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In May 1948, the 600,000 Jews of the new state of Israel—many of them Holocaust survivors—mobilized for a life-and-death struggle against five invading Arab armies. “This war will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongol massacres and the Crusades,” announced the secretary-general of the Arab League, Abdul Rahman Azzam. This was precisely when Arendt chose to launch yet another attack on the idea of an independent Jewish state. Arendt’s newest anti-Zionist broadside appeared in the American Jewish Committee’s Commentary, widely regarded as the most influential Jewish publication in the country.
Considering that Arendt now called on the Zionists to appease the Arab leadership by accepting limitations on Jewish immigration—that is, to surrender—it took chutzpah to give the article the title “To Save the Jewish Homeland.” Arendt bemoaned the loss of “Arab-Jewish collaboration,” without which “the whole Jewish venture in Palestine is doomed.” She exaggerated the significance of efforts by a small group of Hebrew University professors, led by university president Judah Magnes, to negotiate an agreement with the Palestinian Arabs based on the concept of binationalism. (As Magnes himself later acknowledged, he couldn’t find a single Palestinian leader who would agree to share the land with the Jews.) Ignoring the Palestinian leadership’s calls, reminiscent of the Nazis’, for the slaughter of the Jews, Arendt directed her rancor solely at the Zionist leaders. In her defeatism, Arendt predicted that even if the Jews won the war, they would
degenerate into one of those small warrior tribes about whose possibilities and importance history has amply informed us since the days of Sparta. Their relations with world Jewry would become problematical, since their defense interests might clash at any moment with those of other countries where large numbers of Jews lived. Palestine Jewry would eventually separate itself from the larger body of world Jewry and in its isolation develop into an entirely new people. Thus it becomes plain that at this moment and under present circumstances a Jewish state can only be erected at the price of the Jewish homeland.
Arendt ended the piece by urging that it was “still not too late” to head off the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab sections and to prevent the declaration of a Jewish state. Thankfully, nobody took her proposal seriously.
Arendt became something of an activist in opposing Zionism. In 1948, the leader of Herut, Menachem Begin, made a fund-raising visit to America for his party, which was about to enter the first elections to the Knesset. Arendt organized a group of liberal Jewish intellectuals (including Albert Einstein) to endorse her letter of protest to the New York Times. Of Begin’s party, Arendt wrote: “Today they speak of freedom, democracy and anti-imperialism, whereas until recently they openly preached the doctrine of the fascist state. . . . This is the unmistakable stamp of a Fascist party for whom terrorism (against Jews, Arabs, and British alike), and misrepresentation are means, and a ‘Leader State’ is the goal.” For a scholar who built her reputation as an expert on totalitarian “leader states,” this was an extraordinary misjudgment. For all his political faults, Begin led his party to a principled embrace of Israel’s system of parliamentary democracy.
Even after Israel’s victory in the 1948 war, Arendt continued bemoaning the fact that the Jewish state had come into being without the Arabs’ acquiescence. She still hoped to replace Israel with a binational state or a Swiss-style canton system in which Arabs and Jews would share sovereignty. She blamed the Jews—exclusively—for failure to achieve these political fantasies. And she championed the cause of the Palestinian refugees, whose existence, she said, “made the old Arab claim against Zionism come true; the Jews simply aimed at expelling the Arabs from their homes.” Not only was the charge of expulsion false; Arendt also remained oblivious to the Arab states’ refusal to consider resettlement in their own countries of the Palestinian refugees.
In 1961, Arendt went to Jerusalem to cover the Eichmann trial. She recounted that she had asked New Yorker editor William Shawn for the assignment because it would be her last opportunity to view one of the Nazi mass murderers “in the flesh” and also because she felt an “obligation” to her own German Jewish past to undertake the mission. Left unsaid was that this assignment would also provide an opportunity to settle scores with Ben-Gurion, now Israel’s prime minister. Her report, again, shocked many readers with its accusations of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis in wartime. Making the charges all the more outrageous is that we now know that she herself, at the time of the trial, was voluntarily engaged in a collaboration of sorts with Heidegger, who never repented for his Nazi allegiance. According to the historian Richard Wolin, Arendt served “as Heidegger’s de facto American literary agent, diligently overseeing contracts and translations of his books.”
