All Aboard the Arendt Express

Writer, cult figure, enigma - on her 100th birthday, Hannah Arendt continues to stupefy her readers and successfully evade any attempt to label her

Yehouda Shenhav
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Yehouda Shenhav

Hannah Arendt Beyerushalayim ("Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem," Hebrew) edited by Steven Aschheim, Magnes Press, Koebner Center for German History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 393 pages, NIS 118

This past year, the intellectual community marked the 100th birthday of Hannah Arendt, hailed nowadays as one of the 20th century's most influential writers. Researching Arendt is all the rage in humanities departments. Countless articles have been published on her life and work. She has even become a cult figure, mainly in Germany. The German railway authority operates a Hannah Arendt Express between Karlsruhe and Hannover, the German postal authority has issued a Hannah Arendt commemorative stamp, and streets have been named after her. (For the sake of comparison, there is no express train in Germany named after Max Weber, Arthur Schopenhauer, Nietzsche or Hegel.)

In Israel, by contrast, this preoccupation with Arendt is relatively new. Despite (or perhaps because of) the stir her book on the Eichmann trial in the early 1960s created in the United States and the Jewish world, Arendt's work had not been methodically studied. Yad Vashem did not translate "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil" into Hebrew (in the same way that it avoided translating Raul Hilberg's monumental work, "The Destruction of the European Jews"), while the critics belittled her work and sought to undermine her credibility as a neutral observer. Soon the Jews will be persecuting and exterminating themselves, the historian Golo Mann commented cynically on "Eichmann in Jerusalem." The fact that a few Nazis took part is only a coincidence. The French intellectual Raymond Aron accused Arendt of condescension toward "people and things."

In his introduction, Steven Aschheim, the editor of "Arendt in Jerusalem," writes that Israeli intellectuals described the "deep physical disgust" they felt when reading Arendt. The turning point was the translation of "Eichmann in Jerusalem" into Hebrew in 2000 (Babel Books).

Dozens of reviews and debates followed, not only in academic circles but even more so in the daily papers. The international conference, of which the current volume is an outgrowth, was held in Jerusalem in December 1997 and was pivotal in changing attitudes toward Arendt in Israel. (Another conference was held at Tel Aviv University in 2003. The papers delivered at this forum were published in "Hannah Arendt: Half a Century of Polemics," edited by Idith Zertal and Moshe Zuckerman). No monuments Steven Aschheim, who organized the conference and edited "Hannah Arendt Beyerushalayim" (published originally in English in 2001, by the University of California Press), objects to the unofficial ban on Arendt in Israel, but also to the personality cult that has sprung up around her. "Here in Jerusalem, we no longer need to demonize Arendt," he writes, "but at the same time, there is no need to turn her into a saint. I am not suggesting that we name an express train for her or emblazon her portrait on postage stamps," as the Germans have done. It is doubtful we will ever see the day when the Jews build a monument to Arendt in Israel and proudly embrace her as part of the family, as Karl Jaspers wrote to Arendt in 1963.

In spite of all that has been written about Arendt, if not because of it, the link between Arendt the woman and Arendt the prolific writer remains hazy and fraught with contradiction. In his enlightening introduction, Aschheim writes that the root of the problem lies in the pull between belonging and observing from the sidelines - a duality that characterized the life of the assimilated Jew after the Emancipation in Germany, and also after the Holocaust. In her important book "The Human Condition," Arendt distinguishes between the biography of an individual and his actions in the world: "Who somebody is or was we can only know by knowing the story of which he is himself the hero - his biography, in other words; everything else we know of him, includi ng the work he may have produced and left behind, tells us only what he is or was." Arendt is a fascinating embodiment of the contradictions that arise in her writing, between her life story and philosophical theories, between fragments of biography and her worldview.

Aschheim's anthology is packed with opportunities to explore these distinctions, with a heterogeneous list of contributors and 22 articles that establish a dialogue with Elizabeth Young-Bruehl's biography of Arendt, Arendt's correspondence with Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger, and Arendt's prolific writings. The book consists of five chapters: politics and philosophy, a reexamination of the origins of totalitarianism, Judaism and Zionism, "Eichmann in Jerusalem" revisited, and Arendt's ties to German culture. It is full of insights that revolve around Arendt as a storyteller, thinker, political commentator, literary critic, historian, biographer and intellectual, not to mention a Jew and a German.

Much ado about nothing

Predictably, however, all these insights do not coalesce into a coherent picture of Arendt's life and work. On the contrary, there are so many different interpretations that it seems at times that we are holding a kaleidoscope, full of colors and pictures and deceptive connections. One reason for this is undoubtedly related to the success of conference organizers in assembling scholars with so many differing and complex opinions. Another reason - no less important - is the fact that Arendt is hard to pin down and label. "It was the complexity of Arendt's commitments, her partial standing as 'one of us,' and the difficulty of categorizing her, that kept Arendt from blending in and made her so confusing to the Jewish establishment, inside and outside Israel," writes Aschheim. Yerachmiel Cohen believes that Arendt's biography had special significance here: "The fact that she was a Jew from Germany who had the good fortune to watch what was happening from a safe distance was a kind of double sin. This is why Arendt's motives were suspect to German Jews, Zionist or not." Was Hannah Arendt a historian? Was she a sociologist? A journalist? A philosopher? What about a speculative, contemplative essayist, as Bernard Crick suggests? Arendt herself insisted that she was not a philosopher and never tried to create a political philosophy. The scholars beg to differ. Susan Neiman writes that for every comment Arendt made about her distaste for philosophy, one can find other comments that show her devotion to it. Albrecht Wellmer insists that Arendt was a philosopher who "deconstructed the metaphysical tradition of political thought from Aristotle to Plato." "Arendt's deconstruction of Western political thought from the Greek polis onwards," he continues, "is undeniably similar to Heidegger's deconstruction of Western metaphysics from its inception in Greece." Some confirm that she was a philosopher and say her existential ideas were drawn entirely from Karl Jaspers. Others point out that she was critical of Jasper and also of Heidegger. Some describe her approach as "pagan existentialism," with impressionist, Romantic and metaphysical influences. Isaiah Berlin acidly remarked: "She produces no arguments, no evidence of serious philosophical or historical thought. It is all a stream of metaphysical free association. She moves from one sentence to another, without logical connection, without either rational or imaginative links between them."

