Hannah Arendt: From Iconoclast to Icon

Arendt sharply criticized Zionism, but from within.

Hannah Arendt, the renowned German-Jewish political philosopher and liberal polemicist, has obtained icon status since her death in 1975. Roger Cohen can write a New York Times column entitled “The Banality of Good” (May 4, 2010) and before we even read the piece, we know whom and what he’s referring to.

Arendt gained international fame with Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, based on her New Yorker magazine reports on the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, a volume which also forever established her reputation as an enfant terrible among Jews. On a panel in April, 2010, at the New School (where Arendt served on the faculty in her final years), Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, her best-known biographer, summed up why Arendt’s book on Eichmann had caused such a stir (I paraphrase):

1. Her thesis that Eichmann was not an exemplar of unfathomable evil but rather an amoral bureaucratic careerist who found a system where he could rise above his limited natural gifts in the service of mass murder; hence her often misunderstood and ill-received subtitle, “The Banality of Evil.”

2. Her scathing portrayal of members of the Judenräte (Nazi-organized Jewish community councils) in helping the Nazis commit genocide, a portrayal that was overly cold (in my view and that of many readers, but not necessarily that of Young-Bruehl) for not fully depicting the dismal choices that Judenräte members faced vis-à-vis the Nazis.

3. Her critique of the legality under international law of Israel’s actions in capturing, prosecuting and executing Eichmann.

When this briskly-written journalistic account of the Eichmann trial was first published in book form in 1963, Holocaust studies had not yet become the mammoth scholarly discipline and popular subject that it is today. An article by Nathaniel Popper in The Nation (April 19, 2010) indicated that Arendt borrowed heavily from Raul Hilberg, one of the few serious Holocaust scholars with a body of work available at the time.

For a broader perspective, I consulted Professor Yehuda Bauer’s 2001 book of retrospective essays, Rethinking the Holocaust. Bauer is a liberal Israeli who is well known for studying the Holocaust in a judicious manner that never denigrates the mass suffering of non-Jews. I learned from Bauer that Arendt’s speculation that Himmler’s infamous deputy, Reinhardt Heydrich, had Jewish ancestry does not hold up to contemporary scholarship. He also provides a critique of her blanket attack on members of the Judenräte, some of whom resisted heroically as best they could, even choosing to sacrifice their lives rather than act as agents for the Nazis, and all facing impossible odds whether they were noble or nasty in their conduct.

Her Zionism

One of the most complicated and ill-understood aspects of Hannah Arendt’s life was her relationship to Zionism. She opposed the decision taken by a majority of the Zionist movement at the Biltmore Conference in 1942 to strive for a Jewish state. Rather than opposing Zionism as a movement or philosophy, she disagreed with this particular direction, denouncing it as a surrender to “Revisionism,” the right-wing Zionist current founded by Zeev Jabotinsky, which became the main ideological wellspring for today’s Likud party. Arendt allied herself with the Ichud group of Judah Magnes and Martin Buber that favored a binational federation in Palestine.

Another area where she criticized the Zionist mainstream was in advocating for an explicitly Jewish army to fight Hitler. Eventually there would be a Palestinian Jewish brigade that served in the British army, but her insistence that an entire Jewish army be formed was an example of how she was, contrary to what many believe, a species of Jewish nationalist (not to mention, being something of a utopian).

In retrospect, she was also unrealistic in advocating a binational solution in Palestine. This definitely was a high-minded and worthwhile goal to pursue in principle, but there was not a strong enough constituency for it among either Palestinian Jews or Arabs. While only a minority view among Zionists, even when counting the Hashomer Hatzair socialist movement (a major left-Zionist current that first opposed and then, in 1948, accepted a Jewish state), no organized support existed on the Arab side for shared or confederated sovereignty in Palestine. While a binational state was the preferred solution for such early Zionists as Arendt, Buber, and Albert Einstein — all of whom preferred a Jewish homeland in Palestine to a Jewish state as such — none can reasonably be said to have opposed Israel’s actual existence.

So Arendt was a sharp dissenter against the Zionist majority from 1942 on, but to regard her as anti-Zionist is an oversimplification. In an interview on West German television in 1970 — screened at a New York University conference convened in December 2006, in honor of the hundredth anniversary of her birth — Arendt recalled her time in the 1930s, in exile from Nazi Germany, working as a Zionist functionary in Paris for Youth Aliyah. Smiling through a thick haze of cigarette smoke, she characterized her job of getting young German and Polish Jews to Palestine as the single most satisfying work she had ever done. Until the British imposed their infamous “White Paper” in 1939, limiting the legal entry of Jews to Palestine to a trickle, Palestine was the only place where Jewish organizations could directly bring about mass rescue.

