Tomorrow night the Center for Jewish History is having an event on Hannah Arendt, reconsidering her Jewish writings, and I’m excited. I find Arendt’s writing thrilling, and the controversies she was mixed up in 40 and 50 years ago anticipate the Zionist/anti-Zionist arguments of today.
For instance, last year Yale scholar Steven B. Smith published a (brilliant, conservative) book called Reading Leo Strauss, which absolved Strauss, who died 34 years ago, of intellectual paternity of the Iraq disaster (a judgment shared on the other side of the radio dial by Anne Norton and John Mearsheimer). In that book, Smith took a shot at Hannah Arendt, quoting an accusation against her by her old friend, the Kabbalist scholar Gershom Scholem: Hannah Arendt had shown a lack of "Ahavat Yisrael," or love of the Jewish people, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem.
I got Scholem’s letters to read his full accusation. He wrote to her from Jerusalem in 1963.
[W]hat stands between us… is the heartless, the downright malicious tone you employ in dealing with the topic that so profoundly concerns the center of our life [the Holocaust]. There is something in the Jewish language that is completely indefinable, yet fully concrete — what the Jews call ahavath Israel, or love for the Jewish people. With you, my dear Hannah, as with so many intellectuals coming from the German left, there is no trace of it.
Not so different from the attacks on the anti-Zionist left today from, say, Michael Walzer. But Arendt’s response to Scholem from New York (which Straussian Smith doesn’t quote) is tops:
How right you are that I have no such love, and for two reasons: first, I have never in my life "loved" some nation or collective — not the German, French or American nation, or the working class, or whatever else might exist. The fact is that I love only my friends and am quite incapable of any other sort of love. Second, this kind of love for the Jews would seem suspect to me, since I’ve Jewish myself. I don’t love myself or anything I know belongs to the substance of my being… [T]he magnificence of this people once lay in its belief in God — that is, in the way its trust and love of God far outweighed its fear of God. And now this people believes only in itself? In this sense I don’t love the Jews, nor do I "believe" in them…. We would both agree that patriotism is impossible without constant opposition and critique. In this entire affair I can confess to you one thing: the injustice committed by my own people naturally provokes me more than injustice done by others.
Wow. It’s time to revive Arendt’s universalism, before the neocons have us living in bunkers.