The best of George Jonas

By Jonathon Van Maren

George Jonas, one of Canada’s few great writers and public intellectuals, has passed away at the age of 80. I never had the privilege of knowing or meeting Jonas, although I had very much hoped to be able to interview him, but I had admiringly followed his work since I first read his brilliant book Vengeance, the story of the Israeli hit squads sent out to avenge the 1973 Munich terrorist attacks perpetrated by the ghoulish butchers of Black September. His columns for the National Post were surgical and scathing, and his cynicism, which always seemed somewhat bemused, was shot through with the optimism of man who had escaped Communist Hungary and hadn’t really been caught off-guard since.

There are many captivating anecdotes being shared today by those who knew the man, highlighting his skill as a wit, conversationalist, and poet. In memoriam, rather than repeating the reminisces of others, I would simply like to highlight some of Jonas’s best work. His literary craftsmanship, a rarity these days, will be missed.

On abortion:

Life is an autonomous process and it begins when it begins. Talking about a fetus as something that isn’t yet alive is inane. If it weren’t alive, mother wouldn’t have to hire Dr. Morgentaler and colleagues to kill it. A fetus proves that it’s alive by emerging from the womb as a human being unless the abortionist vacuums it out first…

The matriarchy needs popular support to achieve its ambitions, and while members of the Me Generation are ready to pull the plug on anybody for selfish reasons, few face the logic of their position. They can’t quite bring themselves to grant women a licence to kill, like 007. This is why the debate is filled with pious rhetoric about women controlling their own bodies, or lives aborted not being “life.” Ironically, the pro-choice crowd usually oppose capital punishment — except for the crime of inconveniencing a woman.

On education:

Anything can turn malignant, actually, including good sense or fine ideals. Patriotism, the unselfish love of one’s own country, can metamorphose into chauvinism or ethnic hatred. A desire for social justice can lead to tyranny and the Gulag.

Almost any idea can be Nazified. Our current ideas, from feminism to environmentalism, are no more immune to Nazification than patriotism or religion have been at other times or places. Any bottled dogma is likely to have a potential fuehrer or ayatollah lurking inside it, and dogmas are often bottled in schools.

What has made me so wary of schools is the storm-troopers of Nazism and commissars of communism I’ve known, along with the priests and mullahs of theocracies I’ve known about. The dismal creatures surfacing from history’s pestilential swamps were rarely illiterate. Most had been formally educated, usually in the humanities. Many had been teachers or journalists before they became fanatics of some religion or ideology.

On getting old:

Aren’t there any good things about getting old? Well, I can think of one. Since we started out talking of winter and war, let me illustrate it with a man of about 80 I saw once in wintry, war-torn Europe. He was crossing a street in a newly occupied town, climbing through mounds of snow-covered rubble, then boldly raising his walking stick to stop an approaching Russian tank.

“Aren’t you afraid, Uncle?” a cowering civilian asked him when he got to the other side.

The old man seemed genuinely puzzled.

“Afraid?” he asked. “Afraid of WHAT?”

On immigration and the problem of national identity:

Whatever their background, the new kind of immigrant doesn’t simply compete with the host population for economic opportunity and space (which can be shared) but for identity, which cannot. Immigrants can and do create jobs, but can’t create identities for the host population, only compete for the existing identity of a nation.

This makes certain “small” matters, often dismissed as merely symbolic — permitting turbans on construction sites, say, or ceremonial daggers in schools — actually more important than ostensibly hard-nosed economic issues. A flag — a piece of fabric on a stick — is just a symbol, but a demonstration in America conducted under an American flag is materially different from one conducted under the flag of Mexico. The first is a country trying to share a problem; the second, a problem trying to share a country.

On terrorism:

No one likes to think of himself as a coward. People prefer to think they end up yielding to what the terrorists demand, not because it’s safer or more convenient, but because it’s the right thing…Successful terrorism persuades the terrorized that if they do terror’s bidding, it’s not because they’re terrified but because they’re socially concerned.

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