But personal hypocrisy is the least of the troubling issues surrounding Arendt’s judgments on Zionism and the Holocaust. Even some of Arendt’s close friends were troubled by the seeming callousness with which she compared the Jews of Europe to their murderers. She described Rabbi Leo Baeck, the revered leader of the Berlin Judenrat, as the “Jewish Führer.” When Eichmann claimed to have sympathy with the Zionists—presumably because their desperate attempts to get German Jews to Palestine had moved Germany one step closer to being Judenrein—she flippantly called him a “convert to Zionism.” Those efforts, moreover, she labeled “a certain amount of non-criminal cooperation with the Nazi authorities,” suggesting a confluence of interests between Zionism and Nazism.
Arendt’s letters to friends, published after her death in 1975, show that she was far from objective in covering the trial. Her impressions of Jerusalem and the Israelis can only be described as bigoted. The police gave her “the creeps” because they spoke “only Hebrew and looked Arabic.” Jerusalem was “dirty” and as unpleasant as Istanbul. She was disdainful of the “oriental mob” outside the courthouse. She expressed distaste for the black-hatted, ultraorthodox Jews “who make life impossible for all reasonable people here,” as well as for Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. (In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she described state prosecutor Gideon Hausner as a “Galician Jew who speaks without periods or commas.”) The only people in the courtroom she seemed to respect were the three judges, who were—just like her—exiled German Jews of high culture and intelligence.
The evident malice in Eichmann in Jerusalem toward Zionism and Israel partly explains why such bitter controversy about it raged for many years. Pro- and anti-Arendt camps sprang up within the circle of New York intellectuals known as “the family”—in which Arendt had been, until then, a member in good standing. The Arendt wars spread to the European intellectual salons and then, many years later, to Israel as part of the “post-Zionist” debates. It’s unfortunate that serious criticism of Eichmann in Jerusalem by such writers as Norman Podhoretz and Walter Laqueur was overshadowed by organized ad hominem attacks on Arendt. Famous writers like Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, and Bruno Bettelheim hit back hard against Arendt’s accusers, stressing the undeniable fact that elements of the “Jewish establishment” had launched a coordinated campaign against the book. In a postscript to the second edition, Arendt made the accusation herself: “Even before its publication this book became . . . the object of an organized campaign.”
But Arendt’s defenders also muddied the waters of reasonable debate. For many leftist intellectuals, Arendt became a political icon who spoke truth to Zionist power and was punished for it. The 2006 Penguin edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem included an introduction by the Israeli author Amos Elon, by then one of his country’s most embittered critics, titled “The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt.” Arendt’s banishment, according to Elon, was “imposed on the author by the Jewish establishment in America.”
This myth that Arendt was “excommunicated” for telling unpleasant truths has taken on a life of its own. According to Young-Bruehl, the “more openly” Arendt criticized the Zionist program after the war, “the more isolated she became from the American Jews she had once respected for their lack of fanaticism.” The claim is absurd on its face. In her biography, Young-Bruehl herself confirmed that Arendt’s attacks on Zionism from 1945 to 1950 appeared in leading American Jewish publications. And despite Arendt’s anti-Zionism, she maintained close friendships with many prominent American Jewish intellectuals. In the early 1960s, Podhoretz, the young editor of Commentary, admired her scholarly work on totalitarianism and democratic government and became a good friend. It was Arendt who severed the relationship after Podhoretz wrote a critical review of Eichmann in Jerusalem.
In his introduction, Elon likened Arendt to the great Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza: both were supposedly Jews who had challenged the historical myths of their tribe and suffered for it. Elon hoped that a statue of Arendt might someday be built in Israel, just as there is one of Spinoza. But Arendt was no Spinoza. Not only did the attacks on the Eichmann book not harm her; they made her even more famous in America and Europe. She found more access to elite publications and received numerous literary honors and academic positions. In Germany, Arendt’s likeness appears on a postage stamp, and an intercity train and a Berlin street are named after her.