In Berlin's eyes, Arendt showed no originality, depth or methodical thinking, and the Arendt cult was much ado about nothing. Attempts to position Arendt on the ideological map have also been unsuccessful. Was she a revolutionary or a conservative? Sometimes she was one and sometimes the other. All the labels confuse things even more: She liked radicals but she was not a Marxist. Neither left nor right could lay claim to her. And if that were not confusing enough, we learn that she was no more a fan of communitarianism than she was of libertarianism. This dualism runs like a thread through every issue Arendt tackled. Some say she wrote from a distinctly secular point of view; others say her work is full of theological terminology. Where do you find a 20th century philosopher who makes such liberal use of terms like "soul," "hell," "redemption" and "violating sanctity"? they ask. What secular Jew have you seen who can quote "Avinu Malkenu" and prayers from the Yom Kippur liturgy as naturally as Arendt? A contradiction in terms Arendt, who wrote her dissertation on love in St. Augustine, peppers her explanation of totalitarian logic with arguments that echo Catholic criticism of modernity. She addresses profound religious experience from the perspective of romantic secularism. Was she a feminist? Radical feminist authors have ripped into her for adopting male ideology or writing "lame books nourished by male ideology." Yet there are others who say that her work, especially her book about Rahel Varnhagen, could furnish material aplenty for feminist research. Her Judaism, they say, was gender-based. There is no discipline that should remain exclusive to men, Arendt once said in an interview. One day, there will be woman philosophers. In the 1960s, the journalist Shlomo Grozhansky described her as an eccentric who spent five weeks speechifying about the Eichmann trial somewhere between the perfume bottles and the piles of brassieres - an allusion to The New Yorker, the magazine that published her early reports from the Eichmann trial.

Another journalist, B.Z. Goldberg, wondered how Arendt could dig into the depths of the pure souls who died in the camps with such beautifully manicured fingernails. For years, long before the public knew about her love affair with Heidegger, a German philosopher who joined the Nazi party in the early 1930s, people were calling her "Heidegger's bimbo." These contradictions in Arendt as a woman and a writer also extended to her attitude toward racism. On the one hand, she wrote one of the most important documents of her time on racism and imperialism, criticized Zionism for its "racist chauvinism," and attacked the Zionist left for its lack of solidarity with the Arabs. On the other hand, her treatment of Eichmann trial prosecutor Gideon Hausner, who hailed from Eastern Europe, and her view of the Mizrahi Jews and "unwashed masses" thronging the streets of Jerusalem were racist to the core. She also made embarrassingly racist remarks about the blacks in the United States. The clash between her personality and her writing was also evident in her thinking on Zionism. Some scholars label her a critic of Zionism and the State of Israel, citing her condemnation of Israel's ghetto mentality and its love of tanks and military parades. She called Zionism racist, belittled Herzlian Zionism, and declared that Zionism was the real assimilation, whereas living in the Diaspora was anti-assimilation. After the publication of her articles on the Eichmann trial, Gershom Scholem came out with his famous remark about her lack of "ahavat yisrael" (solidarity with the Jewish people). On the other hand, Arendt is portrayed as a Jew who never concealed her Judaism and was enthusiastically involved in Jewish affairs. This same Arendt was solidly in favor of establishing a Jewish army to fight the Nazis. In 1933, Arendt was arrested in Germany for her work on behalf of the Zionist movement. In 1935, she accompanied a group of young immigrants to Palestine. This was the same Arendt who wrote that there was no escaping one's Jewishness, and reminded her readers that Zionism was the authentic revolutionary nationalist movement that sprang from the Jewish masses. Arendt admitted that her biography of Rahel Varnhagen was critical of assimilation and written from a Zionist vantage point that she says she adopted and still viewed as legitimate. Her first lecture in Germany after the war began with the declaration that she was a German Jew who had been driven from her homeland by the Nazis. When Israel won the war in 1967, she wrote to Jaspers that it was encouraging and wonderful to see Israel responding to its victory not with trumpet calls but with an orgy of tourism. Hannah Arendt remains an enigma even after reading this collection of essays, and seems likely to sustain the buzz in the intellectual community in Israel and beyond for years to come. Arendt's image shattered into a multitude of little mirrors may be just what is needed for perpetuating the study of her work. Invited to answer the question, scholars end up leaving their own imprint on Arendt's thought, adding new twists and turns to the puzzling maze that she sets out before us.

Prof. Yehouda Shenhav is the editor of the journal Theory and Criticism. He teaches sociology at Tel Aviv University and is a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem.



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism