Thursday, 5 January 2012

Christopher Hitchens on fascism and religion: lessons for Israel

THE DEATH of Christopher Hitchens last month, at the age of 62, robbed the world of one its most eloquent advocates for freedom and democracy.

He was a man of contradictions: a graduate of British Marxism whose political hero was Thomas Jefferson; in 2000 he described George W. Bush as "unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated, and apparently quite proud of all these things", and then vocally supported his re-election against Democrat John Kerry four years later. The victims of his mercilessly caustic pen also included Republican statesman Henry Kissinger, Democratic President Bill Clinton and even Mother Theresa ("She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction").

However one consistent thread running through his seemingly scattergun worldview was his hatred of tyranny and oppression.  Indeed, his uncompromising atheism – of which more later – was based on his belief that religion equaled slavery, with God cast as an all-seeing, authoritarian overlord.  His socialism was, in his words, "anti-totalitarian" rather than "anti-imperialist". He eschewed the knee-jerk anti-Americanism so prevalent among European leftists, instead supporting US-led military campaigns against ethnic cleansers like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.

Writing after the 9/11 atrocities, he used the phrase “fascism with an Islamic face” to describe the ideology driving the perpetrators.   He subsequently, in hundreds of articles, speeches and televised interviews and debates, referred to the contemporary threat of "Islamo-fascism".

As Israelis, as Jews, and as citizens of a liberal democracy, we would do well to heed Hitchens's erudite words of warning that, today, fascism wears religious clothes.

This does not mean we should ignore the threat of the secular far-right in Europe – extremists always thrive in adverse socio-economic conditions – but the extreme nationalists in Belgium, Austria and Hungary do not pose a threat to western civilization as do the forces of revolutionary Islam, which, like the fascisms of yesteryear, is aggressive, implacable and all too willing to kill those who reject its worldview.

Yes there are differences aplenty between an Islamist nationalist movement like Hamas and the disparate, global Jiihadists of Al-Qaida, but both share an unshakeable belief in the certainty of the justice of their cause, and that the cause justifies the mass murder of innocent people. Both share a hatred of liberal democratic societies and their legal and civil protections of the rights of women, homosexuals and religious and ethnic minorities.

Alongside these Sunni extremists, one can place the Shi’ite Islamists of Iran and their proxy terror group Hizballah.  Again, there are differences, theological above all, between extremists from the two branches of Islam, but Iran does not disagree with Hamas’s diagnosis of the 'sicknesses' of western society, nor on the necessary cure: a sharia-based society where women’s rights are restricted, where homosexuals are executed and where non-Muslims are second-class citizens.

Finally, what all these Islamic representatives of the new fascism share is that old staple of their secular forerunners – antisemitism. It can be found in the overt Jew-hatred of Al-Qaida and Hamas, the Holocaust denial of the Iranian regime and the crude ‘blood libel’, ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ propaganda of all of them.

All of this makes the alliance of certain sections of the left with Islamist groups as contemptible as it is bizarre. It has been instructive to see how the great consciences of the West have responded to the slaughter of over 5,000 of his own civilians by Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. You will search in vain for the demonstrations sweeping Europe, or the masses camped outside Syrian embassies in western capitals.

No. Assad's campaign of torture and butchery is not worthy of condemnation because he remains an ally in the battle that really counts: the struggle against Zionist and American imperialism.

Christopher Hitchens's voice was among the most persistent in rejecting this perversion; routinely stripping bare the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of the left’s alliance with fascism.

HERE IN Israel, the f-word has been bandied about with some regularity of late, following the legislation proposed by certain right-wing members of Knesset. Their efforts to restrict the independence of the Supreme Court or freedom of speech are illiberal and out of sync with Israel's democratic character, but they are not fascism.

However, Jewish fascism – or something perilously close – is preached by those on the far-religious right. Those responsible for the 'Price Tag' attacks on Palestinian property, Jewish leftists and now the IDF may be guileless young hoodlums, but they are receiving their indoctrination from somewhere. They are drinking from the same steady stream of toxic bigotry and hatred that convinced Baruch Goldstein it was a "religious act" to slaughter 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron. They are taught by the same fanatical "Rabbis" who declared that Yitzhak Rabin was a traitor to the Jewish people and a rodef; in context a halachic term for a "murderous pursuer" that it is legitimate to kill. Yigal Amir did not reach these conclusions on his own.

THE OTHER source of extremism in Israeli Jewish life comes from sections of the Charedi community. Here, Christopher Hitchens’s warnings about fascism are less relevant than his trenchant opposition to religion. Indeed, the well-documented incidents in Bet Shemesh and on 'segregated' buses exactly fit his description of organized religion as: "violent, irrational, intolerant".

Just as the nationalist Rabbis calling for a ban on renting property to Arabs are ignoring very specific halachic injunctions to the contrary (from Rav Kook among others), so there is nothing in normative Jewish teaching that says a man cannot sit next to a woman on a bus. Meanwhile, spitting at and abusing an eight-year old girl goes against the most fundamental Jewish imperatives regarding respect for human dignity.
Hitchens was mistaken in applying some of his very general assertions about religion to Judaism per se, because there is so much diversity in how Jewish scholars through the ages have understood God and his relationship to humanity. Similarly his wholesale denigration of the bible is not sufficient as a critique of Jewish religious thought because the development of halacha has come about through such a sophisticated process of human exegesis.

Yes, large sections of the Charedi community view the world through a stiflingly narrow prism, rejecting rationalism as a secular evil, but there is an array of influential Jewish thinkers through the ages who understood that Jewish philosophy can and should be influenced by human reason.  Hitchens's assessment of a primitive and tribalist Jewish theology ignores not only historical giants such as Maimonides, who incorporated Aristotelian philosophy into his understanding of the law, but more recent figures. Joseph Soloveitchik, was the outstanding Orthodox thinker of his generation, but that did not prevent him from bringing to his interpretation of the Talmud the existentialism of Kierkegaard or even the philosophy of Christian theologians of the day. Abraham Joshua Heschel, famous for his involvement in the civil rights movement, taught that a religious Jew should keep the mitzvot, seek a personal spiritual relationship with God and fight for justice for all of humanity, regardless of religion or race.   

Yes there are Jews convinced that the world is literally 5772 years old; or that the non-Jewish world contains nothing of value. Thankfully though, this fundamentalism is not a pre-requisite for living a Jewish life, even a religiously observant one.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS was a rare talent. One of the most brilliant polemicists of his generation, he was as provocative as he was articulate, and I doubt there are many who were not infuriated by some of his pronouncements just as they wholeheartedly agreed with others.

Behind his razor-sharp wit lay even sharper warnings: contemporary fascism in its religious – primarily Islamic – guise will be the enemy of the free and democratic world for the foreseeable future. Here in Israel, we are on the frontline of that battle. And, lest we grow complacent, there is a small but significant number among our own Jewish population who are abandoning reason, basic models of human decency and the many examples of a tolerant, open-minded and intellectually curious Judaism, for a 'religion' of bigotry and dogma. One does not have to share Hitchens’s catch-all atheism to understand this is exactly the type of ‘religion’ that has had such a malign influence across the world, including in otherwise modern, democratic countries like our own.

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