There were precious few places where Jews could find refuge in large numbers in the 1930s and ‘40s. The Nazis took heart from this difficulty to transition from expulsion and ghettoization to the “Final Solution” of genocide. In particular, the failure of the eight-day Évian Conference in July 1938 to agree on any plan for receiving Jewish refugees, or even to pass a resolution condemning Nazi anti-Semitism, reportedly emboldened the Nazis.

Ahavat Yisrael

It was at the 2006 conference at NYU that I heard about the anthology of Arendt’s work entitled The Jewish Writings, eventually published in 2007 by Schocken Books. In it, one gets a strong sense of her passions as a Jewish woman who survived the Nazis, and as a caustic social critic who never spared her fellow Jews.

For example, in “Zionism Reconsidered,” she praises the socialist Zionists for their egalitarianism, their contempt for material wealth, and their “unique combination of culture and labor.” But she also puts them down for being insular and parochial. This included a brief critique of the so-called Transfer Agreement that contravened the economic boycott of Nazi Germany in its early years; yes, this “flood[ed] the Palestine market with German products” but also allowed for tens of thousands of German Jews to escape Nazi Germany — a point she curiously did not mention.

The final chapter is an afterword on “Big Hannah” by her niece, Edna Brocke, whom she used to visit in Israel. This warm personal remembrance confirms Arendt’s enthusiasm for work in the Zionist movement during the 1930s: “She understood Zionism as a concrete way of combating rising National Socialism, … rescuing Jews and above all children and young people by sending them to Palestine. … [She] considered that to be her active contribution to the defense of the Jewish people.”

The April 2010 issue of Sh’ma featured an article on Arendt’s famous falling out with her friend and fellow German Jewish refugee, the philosopher and Kabbalah scholar, Gershom Scholem, over Eichmann in Jerusalem. When hearing about this at the NYU conference, it seemed to me that Scholem was correct in accusing her of not feeling Ahavat Yisrael, love for the Jewish people. Her response was that she had never felt “love” for “a collective … neither [for] the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class…. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.”

The writer in Sh’ma, Arie M. Dubnov, contends that they argued past each other. “Scholem … assumed Arendt was … speaking in the name of an abstract humanity,” invoking a false dichotomy that radically differentiates between universalism and particularism, and thereby condemns Jewish fellow-feeling as too narrow to be worthy of respect. According to Dubnov, “Arendt feared that romanticist language about collectivity would open the door to totalitarianism; when individual opinions are suppressed in the name of an imagined collective kinship.”

In this, Dubnov sees her as reacting against her personal history with Martin Heidegger, her one-time academic mentor and ex-lover who embraced the Nazi regime. As the Nazis’ favorite living philosopher, Heidegger defended the Third Reich’s racist ideology and helped purge German universities of Jews and other “undesirables.” There’s no sure way to know if Dubnov is correct, but his analysis seems plausible.

Arendt’s relationship with Heidegger remains a source of fascination to this day. In a cover essay in The New York Times Book Review, May 9, 2010, Adam Kirsch reviewed two books on Heidegger, including one on his relationship with Arendt (Stranger From Abroad by Daniel Maier-Katkin). After shunning him from the moment of the Nazi takeover in 1933, she resumed their friendship (although not necessarily their affair) in 1950. In 1969, on his 80th birthday, she explained away Heidegger’s Nazism (either naively or disingenuously) on a West German radio broadcast as an “escapade,” a mistake. Kirsch read Stranger From Abroad as being too admiring of Arendt to admit that her moral judgment was compromised by her personal feelings in this instance.

Still, Hannah Arendt, the author of eighteen books and numerous articles, was an independent thinker of enormous appeal, as well as a font for controversy. She is today an icon for much of the Left, i.e., at least the part that did not take offense at The Origins of Totalitarianism, which largely equated Stalinism with Nazism, or by the way some of her writings were taken as criticisms of the New Left, or as an unalloyed defense of Western Cold War policies in the 1960s and early 1970s. But those controversies are not widely remembered nowadays. She is championed by many on the more current Left for her criticisms of Zionism; but in doing so, they generally overlook the fact that she was basically a critic from within the Zionist fold.


13 thoughts on “Hannah Arendt: From Iconoclast to Icon

  1. Thanks to Ralph Seliger for continuing interest in Hannah Arendt. Just two mofifications: (i) it should be noted that most of her writing was not about Jewish issues but about global ones – ‘The Human Condition’, which you wouldn’t guess from Ralph’s article. Her position on Jewish issues is interesting but not hugely original and illuminating, as her mainstream work is; (ii) the photo at the top of the article is of Virginia Woolf, not Hannah Arendt.

