Misreading History

A look of the life of diaspora Jew Hannah Arendt during the Holocaust, and the role of her memory in the modern day state of Israel.

Misreading History (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Misreading History (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
I AM THINKING ABOUT THE LATE HANNAH Arendt and her comments on Jewish collaboration with the Nazis in the cities of Europe, as the trains to the east were pulling into the stations, back and forth, back and forth, carrying the Jews to the gas chambers. All of Europe was the River Styx and the stench of death was everywhere. Arendt, an incisive political theorist, didn’t seem to understand the lack of alternatives, the demoralization of the Judenrat officials. She didn’t understand the extremes of fear and the pain of hunger and the monstrous enemy that controlled the streets, the food, the medicine, the train schedules.
She expected suicidal bravery and heroic resistance from a desperate population that had so little reason to hope. She didn’t understand how each human being, officials of Jewish organizations included, strives to live as long as possible, bribes fate, hopes when hope is gone. She was attacked for this callousness and rightly so. But perhaps this lack of empathy covered something harder to grasp and more important for us to understand today.
She would have wanted the Jews to die fighting, resisting, killing as many of the beasts as possible. She would have wanted mothers to leave their small children, abandoned and screaming for milk, and old men and women to throw kitchen knives from rooftops. She would have wanted a political resistance, a physical resistance, pointless or not. She despised the weakness she thought she saw in a defeated, despised and decimated Jewish world.
And what was this but false pride? It was based on identification with the great German culture that had turned on her and would have killed this brilliant Jewish thinker as easily as it killed the kindergarten teacher and the janitor of the poorest of synagogues. She wanted extraordinary bravery in a situation that extinguished the concept of choice, of human connection, one to another. She wanted the Jews to be warriors when they were simply people with varied resources, with characters good and bad, with normal perceptions of social reality.
And this is where, some in Israel, despite their likely disdain for Arendt’s critical stance on the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, have kept alive the same false and dangerous notion of ferocity in the face of danger. The ideas that affect Israeli toughness in negotiations with the Arab world are not all based on the Jewish experience in the Middle East. Some of them come from the Holocaust, and behind the Holocaust, the centuries of pogroms and expulsion, inquisition and exclusion that were endured by the Jewish nation in exile.
I am deeply gratified that the Israel Defense Forces are capable and ready to defend the land from invasion. I am proud of all the victories in wars and the daring acts of the government in the face of threat and hostility all around. I am proud that Jews are now warriors of the first class. But I am worried that the need for a fighting stance, the need to outshout, to out-muscle and ultimately to humiliate the others is not helpful in the situation Israel now faces. Israel is not a weak unarmed ghetto inhabitant. Israel is not without its own power, police, army and treasury. It is not dependent on the US or anyone else for its military survival or its economic well-being. Arendt is not pointing a finger at the Israeli cabinet and calling on them to fight to the last drop of Jewish blood.
Yet I fear that there is a voice within the community that is so afraid of seeming weak that it becomes self-defeating, belligerent and uncompromising in what is not so much a crisis, as an unhealthy status quo – that will ultimately lead to some kind of disaster for many living souls.
The error Arendt made in her analysis of the role of the Judenrat in the ghettos was that she failed to empathize, to visualize, to allow herself to enter the situation as a victim. I fear that Israel today holds the Holocaust memory not only sacred as it should be, but may keep it as a manual for political stances in the 21st century, in a homeland that is well-fortified and a population that is neither helpless nor unsuspecting. This misapplication of history can be dangerous for the Jewish people.
Hannah Arendt was a Jew of the Diaspora. She would not belong in the Knesset today. Jews are still struggling with our history and while we should never forget the horror and the tragedy of the Shoah, we should not assume we are weak when we are not. If we are strong, we can afford to compromise; and if we are really strong, we can find a way toward peace with our neighbors.
Contributing editor Anne Roiphe is a novelist and journalist living in New York.