Hannah Arendt & the Jews

The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age.
by Hannah Arendt.
Edited and with an Introduction by Ron H. Feldman. Grove Press. 288 pp. $12.50.

Ron H. Feldman, the editor of The Jew as Pariah, has undertaken a difficult task, the vindication of the late Hannah Arendt to the many Jews and non-Jews who found her stance toward things Jewish—especially in Eichmann in Jerusalem—offensive and outrageous. He has collected fifteen of her pronouncements between 1943 and 1966 on themes similar to the one she sounded in that notorious volume. Some bits are missing, such as her attempts to pin the label of fascist on Begin and remove it from Heidegger, but once the reader gets past Feldman’s introduction he will be grateful to him for gathering so much evidence for assessing Miss Arendt’s merits as thinker and Jew, even to the point of including criticism of her by Gershom Scholem and Walter Laqueur.

Unfortunately, it is not all that easy to get past the tendentious introduction of some thirty-odd pages. Feldman is correct in thinking that these essays illuminate the general nature of Hannah Arendt’s thought, but he is resolutely blind to the possibility that they might cast doubt on its worth. He deserves praise for his forthright advocacy of Hannah Arendt, but not for his exaggerated insistence that she was excommunicated by the Jewish community, however much she herself might have courted this martyrdom. Finally, and probably unintentionally, he even does Hannah Arendt a disservice by insisting on the left-wing thrust of her thought. He seems unaware of the significance of her reply to Scholem’s description of her as an intellectual from the German Left, though he quotes her inadvertently funny response: “. . . if I can be said to have come from anywhere it is from the tradition of German philosophy.” Feldman might have done better to insist briefly that cases of this kind can never be closed finally, that Hannah Arendt deserves a new hearing, and to let her speak for herself.

That she was able to speak for and about herself with force as well as grace is shown in the very first essay, “We Refugees,” in the first section, “The Pariah as Rebel.” By “we refugees” Hannah Arendt did not mean all Jewish refugees from Germany, but only all Jewish refugees from Germany who were intellectuals and lacked true dignity. Some committed suicide (the year was 1943); others toadied to their new country of residence; all lacked the strength that only the author herself seemed to possess, the courage to be conscious pariahs. Though one would never guess from this piece that thousands of German Jewish refugees were managing to lead dignified lives as dignified Jews in a free country, there is no denying that Miss Arendt stated her case—one might almost say her condition—with considerable eloquence and flashes of brilliant wit.

Having introduced the notion of the pariah, and having elevated it by including herself in the category, Miss Arendt proceeded to apply this key concept—it also looms large in The Origins of Totalitarianism—to as much of current Jewish history as possible, thereby justifying the choice of the book’s title. For her it was the modern Jew’s destiny to be a pariah, or outcast, just as it was his only salvation to accept that status proudly while fighting for a world in which no one would be excluded from humankind.

So far so good, but two problems emerge at once. It would seem that the merit of being an outcast depends mainly on who is doing the casting out. Miss Arendt, however, glorified the pariah and tried to show that the mere fact of being excluded, in and of itself, conferred special privileges and even nobility. So far as 19th-century Europe and 20th-century Germany are concerned—and most of Miss Arendt’s writing was indeed about these times and places—the definition may be somewhat valid. But the second problem complicates the issue, to say the least. A Jew simply cannot be understood solely by looking at those who exclude him. To be a Jew, after all, means to belong to the Jewish people, and for many Jews the special privilege of that belonging was and is far more precious than the creative tension that may be engendered by exclusion. For Miss Arendt, however, the truest Jew was estrangement incarnate; he was despised not only by other people but by his own.

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In the most representative essay of the first section, “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” Miss Arendt went as far as possible in developing this strange thesis. She picked four men as examples of the “hidden tradition.” The first was Heinrich Heine, portrayed here as a merry old soul, a free spirit who lovingly depicted the Jew as schlemiehl. She neglected to mention that Heine was a tormented man (“Out of my great sorrows come my little songs”) who converted to Christianity and was capable of referring to Judaism as a misfortune. Her second example was Bernard Lazare, the brilliant French Zionist from whom she took the term “conscious pariah,” a man who parted ways with Herzl because he insisted on a closer link between the fight for Jewish rights and the fight against oppression in general. The third example was Charlie Chaplin, who captured on film “the entrancing charm of the little people.” The fact that Chaplin had “recently declared that he is of Irish and Gypsy descent” bothered Miss Arendt so little that she could relegate it to a footnote which made it obvious that, strangely enough, one did not have to be Jewish to be a Jewish pariah. The final example was Kafka. In analyzing The Castle, she was willfully silent about that enigmatic novel’s clear theological implications, and one can see why. If there is a God who dwells above, then wanting to ascend to the castle becomes a rational activity and being an outcast is hardly the kind of special grace Hannah Arendt desired it to be. But then, as the editor makes clear, Miss Arendt was forever engaged in the labor of distinguishing between Judaism and Jewishness, accepting the latter while rejecting the former.

