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Not just a Jew, but Jewish....

Here is a conversation that took place between your humble servant and the retiring ambassador of the Czech Republic, Michael Zantovsky, in the first week of December 1996. I can be sure of the time, because Zantovsky had just returned from contesting and winning a Senate seat in his home country (on the conservative list; a sad choice for such a learned and humane man) and because Madeleine Korbel Albright had just been nominated to serve as Secretary of State.

CH: Michael, hullo, it's Hitch. Congratulations, I suppose. We

want to have a farewell dinner for you. But let me quickly ask

you an odd question. Is Madeleine Albright Jewish?

MZ: Yes, she certainly is. Her father was a Czechoslovak diplomat

in Belgrade just before the last war, and we've looked up the

cables between him and the Foreign Ministry. There were some

nasty people who wanted to make an issue of him being a Jew. It

was around the time of Munich. Anyway, we've made a present

of these cables to Madeleine.

Albright's contacts with the Havel government in her native Prague have always been extremely good, and so without inquiring any further I can say for sure that December 5 is the very latest possible date on which she could have learned of her family heritage. So why did she say, in the first week of February, that she had known nothing of the story until approached by Michael Dobbs of The Washington Post? It's one thing to say, as she did, that she had no inkling of what befell her grandparents. But it's quite another to say that, as far as she had been aware, she was a cradle Catholic who converted to Episcopalianism when she got married. This, incidentally, might allow a reworking of the old Harry Golden gag about Goldwater, "I always knew that if a Jew got the Republican nomination he'd be an Episcopalian." I always knew that if a Jewish woman became Secretary of State she would be an Episcopalian who'd converted from Catholicism? Not quite so crisp, admittedly. And anyway, Henry Kissinger has already had the job, and I can distinctly remember saying that if a Jew ever became Secretary of State, you had to know he'd be a war criminal and a mass murderer. It's just our luck.

CH: Oh by the way, Michael, you may not know the answer to

this, but was Mama Jewish as well?

MZ: Yes, she was.

I had been wondering, you see, if the father bit was the reason for reticence. After all, under Mosaic law and Israel's Law of Return (but not the Nuremberg Laws) you aren't Jewish unless you've come by it through the maternal line. This is undoubtedly a wise rabbinical stipulation, given what the Old Testament tells us about moral conduct in the Jerusalem area during the Bronze Age.

By now you may be asking: What's with Hitchens, making all these inquiries into the parentage of a fine public servant? Has he nothing better to do than go Jew-hunting through the bureaucracy, as Nixon's man (and Bush's man) Fred Malek was ordered to do at the time of Watergate? Relax. I've had an interest in the subject ever since I discovered that my own dear mother had concealed her Jewishness, not just from my baby brother and myself but from my father. I find that I can often make a guess about who is "one of us," so to say, and since I knew someone who knew Albright I decided to make the call. Stranger things have happened. One member of this little club of ours, an Englishman whose name might well be known to you, only discovered that he had Jewish parents when his son developed Tay-Sachs disease.

My own story has no tragedy in it, though my mother did die tragically and young. My maternal grandmother kept the secret and only broke silence when my father was dying many years later. It was perfectly simple, really. The Blumenthals and Levines on her side of the clan had not been subjected to pogroms or violence (at least, not after leaving Silesia for Liverpool), but they had met with a bit of low-level English bigotry while engaged in the honest business of selling hats. And there was a distinct touch of this bigotry in my paternal grandfather, though not, I am sure, in my father. Mummy's decision was to give the whole thing a miss, get married in An Anglican ceremony, pass for Anglo-Saxon like her husband and have her firstborn son grow up to be an English gentleman. You be the judge of how well the last bit of the plan worked out. But the first bits worked like a charm.

And here's where I do find Albright persuasive. Nothing is more "given," in the world of a child, than the identity of the parents. You take a lot for granted. I remember thinking that Granny looked a bit Gypsy-like, but I never asked her what her maiden name was. And even when my mother announced her intention of going to live in Israel ("Oh Mummy, honestly") I wrote it off as yet another of her many bright schemes to make an adventurous new start. And now, both my brother and I are married to Jewish women and have Jewish children. (Though my brother is a Tory Christian fundamentalist and has induced his lovely Ex-Marxist bride to convert--it's a good thing I'm not superstitious.)

This still leaves the question of Albright's suppressio veri, if not suggestio falsi. We now know that the mayor of Letohrad, her folks' home town in Bohemia, wrote to her three years ago, using diplomatic channels, and gave her an account of what overtook her grandparents. And I was born in tranquil England, with no reason to inquire about any dark past. For a refugee from Czechoslovakia not, in the first place, to ask why her parents left and not, in the second place, to ask what happened to their parents seems to me to argue an almost superhuman lack of curiosity. I think, in fact, she has known or suspected for a lot longer than she lets on. And I fear I can guess a reason for her discretion. On the same day that she was nominated for State, William Cohen was nominated for Defense. ("Hullo, Bill, it's Prince Bandar here. Yes, I did get your thank-you note. No, don't mention it; it's a drop in the bucket. Look, I'll make this quick. One or the other--O.K.? But not both!") Mr. Cohen, of course, is only Jewish in the male line. But you know how people can be.
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Title Annotation:Minority Report; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
Author:Hitchens, Christopher
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 3, 1997
Words:1114
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