On May 5, 1961, when political philosopher Hannah Arendt left Israel, with suitcases crammed with documents and minutes from the Eichmann trial, she also took with her an antique hamsa (hand-shaped amulet) she'd received as a gift. When she arrived in Basel, Switzerland, she hastened to write a thank-you note to the friend who had given her the gift, historian Leni Yahil in Jerusalem. "This is ... the hand that this country outstretched to me and which I sometimes embraced and sometimes rejected," wrote the woman who two years later was denounced by Israeli officials and the Jewish establishment worldwide as an anti-Zionist and hater of her people. Despite the outstretched hand, the friendship between the two women would also be the victim of controversy.
They were both born in Germany in the early 20th century to secular Jewish families (Yahil's parents even converted to Christianity). Both suffered, as Jews, following the Nazis' rise to power in 1933; both forged paths as leading scholars in their fields, in an academic world ruled by men. But here the similarity ends. Arendt tried to cling to her German and European roots, and only left for the United States when she felt she had no choice. There she continued her meteoric rise as one of her generation's preeminent political philosophers, and analyzed Jewish and Israeli affairs from a critical remove.
Meanwhile, Yahil chose, from the early 1930s on, to tie her fate to the Zionist enterprise. She immigrated to Israel, was drawn into political and ideological activism (in Mapai, forerunner of the Labor Party), and over the ensuing decades established herself as one of the leading Holocaust researchers in Israel.
Even now, more than 30 years after her death, the controversy surrounding Arendt has not faded away. The articles she wrote for The New Yorker about the 1961 trial of SS officer Adolf Eichmann - later published as a book: "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil" - spurred many to see Arendt, not always justifiably, as the embodiment of the assimilated Jew, who has disconnected and become estranged from her people's fate. In recent years as well, researchers in Israel and abroad continue to address her arguments and to present new findings regarding Eichmann's part in the Nazi extermination project, which either corroborate or, much more frequently, contradict her findings. On the other hand, these findings mesh well with fashionable post-Zionist viewpoints and have found ultimate expression in the 1999 film "The Specialist," by the Paris-based Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan.
A new addition to the ongoing Arendt controversy is the exchange of letters between her and historian Leni Yahil, who died four months ago. These letters, dating back to the trial and immediately following it, were not previously known to Arendt researchers. Their existence was discovered by Sarit Shavit over the course of her studies at Bar-Ilan University. Shavit is writing a master's thesis in Jewish history (under the tutorship of Prof. Dan Michman) on Yahil and her contribution to Holocaust research; her article on the letters is due to be published soon as part of a collection by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial institution; and the entire collection of letters will be published in the Yad Vashem research quarterly. A year and a half ago, Shavit met with Yahil, then living in the Nof Yerushalayim old-age home, and began interviewing her. Over time, the two developed a close relationship and Yahil entrusted Shavit with the collection of letters exchanged between her and Arendt - all in German. Before Shavit could interview her at length about the correspondence and her ties with Arendt, Yahil's health took a sharp downturn from which she never recovered.
The two women met in Jerusalem in 1961. The opening of the Eichmann trial, after his capture by the Mossad espionage agency in Argentina the year before, drew a large number of foreign journalists to Israel. The government wished to show the world how the young state was acting on behalf of the murdered six million and how it tried someone who was portrayed as one of the key figures in the perpetration of the genocide. To this end, background materials and explanations were printed in English, and much assistance was offered to the reporters who filled the special courtroom set up in the then newly built Jerusalem Beit Ha'am.
Arendt was already a renowned and esteemed academic, largely thanks to her book "The Origins of Totalitarianism," published in 1951, and it was only natural that she received a good deal of attention from Israeli officials. Yahil, who invited Arendt to her home for a visit, was still at a relatively early stage of her career as a Holocaust researcher, although she was almost 50 by then. She was busy collecting material about the genocide in the Scandinavian countries, and overseeing a joint team of researchers from Yad Vashem and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but her respectable social status was due mainly to her close ties with some of the central figures in the Mapai establishment.
