Hannah Arendt, the Holocaust, and the State of Israel
by Richard L. Rubenstein (December 2012)
2006 marked the centennial of the birth of Hannah Arendt, one of the best known twentieth-century German-Jewish thinkers.[i] Arendt was a participant in what Harvard’s H. Stuart Hughes characterized as “the most important cultural event - or series of events- of the second quarter of the twentieth century,” namely, the flight of German-trained scholars - both Jewish and non-Jewish-from Hitler’s Europe to the United States and England.[ii] I personally was a grateful beneficiary of Adolf Hitler’s unintentional gift to America. When in 1942 I began to study with the newcomers, I realized that they possessed a level of scholarly authority, knowledge, thoroughness, and insight that was new to me. That was true both at the Hebrew Union College and Harvard. [iii] I was exposed to scholars who had served at Heidelberg, Giessen, Marburg and other German institutions.[iv] I am especially indebted to Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was my teacher at both the Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Paul Johannes Tillich, whose course on Classical German Philosophy so influenced me that I named the chapter on Harvard in my autobiography, “Tillich and Harvard.”[v]
Arendt’s book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), was one of the earliest major works to explore the larger historical and political context of the Holocaust and its aftermath.[vi] She was one of the first to recognize that the political anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust was a distinctly novel, modern phenomenon. Consistent with that conclusion was her analysis of Adolf Eichmann in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) as a “thoughtless” bureaucrat primarily concerned with his own advancement rather than a malevolent exemplar of radical evil.[vii] Although her well-known thesis about the “banality of evil” has frequently been criticized, I must acknowledge that, together with Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews,[viii] Eichmann in Jerusalem was of considerable help in formulating my insights on the role of bureaucracy in the Shoah in The Cunning of Hstory. On the other hand, one of the most insightful critiques of the concept was offered by Peter J Haas in Morality After Auschwitz. Haas argues that, far from being contemptuous of ethical norms, both the perpetrators and the complicit bystanders acted in strict conformity with what he identified as the “Nazi ethic” that held that, however dirty, difficult and unpleasant the task might be, mass extermination of the Jews was entirely justified. Haas argues that the Holocaust as a sustained effort was only possible because “a new ethic was in place that did not define the arrest and deportation of Jews as wrong and in fact defined it as ethically tolerable and even good.”[ix] I find merit in both Arendt’s reflections on Eichmann the bureaucrat and in Haas’s understanding of what he identifies as the “Nazi ethic.” Eichmann’s behavior as a “thoughtless bureaucrat” was legitimated by the Nazi ethic.
I met Hannah Arendt only once when in 1971 she addressed a small gathering of Jewish and Christian thinkers at a conference in Washington. I had, however, begun to take note of her contributions to such journals as the Contemporary Jewish Record, the precursor of Commentary magazine, Menorah Journal, Jewish Social Studies, and Jewish Frontier in the late nineteen-forties. I quickly came to expect an uncommon level of thoughtfulness in her writings. This was especially true of The Origins of Totalitarianism which remains a source of instruction to me to this day.
Because of a temporary shift in my reading interests from 1945 to 1948, I was unaware of her negative views concerning such issues as political Zionism, the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, and her opposition to massive emigration to Palestine of Shoah survivors for whom Europe had become a monumental charnel house.[x] Her views, incidentally, were shared by Martin Buber, and other German -Jewish luminaries.[xi] Indeed, Arendt was one of the most prominent Jewish critics of the Zionism of Theodore Herzl and of the State of Israel in the political form it took. Her critique was neither frivolous nor motivated by ill-will. In spite of the anger directed against her because of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt insisted that the book was “very pro-Israel.” In her exchange of letters with Gershom Scholem on Eichmann in Jerusalem, she wrote “A Zionist friend of mine remarked in all innocence that the book, the last chapter in particular (recognition of the competence of the court, the justification of the kidnapping), is very pro-Israel - as indeed it is.”[xii]
She was concerned with the survival of the Jewish people in the aftermath of the Holocaust and was convinced that political Zionism, especially European Zionism, was fundamentally mistaken in its political objectives and its understanding of the role of anti-Semitism in the creation of a Jewish state: In response to a series of questions, she wrote:
But the trouble is that European Zionism (as distinguished from views held by American Zionists!) has often thought and said that the evil of antisemitism was necessary for the good of the Jewish people. In the words of a well-known Zionist in a letter to me discussing "the original Zionist argumentation: The antisemites want to get rid of the Jews, the Jewish State wants to receive them, a perfect match." The notion that we can use our enemies for our own salvation has always been to me the "original sin" of Zionism. Add to this what an even more prominent Zionist leader once told me in the tone of stating an innermost belief: "Every goy is an antisemite," the implication being, "and it is good so, for how else could we get Jews to come to Israel?," and you will understand why I believe that certain elements of the Zionist ideology are very dangerous and should be discarded for the sake of Israel. [xiii]
Arendt was, of course, on target. The idea that anti-Semites and Zionists have a common interest in eliminating Jews from Europe and settling them in Palestine can already be found in the writings of Theodore Herzl. In the early years of the National Socialist regime there was a community of interests: the Zionist wanted Europe’s Jews to settle in Palestine; the Nazis and many non-Nazi Germans wanted a Judenrein Germany and initially favored Palestine as their destination. Unfortunately, the Zionist perception of common interests was a monumental miscalculation. Convinced of the truth of the myth of a Jewish conspiracy for world domination, as outlined in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Hitler’s ultimate goal was the annihilation of the Yishuv. Nazi-Zionist emigration cooperation was at best a very temporary measure. A Jewish state was completely unacceptable to the Germans from Hitler down.