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Miss Arendt’s refusal to acknowledge the enduringly strong links between religion and the Jewish yearning to return to Israel is but one of the red threads running through the central section of this volume, “Zionism and the Jewish State.” Another is her constant mockery of what she called Herzl’s theory of eternal anti-Semitism. In this case she made derision do the work of argument, for it would have been impossible to deny rationally that anti-Semitism was as old as the “eternal people.” But then her criticisms of Zionism were so fierce and varied that readers might be mystified by her years of genuine devotion to the Zionist cause. This devotion becomes easier to comprehend if one takes up again her notion of “The Jew as Pariah.” That idea entailed, first of all, a contempt for assimilationists, whom she loathed more for wishing to join up with other people than for desiring to abandon the Jews. Secondly, it entailed approval of those who stood up uncompromisingly to an unfriendly world, and that, at least in the 30’s, meant especially the Zionists.

But Miss Arendt’s Zionism was always of a peculiar and rarefied brand. She fought for a Jewish homeland but against a Jewish state. And how she fought! Priding herself on her sense of political reality, she nevertheless argued for such chimeras as a bi-national state in Palestine, or a federation with the Arabs, or a confederation with the whole region, or a UN trusteeship. When the Zionist movement not only opted for a Jewish state but attained one, she began to write almost as one who felt personally betrayed. She refused to see any significant difference between Ben-Gurion and Begin; she invented a host of missed opportunities for cooperation between Jews and Arabs; she voiced scores of dire predictions and was less than perfectly graceful when these predictions almost always proved wrong.

Miss Arendt’s loathing of the very idea of a Jewish state was once more part of her insistence that Jews be pariahs. Jews could become rebels who founded the Hebrew University and the kibbutz movement, but for her the desire for a Jewish state was indistinguishable from a degrading urge to be nothing but “a people like all other people.” Of course the reality was quite different. A Jewish state was an absolute necessity; nationalism did not disappear merely because Miss Arendt declared it obsolete, and there was no compelling reason why a people with a state could not remain a people unlike other people in all decisive respects. Both the extraordinary love and the extraordinary hate Israel has provoked since 1948 have proved as much.

Yet they proved nothing of the sort to Hannah Arendt, as becomes plain in the final section of this book, “The Eichmann Controversy.” To read this section is almost as sad as looking today at Eichmann in Jerusalem, for there is little doubt that Miss Arendt’s bile had by this time (1963) gotten the best of her. The book itself is fatally marred by her hatred of Israel—in the very first chapter she went so far as to liken Israel’s religious restrictions on intermarriage to the Nazi Nuremberg laws of 1935—and her polemics in connection with the book show her at her worst. All her work bears traces of a will to overstatement, but in regard to the Eichmann trial she compounded her errors by refusing to acknowledge them. When Jewish organizations—many of whose leaders are the special target of her considerable talent for venom—began to respond to her wild charges, she saw it all as an attempt to discredit the greatest Jewish loner of the century—herself. It was only fitting, therefore, that Walter Laqueur ended his exchange with her on the subject of the Eichmann book with the sardonic comment that “I can assure Miss Arendt that the Elders of Zion are not yet out to get her.”

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Hannah Arendt appears at her sorriest in an exchange of letters with Gershom Scholem. The latter attacked her not so much for what she said in Eichmann in Jerusalem as for the tasteless and heartless way in which she said it. He went on to accuse her of insufficient “love of the Jewish people.” The charge must have struck home because it led her to an uncharacteristically obtuse reply. She said she never loved any people, and that since she was Jewish such love of the Jews would be suspect. One paragraph later she admitted that wrongs done by Jews grieved her more than wrongs done by other people. She thus manifested a total incomprehension of a basic human phenomenon, love of one’s own. It is, after all, no more rational to grieve at the failures of one’s people than to rejoice at their triumphs. There is nothing wrong with loving one’s own, which is why we are told to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. All this could no longer be seen by the outcast Hannah Arendt. She had at long last become a living refutation of her own contentions, by showing that a conscious pariah is just as easily led to delusion as to truth.

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