Arendt’s greatest legacy to the Left, however, isn’t merely that she is remembered as a martyr; it’s the nature of her criticism of Zionism. As Hebrew University philosopher Elhanan Yakira shows in his 2010 book Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust, Arendt’s accusation that Ben-Gurion manipulated the Eichmann trial in order to justify Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians has become a “master postulate” for the international coalition of anti-Israel intellectuals and activists. This “community of opprobrium” wishes to bring about a great reversal of our understanding of history. No longer will we believe that the Holocaust proved the correctness of the Zionists’ solution to anti-Semitism; rather, the Zionists’ manipulation of the Holocaust for their own ends reveals the fraudulent basis of the Jewish state. “Although the anti-Israel uses made of the Holocaust are multifaceted, . . . they coalesce into a single pattern of defaming Israel and Zionism,” writes Yakira. “The Holocaust, or the story of the destruction of European Jewry by Nazi Germany, plays a central role in this defamation, which aims, on the one hand, to deny legitimacy to the Jewish state in principle and, on the other, to indict the state, across the board, on moral grounds.”
Amos Elon’s 2006 homage to Arendt makes explicit the Left’s debt to Arendt. “In the past, the difficulty of many Israelis to accept Arendt’s book ran parallel to another difficulty—foreseen by Arendt early on—the difficulty of confronting, morally and politically, the plight of the dispossessed Palestinians,” Elon wrote. “The Palestinians bore no responsibility for the collapse of civilization in Europe but ended up being punished for it.” What Elon didn’t mention, any more than Arendt had, was that the Palestinians were “punished” not because of the Nazi extermination of the European Jews but because of the self-destructive policies of their own fanatical, Jew-hating leadership.
Perhaps the most important pillar of the Israel opprobrium community is The New York Review of Books. Elon was one of its most prominent writers on Israel until his death in 2009; another was Tony Judt. Both, like Arendt, started out as left-wing Zionists. When they realized that Israel was not becoming the socialist utopia they once imagined, they, too, experienced a failure of nerve. The Jewish state had become an embarrassment to univer- salistic, liberal-minded Jews like themselves and the editors and readers of The New York Review of Books.
In rereading Judt’s famous break with Zionism, published in The New York Review of Books in 2003 under the title “Israel: The Alternative,” one sees the spiritual influence of Arendt. Judt declared that Israel was an “anachronism” and a colossal historical mistake. Like Arendt in 1948, Judt insisted that the mistake be corrected forthwith by turning Israel into a binational state; otherwise, the region would likely blow up, and the collateral damage would surely harm liberal New York Jews. “Today, non-Israeli Jews feel themselves once again exposed to criticism and vulnerable to attack for things they didn’t do,” Judt worried.
Like Arendt before him, Judt claimed that he had been excommunicated by the Jewish establishment in response to his own truth-telling about Zionism. But the fact is that Judt, just like Arendt herself, suffered no harm from this alleged banishment. He had no problem finding elite publications, including the New York Times and the Israeli daily Haaretz, eager to publish his jeremiads against the Jewish state. Finally, and fittingly, Judt received the 2007 Hannah Arendt Prize, awarded by the city-state of Bremen and carrying a large honorarium. In his acceptance speech, “The Problem of Evil in Postwar Europe,” Judt warned of the moral and political dangers of applying lessons from the Holocaust to the defense of the Jewish state.
When you review Hannah Arendt’s voluminous writings on Jewish affairs in the decades from 1942 to 1963, it is shocking to discover how mistaken she was on so many issues. She was wrong on the charge of “fascism” leveled against Jabotinsky, Bergson, and Begin; she was wrong in her judgment that the Soviet Union was protecting Jewish national rights; she was wrong to remain silent about the Roosevelt administration’s abandonment of the European Jews; she was wrong about Israel’s ability to defend itself in 1948 without foreign intervention; she was wrong in insisting that the binational approach provided a realistic solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict; and, above all, she was wrong to claim that the Holocaust had become Israel’s justification for abusing innocent Palestinians.
Despite these monumental errors of political and moral judgment, Arendt’s published work on Zionism, Israel, and the Holocaust continues to be viewed by leftist intellectuals as a model of truth-telling and integrity. In the pages of the liberal journals that Arendt once wrote for, we hear echoes of her disdain for a Jewish (now Israeli) tribalism that threatens world peace and universal human rights. How familiar it sounds when her disciples instruct the people of Israel that they must make amends for their previous sins by risking their own security and either ushering in an independent Palestinian state or creating a new binational state with their Palestinian brothers. Familiar, too, are the complaints of excommunication and suppression when the stubborn, parochial Jews decide to reject this gratuitous advice.
Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of A Century of Palestinian Rejectionism and Jew Hatred.
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