Commentary Magazine

Hitchens vs. Koestler

The journalist Christopher Hitchens has abandoned his role as a leading activist-scribe-provocateur of the radical Left, but here and there he shows that he has held fast to his radical aversion to Zionism. In a column last year on the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state, he confided that it is only the “degeneration of Palestinian Arab nationalism into the theocratic and thanatocratic hell of Hamas and Islamic Jihad” that “forces non-Zionists like me to ask whether, in spite of everything, Israel should be defended as if it were a part of the democratic West.” (The Israelis, as he sees it, have not “returned a completely convincing answer.”)

Now, in a preemptive review in the December Atlantic of Michael Scammell’s forthcoming biography of the novelist, essayist, and polemicist Arthur Koestler (1905-1983), Hitchens butchers the record by projecting his own Israel-related hostilities onto his subject.

After paying tribute to Koestler’s repudiation of Stalinism and his exposure of its evils in the extraordinary novel Darkness at Noon, Hitchens turns to Koestler’s lifelong interest in the Zionist movement:

He resumed his engagement [in the 1940s] by covering (and participating in) the violent birth of Israel, initially taking the side of the Menachem Begin ultranationalists but eventually becoming sickened by the violence of the Zionist right and finally worrying whether there should be a Jewish state at all. . . . In [The Thirteenth Tribe], his last semi-serious work, Koestler suggested that Ashkenazi Jews were actually descended from the lost people of Khazaria, who before vanishing from the northern Caucasus a thousand years ago had somehow opted to Judaize themselves. One implication of that theory was that no authentic Ashkenazi Jewish tie to Palestine could ever be established. “Arthur just rather enjoys betraying his former friends,” I remember Patricia Cockburn snorting when this effort was published in the 1970s.

In context, the thrust of this paragraph suggests a trajectory similar to that of Koestler’s encounter with Communism: going from enthusiasm to disillusionment to finally abandoning the cause. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Koestler came to Palestine a Zionist and left the young state of Israel a Zionist. At no later point did he break with this allegiance or question the legitimacy of a Jewish state. As for the Zionist Right, his final verdict on all but a tiny faction was a qualified defense, and he was never so indecent as to extend his condemnation of this or that action to the entire Zionist project.

Koestler had spent time among Jewish settlers in Palestine in the mid 1920s and 40s, and returned to Israel as a foreign correspondent when the newly declared state was invaded by neighboring Arab armies in 1948. Knowing many leaders of the various Zionist movements and having many strong opinions of his own, he would insinuate himself into factional politics to offer advice and broker meetings, but, contrary to Hitchens, he did not take up arms or direct their use in the lead-up to Israel’s birth. Nor did Koestler quite see that birth as “violent” in historical terms—at least not from the Jewish side. In his 1949 book on the founding, Promise and Fulfillment, which aims for detached judgment and sympathy to Arab and Jew alike, he wrote: “The fundamental fact about the Jewish colonization of Palestine is that it was carried out neither by force nor by the threat of force.” During the 1948-49 war, moreover, there was “an epic quality of courage and self-sacrifice in the defense of the [Jewish] communal settlements with their grotesquely inadequate arms against the invading armies.”

Looking back in that same 1949 work, Koestler had this to say about Menachem Begin’s Irgun, the largest and most influential faction of what Hitchens characterizes as the sickeningly violent Zionist Right:

I believe that by and large Irgun’s fight for Israel’s survival was morally justified. When the obvious fallacies, like the labeling of a national resistance movement as “Fascist” or “Revolutionary” according to taste, are discarded, Irgun appears as an instance of the historically inevitable, violent reaction which oppressive action never fails to beget. Irgun was neither better nor worse than the Irish, Macedonian, Polish, Indian, or French resistance movements; with the exception of two incidents—the hangings of the sergeants and Deir Yassin—their self-imposed system of warnings, and their rejection of indiscriminate murder, make them appear in a rather more favorable light than most of their predecessors in history. They never accepted the tenet that the End justifies all Means, which is the creed of totalitarian movements, and which was adopted by their rivals of the Stern Group. Between the hypocrisies of Haganah for which they often acted as scapegoats, and the savagery of the Sternists, they succeeded to the very end in maintaining a precarious balance sustained by a complex system of moral reasoning, good discipline, and a spirit of quixotic chivalry. They were a small group of men, persecuted both by the Mandatory [authorities] and their own kin; to revert to the previous metaphor, their ruthlessness was the arsenic injected into Jewry’s social body which made it fight—not the deadly poison which convulses the totalitarian State. The difference, though only a matter of gradations, was demonstrated by Irgun’s voluntary self-liquidation after the proclamation of the State and its self-transformation into a bona fide democratic party.


As for the Stern Group, Koestler concluded thus in his (according to Hitchens) Ziono-skeptic stage: “At the elections on January 25, 1949, the group received 1.2 percent of the votes. Its future prospects are no better, and there is little doubt that it will continue for a while as an insignificant sect and vanish with increasing political stability in the new State.”

Hitchens’s use of the word “sickened” is revealingly shrill, especially for a critic with a hair-trigger for cheap hyperbole in others. The worldly Koestler did not view any people through eyes so childish that violence committed in that people’s national struggle would come as a shock. (The sharpest assessment in Promise comes when Koestler finds “disgusting” the spectacle of Stern Group members dancing awkwardly after the assassination of UN official Folke Bernadotte, but he confines the blame to the particular offenders.)

Koestler’s thesis in The Thirteenth Tribe about the Khazar heritage of Ashkenazic Jews has been thoroughly dismantled, but that book did not in any case sever the link between European Jewry and the Jews of the Second and First Temple periods. The “implication” that “no authentic Ashkenazi Jewish tie to Palestine could ever [sic] be established” was drawn by the likes of the Saudi delegate to the UN and an American neo-Nazi publication called The Thunderbolt, as Scammell documents in his book. Koestler himself had many obsessions about the Jews, not all of them attractive, but he reaffirmed the legitimacy of Israel at the close of The Thirteenth Tribe and remained concerned about the welfare of the Jewish state until the end of his days. So when Hitchens cites the crack by Patricia Cockburn (wife of the diehard British Communist Claud Cockburn) that Koestler went about breezily betraying friends, he is only misapplying what is to begin with a slur on Koestler’s courage in broadcasting the truth about the brutalities of Soviet Stalinism.



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