In 2006, two German historians, Klaus-Michael Maltmann of the University of Stuttgart and his assistant Martin Cuppers, published their findings on hitherto unknown or ignored German plans to exterminate the Jews of Palestine during the war.[xiv] In the very early stages of National Socialist rule in Germany, there had been some interest in exporting German Jews to Palestine, coupled with a degree of racial contempt for the Arabs as Semites and Islam as a religion. The contempt was expressed by Hitler in Mein Kampf. However, by 1936 both the Arabs and the Nazis understood that they were united in a common hatred of the Jews as well as a shared hostility to British rule in the Middle East.
The research of Maltmann and Cuppers revealed that, in anticipation of the victory of General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps in North Africa, the Germans had assembled “Einsatzgruppe Egypt” in occupied Athens under the command of S.S. Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant-colonel) Walther Rausch. The unit resembled the Einsatzgruppen that murdered approximately 1.4 million Jews in Eastern Europe between 1941 and 1945. [xv] It was attached to the Afrika Corps and was answerable to Rommel. Contrary to his relatively favorable reputation even among his allied opponents, until 1944 Rommel never opposed Hitler’s programs and offered no objection to the proposed extermination of Palestine’s Jews which would have taken place under his watch and for which he would have had command responsibility. It was thus altogether possible to join the resistance, as Rommel did in 1944, and nevertheless consent to, if not actively favor, the extermination of the Jews.
Mahlman and Cüppers also report that the plan for the extermination of the Yishuv was coordinated with Haj Amin Al-Husseini who had conferred on the subject with Himmler, Eichmann, and other Nazi leaders. All that was needed for its implementation was a German victory in North Africa. The plan was frustrated by Rommel’s defeat by Bernard Montgomery at El Alamein in November 1942. Not only was Egypt and the Suez saved from capture, but the Yishuv was saved from extermination.
Arendt understood, arguably more clearly than most, that the decision to create a Jewish state in the midst of the vastly more numerous Arab world - “a Jewish island in an Arab sea” - was bound to lead to second-class citizenship for the Arabs within that state or to their expulsion and either endless warfare or Israel’s dependence on an external, imperial power for survival. She was convinced that the project of political Zionism would, in any event, result in the end of the Jewish homeland and those political, social, and cultural achievements which she admired greatly, such as the kibbutz movement and the Hebrew University. Of Arab-Jewish cooperation, Arendt wrote, “…the whole Jewish venture in Palestine is doomed.”
In an interview in the German newspaper Die Tageszeiung, Idith Zertal, a contemporary Israeli authority on and admirer of Arendt, declared: “Hannah Arendt wird in Israel gehasst.”[xvi] While I believe Professor Zertal’s remark is overheated, there has undoubtedly been a goodly measure of hostility towards much of Arendt’s work among many Jews who are acquainted with her work. The hostile reception did not begin with the New Yorker magazine’s five-part publication of “Eichmann in Jerusalem” in 1963, but with the publication of her essays on Zionism in the nineteen-forties. Arendt’s reflections on Eichmann only intensified a bitter controversy, especially within the Jewish community which resulted in Arendt becoming personna non grata among large segments of that community.
Jewish suspicion and distrust were intensified by her post-war, public defense of Martin Heidegger and the posthumous revelation that she had an extra-marital affair with Heidegger in 1924 when she was an 18 year-old student and he a relatively young, 35 year-old professor at Marburg University. During the Hitler years, Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party, for which he never expressed public regret. In April 1933 he was elected rector of Freiberg University, a position that could only have gone to someone acceptable to the Nazi regime. Heidegger expressed support of National Socialism in his inaugural address (April 1933) as well as such gems as “Declaration of Support for Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist State.[xvii] He resigned his position in April 1934 but remained a member of the Nazi party until May 1945. [xviii]
Although it was originally thought that the physical relation between Arendt and Heidegger took place only once, it is now known that it lasted for four intense years and that the emotional bond between the celebrated Jewish thinker and the formerly Nazi philosopher lasted a lifetime! In 1996 selections from their lifelong correspondence were edited by the late MIT professor Elzbieta Ettinger and published by Yale University Press.[xix] I hope to return to this subject at a later date in an essay on Martin Heidegger. Suffice it to say, that in the post-war period Arendt was ardently committed to Heidegger’s rehabilitation, an attitude not shared by Heidegger’s former friend, philosopher Karl Jaspers. On the occasion of Heidegger’s eightieth birthday, Arendt wrote a tribute to Heidegger in the New York Review of Books in which she dismissed as inconsequential his Nazism.[xx] She also visited him after the war.
