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.”