How Hannah Arendt Was Labeled an “Enemy of Israel”

German Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt (above in 1954) was reviled by many Jewish intellectuals for her 1963 book on Eichmann. Its insights into the "banality of evil" are much more widely accepted today.  AP Photo.
German Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt (above in 1954) was reviled by many Jewish intellectuals for her 1963 book on Eichmann. Its insights into the "banality of evil" are much more widely accepted today. AP Photo.

Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

How Hannah Arendt Was Labeled an “Enemy of Israel”

by Daniel Maier-Katkin

Ad hominem attack is not new in Jewish politics. Intimidation of critics of Israeli policy is as old as the modern State of Israel itself. The discourse within Zionism about Israel's path to security and peace has not been tolerant of dissenting ideas. A recent example known to Tikkun readers was the disturbingly odd graffiti attack on Rabbi Lerner's home in May that portrayed him embracing Justice Goldstone, declaring "any enemy of Israel is a friend of mine." (Goldstone authored the UN report that accused both Hamas and Israel of war crimes in the Gaza invasion of almost two years ago.)

Goldstone and Lerner are not the first Jews to have detractors equate their criticism of Israel with treason against the Jewish people. Perhaps the most famous example is the reception of Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt's experience in the 1960s offers an early example of repressive strategies for the punishment and repression of dissent. Arendt's story has value to progressive Jews not only because she is a matriarchal figure in the development of progressive Jewish political thought, but also because the campaign against Arendt illuminates the recurring threat to freedom of thought that still menaces Justice Goldstone, Rabbi Lerner, and others in the present moment. That Arendt's ideas are now so widely respected should make us think twice about those pilloried in similar ways today.

Arendt was born into a comfortable, educated, secular Jewish family in East Prussia at the beginning of the twentieth century. She was educated to the highest university levels in classics, Greek, Latin, continental philosophy, and German literature. She was not a Zionist because she did not personally have any impulse to emigrate to Eretz Yisroel. She was at ease with her identity as a Jew in the diaspora, happily European, immersed in the warm glow of Enlightenment culture and Western civilization. Palestine would have been an "exotic" destination for her; Paris and New York were not.

Nevertheless, Arendt respected the idealism, acumen, and courage of the Zionists and greatly admired her friend Kurt Blumenfeld, the dashing, brilliant president of the German Zionist Organization. It was library research on the extent of anti-Semitism in Germany just weeks after the Nazi seizure of power, undertaken at Blumenfeld's request, that was denounced by a librarian as anti-state propaganda, precipitating Arendt's arrest and eight days of police detention, after which she immediately entered exile, slipping into Bohemia and making her way to France.

Arendt's Solidarity with the Jewish People

In Paris Arendt worked tirelessly for Zionist organizations, principally Youth Aliyah, which rescued Jewish young people from Europe, preparing them to emigrate to Palestine as agricultural workers. Caring for these penniless youths entailed feeding and clothing them, providing instructors and social workers, dealing with the parents whom the youth would leave behind, dealing with legal documents, and above all raising money to keep the whole operation afloat.

In New York, after the fall of France, she became Senior Editor at Schocken Press, the largest publisher of Judaica and Jewish-themed books in the world. She emerged quickly as a respected figure in New York literary, cultural, and progressive circles. Her first published essays reflect solidarity with the Jewish people, calling for the creation of a Jewish Army to join the armies of the world in confronting Hitler, warning Jews that a people that "does not have a place in the war, will not have a place in the peace." After the publication of Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt became an internationally prominent public intellectual.

When she returned to Germany for the first time after the war, in 1950, it was as research director of the International Commission for the Cultural Reconstruction of European Jewry. In this capacity she assumed responsibility for one and a half million objects, books, and artifacts of Judaica held by Allied authorities as "abandoned property." She arranged for Torahs, prayer books, artwork, menorahs, and other objects associated with Jewish religious practice to be returned whenever possible to rightful owners; when that could not be determined, she arranged to have some objects sent to places where they might be protected or preserved, distributing others to needy congregations often in remote locations.

Arendt's Vision of Israel as a Homeland for Palestinians and Jews

Arendt had been a tireless advocate for Jewish victims and for the existence of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine, but she envisioned the homeland as a federated, pluralistic, democratic, secular state -- a homeland for Palestinians and Jews coexisting peacefully as neighbors without an official state religion. This may seem a pipe dream now, but in early Zionism this was called the "general" view. The "revisionist" view that Israel must be a Jewish state and a homeland only for Jews did not come to dominate the discourse until the end of World War II, when the Holocaust was revealed in its full terror and destruction.

In 1944 the Zionist Organization of America adopted a resolution calling for "a Jewish commonwealth to embrace the whole of Palestine, undivided and undiminished." Arendt wrote that it would be preferable to work toward statehood slowly through local agricultural and irrigation projects to build trust among neighbors and thus bring about a peaceful multicultural solution of tensions in the region. An explicitly Jewish state, she warned, would inevitably treat its Arab population as second-class citizens, be an endless provocation to hundreds of millions of Arab neighbors, and channel its material and human resources into military preparedness, which she doubted could succeed indefinitely. Even Sparta could only dominate its neighbors militarily for a few hundred years. Militarism, she thought, cannot be a successful long-term strategy for the survival of the Jewish people; it points too clearly toward an eventual crisis.