Before her relationship with Heidegger became known, the anger directed at Arendt from within the Jewish community was largely, though not entirely, a consequence of two fundamental facts: (a) Arendt’s analysis of the Jewish situation in modern times was more often than not at odds with prevailing Jewish sensibility when the community’s unmastered and unprecedented pain was most intense. (b) There was recognition, albeit often grudging, of her eminence as a thinker trained by two of twentieth-century Germany’s greatest philosophers, Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers.
According to Arendt’s biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, in the winter of 1941-42 Arendt warned Zionists against centering their attention on Palestine and advocated that Jews to fight against Hitler “as a European” people.”[xxi] She believed, naively in my opinion, that action in concert with Europeans would offer the Jews the “greatest chance for national emancipation.” Unfortunately, her call for a Jewish army was characteristically devoid of any reference to the issue of sovereignty that was indispensable to the achievement of distinctively Jewish objectives.
Arendt was compelled to face the issue of sovereignty after attending the international Zionist conference held from May 6 to May 11, 1942 at New York’s Biltmore Hotel. I attended that conference as a young observer. The conference urged “that the gates of Palestine be opened; that the Jewish Agency be vested with control of immigration into Palestine … and that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth…” Arendt rejected the conference’s program and in November 1942 called upon “dissident Zionists” to work for the establishment of Palestine as part of a postwar British Commonwealth rather than as an autonomous state.[xxii] A more insistent Zionist demand for sovereignty was made in Atlantic City in 1944 when the full horror of the Shoah had begun to sink in. This time, there was no reference to the fate of the Arabs in a sovereign Jewish state, further alienating Arendt from what had become the American-Jewish mainstream. Arendt and other opponents of political Zionism were rightly convinced that the Arabs would never voluntarily accept minority status in a land in which they were in fact the majority, no matter what religiously-grounded historic memories motivated Jewish settlement. Understanding the Arab position, Arendt and her predominantly non-Zionist colleagues sought ways in which Jews and Arabs might peacefully dwell together with the rights of both peoples secure.
Originally, Arendt had favored a Palestinian entity in which “there would be no majority or minority distinctions.” She was also opposed to the 1947 UN Resolution partitioning Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. At one point, in spite of the desperate condition of the surviving Jews who were being warehoused in displaced persons camps largely located in Germany, she favored a UN trusteeship with a strictly limited Jewish immigration as a temporary measure; on another occasion, she joined forces with Judah Leon Magnes, (1877-1948), first president of the Hebrew University in supporting the idea of a “Confederation of Palestine” with distinct Arab and Jewish political components. Magnes was an extremely well-connected American reform rabbi with a Heidelberg PhD who had served for several years as a rabbi at New York’s Temple Emanuel. Although Arendt modified her views somewhat in the face of the establishment of the State of Israel, the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the mass exodus of Arabs, and the mass immigration of Jews, her opposition to a Jewish state was unwavering. She also rejected the view that there were irreconcilable differences grounded in religion that made Arab-Jewish cooperation, on the basis of equality, impossible. Great scholar though she was, her ignorance of Islam did not prevent her from making policy statements concerning the alleged equality of believers and infidels in Islam.
Before World War II, my own views were, if anything, more hostile to political Zionism and the idea of a Jewish state than Hannah Arendt’s. As an adolescent, I had been a member of the Junior Society of New York’s Temple Emanu-el, the congregation attended by many of America’s wealthiest and best-connected German-Jewish families. (My family was not remotely one of them.) Of all the opponents of a Jewish state, none expressed greater principled determination until the day of his death than Judah Leon Magnes. Magnes was exceedingly well connected by marriage, friendship, and shared values with America’s German-Jewish elite. Magnes migrated to Palestine in 1922 and three years later became the first Chancellor and later President of the newly established Hebrew University. It was the wealth, power, and influence at the highest levels of government by Temple Emanu-el’s elite, and that of similar institutions elsewhere in the United States, that gave Magnes the clout to make his influence felt.[xxiii]
Magnes was committed to the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but, like Arendt, was unconditionally opposed to Theodore Herzl’s vision of a sovereign Jewish nation-state. Like Arendt, Magnes considered himself a committed Zionist of a sort. At the time of the issuance of Balfour Declaration (1917), he expressed strong opposition.[xxiv] Similar sentiments were expressed by Martin Buber in 1918 when he wrote:
We must abstain from all foreign policy except for those steps and actions which are necessary for the achievement of a lasting and amicable agreement with the Arabs in all aspects of public life, indeed, only those steps which would bring about and sustain an all embracing and fraternal solidarity with the Arabs are worthy.[xxv]
In effect, Magnes and Buber proposed to give the Arabs veto power over the development of Palestine’s Jewish “homeland.” Thus, both the German-Jewish business and financial elite and the German-Jewish intellectual elite were largely at one on the subject of political Zionism. By 1948, Hannah Arendt was recognized as a promising member of that group. With the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism, her preeminent status was assured. Opponents of political Zionism, Arendt included, were convinced that the Arabs would never voluntarily accept minority status in a land in which they were in fact the majority. Understanding the Arab position, they sought ways in which they imagined Jews and Arabs could dwell together with the rights of both peoples secure.
