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We Ourselves Are to Blame: Hannah Arendt’s Jewish Writings

Reviewed: Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings Schocken Books, 2007 In dark times such as our own, a flurry of publications attests to the abiding importance of Hannah Arendt as a great theorist of totalitarianism. Her recently published collection of essays, … Read More

By / September 1, 2007

Reviewed: Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings Schocken Books, 2007

In dark times such as our own, a flurry of publications attests to the abiding importance of Hannah Arendt as a great theorist of totalitarianism. Her recently published collection of essays, The Jewish Writings, will also cement her reputation as an unblinking critic of Zionism and the Jewish establishment, and a paragon of cosmopolitanism.

Arendt was born in 1906 to an assimilated German Jewish family. She studied philosophy with the famed Martin Heidegger and wrote her dissertation under the direction of Karl Jaspers on the concept of love in the work of Augustine. With the Nazi rise to power, she fled to Paris where she worked with Jewish refugees. She escaped France in 1941 for New York, where she wrote for the weekly Aufbau, an émigré German Jewish paper. After the war, she worked with a number of Jewish organizations, such as Youth Aliyah and Schocken Books, under whose auspices she introduced the writings of her friend Walter Benjamin to English readers. She went on to teach at a number of American universities, including the New School for Social Research, until her death in 1975. Arendt’s most famous works are the Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), The Human Condition (1958), and Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963).

Scholars will be happy finally to have in one volume an exhaustive collection of Arendt’s published and unpublished writings on Jews and Jewish politics. These writings cover the entire gamut of 20th Jewish political culture: the German Enlightenment and Emancipation, assimilation and anti-Semitism, and Zionism and the Holocaust. A reader inspired enough to plow through all five hundred pages of the collection will find that Arendt was consistent to the point of repetition.

Those who want to read more judiciously might start in the 1940s and 1950s with the articles written for Aufbau. They might then proceed to the justly famous “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” “Zionism Reconsidered”(an important first salvo against official Zionism), “The Jewish State,” “Peace or Armistice in the Near East,” and Arendt’s response to her critics after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Reflections by Arendt’s niece Edna Brocke, entitled “Big Hannah,” make for a genuinely touching afterward.

A modern icon in her own right, Arendt’s oeuvre provides an ethical-political clarity for our own times, troubled as they are by the September 11th attacks, war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the struggle against terror, and the feeling felt by some of a creeping totalitarianism after years of monolithic Republican rule. The Jewish Writings speaks similarly to a grim contemporary Jewish scene – with no apparent exit from intifada or terrorism, occupation or siege, and new rounds of polemical bloodletting between intrepid critics of Israel and “the Jewish establishment.”

The two main themes that animate Arendt’s larger body of work – the centrality of the political, understood as an active human connection focused on public life, and the imperative of individual freedom and responsibility, marked by a strong aversion to mass society and culture – appear also in her Jewish writings. These twinned themes both distinguish and distort her criticism of Zionism from the 1950s and, most controversially, her report on the 1961 Eichmann trial.

In the articles written for Aufbau in the 1940s Arendt wrote insistently on the need to conduct the fight against Hitler under the auspices of a Jewish army. She complained bitterly about the British, who opposed the formation of such an army, arguing that, in doing so, the British sought to render the Jews silent and invisible. But she also faulted the Jews for failing to appear as a political entity. Taken together, the Aufbau articles present an early, inchoate formulation of “the space of appearance,” which Arendt later developed in her arguably most important work of political philosophy, The Human Condition. The space of appearance is a conception of the public space where things are allowed to be seen and heard, where “action” takes place in the unpredictable and open-ended public space of politics, and “the social” is denigrated as that ends-driven place of “work,” mediocrity, and conformism.

An elitist, Arendt despised passivity on principle. In practice, this principled stance led to results that were often unbalanced, even early in her career as a writer and thinker. In not a few of the Jewish writings penned from the safety of Manhattan, Arendt spoke out against the Jewish instinct for “mere survival.” Death, she opined, “begins [its] reign of terror when life becomes the highest good.” This sentiment against “mere life” and “mere survival” is a curious thread repeating itself throughout the Aufbau articles (which are peppered with statements about the “readiness to kill,” the “readiness to die,” “dying on [one’s] knees” etc.). In her estimation, a Jewish army and armed Jewish resistance in the ghettos were the sole expressions of an active Jewish political will possible at the time.

Unlike these heated appeals for a Jewish army, Arendt’s writings on Zionism were more sober overall. On one hand, she was not unimpressed by the Zionists’ willingness to fight. But first and foremost, she opposed “suicidal gestures.” Arendt saw the pre-state Yishuv and then the State of Israel threatened by the Nazi advance across North Africa under Rommel, and later by hostile Arab neighbors, whom the Zionists had done nothing to placate. Herzl was wrong. A Jewish State was vulnerable and could not protect the Jews from anti-Semitism. Against the game of Realpolitik, Arendt therefore opposed any and all attempts to cut deals with imperial powers, be they Turkish or British. Instead, she championed the cause of solidarity with other oppressed peoples, especially Arabs and progressive forces in Europe, in which she still placed great stock.

