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Hitchens’s Cheap Assault on Hanukkah

Christopher Hitchens is a thorn in my side. By day I flack for Mr. Hitchens old employer The Nation, where I field regular calls from rabid atheists trying to reach him. God is Not Great didn't move me, but I … Read More

By / December 5, 2007

Christopher Hitchens is a thorn in my side. By day I flack for Mr. Hitchens old employer The Nation, where I field regular calls from rabid atheists trying to reach him. God is Not Great didn't move me, but I was disturbed by his self-serving Vanity Fair piece last month, where Mr. Hitchens wrote too-little, too-late about a young man from California who enlisted in the Army on Mr. Hitchens advice and then was killed in Iraq. I thought I might actually meet Hitchens last summer, when The Nation squared off with Vanity Fair in a publishing league softball game. I imagined him standing at home plate, a scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other, staring impassively as the pitches flew by. Didn't happen.

So when I saw this week that Mr. Hitchens had lobbed a broadside against Hanukkah in Slate, I wanted to dismiss it.

The basic premise of "The Triumph of Tribal Jewish Backwardness" is this: 150 years before the birth of Christ, Jews in Syria and Palestine were starting to get into some crazy shit. Jews were reading Greek intellectuals, heart-ing Epicure, and straying increasingly towards a spiritual framework rooted in philosophy rather than the cumbersome conventions of the Torah. Mr. Hitchens, himself known for taking a little too much pride in his genitals, brings foreskin into the picture, noting that Jews fondness for Epicure meant they were starting to question circumcision.

Enter Hanukkah. Created, Hitchens argues, as a way to pit the secular populism of the Maccabees (good) against the imperialistic and decadent tendencies of Hellenism (bad), Hanukkah was designed to stop the slide into secular hedonism. It's Hanukkah as propaganda, selling straying Jews on the miracle of the burning lamp before they stopped believing entirely. From there, Mr. Hitchens writes, all competing visions of hell broke loose:

The Hasmonean regime that resulted from the Maccabean revolt soon became exorbitantly corrupt, vicious, and divided, and encouraged the Roman annexation of Judea. Had it not been for this no-less imperial event, we would never have had to hear of Jesus of Nazareth or his sect-which was a plagiarism from fundamentalist Judaism-and the Jewish people would never have been accused of being deicidal "Christ killers." Thus, to celebrate Hanukkah is to celebrate not just the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness but also the accidental birth of Judaism's bastard child in the shape of Christianity. You might think that masochism could do no more. Except that it always can. Without the precedents of Orthodox Judaism and Roman Christianity, on which it is based and from which it is borrowed, there would be no Islam, either.

Jesus Christ! So, while Christmas to Mr. Hitchens is a silly celebration of false or ridiculous idols (he's right on this count, pointing out that pine trees, yule logs and plastic farm animals have nothing to do with Christ) Hanukkah is an actual dangerous reveling in the symbolic relics of a bloody and oppressive regime.

While I could point out that Mr. Hitchens own support for bloody and oppressive governments run deep (see above re: Hitchens insistence that the War in Iraq is morally just) I found it hard to dismiss his case. If Hanukkah is really the bloodlust fandom of an imperial regime — rather than the silly but lighthearted celebration of an oil-based miracle — is it right to burn the candles bright?

Mr. Hitchens is frustrating because the foundations of his arguments are always so subjective. Were the Maccabees really oppressive? Is his reading of the Torah — of the theology (or philosophy) behind his arguments — sound? Ultimately, these details don't matter. In reality, Hanukkah has become the epicurian delight Hitchens extolls: a celebration of food and family — of gifts and games. No foreskin, but still. Is Hanukkah over-hyped in an effort to conflate it with Christmas and fold Jews into the holiday shopping season? Of course. Should it be state-supported and bolstered by publicly-financed menorahs? No. Is it a dangerous orgy of facist gesamtkunstwerk? Hardly — not in the realistic context its celebrated.

Hitchens may be right — or at least on to something — but more than that, he's silly. This week is Hanukkah, so it must be time to shit on Hanukkah. His is an opportunistic atheism, seeking out windows of opportunity to discredit religions and celebrations for reasons that only he really understands or takes to heart.

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