The idea of a bi-national state had its origins among Germany’s “Zionists” who generally came from assimilationist backgrounds. Under the impact of the First World War and the lethal combination of post-war German nationalism and intensifying anti-Semitism, they concluded that cultural integration into German society was not an option. Instead, they looked to Zionism as a “moral nationalism which bore no resemblance to … German [nationalism]” to meet their social and cultural needs.[xxvi]
The idea that Zionist policy should rest on the foundation of a bi-national state was first formulated in the period between the Arab riots of May 1921 in Jaffa and the Twelfth Zionist Congress which met in Carlsbad in September of the same year. The riots lasted from May 1 to May 6.th 45 Jews and 48 Arabs were killed; 146 Jews and 73 Arabs were wounded. As a result, the subject of Jewish-Arab relations became unavoidable at the Congress where Ze’ev Jabotinsky argued that Arab resistance to the Zionist project was inevitable and demanded that the Jewish Legion of World War I be reconstituted. Jabotinsky had no illusions about what lay ahead. His demand was met with approval by some, but not all, of the delegates. Under the influence of Martin Buber and other German-Jewish thinkers, they rejected the idea of a Zionism based on political and military power and sought a non-coercive Zionism that required an understanding with the Arabs. Most of the German Jewish intellectuals came to favor some sort of bi-national state as the most equitable arrangement. To foster their objectives, they formed a peace organization known as Brit Shalom in 1925. However, the Arab riots of 1929 proved to be a major turning point in Arab-Jewish relations.[xxvii] Most Jews in Palestine became convinced that the Arabs were dangerous and could not be trusted. The riots reminded them of the pogroms of Tsarist Russia that they had sought to escape through immigration. Magnes and other opponents of political Zionism drew a very different conclusion. They chastised the Zionists for refusing to take any responsibility for the riots while "making chauvinistic demands." Ever the pacifist, he denounced the Zionists as "no better than the war mongers of 1914 and 1917." For Magnes, if Jews failed to pursue peaceful relations with Arabs, they endangered the “very prestige of the Jewish nation,” as if the fundamental issue at stake was the reputation of the Jews among the nations. "And if the Arabs are not capable of this [pursuing peace]," Magnes maintained, "we Jews must be, else we are false to our spiritual heritage and give the lie to our much-vaunted higher civilization."[xxviii]
In 1942, Ichud, a small political party advocating a bi-national solution was formed. In spite of its size, its supporters were among the most illustrious German-Jewish thinkers and scholars of the middle decades of the twentieth century. In addition to Buber, they included Hannah Arendt, Gershom Scholem, Hugo Bergmann, Ernst Simon, and many others. As Yoram Hazony has demonstrated, although politically marginal, these men and women were destined to have enormous influence on both Palestine and the diaspora.[xxix] Their influence was especially felt as the views of Martin Buber achieved a worldwide audience and when the generation trained at the Hebrew University came to maturity after the establishment of the state.[xxx]
Like Arendt, Ichud’s principal supporters had escaped from Hitler’s Germany. Many of the luminaries who immigrated to Palestine from Germany and Mitteleuropa were recruited by Magnes for positions in the young university. As stated above, almost all rejected the idea of a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine in which membership in the nation was an indispensable and non-negotiable condition for full membership in the state, a position shared by Hannah Arendt. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she had argued that, as a result of the decline of monarchial despotism, “the state inherited as its supreme function the protection of all inhabitants in its territory, no matter what their nationality (emphasis added).” Moreover, “the state was supposed to act as a supreme legal institution.”[xxxi] According to Arendt, the state failed in that function when “In the name of the will of the people, the state was forced to recognize only ‘nationals’ as citizens, to grant full civil and political rights only to those who belonged to the national community by right of origin and by fact of birth.”[xxxii] Arendt characterized this development as the “conquest of the state by the nation” and as a precursor of the tribal nationalism of the Pan-German and Pan-Slavic movements and, ultimately, of National Socialism. No people had suffered more catastrophically from that development than Europe’s Jews. The price they paid was the utter destruction of their world. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that she and many of those German-Jewish scholars whose lives, vocations, and human dignity had been dependent upon the state as a Rechtsstaat, a state under the rule of law, looked with dismay, if not horror, upon the creation of a Jewish nation-state from which Arabs would inevitably enjoy less than full and equal participation. Such a concern was less important for Eastern European Jews who had never had the German-Jewish experience of living in a Rechtsstaat such as the Weimar Republic and, to a certain extent, the Kaiserreich, in spite of growing anti-Semitism. This, I believe, helps to explain the vehemence with which Arendt and many others opposed the establishment of a Jewish State of Israel.