By 1950 -- with Israel established and no immediate prospect for reconciliation with the Arabs -- Arendt withdrew from Jewish politics, focusing her considerable energy on philosophy and political theory. Then in 1960 Israeli intelligence captured Adolf Eichmann, the German Nazi who had managed the deportation of Jews to the concentration camps, in Argentina and transported him secretly to Jerusalem, where it was announced that he would stand trial for crimes against humanity. Arendt arranged to report on the trial for the New Yorker (an assignment that testifies to the prominence she had achieved as a writer and intellectual).

The Reception of Eichmann in Jerusalem

The reception of her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, especially among Jewish intellectuals, was perhaps the most vituperative literary event of the twentieth century, at least in the English language. The hostilities revolved around the book's subtitle, A Report on the Banality of Evil, and its criticism of the dominance of anti-Arab Jewish nationalist sentiment dominating Israeli politics.

Arendt never denied that Israel should exercise jurisdiction over Eichmann, or doubted that he should be executed; but she was struck by the absence of blood lust or rabid anti-Semitism in Eichmann, who appeared more a banal bureaucrat than an inhuman monster. She was frightened by the insight that the most awful, reprehensible crimes might be committed by ordinary people.

This in turn made her suspicious of the prosecution's caricature of Eichmann as "the monster" responsible for the suffering of the Jewish people, as well as impatient with the use of a judicial proceeding to rehearse the story of Jewish suffering before the world and especially before young Israelis in an orchestrated political celebration of militarism as the only way for Jews to be safe in a world populated with hate-filled, Jew-killing monsters. Better, she thought, for young people to see that in the long run, the survival of Israel depends on finding a path to peace with its neighbors.

The reviews were brutal. One was published under the headline "Self-Hating Jewess Writes Pro-Eichmann Series for the New Yorker." Another concluded that Arendt was "digging future Jewish graves to the applause of the world's unconverted anti-Semites." She was characterized by the president of the World Zionist Organization as a person without any "reverence for the unparalleled suffering and tragedy of the 6,000,000 who perished." The Council of Israeli Jews From Germany wrote to her demanding that she withdraw the book from publication or face a "declaration of war." Her old friend Gershom Scholem wrote a public letter declaring that Arendt had "insufficient love for the Jewish people." Lionel Abel wrote in Partisan Review that Arendt had called the Holocaust banal, and that her portrayal of Nazis made them more aesthetically appealing than their victims. William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, observed that "in town" people seemed to be discussing little else. Irving Howe described the bitter public dispute over the Eichmann book as "violent"; Mary McCarthy wrote that it assumed the proportions of a pogrom.

In the introduction to a new edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Amos Elon compared the treatment of Hannah Arendt to the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza, another "enemy of Israel." Like Spinoza, Arendt seems to prevail over the forces arrayed against her thought. Her books are still in press thirty-five years after her death and have been translated into dozens of languages; new collections of her essays are still being published. She is the subject of many books and even a few plays. In this way Arendt's story encourages us to hope that campaigns of intimidation and delegitimization do not succeed in repressing critical discourse and dissent.

On the other hand, there is also a cautionary note: a campaign against the memory of Hannah Arendt continues, and the ideology that rationalizes and justifies ad hominem attacks and menacing gestures against Jews who dare to criticize Israel persists. As Rabbi Lerner and Justice Goldstone have learned, a Jew who fears that Israel is on a path that leads to destruction, or who is skeptical of a "divine mission to possess the land," or concerned about the legality or morality of unrelenting military strategies to secure regional domination, will be attacked as self-hating and anti-Semitic. To hate oneself is ipso facto pathological, and this, it is asserted, leads to irrational hatred of Israel, which is seen as the embodiment of the Jewish people. Thus, defenders of Israeli policies aim to exclude Jewish critics from public discourse by defining them as crazy persons, driven to anti-Semitism by self-loathing. In this way Lerner's criticism of Israel, or Goldstone's, or Arendt's is dismissed as arising from psychological or spiritual disturbance rather than reasoned argument or an ethical posture.

Calumny, an old-fashioned blend of slander, distortion, and innuendo, has been a recurring instrument of intimidation in post-Holocaust Jewish politics. Hannah Arendt's experience offers an early example, and there are echoes of it in the current campaign against Lerner and Goldstone. Indeed, calumny is leveled against any Jews in the "loyal opposition" who are worried that Israeli militarism inevitably points to some final disaster, or convinced that the pursuit of peace and justice in a spirit of friendship and cooperation might also advance national security.

Daniel Maier-Katkin, author of Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness (W.W. Norton, 2010), is a professor of criminology and human rights at Florida State University. 

Maier-Katkin, Daniel. 2010. How Hannah Arendt Was Labeled an “Enemy of Israel”. Tikkun 25(6): 11

tags: Israel/Palestine, Richard Goldstone, Zionism   
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