“Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem” edited by Steven E. Aschheim— The Debate Continues

hannah in jerusalem

Aschheim, Steven E. (editor). “Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem”, University of California Press, 2001.

The Debate Continues

Amos Lassen

The debate over Hannah Arendt does not seem to be coming to an end any time soon. This collection of essays which contains 21 chapters is composed of papers from a conference on Arendt in Jerusalem in 1997, 22 years after the death of the political philosopher. We are reminded of her critique of Zionism which seemed to make null and void her early work in the movement and her extremely controversial views on the Eichmann trial. These made her a reviled person both in Israel and among Jews worldwide. Using the title of her work on the Eichmann trial, “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, “Arendt in Jerusalem” is a scholarly investigation of Arendt placing her where her ideas have been ignored. The contributors here reexamine the crucial aspects of both Arendt’s life and thoughts from different views. We get a look at crucial aspects of her life and thought; we learn of her complex identity as a German Jew, we read of her commitment to and critique of Zionism and the state of Israel; we examine her place in and her relationship to the intellectuals of the 20th century as well as read about her works on totalitarianism (including her classic study, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”), Nazism and the Eichmann trial; her connections to German culture (intimate and tense at the same time) and her redefinitions and reworking of political thought and philosophy as it was in the 20th century.

Arendt’s reputation in Israel suffered the consequences of her controversial view but now she is being openly discussed, some in light of her warnings about what was to eventually come out of the Palestine/Israel conflict.

Arendt was a force in 20th century political philosophy and here scholars share multiple points of view as to how she was able to write about the issues which dominated that period of time. She relied on Nietzsche to come to many of her conclusions. Hans Mommsen who is an expert on German history and literature says in his essay, “Hannah Arendt’s Interpretation of the Holocaust as a Challenge to Human Existence” that she was prone to emphasize what she had already written in THE ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM when she went to Jerusalem for the Eichmann trial. It was there that she observed that claimed that the Nazi machinery of genocide turned criminal activities into regular and routine procedures that “suffocated” any moral principle or protest from either bystanders or perpetrators.  Mommsen claims that this is what was responsible for Arendt’s contempt for the court and trial of Eichmann.

Walter Laqueur states that “The animosity toward Jews as a group was of long standing, and it was by no means restricted to Israel and the Israelis. . . . Perhaps she had read too much anti-Semitic literature for her own good.” Walter Laqueur’s comments on Hannah Arendt as political commentator and “the greatest female philosopher of our time, perhaps of all times, which she might well be”  find “a fascinating discrepancy between Arendt the political philosopher and the poverty of her judgment concerning current politics.”. However, he says that she was often wrong and that “without being aware of it, Mrs. Arendt affects a tone of haughty superiority regarding things and men.”

The essays carefully examine her relationship with two other important philosophers, Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger. In 1946, the English translation of Jasper’s “The Question of German Guilt” stated that Germans did not embrace the idea of guilt and that Arendt’s husband complained, “despite all beauty and nobility, the guilt brochure of Jaspers is a damned and Hegelized, Christian-pietist-sanctimonious nationalizing bilge.” To this Arendt gave her own moral evaluation: “. . . it is not so certain that those who have lost their belief in Hell as a place of the hereafter may not be willing to be able to establish on earth exact imitations of what people used to believe about Hell.”  Peter Baehr in his essay here concludes that there is something strange about the mixture of issues involved in communication. “That some of the most profound forms of expression and dialogue do not conform to norms of transparency, `sincerity,’ and consistency may offend some philosophers. But it may also add weight to Arendt’s suspicion that philosophy and human experience are constantly at war.”

In the introduction to this collection, Steven Aschheim cites a letter Arendt wrote to Jaspers on April 13, 1961, in which she complained about Jerusalem: “Everything is organized by a police force that gives me the creeps, speaks only Hebrew and looks Arabic. Some downright brutal types among them. They would follow any order.”