When Arendt argued that the “conquest of the state by the nation” entailed the denial of “full civil and political rights” to those who were not members of the nation, she did not consider one of the most vexing aspects of that position: what does one do with those who do not share the inherited identity and culture of the indigenous majority and who are committed to its destruction? I have in mind the frankly stated objective of a growing numbers of European Islamist immigrants who have had no intention of integrating into their host nation or even accepting secular neutrality but are intent upon transforming indigenous Christian cultures into Muslim nations governed by sharia? I call the problem vexing because the Nazis and their allies claimed that Jews were so alien a presence that they were fully justified in exterminating them.
As noted above, my own opposition to Zionism and to the establishment of a Jewish state was initially very strong. As I became aware in the war years of the unfolding horror of the Holocaust, I came to realize that the fundamental flaw in the Jewish condition was powerlessness before the onslaught of those determined to exterminate us, a problem that had been intensified in those countries in which the nation had conquered the state. For two thousand years, Jewish safety and security rested with others. That condition was as a consequence of Jewish defeat at the hands of the Romans in the War of 66-70, While the party of the Zealots were prepared to fight unto death rather than surrender to the Romans, the pacifist wing of the party of the Pharisees saw no viable alternative to surrender. The die was cast when R. Yohanan ben Zakkai sought only religious autonomy under Roman sovereignty from the Roman general Vespasian, soon to become emperor. In effect, Yohanan set the stage for almost 2,000 years of Jewish powerlessness.
I find no fault with what elsewhere I have called “Rabbi Yohanan’s bargain.”[xxxiii] I would not be here today had my ancestors elected the Zealot path chosen by Eliezer ben Yair and those gathered with him on Masada, namely, resistance unto death. Nevertheless, Yohanan’s choice of religious autonomy under conditions of powerlessness depended upon a fundamental assumption, namely, that those with sovereign power over the Jews could minimally be trusted not to exterminate them. Put differently, the religious culture created by the Jews after their defeat in 66-70 and 132-135 C.E. was dependent on the condition that Caesar could be trusted to keep his end of the bargain. And, in fact, until Adolf Hitler, no European ruler broke the agreement’s minimal conditions. Ceasar’s successors might permit unpunished anti-Jewish aggression; they might segregate or expel the Jews, but never until Hitler did any Caesar use his power unremittingly to exterminate them. Herzl saw it coming. German Jews largely did not. The answer for Herzl was sovereignty.
Initially, Herzl understood that without Great Power support, the project of prying loose the territory of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire could not succeed. He also understood that the Zionist enterprise would necessarily entail the “displacement and transfer of Arabs” but confided to his diary that such policies “must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.”[xxxiv] Nevertheless, dependence on any foreign power was not true sovereignty as Palestine’s Jews discovered when Great Britain decided in 1937 that it was no longer in her interest to support Jewish immigration to Palestine and, in effect, revoked the Balfour Declaration. As Hannah Arendt understood, Herzl mistakenly assumed that Jewish sovereignty could be bestowed upon Jews by some external power, whether the Ottoman or the British Empire. In reality, true sovereignty is almost always gained by war and maintained by a credible willingness to go to war. Jewish sovereignty had not been lost not by a failure of Jewish morals or philosophy but by a failure of Jewish arms. Arendt and the other German Jewish intellectuals understood the logic of the situation far better than Herzl who thought that sovereignty could be gained without combat.
Nevertheless, as Thomas Hobbes understood, sovereignty comes with a very heavy price: Let us recall that Hobbes held that men originally dwelled in a state of nature “without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them.”[xxxv] Finding such a condition, namely, the “war of all against all,” intolerable, men surrendered the insecure liberty of the state of nature, abandoning the right to attack and destroy each other, and accepted a "sovereign" to enforce civic peace.[xxxvi]
Since Hobbes understood the state of nature to be "the absence of a state or political authority," he reasoned that the sovereign is always in a state of nature vis à vis other sovereigns. As Hobbes puts it:
But though there had never been any time wherein particular men were in a condition of warre one against another, yet in all times Kings, and Persons of Soveraigne authority, because of their Independency, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of Gladiators, having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their Forts, Garrisons, and Guns upon the Frontiers of their Kingdoms; and continual Spyes upon their neighbours, which is a posture of War. But because they uphold thereby the industry of their Subjects, there does not follow from it that misery which accompanies the Liberty of particular men.[xxxvii]
Thus, according to Hobbes, absent credible and enforceable peace treaties, a sovereign power is always in a state of war of some degree of intensity vis à vis other sovereign powers. Even the treaties Israel has signed with Egypt and Jordan have not dispelled the genuine enmity felt by the overwhelming majority of their populations toward her. [xxxviii]
Wars can be lost as well as won, and by electing sovereignty Israel’s Jews placed themselves in a radically different situation than that of pre-Auschwitz Jews, namely one of never-ending existential risk. This reality must be seen as one of the most enduring legacies of Adolf Hitler and National Socialist Germany. By reason of their numbers, religion, and pride, Israel’s enemies will never accept permanent defeat. Sooner or later, they will seek to reverse the situation. Nevertheless, unlike Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Judah Leon Magnes, and other supporters of Brit Shalom and Ichud, after Auschwitz a large number of Jews were convinced that Israel had no realistic option other than sovereignty and the never-ending risk of war.
