The Banality of Evil Revisited: To Each Society Its Own Evils

In contrast to what Eva Illouz argues, the banality of evil theory does not excuse criminals from taking responsibility for their acts. In the Israeli case, there's no need to seek a 'family resemblance' to other dark regimes; rather, what's required is to confront our specific past.

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men stand behind a roadblock on which a graffiti reads "open Shuhada street" in a Palestinian neighborhood in Hebron. August 14,2016.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men stand behind a roadblock on which a graffiti reads "open Shuhada street" in a Palestinian neighborhood in Hebron. August 14,2016.Credit: Hazem Bader, AFP
Daniel Blatman
Daniel Blatman
Daniel Blatman
Daniel Blatman

In a fascinating article in Haaretz two weeks ago, Eva Illouz challenged the relevance of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” theory in the context of understanding the current situation in Israel. Arendt, who covered the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem as a correspondent for The New Yorker, reached the conclusion that the Nazi genocide was perpetrated by people whose dominant trait was the capacity to obey orders. What they did, in Illouz’s words, was “the ultimate expression of a universal and banal capacity to not ask questions, to fulfill orders, to trust in one’s superiors.” In support of her thesis, she also cited Christopher Browning’s book “Ordinary Men” and the notoriouso “torture” experiment conducted by the American psychologist Stanley Milgram.

Hannah Arendt, political philosopher and scholar, smoking a cigarette. 1969.
Hannah Arendt, political philosopher and scholar, smoking a cigarette (1969).Credit: AP

In the early 1980s, American historian Henry Friedlander, who studied the use of euthanasia by the Nazis, maintained that researchers had not paid attention to one of the major elements of the Nazi murder project. Vast knowledge had been acquired about the ideology that steered the concept of extermination, about the structure of the state system and the terror it unleashed, about the key individuals who were its driving force. But when it came to the people who actually committed the murders, those who managed them on-site, who operated the gas chambers or shot their victims – about them next to nothing was known. Who were they? What was their social background? To which economic class did they belong? What drove them? Anti-Semitic ideology, obedience, sadism or simply the fact that they were part of a large apparatus in which they played only a small, anonymous part?

The Nazi genocide was a collective project, so it is incorrect to impute sole responsibility for its execution to murderers from a particular stratum of society. They included senior functionaries and decision makers who were fanatical Nazis, Einsatzgruppen soldiers who pulled the trigger on the edge of the murder pits in Ukraine and Lithuania because that was the mission they had been sent to carry out, and operators of the gas chambers in the death camps. There were bureaucrats whose careers and their desire to rise up the ladder dictated their deeds, and there were those who believed they were fulfilling a supreme national mission. It was collective work by broad and diverse groups of murderers who came from a range of state, governmental and social systems: the SS, army, police, party, civil administration, economic bodies, occupation authorities in the East, the functionaries at the concentration camps and so on.

Adolf Eichmann being brought to justice in Israel in 1961
Adolf Eichmann being brought to justice in Israel in 1961 Credit: AP

The great Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg defined this as “the division of labor in the commission of crime.” This extremely important conclusion is also relevant to the discussion about the essence of Israeli evil, but Illouz ignores it.

The German historian Gerhard Paul has distinguished between two groups of murderers at the so-called intermediate level (that is, not senior functionaries such as Eichmann), poised at two extremes. One consisted of planners at the local level, those responsible for the ongoing management of the operation who were at the site when the murders took place. They included the highest-ranking commanders of the SS and the police, the commandants of the concentration camps and extermination facilities and the teams that worked with them, the commanders of the Einsatzkommandos and individuals who served in the murder squads in the East. At the other extreme was a large group that is difficult to define precisely, though it’s clear that without their contribution, the genocide could not have been perpetrated in its monstrous dimensions. The members of this group could have been anonymous officials of the occupation apparatus or, for example, the spouses of concentration-camp commandants who lived on the premises and whose very presence and contribution to raising a new generation of reich citizens helped legitimize the existence of the murder mechanism, or the officials of the security police who never left their offices in Berlin, or the economists and the exponents of the modern technology and bureaucracy of the SS.