In the early 1940s, Yahil was secretary to the party's chief ideologue, Berl Katznelson, and also knew David Ben-Gurion well. In the mid-1950s, she was an aide to historian Ben-Zion Dinur, who was the country's first education minister. But the most significant connection in her life was with Dr. Haim (Hoffman) Yahil, a senior diplomat in the Jewish Agency and later in the Foreign Ministry, whom she married in 1942 and accompanied on his various postings abroad.
Her experiences at his side shaped her world and her fields of interest. At the end of World War II, her husband was appointed to run the Agency's aid activities for the refugees in Germany; Leni Yahil, by then a mother of two sons, visited her husband in the DP camps where many Holocaust survivors were placed. She wrote some of the materials describing the situation in the camps that the Jewish Agency distributed in the United States. She began her research in Scandinavia when her husband served there as Israel's ambassador, and began collecting information on the fate of the Jews there and the behavior of the local residents during the war years. But her first book: "Test of a Democracy: The Rescue of Danish Jewry," wasn't published until 1964, two years after Eichmann's hanging.
Yahil identified completely with the State of Israel. Arendt's stay at her home in Jerusalem's Old Katamon neighborhood was also part of an attempt to preach Zionism to her. In a letter enclosed with the gift of the hamsa, she wrote to Arendt that she was "a symbol that this land, and the state in its current form, grew out of the developing historic reality of the Jewish people, regardless of how revolutionary the path was." Yahil tried to argue against the views of Arendt, who did not envision Zionism as a long-term solution to the problems of the world's Jews. "It's the factual, spiritual and institutional reality," Yahil wrote. "It's the root, and nothing could be more fateful than to disconnect us by force, even if it happens in the name of a just universal principle."
Haim Yahil's boss, Foreign Minister Golda Meir, was also present at one of the meals in the family home. Arendt found Meir to be a condescending and arrogant woman, and altogether too American. In fact, the first debate that came up in the letters between Arendt and Yahil concerned Meir. Arendt described the Zionist arguments that she had encountered in Israel as "idol worship," and saw Meir - whom she referred to only as "your [Yahil's] friend," and not by name - as a faithful representative of this idolatry.
"This nation, which for thousands of years believed in the God of justice, is starting now to cling to a faith that [Heinrich] Heine justifiably called 'the unhealthy faith of ancient Egypt,' for it helps them believe in the 'Jewish people' and in themselves," Arendt wrote to Yahil. "And that, if I may say so, is idol worship. Even if these idol worshipers can be as congenial as your friend was. Perhaps we'll talk about it again [if] I return."
Yahil was deeply offended. She hastened to write back to Arendt, who was in Basel. "If there is anyone 'among the people that I know' who has not crossed those bounds, it's the woman [Meir] you described, and I wouldn't be so bold as to call her 'my friend.' In my view, this is exactly the point, the ability to not overstep the existing authorities ... This explains the special and different effect that this woman has on all people, without regard to color, culture or intellectuality. This is why she has such an effect on people. She is not condescending or arrogant. I do not agree with you that it's 'her Americanism,' because it's something that is too international, and she has power in different societies and in different situations: with blacks in the new African countries or with cultured people like the Swedes, or with simple Yemenites, and with Hannah Arendt."
The difficulty in putting aside the ideological debate between them and continuing the friendship that developed between them in Jerusalem is noticeable in both women's letters, but particularly in Yahil's. The letters contain requests to send regards to friends and family, and reports on health and professional developments. However, the public controversy that erupted in the wake of Arendt's writings in The New Yorker in 1963 was already evident in correspondence between them two years earlier, and would return and test their personal relationship time and again.
Yahil had made her personal choice at age 17, when she disavowed her parents' adopted religion. It wasn't until she was 11 years old that Helena (Leni) Westphal, born in Dusseldorf in 1912, learned that her family was actually of Jewish origin. Her father Ernst, descended from the Mendelssohn family, had been baptized as a child. He served as an officer in the German army in World War I and later was appointed to a judgeship, which he held until he was forced to resign in April 1933. Leni's maternal grandfather, James Simon, was a leader of a prosperous Jewish community. He took an interest in developing the Jewish Yishuv (pre-state community) in Palestine, was one of the philanthropists who purchased the land designated for construction of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, and was also among the major proponents of making German the language of instruction there, in what became known as "the war of the languages." Even though he saw himself as part of German society and culture, Simon was opposed to his daughter's marriage to the Christian Ernst Westphal and to her complete estrangement from Judaism. She converted secretly ahead of her wedding.