Susan Neiman says that Arendt was able to vividly mix ideas: “In other words, you don’t have to be a student of Heidegger to be ambivalent about philosophy. Arendt’s strongest expression of revulsion toward the subject occurs in discussing the intellectual embrace of Nazism: Precisely the capacity to use well-trained wit to provide interesting rationalizations of Nazism made philosophy permanently suspect. But in just the discussion in which, for these reasons, she most vehemently rejects her interviewer’s inclination to call her a philosopher, Arendt undercuts her own position. Defending her claim to have bid farewell to philosophy, she appeals to what she calls philosophy’s essential hostility to the political–from which she immediately excepts Kant. Later she would generalize to describe Kant as `so singularly free of all specifically philosophical vices’. Be that as it may, this is fairly respectable company to keep for one who insists she has said farewell to philosophy.”

Arendt feels that Heidegger is such a philosophical giant that she understands his leaving concrete politics and his move into a philosophical approach to rationalizing Nazism which has become such a major part of his reputation.

As we are all aware there has been no single study of the Holocaust that has gained the attention that did Arendt’s work about the Eichmann trial.

“Historians agree that the average ethnic German was not terrorized by the constant threat of deportation and death, as was even the most powerful Russian party member during Stalin’s rule in the mid 1930’s. Such doubts about the actual levels of threat experienced by the ethnic German population under National Socialism raise suspicions that the terror thesis–and with it, the comparative concept of totalitarianism–constitutes an apologetic for crimes committed under the Nazi regime. The terror thesis, it is argued, falsely presents the German population as passive sufferers, rather than willing participants in the murderous political cult of German nationalist supremacy.” So says Michael Halberstam in his essay comparing totalitarian systems.

 The most volatile issue that Arendt presented was without question her discussion of Jew vs. Jew and Jewish collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust. Arendt was criticized because she did not understand them as innocent victims only.”  Some saw this as a confusion of who was on trial: Eichmann or the Judenrate. The editor, Steven E. Aschheim, takes this further: “Indeed, in her treatment of the Judenrate, her apparent blurring of the almost sacrosanct distinction between perpetrators and victims seemed to violate fundamental sensibilities…Moreover, very early on, Arendt warned that the uniqueness of the atrocities could create a self-righteous cult of victimization, one that indeed has occurred”. We see this today in the absurd current competition in comparative victimization as a tool of identity politics.

 There are those today that still feel that no one has really examined Hannah Arendt’s moral failing in showing such insensitivity and coldness to victims of the Shoah in her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem”. Likewise they do not see that despite being one of the great political thinkers of the twentieth century, she failed her own conception of the ‘ dignity of man’ “One was in her reluctant and apologetic attitude toward her own Jewishness, and the second in her deference to the Nazi – sympathizing Heidegger”. It is immoral to see Arendt as totally correct in what she had to say.  She was not successful in the way she covered the Eichmann trial. She failed as a reporter and in moral judgment. The portrait that she gave us of Eichmann was that of a banal office-worker or clerk who was a pathetic and ineffectual nobody. Deborah Lipstadt whose recent book, “The Eichmann Trial” and other new evidence as to what Eichmann actually thought and said at the trail indeed show that he was a calculating monster whose aim was the total annihilation and extermination of the Jewish people. At his trial, he only cared about saving his own life and he therefore tried to present a totally different picture of himself.

Arendt also failed in the way she showed Jewish collaboration with the Nazis. Arendt was culturally arrogant and filled with contempt for the leaders of the Jewish councils in Europe. They had to deal with impossible tasks—they had to try to save a portion of the people while still having to deal with the Nazis who were determined to exterminate all Jews. It is here that we see Arendt’s failure in human sympathy. The irony that we see here and the pain that we feel shows Arendt’s total lack of moral judgment and therefore used none in her writing of “Eichmann in Jerusalem”. Looking at what we now know, we see her book as a shameful side of her history. Her concern in rehabilitating the image of her former professor and lover, Martin Heidegger who identified with the Nazi party and acted as one in the academic world that he lived in. We can easily see how these two failures of her moral judgment put a tremendous strain on her own reputation from which she was never able to recover.

 Arendt also showed contempt for Israeli prime minister, David Ben Gurion. She said that he was using the Eichmann trial as an arena to bring attention to Israel. She claimed that before Eichmann’s trial, the world was indifferent to the horrors of the Holocaust. The trial made humanity more aware of its own capacity to create evil and destruction.