Then-German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, left, shaking hands with German Interior Minister and head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, somewhere in Germany, May 18, 1944.Credit: AP

A great number of studies published since the 1990s have shown that it’s necessary to distinguish between three central groups who bear responsibility for the perpetration of the crime – without taking into account the Reich leadership of Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and their ilk. There were senior functionaries (such as Eichmann), there were administration and command personnel of an unknown number who were deployed across the length and breadth of the immense Reich – these are the ones Paul focuses on – and there were the anonymous murderers on the ground, those with their finger on the trigger, whom Browning depicts in his book about a reserve unit of the Ordnungspolizei, the German Order Police, who murdered thousands of Jews in eastern Poland in 1942.

Ideology and worldview

The question of ideology and worldview in forming the motivation of the murderers served as the basis of the debate about their doings. That debate, which peaked with the discussion two decades ago of the books by Browning and by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (“Hitler’s Willing Executioners”), centered around the group of murderers who were not part of the senior decision-making echelons and did not have a direct connection to those echelons.

Young women reach out to shake hands with the Fuehrer. Credit: Getty Images

German historian Thomas Sandkuhler rightly notes that tens of thousands of perpetrators of the genocide in innumerable venues did not know, and could not have known, about the existence or nonexistence of a specific decision or order to murder the Jews. Nor were they necessarily more or less anti-Semitic than millions of other people in Germany or across Europe in that period.

But the murderers did understand two important things, and the first was noted by Sandkuhler: They understood that there existed what he calls a “worldview order,” associated with the higher levels, perhaps even with the Fuehrer himself. This was sufficient to accord them the legitimacy required for their actions. The second thing these individuals understood was explicated by the British historian Ian Kershaw, who defined the functioning of the Nazi regime as “working toward the Fuehrer.”

That phrase was coined in a speech delivered by a Nazi functionary from an economic ministry in 1934, which merits special attention: “Everyone with opportunity to observe it knows that the Fuehrer can only with great difficulty order from above everything that he intends to carry out sooner or later. On the contrary, until now everyone has best worked in his place in the new Germany if, so to speak, he worked toward the Fuehrer. Very often, and in many places, it has been the case that individuals, already in previous years, have waited for commands and orders. Unfortunately, that will probably also be so in future. Rather, however, it is the duty of every single person to attempt, in the spirit of the Fuehrer, to work toward him. Anyone making mistakes will come to notice it soon enough. But the one who works correctly toward the Fuehrer along his lines and toward his aim will in future as previously certainly have the finest reward of one day suddenly attaining the legal confirmation of his work.”

Perpetrating a murder because you are working “toward the Fuehrer” and know about the existence of a clear directive in the spirit of a worldview that you agree with, along general lines – this shows that the distinction between motivation that derives from inner ideological hatred (evil, according to Illouz), and resigned obedience and acceptance of the legitimacy of your deeds (banality, according to Illouz), is blurred and in practice might not exist at all.

A poster of Hitler.Credit: AP

We return to the murderers of Reserve Police Battalion 101, the “ordinary men.” Browning does not argue, as Illouz states, that they represented the banality of evil or that they were blindly obeying authority. The very fact that so few of them refused to carry out the order to kill, even though no punishment lay in store for those who refused, attested to different elements of influence. Among others, Browning cites the “comradeship” that characterized the relations between soldiers who worked together, which included the need to share in the execution of difficult tasks with everyone else, a desire not to appear too modest or “soft,” and a lowly image of and resentment toward the enemy that was to be annihilated (strange, foreign Jews in some Eastern European town who were known to support communism). In other words, at work here were social dynamics, dehumanization of the victim, personal decisions and intragroup relationships. Such elements exist in every military unit in wartime: from the Wehrmacht or the German Order Police in Eastern Europe, to the Red Army in Germany, to U.S. forces in Vietnam or Iraq, and down to the Israel Defense Forces in the occupied territories.

In his groundbreaking book “The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda,” American social scientist Scott Straus addresses precisely these questions and arrives at similar conclusions. Straus interviewed more than 200 Hutu murderers from rural districts who were convicted of murder (that is, “with blood on their hands”). What leads a simple farmer one fine day to take up a machete, a heavy club or an axe, to hunt down his neighbor, smash in his head and slaughter his children – who only the day before yesterday played with the farmer’s own children in the same schoolyard?