The circles in which Arendt traveled from her days as a student of Heidegger and Jaspers until her passing were among the most brilliant produced by the Western world in the twentieth century. That was her great strength, but one must ask whether it was also her weakness, especially when she addressed issues arising out of conflict in the Middle East. Arendt was, as were all of us, Euro-centric. Moreover, one might hazard a guess that the knowledge that she enjoyed a very special and enduring relationship with the man she considered the world’s greatest philosopher in her time may very well have intensified her Euro-centric tendencies and left her with little emotion for Israel. Admittedly, this is just a guess.
What is not a guess is that she had no knowledge of the writings and the careers of her intellectual contemporaries in the Muslim world, all of whom were born at almost the same time as she (1906-1974). I refer especially to Hassan Al-Banna (1906-1949), Sayyed Qutb (1906-1966), and Sayyed Abdul A’la Mawdudi (1903-1979). These men were arguably among the most influential Islamist thinkers of the twentieth century. Hassan al-Banna was the founder of the currently ascendant Muslim Brotherhood. Sayyed Qutb was arguably the Britherhood’s most influential thinker. All three have had enormous influence not only in the Muslim world but also in the contemporary world of global politics; through the actions of radical Islam, all of us have been affected by their thinking.
All three thinkers were uncompromising opponents of the establishment of the State of Israel both because of the negative consequences for Palestine’s Arab population and because of non-negotiable, and passionately-held, religious principle. Their opposition to Israel is succinctly expressed in the charter of Hamas, an organization that traces its roots to the Muslim Brotherhood and its founder, Hassan Al-Banna.
The Islamic Resistance Movement maintains that the land of Palestine is Waqf, land given as endowment for all generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection. One should not neglect it or [even] a part of it, nor should one relinquish it or [even] a part of it. No Arab state, or [even] all of the Arab states [together], have [the right] to do this; no king or president has this right nor all the kings and presidents together; no organization, or all the organizations together - be they Palestinian or Arab - [have the right to do this] because Palestine is Islamic Waqf, land given to all generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection.[xxxix]
The charter also quotes Arendt’s contemporary, Hassan Al-Banna:
Israel will exist, and will continue to exist, until Islam abolishes it, as it abolished that which was before it." [From the words of] The martyr, Imam Hasan al-Banna, Allah's mercy be upon him.
What secular Western decision-makers and intellectuals may fail to recognize is that Israel’s Muslim opponents cannot simply be dismissed as extremists or terrorists. They may use terror as a weapon to achieve their objectives. Nevertheless, their theological opposition to Israel, and for that matter the infidel West, is a principled opposition rooted in centuries of Islamic tradition. As Professor Mary Habeck has observed concerning Qutb, al-Banna, and Mawdudi in her recent book on jihadist ideology:
None of these theorists could have had any impact in the Islamic world if their arguments had not found some sort of resonance in the religion of Islam.[xl]
Insofar as the Jews ever had any chance of securing Arab consent to their presence in a Palestine ruled by a Muslim majority, it would have been as dhimmis, second-class subjects, subject to far harsher conditions than the second-class status of Israeli Arabs that Arendt found so objectionable.[xli] However, even that status is no longer available to Israelis who, by resisting the Muslims, are reckoned as harbis, those who use armed force and refuse to submit to Allah’s call (da’wa) against whom faithful Muslims are obliged to make war. Once again, the charter of Hamas is instructive:
The Prophet, Allah's prayer and peace be upon him, says: "The hour of judgment shall not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them, so that the Jews hide behind trees and stones, and each tree and stone will say: 'Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him,' except for the Gharqad tree, for it is the tree of the Jews.
Moreover, although the topic of Arendt’s doctoral dissertation was The Concept of Love in Augustine,[xlii] it would not be unfair to describe Arendt as “religiously unmusical,” a description another great German thinker, Max Weber (1864-1920), applied to himself. There is a question of whether the absence of any serious consideration of the religious dimension of anti-Semitism does not weaken Arendt's analysis of both anti-Semitism and political Zionism. Arendt criticizes Theodore Herzl for positing a doctrine of “eternal anti-Semitism” that relieved the Jews of “the arduous task of fighting anti-Semitism on its own grounds, which were political, and even of the unpleasant task of analyzing its true causes” (emphasis added). But, what if the underlying root of anti-Semitism was not entirely political and what if religion played a significant role in the rise of genocidal anti-Semitism even in a time and place of diminished religiosity, such as Europe in the twentieth century?
