friend Salman Rushdie over the alleged heresy in his novel The Satanic Verses. Hitchens later wrote: “I thought then, and I think now, that this was not just a warning of what was to come. It was the warning. The civil war in the Muslim world, between those who believed in jihad and Shari’a and those who did not, was coming to our streets and cities.” Many years later, for the New Yorker profile, Rushdie himself—who wasn’t exactly undistracted at the time the fatwa was issued—was able to locate the sea change in his friend. “There’s a sense in which all this—Christopher’s move—is partly my fault,” Rushdie said. “The fatwa made Christopher feel that radical Islam was not only trying to kill his friend; it was a huge new threat to the kind of world he wanted to live in. And I have the sense he felt there was a liberal failure to get the point of what was happening.”

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regina winters says:

Having read/heard several decriptions of Hitchens as a self-hating Jew, I was surprised and now am quite of changed-mind. Wonderful article.

Hitchens –how ironic his first name now appears!–is indeed that tenth man…the Johnny-come-lately, the almost-absent, yet the one who allows the Minyan to start its holy work.

This is a fanciful recreation of Hitchens’ life.

It leaves out the essays and books he wrote supporting antisemitic people like Israel Shahak and David Irving (the Holocaust denier) It also left out his anti-Zionist book on the Palestinians.

Hitchens decided to become a Jew (and the story of his mother’s revelation needs to be corroborated by evidence. Was it an accident that he went public with this bit of information when Christopher was being criticized for his association with David Irving?

I think not.

HannaH says:

He was so damn liberal. And I’m so damned conservative. But I love reading anything he wrote. To me it was the only honest man on the left. I will miss him and his memory always be a blessing. He was not a religious man. But I think he was a man of G-d. I think G-d will look kindly on him. We all lost a good man

This reminds me a bit of Bill Maher, who’s also an atheist with a Jewish mother who found out very late in life that his mother was Jewish.

R Bruce Stark says:

Marc- Fabulous synthesis of the yin and the yang of who Christopher Hitchen’s was. Stunning in the way you have shown how his inner search connects to the universal we and the threats to mind, thought, freedom, and truth.
The comments on what “Jewishes” is through the prism of Joyce and the historical evolution of Jewish thought is a remarkable
take on a huge subject. Really thought provoking. “Arguably” the best take on CH yet. Thanks- R. B. Stark
P.S. You just may have inspired a new song– “I wanna Be Jewish”………….for a 21st Century Enlightenment” movement– Post- Fundamentalist, Post Ideological…one can hope (and think)

R Bruce Stark says:

[my typo]should say- ‘Jewishness’ (sorry), or nod to Joyce -Jewish wishes……..

wonderful piece. he would have got a kick out of it

Christopher Orev says:

Nice work, Marc, and produced quickly. Thanks and congrats.

Funny how a man renowned the world over as a lonely, independent-minded, iconoclastic rebel should somehow come to be eulogized by absolutely everyone as a true kindred spirit–even by Marc Tracy, who sees in the virulently anti-Zionist atheist Oxonian the quintessential Jew. Perhaps he wasn’t quite the fearless, conscience-driven man of principle that his followers (presumably with his encouragement) liked to pronounce him to be?

RayneVanDunem says:

Disclaimer: I don’t believe in a deity, and was raised by an Evangelical mother.

Hitchens identified Jewishness with subversiveness, as if Judaism and Jewishness was all supposed to be pigeonholed into a particular “quality”, “relationship” or “function” to or for non-Jews.

After reading an essay from Jewish Ideas Daily about Hitchens’ own lifelong feelings on Judaism and Zionism – Hitchens’ waxed highly vitriolic with some of the most ancient of Christian anxieties about Jews – and then reading this essay AND the Wikipedia bio, I’ve come to see Hitchens as skilled with the pen and with wit but troubled and stunted in his sense of history. He, like many who’ve grown up in Christian or nominally-Christian homes since Christianity became the ideological force that assumed control of what remained of the Roman Empire and the surrounding area, was ideologically imbued with at least some of the obsession over Israel and the Levant that historically resulted in such misadventures as the Crusades. As a result, Jews were pigeonholed by him well before ever finding about his descent from a practitioner. “Good Jew”, “Bad Jew”, “Revolutionary Jew”, “Fascist Jew” and all that.

Other places, like India or China, in which neither Christianity nor Islam were ever major religions have not had this ideological issue of obsession over Israel or pigeonholing/stereotyping Jews until recent.

It’s also reminded me of my own perception of “atheism” as opposed to it as defined by those who view it as an ideology rather than as an absence of at least one ideology: One can doesn’t have to believe in a deity to be overly obsessed with a particular place or culture, or to inherit ancient bigotries, or to inspire fanatic devotion or a general sense of supremacy. I’m worried about all those, and Hitchens is another example of a life which I don’t want to live, no matter its works.

“Must Hitchens have been Jewish”

What the he’ll does this even mean? I literally have no idea.

Peter Painter says:

Hitchens was explicit about his heroes: they included Jefferson, Paine and Burke, but (apart from literary figures such as Joyce) his most unqualified praise was for Orwell.