"I am a Jew and the fate of the Jewish people is also my fate," Leni Yahil wrote in a manuscript she prepared in the 1990s for a book about her life (that was never published). At age 17, she joined a socialist-Zionist youth movement. Her parents were very opposed to this, her father going so far as to say that by returning to Judaism, she was descending to an inferior cultural status. However, the move did bring her closer to her grandfather, who bequeathed her some money when he died in 1932.
When she arrived in Israel in October 1934, Yahil was one of the first to take advantage of the "transfer agreement" signed between the Zionist movement and the Nazi government, which allowed Jews to transfer some of their assets to Palestine. Years later, Arendt cited this agreement as an example of the common interests that the Nazis and the Zionists shared before World War II, and argued that Eichmann enjoyed cooperating with these Jewish representatives, whom he viewed as "idealists," like himself.
Yahil soon became intensively involved in party activity, as part of Mapai. She was on the board of its Working Women's Council (Moetzet Hapoalot) and served as editor of its newspaper, Dvar Hapoelet. In the 1930s and '40s, she tried to fight for the inclusion of German immigrants in Mapai institutions, which were governed primarily by immigrants from Eastern Europe. But even when she failed at this, her faith in Mapai's leaders, especially David Ben-Gurion, did not waver, and her activity in the movement took precedence over her self-fulfillment. Still, Yahil was able to progress in her studies at the Hebrew University, from which she earned a master's degree in literature at age 28.
Her letters to Arendt also convey a sense of suppressed envy and admiration for the woman who came from a similar background, made the opposite choice and became a world figure, an academic star who felt liberated from the chains of religion and nationality. Arendt was born in 1906 in Hanover. She studied at the University of Berlin and the University of Marburg, and completed her doctorate at the University of Heidelberg. She could not advance in the academic teaching track once the Nazis came to power, and after she was interrogated by the Gestapo, she fled to Paris.
In 1941, Arendt was arrested and sent to an internment camp in Gurs, France, but she managed to escape and to emigrate to the United States. During the war she was active in Jewish aid organizations, and afterward returned to Germany and became involved in the Jewish Agency's Youth Aliyah activity. As the years passed, her affinity for Zionism weakened, as she came to view it as a nationalist movement. In 1950, she obtained American citizenship and returned to the U.S.; nine years later she was the first woman to be appointed to a full professorship at Princeton University.
In her personal life, too, Arendt was quite the opposite of Yahil, who basked in the shadow of strong men in the Zionist movement and remained faithful to her husband. In 1929, Arendt married the philosopher Gunther Anders, divorced him eight years later and remarried in 1940. This time she wed the Marxist philosopher Heinrich Blucher, an exile like her who had fled to Paris to escape the Nazis. At the same time, and for decades, she carried on an affair with philosopher Martin Heidegger, who for a brief time was also a member of the Nazi Party. She even testified on his behalf at the de-Nazification trials that were held in Germany after the war.
Yahil's suppressed envy for Arendt's lifestyle came to the fore in one of her letters. After criticizing her world view, she wrote: "Nonetheless, I hope that you will come here again, perhaps this summer. In the meantime, enjoy life in Europe and I hope that you will find time to work. I understand that you wanted to stay in Switzerland for a while, but I expect that you will no longer be in Basel and so I am sending this letter to Munich. Anyway, how do you stand the atmosphere in Germany? Personally, I no longer like the German style, and my stay in Germany was very uncomfortable for me, although my family is still there and my mother just returned there from South Africa with my sister. I now have three sisters who live there. But I was always the exception in my family."
The latest joke
In her initial letters, Yahil talked about the ongoing proceedings in the Eichmann trial, and added to her detailed, fundamental arguments updates about the state of her health, about her academic achievements and about her husband and two sons, Amos and Yonatan. Arendt, who had since gone from Switzerland back to their common native land of Germany, shared her friend's skepticism regarding the political and social stability of West Germany: "It's quite clear that without outside influence it will become a military dictatorship. Even with the NATO framework, I wouldn't trust these fellows with an atomic weapon."