If indeed Arendt seriously underestimated the role of religion in the terrible events that were her central concern, her work would stand in sharp contrast to that of Max Weber. It was he who pointed to the crucial role of religion in the rise of capitalism in the West and the lack of a comparable development in China and India, where the material factors favorable to capitalist development were present but were impeded by religion. There is, in fact, an enormous corpus of historical and theological scholarship that amply documents the role of religion in fostering an ethos that accorded legitimacy to the radical anti-Semitism of National Socialism and its dire outcome.[xliii] Moreover, as I have stated in the past, Stephen Haynes, an insightful American Protestant theologian and historian of religion, has offered some important insights concerning the role played by religion in anti-Semitism and Jewish-Christian relations. According to Haynes, Christian perceptions of Jews are profoundly influenced by what he identifies as the “witness-people myth” which he characterizes as “the belief that whatever happens to the Jews, for good or ill, is an expression of God’s providential justice and, as such, is a sign ‘for God’s church.’”[xliv] Haynes argues that the myth is “a deep structure in the Christian imagination...a complex of ideas and symbols that, often pre-critically and unconsciously, informs ideas about Jews among persons who share a cultural heritage.”[xlv] If Haynes’ thesis is valid, some Christians may be more likely than not to view Jews through the prism of religious myth that is peculiarly resistant to critical scrutiny. Arendt’s description of anti-Semitism as primarily a political phenomenon, albeit often brilliant and illuminating, hardly tells the whole story. In addition, if Haynes’s thesis is valid, there was little that Jews could have done to do fight this allegedly political phenomenon “on its own grounds” as Arendt had counseled. To be even partially effective, such an endeavor could not be carried out by Jews alone but by those with recognized authority to interpret the witness-people myth, such as Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Nostra Aetate, as well as other religious teachers and leaders. Admittedly, the term “Christian imagination” is a conceptual abstraction. Nevertheless, Haynes legitimately employs it and similar terms, such as the “Christian mind,” to convey the persistence, durability, and universality of the myth among Christians for two millennia, not excluding the post-Holocaust era.
Arendt was undoubtedly a thinker of extraordinary brilliance. Nevertheless, as noted, I question whether her apparent disinterest in the religious factor and her Euro-centric perspective did not limit her understanding of anti-Semitism and the Arab-Israeli conflict. This question is important not only for an understanding of Arendt but also because many of her critical views continue to inform opinion on these issues to this day.
[i] An earlier version of this essay was presented at the international conference on “Hannah Arendt and the 21st Century” co-sponsored by the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University, Waco, Texas and the Hannah Arendt Institute of the University of Dresden, November 9-12, 2006.
[ii] See H. Stuart Hughes, The Sea Change: The Migration of Social Thought, 1930-1965 (New York: Harper and Row, 1975) and Michael A. Meyer, “Hebrew Union College’s Rescue of Scholars During the Holocaust,” The Chronicle, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, # 62/ 2003.
[iii] I studied at the Hebrew Union College during the war years, 1942-45, and from 1948-52 at the Jewish Theological Seminary, from which I received my rabbinic ordination. I received both the S.T.M. from Harvard Divinity School in 1955 and the Ph.D. from Harvard’s Graduate School in 1960. These were the years when the influence of the German-trained scholars was, arguably, greatest.
[iv] Eugen Taubler at Heidelberg; Julius Lewy at Giessen; Samuel Atlas was trained at Marburg but did not teach there.
[v] Richard L. Rubenstein, Power Struggle: An Autobiographical Confession (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), pp. 149-170.
[vi] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951).
[vii] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1963).
[viii] Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1961).
[ix] Peter Haas, Morality After Auschwitz: The Radical Challenge of the Nazi Ethic (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), p. 7.
[x] Among the most important essays were “Zionism Reconsidered,” “The Jewish State: 50 Years After” and “To Save the Jewish Homeland: There is Still Time.”
[xi] This phenomenon is explored by Yoram Hazony, The Idea of the Jewish State: The Struggle for the Jewish Soul (New York: Basic Books, 2001).
[xii] Hannah Arendt, “A Letter to Gershom Scholem” in Arendt, The Jewish Writings, ed. Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), p. 470. For this citation, I am indebted to Professor Ron H. Feldman.
[xiii] Hannah Arendt, “Answers to Questions Submitted by Samuel Grafton” in Arendt, The Jewish Writings, ed. Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), p. 479. I am indebted to Mr. Feldman for this citation.
[xiv] Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers: Halbmond und Hakenkreuz. Das Dritte Reich, die Araber und Palästina (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2006), Volume 8 of the Publications of the Ludwigsburg Research Institute of the University of Stuttgart..
[xv] Raul Hilberg estimates the number of Jews killed in Eastern Europe by the Einsatzgruppen to be about 1.4 million.
[xvi] Tsafrir Cohen, “Hannah Arendt wird in Israel gehasst,” interview with Idith Zertal, Die Tageszeitung, October 14, 2006.