A Rwandan refugee girl stares at a mass grave where dozens of bodies have been laid to rest, July 20, 1994.
A Rwandan refugee girl stares at a mass grave where dozens of bodies have been laid to rest, July 20, 1994.Credit: Corinne Dufka, Reuters

Straus’ conclusions attest to a combination of factors that are banal and visceral alike. At the center is the Hutus’ fear of the Tutsis’ possible takeover of the country following the assassination of the popular President Juvenal Habyarimana and in light of the advance of the forces of the Tutsi rebels’ Rwandan Patriotic Front. Adding to this was the obedience to authority that characterizes ordinary people in Rwanda: When a directive is issued by the local and national leadership to massacre Tutsis, they obey. Compounding the situation was social pressure and the fear of their own extremists who were assaulting every Hutu suspected of being a “Tutsi lover.”

It was not hatred or racist ideology, even though there was deeply rooted awareness of the ethnic differences between the Hutu and the Tutsi, nor sadism per se, nor a desire to plunder property (though that occurred) that generated motivation to take part in the Rwanda murders. As one of the murderers described it, “Before the death of Habyarimana, we had no problem. With the death of Habyarimana, the Hutus, all Hutus, felt threatened by the Tutsis who attacked the country. You understand the distrust between two ethnic groups? A president killed by another ethnic group?”

Straus: “But why kill all Tutsis?”

Reply: “That, no! Ehhh! That is the reasoning of an American. People are created like that. If you do something bad for me, will I have good intentions for your children?”

This is completely contrary to what Illouz writes, in the wake of sociologist Abram de Swaan. It was not a common past rooted in a magnificent history that united the Hutu against the Tutsi. The two ethnic groups had a lengthy common past, with problems but without genocide. Nor was there a rigid “us and them” boundary between ethnic groups, which intermarried quite freely. That Eurocentric perception might be appropriate for the Nazi genocide and other cases that occurred in Europe, but it is far from explaining the dynamics at work in Rwanda and other places. In other words, the division between the banality of evil and the belief at the heart of that evil is hardly a universal truth.

Eva Illouz.Credit: Emil Salman

The Israeli case

Israel has not commited genocide against the Palestinians. But there are problematic episodes in Israel’s past that have been given a distorted interpretation. The attempt to avoid dealing with the past leads to the cultivation of false myths that underlie the regime of evil that is taking shape in the country today.

Israel is the product of a historical process that has a colonialist and settlement-oriented nature. Jews who fled from anti-Semitism, adventurers and reformers who believed in social revolution, refugees of the Nazi genocide, Jews who were uprooted from their homes in the 1950s because of Muslim hostility – these individuals built a country whose establishment was accompanied by the ethnic cleansing of the native population. The natives and their descendants became either refugees or second-class citizens in the Jewish state.

Jewish settlers throw rocks at Palestinians during clashes near the Jewish settlement of Yitzhar.
Jewish settlers throw rocks toward Palestinians during clashes near the Jewish settlement of Yitzhar.Credit: AP

In his book “Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview,” historian Lorenzo Veracini analyzes central aspects of settler colonialism that are applicable to the Israeli case. Settler colonialism is not an invasion or a time-bound event. It involves the creation of a social and political structure that is intended to remain in place for all time. In the case of Israel, following the initial military conflict, the state did not aspire to exterminate the natives (the local Palestinians), but rather to ensure the existence and consolidation of the ruling ethnic group, the Jews. Like all settler colonialism, the Israeli version, too, believed it could achieve reasonable coexistence with the natives and in return grant them integration in the new structure by means of improving their living conditions, providing more employment opportunities, offering modern education and so forth. Full assimilation was not in the cards from the outset, because the state defined itself as an ethnic nation-state and enacted important legislation to ensure this – first and foremost, the Law of Return.

Palestinian man holding key in commemoration of Nakba Day.
Palestinian man holding key in commemoration of Nakba Day.Credit: Tal Cohen

The current regime in Israel is a product of the 1948 past with which both its leaders and citizens refuse to cope. It has not recognized its responsibility for the Nakba, just as the Turks refuse to recognize the Ottoman Empire’s responsibility for the Armenian genocide. Instead, there has been a decades-long process of denial and the projection of responsibility on others (i.e., the Palestinian leadership, the Arab states) – who, even if they shared in creating the tragedy, were not the ones who created the problem in the first place. And just as Turkey will never be a genuinely liberal democracy if it does not assume responsibility for the historical wrongs it perpetrated, neither will Israel.