If Hitchens had formative influences they were therefore Anglo radicals. To claim him for Jewry on the basis of a supposedly shared uppitiness is vulgar, self-aggrandising and encourages the kind of ethnic stereotyping that Jews have good reason to distrust.

In an article for Slate magazine, and elsewhere, Hitchens mused that Israel’s creation might have been a terrible mistake.

I doubt that Mr Tracy is ready to celebrate that degree of “independent thought”.

Peter Painter says:

PS: The New York Times’s silliest columnist, Roger Cohen, today has a piece entitled “Hitchens the American”. Now that he’s safely dead it seems like everyone wants a bit of Hitch.

Jermaine says:

It is ridiculous, self-aggrandizing and hypocritical to describe how being Jewish shaped the thinking of a man like Christopher Hitchens, who was at most one-quarter Jewish and a lifelong atheist. If someone made a similar argument about say, Paul Wolfowitz, they would be instantly denounced as a anti-semite.

tantelaeh says:

Carole Middleton is Jewish. A Goldstein with 4 grandparents all Jewish. What does that make of the King or Queen that reigns after William? It makes her/him a Jew when less than 4 generations have not yet passed.

She/he can put on a tallis and become the tenth person in any minion.

Bob Schwalbaum says:

Let me get this straight.. I presume Hitch’s mother was half-Jewish. So i can see there may have some ambiguity in his “Jewishness”

Am I correct?

I’ve no problem.. both my parent were full Jews.. certainly makes life simpler.. if not easier.

Marc Tracy says:

@Bob Hitchens’ mother was the daughter of a Polish-Jewish woman and an Englishman who converted to Judaism, so she was fully Jewish, and Hitchens was fully half-Jewish, as well as matrilineally so.

The Questioner says:

Why does everyone keep using the term “half-Jewish” to describe Hitchens? If his mother and maternal grandmother were 100% halachically Jewish, so was he.

Anyway, I find the postmortem deification of Christopher Hitchens by Jewish intellectuals strangely disconcerting, to say the least. Even without his disturbing flirtations with David Irving and other Holocaust deniers, from my vantage point Hitch didn’t appear to identify with Jews or Jewishness all that much. Atheism has nothing to with it; many of the great Jewish intellectual minds were nonbelievers. But Hitch talked to us and about us like he was apart from us, almost like an anthropologist studying a culture he sees as exotic or confusing. Even after he came out as a Jew, I don’t think he ever really saw himself as one of us. For the life of me, I don’t understand why so many Jewish thinkers (male Jewish thinkers in particular) identify with him.

Are we as Jews really that starved for intellectual heroes? And in our rush to deify The Hitch, whose voices in our community are we dis/missing? For example, I have yet to see any female Jewish intellectual—living or dead, religious or secular—lauded for her genius the way Hitch has been since his death. Certainly no Jewish thinker of color would get this treatment, even if s/he were steeped in yiddishkeit from birth. But yet a snooty, Oxford-educated Englishman who found his Jewishness late in life by accident is our ultimate gadol? What does that say about us?

“Why does everyone keep using the term “half-Jewish” to describe Hitchens? If his mother and maternal grandmother were 100% halachically Jewish, so was he.”

I’ve always found it odd that Jewishness in this sense is something ascribed by another, not by any sort of self-identification. I also find it somewhat absurd to consider yourself Jewish, though never practicing any faith, solely because you discovered that your mother was Jewish. I’m surprised that he’d permit religious tradition (Jewishness passing down through mothers) to have any effect on how he views himself. That to me seems very un-Hitchenslike.

R. Miller says:

Jamie makes a good point on being ‘Un-Hitchens-Like’ But, one could argue since he did not find out until later in life and then years later finding out he had cancer – it stirred something within him. He was always an iconoclast, a polarizing figure but finding out you have terminal cancer maybe made Hitch and his readers (like myself) wonder if he missed out on well, belonging – being part of a ‘people’ an identity.

What I would loved to have known is that before his brother told him he had Jewish roots – did he feel something had been missing. And, when he did bring the topic up from ime to time – was he just grateful to be a part of something besides a very WASPy/Enlish lineage – something more nuanced – like well, Hitch himself. . .

Michael E says:

Thanks for a brilliantly written piece by Marc Tracy. A noted Orthodox Rabbi once observed, “A Jew is someone who “must keep both feet planted firmly in the air”. Hitchens did not torture himself with the paradoxes in his life but, instead, embraced them. This made him both an iconoclast and one who was not afraid to express what what would appear superficially to be inconsistent viewpoints. This was,unbeknownst to him at the time, a product of his Jewish heritage which was transmitted to him in his mother’s milk, as it were. This excellent articl moves me to revisit Homerand Joyce, and to read Hitchen’s memoir for the first time. Thank you. I will be a regular reader of Tablet.com.
Michael Engel

Dan T. Wallace says:

Mazel tov to Mark Tracy on the exceptionally fine writing in the acute study of Hitchen’s mind, especially in “Hitch-22.” Hitchens is the kind of entertaining “rash” intellectual who makes the World of the Mind his own hunting ground seeking to target “the truth,” that often chimerical notion, a touch of Voltaire joshing the best of all possible worlds.

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The Tenth Man

The key to Christopher Hitchens wasn’t his iconoclasm; it was his desire for belonging—and the proof can be found in an unexpected place