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Hannah Arendt and the Origins of Israelophobia
Posted By Sol Stern On January 16, 2012 @ 12:25 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 43 Comments
This article is reprinted from City Journal.
In last year’s extensive commentary marking the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial, one name—Hannah Arendt—was mentioned nearly as often as that of the trial’s notorious defendant. It’s hard to think of another major twentieth-century event so closely linked with one author’s interpretation of it. Arendt, who fled Nazi Germany at 27, was already an internationally renowned scholar and public intellectual when she arrived in Jerusalem in April 1961 to cover the trial for The New Yorker. Arendt’s five articles, which were then expanded into the 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, proved hugely controversial. Many Jewish readers—and non-Jews, too—were shocked by three principal themes in Arendt’s report: her portrayal of Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion as the cynical puppet master manipulating the trial to serve the state’s Zionist ideology; her assertion that Eichmann was a faceless, unthinking bureaucrat, a cog in the machinery of the Final Solution rather than one of its masterminds; and her accusation that leaders of the Judenräte (Jewish councils) in Nazi-occupied Europe had engaged in “sordid and pathetic” behavior, making it easier for the Nazis to manage the logistics of the extermination process.
Since the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, serious scholars have debunked the most inflammatory of Arendt’s charges. Nevertheless, for today’s defamers of Israel, Arendt is a patron saint, a courageous Jewish intellectual who saw Israel’s moral catastrophe coming. These leftist intellectuals don’t merely believe, as Arendt did, that she was the victim of “excommunication” for the sin of criticizing Israel. Their homage to Arendt runs deeper. In fact, their campaign to delegitimize the state of Israel and exile it from the family of nations—another kind of excommunication, if you will—derives several of its themes from Arendt’s writings on Zionism and the Holocaust. Those writings, though deeply marred by political naivety and personal rancor, have now metastasized into a destructive legacy that undermines Israel’s ability to survive as a lonely democracy, surrounded by hostile Islamic societies.
One might imagine the young Hannah Arendt as the heroine of a Philip Roth novel about a precocious Jewish undergraduate having an affair with her famous professor. According to her late biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Arendt grew up in a completely assimilated middle-class Jewish family in Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia. She identified herself as fully German by virtue of her love of the Muttersprache (mother tongue) and of German Kultur. The word “Jew,” Arendt would later recall, “was never mentioned” in her home; the only religion there was her mother’s ardent socialism.
In 1924, at 18, Arendt went to study philosophy at the University of Marburg, where Martin Heidegger was establishing his reputation as the most important continental philosopher of the twentieth century. Like many of Heidegger’s brilliant Jewish students (Herbert Marcuse was another), Arendt was mesmerized by his lectures. Heidegger, in turn, quickly recognized Arendt’s intellectual gifts and agreed to mentor her dissertation. He also became her secret lover, though he was more than twice her age and married with children. A decade later, Heidegger became a committed member of the Nazi Party and the head of the University of Freiburg, where he encouraged his students to give the Nazi salute and enthusiastically carried out the party’s directive to purge all Jews from the faculty.
Fearing a public scandal if their relationship were discovered, Heidegger sent Arendt to Heidelberg to finish her studies with his friend Karl Jaspers, who became Arendt’s second dissertation advisor and her lifelong friend. Arendt was just 23, and had been trained by two of the world’s greatest philosophers, when her treatise on Saint Augustine was accepted by one of Germany’s most prestigious academic publishers and was reviewed in several leading philosophical journals.
Up to this point, the young woman seems hardly to have given a thought to the “Jewish question” in Germany. But the rise of Nazism forced Arendt to act and think as a Jew for the first time in her life. Many of her university friends believed, in traditionally Marxist fashion, that the way to fight anti-Semitism was through the broader struggle for international socialism. Arendt had the foresight to see that if even deracinated Jews like herself found themselves under attack as Jews, they had to fight back as Jews. She praised the German Zionists for doing just that. In Berlin in 1933, she courageously carried out an illegal mission for her friend Kurt Blumenthal, the German Zionist leader. Her assignment was to collect material from the state archives documenting the Nazi-dominated government’s anti-Jewish measures, which would then be presented at the next Zionist Congress in Prague. Arendt was caught, arrested, and sent to jail for eight days.
That experience led Arendt to make the painful decision to flee Germany. Later that year, she illegally crossed the Czech border and settled temporarily in Prague. Eventually, she joined the growing community of stateless, destitute German Jewish refugees in Paris. There she worked for Youth Aliyah, the Zionist group that sent the children of Jewish refugees to Palestine. She studied Hebrew and declared to a friend: “I want to get to know my people.” She wasn’t committed to any Zionist party or even to the necessity of a sovereign Jewish state. But she now believed that immigration to Palestine and building the Jewish homeland there were honorable responses to the Nazi assault on the Jews.