In this letter she opted not to address their ideological difference of opinion. She continued to take an interest from afar in the Eichmann trial, and reported to Yahil that the Frankfurt prosecutor general, Fritz Bauer, wanted to have Eichmann extradited so he could stand trial in Germany: "He's different, of course, not all that smart, and in addition, he is a Jew and therefore not well-regarded." Yahil hastened to defend the poor Jewish attorney in her response, in which she wrote: "Bauer often works with our courts. He is a good man and there's more to him than meets the eye."
The letters from this period, prior to Arendt's publication of her articles on the trial, were friendly for the most part, filled with family-related and other gossip. Despite their earlier disagreements about the character of Israeli society and its leaders, Yahil never imagined that her friend's articles would turn out as they did. She was eager to read them and asked how to subscribe to the magazine in which they were due to appear. Arendt promised to get her a subscription, invited her to New York and asked Yahil to obtain for her a ruling from another panel in which one of the Eichmann judges, Moshe Landau, took part - concerning the appeal by soldiers who were convicted in the case of the Kafr Qasem massacre in 1956. Yahil promised to help and told Arendt about the latest joke making the rounds in Jerusalem: In honor of the state visit of the president of Madagascar, Eichmann would be given a two-day furlough in order to officially welcome him (the allusion here was to a Nazi plan to exile Europe's Jews to the island of Madagascar).
In the year that passed between Eichmann's hanging and the publication of Arendt's articles, the women's correspondence dwindled. Arendt was dealing with her husband's serious illness, while Yahil's family was contending with an adolescent crisis of one son. In a letter she wrote after the verdict, Arendt was critical of the prosecutor Gideon Hausner, who "naively believed that he was dealing with a murderer," instead of understanding that genocide is a unique crime, and she was also critical of the court and of Israeli law. Yet, this letter contains no hint of the much harsher things she would publish later. Most of the letter was devoted to personal matters.
In her next letter, Yahil mostly described Israeli gossip and her trip to Germany. All she said about the trial was: "They finally hanged Eichmann, and new sensations also pushed this to the margins of the news." But the trial would soon become the focus of their relationship once again.
The articles published in The New Yorker from early 1963 onward, in which Hannah Arendt portrayed Eichmann as a rather stupid functionary of secondary importance, as not much more than a specialist in transporting Jews and as having very limited authority, caused an uproar in Israel and among the wider Jewish public. Her criticism of the Israeli justice system - which she said had become a tool in the hands of Ben-Gurion, who sought to stage a show trial - and her derision for the Holocaust survivors who appeared as witnesses, also provoked a wave of furious responses from politicians and intellectuals.
Yahil felt personally betrayed. "Your articles compel me, against my will and my conscience, to ask you a question," she wrote: "What is your inner personal purpose in doing this? And whom do you think you are serving: historical accuracy, justice, the present or the future of the Germans or of the Jewish people, or maybe you especially wish to prove that the latter is not worthy or capable of existing as a nation among nations? I'm asking you seriously, because I want to understand, not just for the sake of debate."
Yahil was also hurt by the fact that of all the Israelis, she was the one who received sympathetic treatment from Arendt, who relied on her friend's research about the expulsion of Denmark's Jews. She concluded her letter with a gibe about her frequent travels: "I hope that his letter reaches you in the not-too-distant future, and I don't know if you're in New York or somewhere else right now."
In her response, Arendt tried at first to assuage Yahil. "Let's remain friends even if we fight," she asked, but what she wrote next was probably the last thing Yahil wanted to hear. She told her about the beauty of the city of Athens, from which she sent the letter, and expressed regret for not having "more time and especially patience to get you out of, and free you from, your fixation." Arendt's response to the main issue at hand was highly cynical: "You don't seriously believe that I have some unexpressed private intention. So why? Look, when Eichmann was abducted (pardon the term), the monster, everyone asked - who is it good for? The Jews? The Germans? And Ben-Gurion, unfortunately, had a whole series of answers to this foolish question. Or it was 'good for justice's sake' ... You know that I was in favor of leaving it alone. And now you can understand the answer yourself by using your five intelligent fingers."