[xvii] Heidegger, “Declaration in Support of Adolf Hitlerand the National Socialist State,” November 11, 1933, http://www.lacan.com/symptom/?p=63
[xviii] For an important summary of conflicting scholarly opinion on Heidegger, see Richard Wolin, ed., The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993); See also Martin Heidegger, “The Self-Assertion of the German University and the Rectorate 1933/34: Facts and Thoughts,” trans. Kirsten Harries, Review of Metaphysics, 38:3, March 1985, http://aryanism.net/downloads/books/martin-heidegger/rectors-address.pdf .
[xix] Elzbieta Ettinger, Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997)
[xx] Hannah Arendt, “Martin Heidegger at Eighty,” New York Review of Books, October 21, 1971, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1971/oct/21/martin-heidegger-at-eighty/?pagination=false
[xxi] Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), p. 173.
[xxii] Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt, p. 180.
[xxiii] Hazony, 203.
[xxiv] Magnes wrote at the time, “Zionist policy toward Arabs should …. encourage Arab national autonomy in equilibrium with Jewish national autonomy.” See Daniel P. Kotzkin, “An Attempt to Americanize the Yishuv: Judah L. Magnes in Mandatory Palestine,” Israel Studies, Vol. 5, No.1, 2000, p. 4.
[xxv] The essay originally appeared in Buber’s magazine, Der Jude. The English version is to be found in Paul R. Mendes-Flohr, ed., A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Hews and Arabs (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 41.
[xxvi] This development is traced in the excellent essay by Hagit Lavsky, “German Zionists and the Emergence of Brit Shalom,” Yahadut Zmanenu, 4 (1988), 92-122.; English translation in Jehuda Reinharz and Anta Shapira, eds., Essential Papers on Zionism (New York: New York University Press, 1996), pp. 648-670.
The quotation is from Lavsky, op. cit., pp. 655-656.
[xxvii] Kotzkin, op. cit., p. 7.
[xxviii] Kotzkin, op. cit., p. 9.
[xxix] Yoram Hazony, The Idea of the Jewish, especially the chapter “The Professors’ Struggle Against the Jewish State, 1939-1948,” pp. 235-264.
[xxx] Ibid. For Buber’s ideas on political Zionism and a Jewish state, see Paul R. Mendes-Flohr, A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).
[xxxi] Hannah Arendt, Imperialism: Part Two of The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964), p. 110.
[xxxiii] Richard L Rubenstein, Power Struggle: An Autobiographical Confession (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), p. 171.
[xxxiv] Rafael Patai, ed., The Complete Diaries of Theodore Herzl (New York: Herzl Press and Thomas Yoseloff, 1960)Vol I, p. 88, entry for June 12, 1895. For this citation, I am indebted to Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), pp. 21-22.
[xxxv] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1968), Pt. I, Chapter XIII, p. 185.
[xxxvi] By sovereign, Hobbes meant whatever individual or group possesses uncontested state power.
[xxxvii] Hobbes, p. 188.
[xxxviii] See Daniel Pipes, "Time To Recognize Failure Of Israel-Egypt Treaty," New York Sun, November 21, 2006, http://www.danielpipes.org/article/4146.
[xxxix] The Avalon Project at Yale Law School has published a reliable translation of the Hamas Covenant, August 18, 1988, http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/mideast/hamas.htm.
[xl] Mary Habeck, Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 41.
[xli] Concerning the place of the Jews in a future Islamic state of unified Palestine, the late Professor Ismail R. al Faruqi of Temple University wrote “…there is no reason why the Jews, as dhimmi citizens of the Islamic state, may not keep all public institutions they have so far developed in Palestine…. Henceforth, their vision and their efforts would be directed toward upholding and promoting Judaism, not the Western ideologies of decadence and aberration.” “Islam and Zionism” in John L. Esposito, ed., Voices of Resurgent Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 267. Al-Faruqi holds a place of high esteem as a Muslim thinker whose views reflect the mainstream tradition. For an authoritative study of the status of the Dhimmi in both theory and practice, see Bat Ye’0r, The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam, trans. David Maisel and Paul Fenton (Rutherford, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001); Andrew Bostom, The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005).
[xli] Fackenheim, The Jewish Return into History, p. 197.
[xlii] Arendt, Der Lebensbegriff bei Augustin (Berlin: J. Springer, 1929); English translation, Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine, Joanna Vecchinrelli and Judith Chelius Stark, eds., Love and Saint Augustine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Note the omission of “Saint” in the original German title and its inclusion in the American translation.
[xliii] This subject is dealt with at length in Richard L. Rubenstein and John K. Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).
[xliv] Stephen R. Haynes, Reluctant Witnesses: Jews and the Christian Imagination (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)., pp. 8ff.
Richard L. Rubenstein is President Emeritus of the University of Bridgeport. His latest book is Jihad and Genocide (Rowman and Littlefield: 2011).
To comment on this essay, please click here.
To help New English Review continue to publish original and thought provoking essays like this one, please click here.
If you have enjoyed this article and want to read more by Richard L. Rubenstein, please click here.