Soon after the fall of France, Arendt and her husband, the communist Heinrich Blücher, were among the lucky few to obtain visas to the United States. Arendt was penniless when she arrived in New York in May 1941, but for her first few months in America she maintained herself with a $70 monthly allotment from the Zionist Organization of America, which helped Jewish refugees. Though she wasn’t fluent in English, her absorption into New York intellectual circles was seamless. Within a year, she had mastered the language well enough to write a scholarly article on the Dreyfus Affair for the prestigious academic journal Jewish Social Studies. She was then offered a regular column in the German Jewish weekly Aufbau. For the duration of the war, she used that platform and other publications to comment on the two most important issues facing the Jews—the struggle against Nazism and the future of the Jewish homeland in Palestine after the war.
During much of that period, Arendt wrote as a committed Zionist. She referred to Zionism as “the national liberation movement of the Jewish people,” for example, and she praised the socialist Zionist parties representing “the workers” in Palestine: “For if the Jews are to live in Palestine by right and not by sufferance, it will only be by the right they have earned and continue to earn every day with their labor” (the emphasis is hers, and these translations of the Aufbau columns are from a collection of her work called The Jewish Writings). Arendt’s intentions in supporting Jewish settlement in Palestine were sincere, but her writing displayed an astonishing lack of political judgment—as in her belief that the accomplishments of Jewish “labor” might somehow win Arab acceptance of Jewish rights in Palestine.
In her very first Aufbau column, Arendt suggested the creation of a Jewish army—independent of any nation, but under Allied command—to fight the Nazis. The project reflected the political lesson that she had learned from her own experience with Nazism: “You can only defend yourself as the person you are attacked as. A person attacked as a Jew cannot defend himself as an Englishman or Frenchman” (again, the emphasis is hers).
But Arendt damaged the Jewish-army cause by unremittingly attacking the one organization already lobbying for it. Long before she embraced the idea, the Zionist Revisionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky had formulated a detailed plan for a military force composed of Palestinian Jews and Jewish refugees. One of Jabotinsky’s lieutenants in America, a Palestinian Jew named Peter Bergson, created an organization called the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews. The committee, supported by such popular writers as Ben Hecht and Max Lerner, launched a lobbying campaign in Congress and succeeded in getting a resolution introduced in the House of Representatives supporting the creation of a separate Jewish army.
Arendt’s response was to attack Bergson and other activists associated with his committee as “Jewish fascists.” The charge was a canard. As almost every objective historian of the period has acknowledged, Jabotinsky was a classic nineteenth-century liberal nationalist. He supported separation of religion and state and civil rights for non-Jews in a future Jewish state. According to the model constitution that he wrote for that state, in every government department headed by a Jew, the deputy minister had to be an Arab, and vice versa. There wasn’t a fascist bone in his body.
Nevertheless, with little thought or evidence, Arendt repeated the inflammatory accusations regularly made by the labor Zionists against their nonsocialist rivals in Palestine. In published comments that a later era would have called “McCarthyite,” Arendt suggested that “Jewish fascists” had duped the prominent personalities supporting the committee. “One can surely assume that people like . . . [the actor] Melvyn Douglas, Max Lerner, . . . [and] Reinhold Niebuhr . . . would wish to protect their names from any fascist stain,” Arendt wrote in one of her Aufbau columns. Even Arendt’s admiring biographer conceded that Arendt’s charge of fascism was “too extreme.”
On November 24, 1942, Rabbi Stephen Wise, America’s most prominent Zionist leader, convened a press conference in Washington to make a shocking announcement. Wise had been authorized by the State Department to confirm that the Nazis were carrying out a plan to exterminate European Jewry. More than 2 million Jews had already been murdered, he said.
It was hardly a secret that the European Jews had been targeted for elimination. In one of her Aufbau columns earlier that year, Arendt herself wrote about Hitler’s intentions: “In the National Socialist weekly Das Reich, Goebbels has explained that the extermination of the Jews in Europe ‘and perhaps outside of Europe’ is about to begin.” But the Wise press conference marked the first time that the U.S. government had verified the Final Solution.
Reporters covering the press conference were handed the biggest mass-murder story in history. Unfortunately, their editors didn’t think that the extermination of European Jewry had much news value. The Washington Post gave the revelations four inches on page six. The New York Times buried the extermination story in the back pages, while its front page featured a story about holiday shoppers on Fifth Avenue.
This deliberate inattention was a stunning confirmation of the low value that the democracies placed on Jewish lives in Nazi-occupied Europe. Both newspapers, though owned by Jews, took their cues from the Roosevelt administration, which deliberately downplayed the announcement of Hitler’s Final Solution by handing it to Rabbi Wise rather than an administration official. For the duration of the war, the government, believing that “rescue through victory” was the only reasonable policy, tried to head off public agitation for special efforts to rescue European Jewry. And for the duration of the war, both newspapers cooperated by burying details of the Holocaust.