Preoccupied by the problem of anti-Semitism, Arendt’s chief concern was that Zionist politics was isolationist, especially in its rejection of the Diaspora. In failing to create an all-inclusive Jewish organization, including Jews from Europe and the United States, and in failing to stand up for the Diaspora, the Zionists sabotaged their own movement. Instead of a Jewish state, Arendt supported a “homeland” in Palestine as a recognized zone of Jewish settlement, part of the British Commonwealth or some other European federative system. In her view, the only way to defeat anti-Semitism, a nationalist scourge, was by non-nationalist politics. Palestine, we see, was to be a part of Europe.

Despite the underlying Eurocentrism of these thoughts, Arendt was an early critic of the inability of mainstream Zionism to see the competing Arab national claim to Palestine. It was on this basis that she objected to the push for a Jewish state at the 1942 Biltmore Conference and to the later proposal to partition Palestine into two separate states, one Jewish and one Arab. Arendt was in a minority, but hardly alone. However, unlike other Zionist critics of partition (Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, other German Jewish members of the Ichud, as well the leftwing Hashomer Hatzair), Arendt rejected any reconciliation to the fait accompli of 1947-8.

It might be said that Arendt was wrong about a lot of things. Was an Arab-Jewish agreement possible in Palestine prior to partition, and if so on what organized basis? Did Herzl lack a political understanding of anti-Semitism? Were the Zionists not right to give up on Europe in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s (!)? At this time, were not the Jews surrounded by enemies? Was it the Zionists who broke solidarity with the peoples of Europe and not vice-versa? Was it possible to “combat” anti-Semitism? Did it not make sense to escape from Europe? To what practical purpose should a Jew have stayed to fight at this particular juncture? Did she herself not escape?

While it might be true that Arendt was wrong about many things (and for all her antipathy to mainstream Zionism), it is too simple to say that she was an anti-Zionist. In their distress, Arendt never opposed mass immigration of Jews to Palestine, and she always feared the worst for them (and very little, it seems, for the Arabs). For all its collaboration with the British, she rejected the contention that the Zionist settlement itself was a colonialist enterprise. Despite her critique of Labor Zionism, she believed in its human potential. In letters to Carl Jaspers and Mary McCarthy, Arendt was practically ga-ga about Israel’s victory in 1967 and expressed profound concern about the future of the State during the Yom Kippur War. On top of that, she despised the “spurious selflessness” of “Jewish radicals” who “furiously deny the existence of the Jewish people.” Like the poet Heinrich Heine, she was “not deceived by this nonsense of ‘world citizenship,’” which she called “an academic pipedream.” What Arendt understood perhaps better than her critics was that the Jewish people, in the Diaspora or in Israel/Palestine, cannot exist in isolation from each other and from non-Jews.

At the fore in The Jewish Writings is stubborn dedication to principle. In the case of Zionism in the 1940s, she stuck to the principle of internationalism despite the failure of internationalism to stand up to the challenges posed by the Holocaust and by Arab opposition to Jewish settlement. Regarding the Holocaust, she upheld the principle of individual responsibility, even if this meant crossing the line to blame the victim. Arendt’s political judgments were always couched as absolute moral judgments.

Arendt rejected the sentimental notion that the Jews were innocent victims of history. In her estimation, the identification of the Jews with the absolutist state in the 1700s was an important contributing factor to the formation of modern anti-Semitism; and she always held the Zionists up short for their failure to counter it effectively. In an Aufbau article, she argued against cooperating with the lesser evil. Writing early in the midst of World War II, she insisted that “the best English friends and the best armies in the world will not save us from this fate for which we ourselves are to blame.” The notion that Jews throughout history were historical actors in their own right and not merely victims is now a staple in contemporary Jewish Studies scholarship. But in turning this into a philosophical principle and applying it to the Holocaust, Arendt, we see, began to run up against rough ground.

It was Eichmann in Jerusalem that brought upon Arendt’s head the fury of the Jewish community. As a correspondent for New Yorker magazine, Arendt covered the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann, who had been captured by the Israeli Mossad in Argentina and brought to stand trial in Jerusalem. In her insightful analysis, Eichmann, who engineered the deportation of the Jews to the ghettos and camps, appears as nothing more sadistically demonic than a bureaucrat beholden to clichés and stock phrases. The book was not about the Holocaust itself as much as it was about the individual and individual conscience and responsibility (hence her hostility to Ben-Gurion whom she accused of organizing a political circus). Arendt now sought to convey “the banality of evil,” reversing her position in The Origins of Totalitarianism affirming the existence of “radical evil,” where she wrote, “an absolute evil appears [absolute because it can no longer be deduced from humanely comprehensible motives].”

