Hannah Arendt, the Holocaust, and the State of Israel

by Richard L. Rubenstein (December 2012)

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.

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:

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.

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 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]

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]

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.

r 9-12, 2006.

[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.

[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).

[xv] Raul Hilberg estimates the number of Jews killed in Eastern Europe by the Einsatzgruppen to be about 1.4 million.


http://aryanism.net/downloads/books/martin-heidegger/rectors-address.pdf .


[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.

The quotation is from Lavsky, op. cit., pp. 655-656.

[xxviii] Kotzkin, op. cit., p. 9.

[xxxi] Hannah Arendt, Imperialism: Part Two of The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964), p. 110.

[xxxii] Idem.

[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.



[xl] Mary Habeck, Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 41.

[xli] Fackenheim, The Jewish Return into History, p. 197.

[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.

[xlv] Ibid.

Richard L. Rubenstein is President Emeritus of the University of Bridgeport. His latest book is Jihad and Genocide (Rowman and Littlefield: 2011).

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