Wise, sometimes called the “King of the Jews” because of his leadership of an incredible array of Jewish organizations and umbrella groups, might have been expected to press for rescue efforts and for lifting immigration restrictions on Jewish refugees. But Wise had a close personal relationship with the president (whom he called “boss”) and never attained the independence of judgment to recognize that his hero, despite public expressions of friendship for Jews in general, was acquiescing in the murder of the European Jews. Only a popular grassroots campaign, bypassing the official Jewish leadership, might have overcome the administration’s hostility and the indifference of the mainstream media.
That is what the Committee for a Jewish Army pledged to do. The Bergson group, as it came to be called, shifted its efforts toward pressing the administration to authorize concrete military and diplomatic efforts to save as many European Jews as possible. In July 1943, Bergson organized a major conference exploring opportunities for rescue, featuring panels of experts in the fields of diplomacy, psychological warfare, and refugee-relief logistics. Each panel recommended practical rescue actions by the Allies that would have saved lives without harming the war effort.
Out of that meeting came a new bipartisan organization, the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, to lobby for the adoption of the rescue proposals. Bergson and Ben Hecht emerged as effective publicists with a flair for recruiting key politicians and major celebrities. Among the public figures who joined their cause were liberal congressman Will Rogers, Jr.; conservative newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, Jr.; and the leader of the left-wing American Labor Party, Dean Alfange. The Emergency Committee staged public protests on the plight of the European Jews, including a pageant, scripted by Hecht and produced by Broadway impresario Billy Rose, that filled Madison Square Garden twice.
The committee’s most important practical achievement was mobilizing support for a joint congressional resolution urging the creation of a U.S. government rescue agency. Just as the resolution was about to pass—in the election year of 1944—the Roosevelt administration withdrew its opposition and established the rescue agency on its own. Named the War Refugee Board, it recruited operatives in occupied Europe to save Jews from deportation to the death camps. One of those agents, the heroic Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, managed to pull thousands of Hungarian Jews from trains bound for Auschwitz during the war’s waning months. Unfortunately, the administration’s efforts were too little and too late. (Roosevelt’s moral failure has been thoroughly documented in historian David S. Wyman’s 1984 study The Abandonment of the Jews.)
Inexplicably, Hannah Arendt was AWOL during the desperate two years from 1942 to 1944, when the cause of rescuing European Jews needed the support of every person of influence. The Bergson group urged the Zionist parties to put aside their differences over the future of Palestine and, at least for the duration of the emergency, focus entirely on rescue. But Arendt continued attacking the leaders of the group as “charlatans,” “fascists,” and supporters of “terrorism”; the Democratic and Republican congressmen who supported the rescue committee were dupes, she wrote.
The troubling question is why Arendt herself never advocated for the cause of rescue. According to Arendt’s biographer, “There was no practical action that [she] could take for her people without a base in the Zionist community.” This is an unconvincing rationalization. Arendt did have a “base” in the Jewish community: her Aufbau column and her access to other important publications. Other Jewish writers, such as Hecht and Lerner, used their columns in the popular liberal newspapers PM and the New York Post to apply pressure to the Roosevelt administration on the rescue issue; another famous writer, Varian Fry, wrote a December 1942 cover story for The New Republic, “The Massacre of the Jews,” condemning the U.S. and British governments for inaction.
But Arendt never commented on the congressional rescue resolution. President Roosevelt appeared in just one of her wartime columns, a 1945 article praising the president for his support of Saudi king Ibn Saud’s proposal for settling the Arab-Jewish dispute over Palestine (a “settlement” that would have prevented the establishment of a Jewish state, by the way). Arendt was one of the lucky few Jews fleeing Nazism to gain admission to the United States, yet she never used her platform in Aufbau to protest the State Department’s shameful refusal to fill even the small official quota of immigration visas for European Jewish refugees.
Years later, Arendt pilloried European Jewish leaders facing the Nazi murder machine for their “pathetic” behavior. But what did she do for the cause of rescue while living safely in the United States? According to Young-Bruehl, Arendt and her husband took long, melancholy walks in Riverside Park and thought about the catastrophe in Europe. She wrote a poem, “Park on the Hudson,” describing her thoughts. It ends with the lines:
A loving couple passes by
Bearing the burden of time.
During the war, Arendt did continue to write about internal Zionist politics. She attended the Biltmore Conference (named for the New York hotel where the conference was held), in which a wide spectrum of Zionist groups endorsed the establishment of a “Jewish commonwealth” in Palestine after the defeat of Hitler. But in her Aufbau columns, she attacked every Zionist party that expressed support for a Jewish state in Palestine—an entity that could not survive, Arendt predicted, without an agreement with the Arabs. She derided world Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann as a lackey of the British imperialists. The Revisionists were, of course, “Jewish fascists.” Not even her favorite Zionist factions, the “workers’ parties,” were now immune from her withering criticism. Arendt’s contempt for the Labor Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion was particularly intense.