While the phrase “banality of evil” was a subtle philosophical point little understood by her antagonists (they did not see how the human, non-monstrosity of the person Eichmann made him and his crimes all the more monstrous), her indictment of the Judenräte for co-responsibility in the Nazi genocide was crystal clear. That the leaders of the Jewish Councils cooperated with the Nazis in running the ghettos in Poland and organizing deportations was and remains a fact hard to digest. But Arendt did more than simply state facts, and it was disingenuous of her to suggest that this was all that was at stake in her reportage. More than simply stating facts, Arendt passed on her own normative judgment. In her view, the members of the Jewish Councils were not coerced to cooperate and could have always chosen, if not active resistance, than at least the possibility of doing nothing, of not cooperating (even if the historical record suggests otherwise).

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It was not the rejection of Judaism as a religion, as suggested by Ron Feldman in the introduction to the volume, but rather this public act of judgment in the New Yorker that was the final sticking point that caused so much pain and fury in the Jewish community, and which caused her such an “image problem” among her fellow Jews. “Concerning these arguments we are entitled to pass judgment,” Arendt contended to Scholem in their widely circulated exchange of letters about the Eichmann report. What gave her the confidence to pass such judgment was the strange argument that the Jewish leadership in the ghettos did not make decisions under the “immediate pressure and impact of terror.”

In his biting letter, Scholem had written: “There is something in the Jewish language that is completely indefinable, yet fully concrete – what the Jews call ahavath Israel, or love for the Jewish people. With you, my dear Hannah, as with so many intellectuals coming from the German left, there is no trace of it.” In reply, Arendt was more than happy to eschew any such “love,” which she caustically reduced to the worst elements of nationalism. Scholem may have missed the mark, since his appeal to “ahavat yisrael” violated the basic privilege placed on individual responsibility in Arendt’s thinking. But Scholem was right to miss in Arendt another more basic Jewish virtue. She lacked the attribute of rachmones (compassion, mercy), to the extent that she pitilessly blurred the distinction between victims and persecutors.

What grieved Arendt, we learn from her letter to Scholem, was “the wrong done by my own people” more than “the wrong done by other peoples.” On principle there is nothing wrong with this fine thought. But did the sentiment square with the case at hand? It is safe to assume that in this asymmetrical order of wrong (the Nazi act of genocide compared to the victim’s failure of political leadership), it was the former that preoccupied Scholem and Arendt’s many other critics more than the latter.

Was Arendt “malicious,” as Scholem called her? Probably not. Was the rejection of Arendt by her people as “entirely unwarranted” as Jerome Kohn claims in the preface to the volume? Probably not. Arendt complained bitterly about the “incredible propaganda” directed against her in the wake of the Eichmann controversy. That she seems to have been genuinely surprised by the critical response suggests an extraordinary naiveté.

At any rate, it is here we begin to hear contemporary echoes – today when critics in or at the margins of the Jewish community stand up to slaughter sacred cows as a public act of individual conscience and then complain when self-appointed defenders of the faith (“the Israel Lobby”) “conspire” to “silence” them.

Having come full circle after Camp David and the September 11th attacks, there is something depressingly déjà vu about The Jewish Writings. Caught between narrow nationalism and internationalist pipe dreams, Arendt’s Zionism articles seem to flash forward to our own times, making them look all the more hopeless. The arguments about the Eichmann book echo arguments between “the critic” and “the community” that are no less endless. Though they provide clear theoretical principles, Arendt’s writings end up clarifying little in practice.

Against such a pessimistic reading is the more likely possibility that our own times are in fact not as grim as Arendt’s. No matter what their opponents on the left and the right might think, George Bush is not Hitler, and neither are Osama bin Laden, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Khaled Meshal. And despite appearances to the contrary, criticism bears much less of a charge today than when the wounds from the Holocaust were still fresh and misconceptions about the history of Zionism were much more entrenched. For all the intellectual energy exhibited in these essays, Arendt will not show us a way out of our own predicaments. She wrote for her times and we live in ours.

Still, Arendt’s Jewish writings leave us with two things to ponder now: The first is the call to couple individual conscience with the public face of politics – a fraught balancing act whose challenge Arendt posed so well, but which she so often bobbled. The second is the glorious image of Arendt herself. We come face to face with the persona cultivated by herself and by her admirers in the extraordinarily handsome photograph of her that stares back at us from The Jewish Writings’ dust jacket.

It is possible, of course, to alter an image, to damage a reputation, to impugn motives. Against an image, however, it is difficult to argue. The image of Arendt – the pariah personified, the émigré who lost her country but not her culture and conscience – will always enjoy a certain allure. There is something pure and sublime in this picture before which even her critics might stand in some awe. She speaks for herself, advances offbeat opinions and arguments, and insists like Job on her own rightness before the force of overwhelming power – the very surface impression of innocence past which Arendt wanted to think.

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