Yahil was not convinced. In her next letter, she informed Arendt of her intention to write a public article against her. As for their personal relationship, she wrote: "We've already dealt with the quarrel. Whether or not we can remain friends afterward or, to be more accurate, go back to being friends again, remains to be seen. I don't believe that the melodies that I play with my five clever fingers will be especially pleasing to you. At any rate, that is not my intention."
She reminded Arendt of the Yemenite hamsa she gave her when she left Israel: "It should be clear to you that now you've aggressively rejected this hand. What's more, should you be interested in it again, it's hard to imagine that it will be outstretched to you again."
Researchers who are well versed in the Arendt controversy are not familiar with these letters. Historian Prof. Steven Aschheim of the Hebrew University, whose book, "Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem" (Univ. of California Press, 2001) was published in Hebrew eight months ago, says that he heard about the encounter between the two women during the time of the trial and imagines that Yahil would not have agreed with Arendt. But he was unaware of their correspondence.
People who were close to Yahil in the last decades of her life did not know about the correspondence either. Yet, from what they say, it seems that this lost relationship continued to haunt her. Says Prof. Israel Gutman, an eminent Holocaust researcher: "In our private conversations, [Yahil] spoke about this often. She said that Arendt came to Israel with her thesis already prepared. And that neither the court nor the trial itself spawned this thesis. But when I tried to get her to talk about it in front of other people, she wouldn't. Out of the friendship and loyalty she still felt toward Arendt, and the sense of their shared experience prior to leaving Germany. She didn't want to be the one to tell this thing."
Her son, Prof. Amos Yahil, an astrophysicist who has lived in the U.S. for over three decades and teaches at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook, remembers the time when Arendt met Golda Meir at their home in Jerusalem. "Because of Dad's positions, we were used to having state leaders and high-ranking guests from abroad come to our house," he recalls. His mother had "tremendous respect for Arendt as an intellectual and a historian," he adds. "She had me read her book on the origins of totalitarianism years beforehand, before we knew that there would be an Eichmann trial."
Amos Yahil also read the draft of the angry response article that his mother wished to publish in the United States, after she had read Arendt's first article on the trial. "Arendt didn't openly tell people what the purpose of her visit to Jerusalem was, it wasn't clear what her take on it was, and so her article in The New Yorker came as a bombshell," he explains. "Mother's initial reaction was emotional and that was reflected in the article she wrote. This was one of the reasons that I advised her not to publish it when she showed me a draft, which I did not like at all. I made a few comments on it, she ended up dropping the matter afterward. I didn't hear about it for several decades. A few years ago, she came back to it, and told me that she wanted to write it in a more in-depth way."
In 1971, eight years after she had ceased corresponding with her, Leni Yahil wrote to Arendt. Her official excuse was a request that Arendt speak with a student of hers who was researching the attitude of Jewish religious scholars to Hitler's years in power, but the real reason was, as she wrote, that, "I've always regretted the breaking off of our relationship, but since no sign of life was forthcoming from you, I left it at that."
In the meantime, Yahil wrote, a tragedy had occurred in her life: Her younger son, Yonatan, was killed in the Six-Day War, in the battle for the Abu Tor section of Jerusalem. The events in her personal life, along with world events, "intensify the distance between the decisive things of more than a decade ago and our responses to them. What I wrote then about your book on Eichmann was never published, and it doesn't matter why now. I have no intention of reopening that discussion."
She went on to give Arendt a brief summary of her progress in academic research and hinted that "there's a lot to say about it." At the end of the letter, as if apologizing, she mentioned her student as "the real reason" for the letter, and added: "If this leads to more, I would be pleased."
Arendt never answered the letter. Was she still angry at Yahil for having broken off their relationship? Perhaps she preferred not to reenter a relationship that might lead to an ideological and academic debate? Perhaps Yahil was already identified in her mind with the harsh criticism she incurred following "Eichmann in Jerusalem"? In any event, four years later, in December 1975, Arendt passed away in the U.S.W
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