Below is a list of the contributors to this collection and a bit about their backgrounds. We clearly see that what is here is the work of scholars and thinkers:

Steven E. Aschheim holds the Vigevani Chair of European Studies at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, where he teaches cultural and intellectual history. He is the author of Brothers and Strangers: The East European Jew in German and German-Jewish Consciousness, 1800-1923 (1982); The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1890-1990 (1992); Culture and Catastrophe: German and Jewish Confrontations with National Socialism and Other Crises (1996); In Times of Crisis: Essays on European Culture, Germans, and Jews (2001); and Scholem, Arendt, and Klemperer: Intimate Chronicles in Turbulent Times (2001).

Peter Baehr teaches in the Department of Politics and Sociology, Lingnan University, Hong Kong. His publications include Caesar and the Fading of the Roman World (1998) and Founders, Classics, and Canons (2001). He is also the editor of The Portable Hannah Arendt (2000).

Richard J. Bernstein is the Vera List Professor of Philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy of the New School for Social Research. His recent books include Freud and the Legacy of Moses (1998); Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question (1996); and The New Constellation: The Ethical-Political Horizons of Modernity/Postmodernity. He is currently a fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, where he is working on a book dealing with the problem of evil.

Leora Bilsky is a senior lecturer on the Faculty of Law at Tel Aviv University and has recently been a fellow at the program in Ethics and the Professions at Harvard University. Her main areas of interest are feminism, law and philosophy, political trials, and the Holocaust. In her work on political trials she has looked at the history of Israeli law and the legacy of the Holocaust and the work of Hannah Arendt. She is the editor of a special issue of Theoretical Inquiries in Law on “Judging and Judgment in the Shadow of the Holocaust” (2000). She is currently writing a book tentatively titled Political Trials: The Struggle over Israel’s Collective Identity, forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.

Richard I. Cohen holds the Paulette and Claude Kelman Chair in French Jewry Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of The Burden of Conscience: French-Jewish Leadership during the Holocaust (1987) and Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe (1998). In addition, he is the editor of the diary of Raymond-Raoul Lambert, Carnet d’un témoin, 1940-1943 (1985) and The French Revolution and Its Historical Impact (1991, Hebrew) and coeditor of Art and Its Uses: The Visual Image and Modern Jewish Society (1991); From Court Jews to the Rothschilds: Art, Patronage, and Power, 1600-1800 (1996); and the Historical Society of Israel’s quarterly journal Zion (Hebrew).

Bernard Crick is emeritus professor of politics and honorary fellow of Birkbeck College, University of London, and of University College London. Among his books are In Defense of Politics (5th ed., 2000); Political Theory and Practice (1973); George Orwell: A Life (1980); Essays on Politics and Literature (1988); Political Thoughts and Polemics (1989); Essays on Citizenship (2000); and Crossing Borders (2001).

Michael Halberstam is author of Totalitarianism and the Modern Conception of Politics (1999). He taught philosophy at the University of South Carolina for four years. During his final year in the philosophy department he was a Mellon Fellow at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Humanities. He is currently completing a law degree at Stanford University.

Agnes Heller teaches philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. A student of Georg Lukács and a Hungarian dissident, she is the recipient of the Hungarian Szechenyi National Prize and the Hannah Arendt Prize. She has received several honorary degrees and is the author of several dozen books. Among these are A Philosophy of History (1993); An Ethics of Personality (1996); A Theory of Modernity (1999); and The Time is Out of Joint: Shakespeare as Philosopher of History (2000).

Walter Laqueur is university professor emeritus at Georgetown University. He was director of the Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library in London from 1965 to 1991 and the founder and editor of the Journal of Contemporary History. He has been serving as chair of the International Research Council at CSIS Washington. Among his books on German, Russian, and Middle Eastern history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the most recent is Generation Exodus (2001).

Yaacov Lozowick is the director of the Yad Vashem Archives in Jerusalem. He is the author of Hitler’s Bureaucrats: The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil (German, 2000, and Hebrew, 2001).

