The pariah intellectual

Hannah Arendt professed no love for the Jews and can't be counted as one of its greatest thinkers.

April 26, 2007 11:38
arendt book 88 298

arendt book 88 298. (photo credit: )

The Jewish Writings By Hannah Arendt Schocken 559 pages; $35 Hannah Arendt is likely to be found on most anyone's shortlist of the most important Jewish intellectuals of the past century. The "intellectual" component of that inclusion is easy to justify; Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, which examines the common ideological roots of Nazi fascism and Stalinist communism, is widely regarded as one the most significant works of modern political philosophy. But the "Jewish" part is far more problematic to quantify. During her life, defining just what kind of Jewish thinker Arendt was - or even what kind of Jew, period - had already become a contentious issue. And the debate over her Jewish views, centered in great part around her controversial work Eichmann in Jerusalem, has in no way abated since her death in 1975. For both admirers and detractors of Arendt then, the publication of this collection of her Jewish writings is to be welcomed as a notable contribution to the discussion. Just to clarify matters though, the title of the book is somewhat misleading. The most important of Arendt's "Jewish writings" is material contained in the two book-length works cited above, along with her biographical study Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman. Contained in these pages is a miscellaneous collection of shorter pieces, including essays, opinion columns, journalistic interviews and published letters. Put together they help clarify Arendt's thinking on Jewish matters and form a useful addendum to her related major works, but don't offer any revelatory material that would lead one to a reinterpretation of the latter. Any consideration of Arendt as a Jew has to start with the prefix "German." Born in Hanover in 1906, raised in what was then a typically secular, assimilated German-Jewish family, educated at the universities of Freiburg and Heidelberg and the personal protegee of the major German (gentile) philosophers Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger (and his lover to boot), Arendt was perhaps the last link in a line of notable German-Jewish thinkers abruptly terminated by the rise of Adolf Hitler. Not surprisingly then, the earliest writings here from the 1930s focus largely on the condition of German Jewry in the shadow of an ascendant Nazism. Most notable is a lengthy 1939 essay on the origins of European anti-Semitism that prefigures some of the ideas that later found fuller expression in The Origins of Totalitarianism. In it, Arendt locates the roots of racially based Jew-hatred primarily due to the historical status of European Jewry (especially in Germany) as a pariah political/economic "caste" rather than as a result of religious or cultural differences with the gentile mainstream. The piece also includes this sharp critique of Zionism: "The bankruptcy of Zionism caused by the reality of Palestine is at the same time the bankruptcy of the illusion of autonomous Jewish politics." Despite such sentiments, Arendt supported Jewish immigration to Palestine as a practical response to the coming storm in Europe - even working briefly for Youth Aliya - although she herself succeeded in making it to the US in 1941. During the '40s, she engaged herself directly in Jewish politics through a series of short pieces written for the New York-based German-Jewish newspaper Aufbau. In this journalistic work, Arendt consistently offered strong support for Judah Magnes's Brit Shalom movement, which called for a binational Arab/Jewish state, and evinced antipathy to any more pronounced form of Zionism, especially the Revisionists she unequivocally condemned as a "fascist movement." After the birth of Israel in 1948 pushed Brit Shalom to the fringes, Arendt seemed to lose interest in parochial Jewish affairs. There is almost nothing in this book from the 1950s, her most productive decade and the one in which her major works gained her an international reputation. Those years of relative silence as a specifically Jewish commentator perhaps account for the shock and disappointment many in the literary Jewish community felt in the early 1960s with the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, with its claim of the "banal" nature of Nazi evil, the disproportionate highlighting of Jewish collaboration during the Holocaust and the overall general tone of harsh disapproval toward Israel found throughout its pages. Most of the final pieces in this book chronicle Arendt's defensive reactions in the aftermath of this heated literary scandal. The most telling and compelling is her reply to a well-known public rebuke she received from her landsman Gershom Scholem, who had famously accused her of lacking any feelings of "ahavat Yisrael" (love of the Jewish people). Arendt responded: "You are quite right - I am not moved by any 'love' of this sort, and for two reasons: I have never in my life 'loved' any people or collective - neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class, nor anything of that sort. I indeed love 'only' my friends, and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons. Secondly, this 'love of the Jews' would appear to me, since I am myself Jewish, as something rather suspect. I cannot love myself or anything I know is part and parcel of my own person." Why this should be so is something she never made quite clear; after all, most people do find something in their own background to love, or at least appreciate, yet Arendt evinces almost none of that here. Although she declared that "to be a Jew belongs for me to the indisputable facts of my life, and I never wanted to change or disclaim anything about such facts," Arendt certainly didn't seem to take any pride or pleasure in those facts. Some of her biographers have linked this attitude to Arendt's tangled relationship to her mentor - and one-time Nazi Party member - Heidegger. An afterword in this book written by her Israeli-born niece Edna Brocke also suggests the influence of Arendt's second husband Heinrich Blucher, whose "communist background prevented him from coming to terms either with us Jews or the State of Israel." Perhaps it's being unfair to Arendt, though, to credit largely personal factors for this stance. She herself provided a philosophical underpinning for this deeply ambiguous relationship with her Jewishness in an essay titled "The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition," which celebrated such marginal Jews as Henrich Heine, Bernard Lazare and Charlie Chaplin. In the introduction to this collection, Ron Feldman asserts: "Fundamentally, these essays show that Hannah Arendt chose the role of a 'conscious pariah'... Not only did she formulate and celebrate the Jewish pariah as a human type, she epitomized it in her life and thought." Perhaps so - but there is a price to be paid for choosing such a path. Perhaps in this regard a useful comparison can be made between Arendt and another notable German-speaking Jewish literary figure of her generation, Arthur Koestler. Both wrote seminal works that ensured for them a central place in the intellectual history of the nature of totalitarianism in the 20th century. But when it came to Jewish issues - and their own Jewishness - they consciously chose to stake out positions on the margins of Jewish thought and life. Subsequently, despite their formidable achievements elsewhere, they must be counted as no more than marginal Jewish thinkers.

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