  2. My thanks to Gabriel Chanan for his comment, yet I never suggested that Jewish issues were Arendt’s only (or even her primary) concern. Still, the Jewish condition was a major focus of both her work and her activism. And, at least arguably, “Eichmann in Jerusalem” is her best known book.

    As for the photo, it’s artful, but was not of my choosing.

  3. Interesting to see Virginia Woolf’s portrait in this article, because, although she was married to a Jew, VW was not free of antisemitism, as is clear from some entries in her diaries.

    • Oops. We hadn’t realized until your comment that that image (now replaced with one of Arendt) was of Virginia Woolf; it was found on a website that described it as a collage of Arendt and Woolf but it was clearly more Woolf than Arendt and we made a mistake in having it there at all.

  4. Arendt was not a systematic thinker. Instead, she favored “trains of thought,” and considered various issues on the basis of their own, unique character. I believe this is the key both to her variant of Zionism and to her critique of totalitarianism. Hers was never meant to be a universalism, a coherent, internally consistent “take” on all matters present to the view of an ideological lense. Instead, she occupied a humanist stance akin to Buber’s: I do not see a position, but a person. It is on that basis and through that mode of listening and being, that she thought and spoke. That is an indispensable part of her unique value.

  5. Much is made of the credo of Hamas to destroy Israel. Why do we never hear about the Zionist movement of racial purity which includes the complete removal of goyim from Israel, which is tantamount to the same thing? Much of the destruction of the indigenous Palestinian peoples has already occurred and destruction of the remainder is ongoing.

    • There are very extreme right-wing Zionists who more or less conform with Trevor Smythe’s view of a movement dedicated to something like “racial purity.” But to accuse all (or even most) Zionists of this vision is completely untrue. I hope that Mr. Smythe one day realizes that he is demonizing an entire people with this kind of argument.

  6. i quote: ‘ the dismal choices.’ the notion of ‘choice’ says it all.

    one who let’s himself be used to make choices about life and death of others collaborates with the one’s who have the power to make the final choice. there is no excuse for this collaboration except fear. but than, also a substantial number of germans feared the nazi’s and therefore collaborated and made the unthinkable possible. be honest, don’t try to defend the indefensible. because otherwise, in the end there is no moral standard by which we can judge ourselves. of course there were motives to collaborate, but that is not the issue here. hannah arendt realized this.

    • All I am saying, and all that such historians as Yehuda Bauer point out, is that you cannot reasonably condemn people without appreciating the dismal choices that they faced. Some had the fortitude to refuse these choices and suffered death as a consequence (which they unknowingly faced regardless of their course of action). But you have to imagine the unimaginably grim options which they thought they faced. I daresay that Arendt seemed to lack compassion in how she approached this matter.

  7. Mr Seliger continues to edit my comments by adding the word, ‘all’so that he can attack it. Here are some historical comments made by Zionists that illustrate my assertion.
    Theodore Herzl, 1897: We shall endeavor to expel the poor population across the border unnoticed, procuring employment for it in transit countries, but denying it any employment in our own country.
    Leo Motzkin, 1917: Our thought is that the colonization of Palestine has to go in two directions: Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel and the resettlement of the Arabs of Eretz Israel in areas outside the country.
    David Ben Gurion, 1947: There are 40 percent non-Jews in areas allocated to the Jewish state…And we have to face this new reality with all it’s severity and distinctness…Only a state with at least 80 percent Jews is a viable and stable stte
    Benjamin Netan

  8. To finish my comment,
    Benjamin Netanyahu, 2003: if the relationship with these 20percent becomes problematic, the state is entitled to employ extreme measures.

    Any thinking person even remotely familiar with Zionism knows this is a central dogma of the philosophy and provided justification for the ethnic cleansing operations of 1948. How could Mr Seligman possibly protest?

    • One can definitely cherry-pick random statements by Zionist leaders that threaten ethnic cleansing. But random statements do not necessarily define a philosophy or a policy. My sympathies are with Hashomer Hatzair, Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein and other Zionists who clearly opposed such thinking.

      What Mr. Smythe ignores are the genocidal and exclusivist statements and actions of Palestinian nationalist leaders. Moreover, he completely explains away the fact that the Palestinian-Arabs suffered grievously in an armed conflict which they started, and in which they clearly intended to destroy the Palestinian-Jewish community.

  9. Threaten ethnic cleansing? The quote from Ben Gurion was made just before he put it into action. As a result, there is a certain refugee problem.

    It is an amazing leap of logic to blame this on the indigenous people of Palestine. I wonder what Hanna Arendt would have to say if she were able to visit Apartheid Israel and observe the institutionalized cruelty meted out to it’s own people.

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