The second element in whose light Israeli evil needs to be understood occurred after 1967. It is crucial to grasp the difference between 1948 and 1967. Until 1967, Israel seemed to be progressing successfully toward a situation in which a certain horizon had opened for the limited assimilation of the Palestinians within the state structure that had been created. It would have taken decades for that situation to arise, but gradually it would have happened. We can only imagine what the relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel would look like today were it not for the occupation of the territories. But this is far from taking place, because in 1967, Israel relaunched the war of settler colonialism against the Palestinian people. It’s different from the 1948 version, which was the war of the settlers for the establishment of the national structure that they were building. The leaders of the current war of settler colonialism do not have the goal of ensuring a haven for persecuted Jews and refugees of genocide, as was the case in 1948. They are, rather, messianic rabbis who, together with the thousands of disciples who are constantly flocking to them, believe in a genocidal holy war. It is they who have transformed Israel into a state of evil.

Ludwig WittgensteinCredit: The Schwartz Museum. Berlin / Wittgenstein Archive, Cambridge

How, then, are we to define the current regime in Israel? Illouz, in the wake of Ludwig Wittgenstein, suggests that we see it as bearing a “family resemblance” to well-known regimes of oppression, but adds that under no circumstances must analogies be drawn with Nazism, fascism or the apartheid regime in South Africa. But what’s true of a “family resemblance” between Monopoly, Scrabble and chess, as per Wittgenstein, doesn’t really work when one is trying to understand regimes and societies.

IDF soldier Elor Azaria, charged with manslaughter in shooting death of a Palestinian in March in Hebron, in the military court in Jaffa, in April, 2016.
IDF soldier Elor Azaria, charged with manslaughter in shooting death of a Palestinian in March in Hebron, in the military court in Jaffa, in April, 2016.Credit: Moti Milrod

Israel is not Nazi Germany not only because it has not been involved in the mass industrial extermination of civilians. It is not Nazi Germany, because Nazism as a political system has disappeared from the world, irrespective of any particular method of extermination. Some 800,000 moderate Tutsis and Hutus were murdered in the most rapid genocide of the 20th century, but that does not mean that the regime that existed in Rwanda in 1994 was a Nazi regime. It is a different genocidal regime, and it needs to be examined as such. But analogies can definitely be drawn between the behavior of societies in crisis situations, certainly between individuals who murder others in cold blood, because they perceive them as the enemy.

Elor Azaria, the Israeli Defense Forces soldier who shot to death a wounded Palestinian assailant lying on the ground in Hebron, is the bottom line – both the banality and the ideology alike – in this story. He has heard his prime minister speak derogatorily of Arabs as “droves” and attribute responsibility for the Holocaust to one of their leaders. He has heard members of the Knesset refuse, in the name of Jewish racial purity, to have their partner share a hospital room with an Arab woman. He has heard the chief rabbi of the army in which he serves say that it is permitted to rape gentile women in wartime. And between Azaria and the higher echelons of “leaders,” he saw a colonel, his senior commander in the field, shoot in the back and kill a Palestinian boy who threw a stone – and not go on trial for it. Azaria is serving in a territory where the life of the native population is regarded as worthless, where state authorities dispossess them of their land and seal their water wells, where settlers do as they please – and where all these injustices are legitimized retroactively. He was also raised in a home by parents who wrote in a Facebook post that all the Arabs, including women and children, should be killed.

What Azaria and thousands of young people in uniform like him understand is that to eradicate a helpless Palestinian is effectively to work toward the “Fuehrer” – in this case, the state. Because what’s happening in the territories today precisely embodies Hilberg’s division of labor in committing the crime: The state authorities, the army, the rabbis in the territories, the settlers, the Shin Bet security service – each contributes to this continuing evil.

Elor Azaria is not a Nazi criminal, and the IDF is not the Wehrmacht. But Azaria lives in a society and is serving in an army into which norms have penetrated that existed in Nazi Germany and in other regimes that perpetrated serious war crimes. Like every young soldier everywhere, he responded in light of what he understands and believes in. He is the anonymous product of the interaction between banality and ideological belief that is creating a mixture that gives rise to Israeli evil today.

Daniel Blatman is a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.