Michael R. Marrus is the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies and dean of the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of The Politics of Assimilation: French Jews at the Time of the Dreyfus Affair (1971); Samuel The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century (1985); The Holocaust in History (1987); and; Bronfman: The Life and Times of Seagram’s Mr. Sam (1991). He is coauthor, with Robert O. Paxton, of Vichy France and the Jews (1981) and editor of The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, 1945-46: A Documentary History (1997).

Hans Mommsen studied history and German literature at the universities of Marburg and Tübingen and has taught at Harvard, Berkeley, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Georgetown University. He has published widely on the legacy of National Socialism and the Holocaust. In 1999-2000 he was the Senior Shapiro Scholar in Residence at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy, Die Geschichte des Volkswagenwerks und seiner Arbeiter im Dritten Reich (with Manfred Grieger), and two collections of articles, Von Weimar to Auschwitz: Zur Geschichte Deutschlands in der Weltkriegsepoche (1999) and Alternative zu Hitler: Studien zur Geschichte des deutschen Widerstandes.

Gabriel Motzkin is director of the Institute of Arts and Letters and associate professor of history, philosophy, and German literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Time and Transcendence: Secular History, the Catholic Reaction, and the Rediscovery of the Future (1992) and numerous articles on the philosophy of history.

Susan Neiman was professor of philosophy at Yale University and Tel Aviv University and is currently director of the Einstein Forum, Potsdam. She is the author of Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin; The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant; and Evil in Modern Thought (forthcoming), as well as a number of essays.

Anson Rabinbach is professor of history and director of the Program in European Cultural Studies at Princeton University. He is also coeditor of New German Critique: An Interdisciplinary Journal of German Studies. His recent publications include In the Shadow of Catastrophe: German Intellectuals between Apocalypse and Enlightenment (1997).

Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin is a lecturer in the department of history at Ben-Gurion University. He studies both early-modern Christian-Jewish discourse and Zionist historical consciousness. Among his publications are Censorship, Hebraism and Modern Jewish Discourse: The Catholic Church and Hebrew Literature in the Sixteenth Century; Exile within Sovereignty (Hebrew); Orientalism, Jewish Studies, and Israeli Society (Hebrew); and Redemption, Colonialism, and the Nationalization of Jewish History. His book Binationalism and the Critique of Zionism is forthcoming in Hebrew and French.

Dana Villa teaches political theory at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Socratic Citizenship (2001); Politics, Philosophy, Terror: Essays on the Thought of Hannah Arendt (1999); and Arendt and Heidegger: the Fate of the Political (1996). He is also the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt (2000).

Annette Vowinckel holds a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for Cultural Studies at Humboldt University, Berlin, where she is working on a book about Renaissance conceptions of man. She is the author of Hannah Arendt: Geschichte und Geschichtsbegriff (2001).

Liliane Weissberg is Joseph B. Glossberg Term Professor in the Humanities, professor of German and comparative literature, and chair of the Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. Her publications on German and American literature, literary theory, and German-Jewish cultural studies include Cultural Memory and the Construction of Identity (with Dan Ben-Amos, 1999) and Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race (with J. Gerald Kennedy, 2001). Her critical edition of Hannah Arendt’s Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess appeared in 1997.

Albrecht Wellmer has taught philosophy in Frankurt am Main, Toronto, New York, and Constance. Currently he holds the Chair of Aesthetics, Hermeneutics, and Sciences Humaines at the Free University of Berlin. His English publications include Critical Theory of Society (1971); The Persistence of Modernity: Essays on Aesthetics, Ethics, and Postmodernism (1991); Cultural-Political Interventions in the Unfinished Project of Enlightenment (coeditor, 1992); and Endgames: The Irreconcilable Nature of Modernity (1998).

Moshe Zimmermann is professor of German history and director of the Richard Koebner Center for German History at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He is the author of Wilhelm Marr: The Patriarch of Antisemitism (1986); Wende in Israel: Zwischen Nation and Religion (1996); Die deutschen Juden, 1914-1945 (Munich, 1997); and Deutsch Juedisch (2000). He is also the editor of the Hebrew volume The Third Reich: A Historical Evaluation (2000).

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