If all the Zionist parties, from left to right, were on the wrong track, who did understand how to deal with the Jewish national question? In the most bizarre, ill-considered political judgment of her career, Arendt settled on Joseph Stalin. During a wartime visit to the United States, the writers Ilya Ehrenburg and Itzik Pfeffer described in glowing terms the status of their fellow Soviet Jews. Arendt fell blindly for the propaganda. In two columns in Aufbau, she reported that the Soviet Jews were the “first Jews in the world to be legally and socially ‘emancipated,’ that is, recognized and liberated as a nationality.” The Soviet Union’s constitution, according to Arendt, “equates antisemitism with an attack on one of the nationalities of the USSR and pursues and punishes it as a crime against society, like theft or murder. [This constitutes] a national liberation of Russian Jews—because they are the first Jews to be emancipated as a nationality and not as individuals, the first who did not have to pay for their civil rights by giving up their status as a nation.” So the scholar who would later be recognized as the leading theorist of twentieth-century totalitarianism and its propaganda techniques accepted at face value the Soviet regime’s claims about its benevolent treatment of the Jews.
Before World War II and the Holocaust, Zionism remained a minority movement among American Jews. The Jewish-state idea was dismissed by socialists and communists as a diversion from the international proletarian struggle; by the ultraorthodox as a profanation of God’s plan for the Jews; and by liberal assimilationists, such as the owners of the New York Times and the Washington Post, because of fear that Zionism would create the specter of “dual loyalty” for American Jews. Hannah Arendt also worried about the dual-loyalty issue, particularly if the Zionists pushed for immigration of American Jews to Palestine. Mostly, however, she focused her critique of Zionism on what she regarded as the Zionist leadership’s colonial policies toward the native Arab population in Palestine.
As the war in Europe was grinding to a close, Arendt finally broke with Zionism. Her romance with what she had called the “national liberation movement” of the Jewish people began with the rise of Hitler and ended abruptly, 12 years later, with Hitler’s defeat. In a series of strongly worded essays in America’s most influential Jewish publications, Arendt now depicted mainstream Zionism as reactionary, blood-and-soil nationalism.
In a 1944 column in Menorah Journal, Arendt returned once again to her obsession with the “fascist” Revisionists. Though Jabotinsky’s followers were a minority within the Palestinian Jewish community (their political party, Herut, would soon win just 14 out of 120 seats in the first Knesset), Arendt couldn’t get it out of her head that Revisionist ideas had somehow managed to win out in Palestine through the policies carried out by the perfidious Ben-Gurion. “Why ‘general’ Zionists should still quarrel officially with Revisionists is hard to understand,” she wrote, “unless it be that the former do not quite believe in the fulfillment of their demands but think it wise to demand the maximum as a base for future compromises, while the latter are serious, honest, and intransigent in their nationalism.”
Arendt willfully ignored the fact that Ben- Gurion had accepted a British partition plan in 1938 that proposed giving the Jews only a tiny sliver of the territory west of the Jordan River—a plan that horrified the Revisionists, who envisioned a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan. Time after time, the mainstream Zionists supported territorial compromise, while the Palestinian leadership rejected every proposal to divide the land. Nevertheless, in “pushing ahead” for a Jewish state, Arendt charged, Ben-Gurion “forfeited for a long time to come any chance of pourparlers with Arabs; for whatever Zionists may offer, they will not be trusted.”
Arendt repeated the same false claims about the Arab-Jewish conflict for the rest of her life. She accused the Zionists of deliberately ignoring the Arab presence in the land and held them solely responsible for the failure to reach any agreement. She ignored the grim reality of Palestinian rejectionism and Jew hatred. While repeating ad infinitum her characterization of the Revisionist Zionist movement as “fascist,” her articles never mentioned that the official leader of the Palestinian national movement—Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem—was an ally of the Nazis who spent the war years in Berlin, recruited Bosnian Muslims for the Wehrmacht and the SS, and consulted with Hitler and Heinrich Himmler about extending the Final Solution to the Jews of Palestine.
After her brief flirtation with Zionism as a legitimate national liberation movement, Arendt experienced a failure of nerve. The Jewish state now looked like a bridge too far into the Arab heartland and could never become viable, other than by imperialist intervention. “Zionism will have to reconsider its whole obsolete set of doctrines,” Arendt declared in Menorah Journal. “It will not be easy either to save the Jews or to save Palestine in the twentieth century; that it can be done with categories and methods of the nineteenth century seems at the very most highly improbable.”
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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