Hannah Arendt and the Origins of Israelophobia
The great antitotalitarian thinker was no friend to the Jewish state.
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).