‘Hannah Arendt”s ‘thoughtful’ hasbara

Israel/Palestine
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Amidst the hoopla over German director Margarethe von Trotta’s new film, Hannah Arendt, just released in New York City to critical accolades (see: A. O. Scott in the New York Times), I find myself increasingly aware of the insidiousness, and incensed at the danger, of Israeli hasbara.

Although its propaganda function is more difficult to detect than that of, say, the comparatively straightforward The Gatekeepers, Hannah Arendt is undeniably a product of hasbara that is non-threatening to the Israeli state. This Israeli co-produced film, made by one of the more conservative directors associated with the historical New German Cinema, does not place into question either the Jewish character of the state of Israel or its settler-colonial foundations. Hannah Arendt herself was at best a cultural Zionist (like Judah Magnes, Ahad Ha’am, and Martin Buber); she did not doubt the existence of a Jewish “ethnicity” or “peoplehood,” even if she refused patriotic fealty to it and to the British imperial interests she believed its Zionist incorporation was meant initially to help preserve. She was a firm Eurocentrist in her philosophical and personal thinking and expressed minimal if any concern for Palestinian self-determination or Arab strategies of anti-colonial non-alignment. In fact, Arendt had no essential problem with the so-called “civilizing mission” with which European colonizers rationalized and justified their hegemonic presence in the Middle East, a region she saw best governed by a European-dominated federation. Her problem was with the “banality” of such rationales and of the ruling structures ensuing from them, which she believed limited their social propitiousness and could potentially be moderated by the implementation of intelligent policy. (See: Gabriel Piterberg in New Left Review.)

This is not to say that there is nothing of value in Hannah Arendt; there is. Hannah Arendt celebrates the strength of women and female friendship, the power of the student, of independent vision and critical intellectual pursuit. Encouraging identification with Arendt (played by the excellent Barbara Sukowa), the film enables its spectators, especially Germans, to transcend the societal taboo against criticizing Israeli policy or Jewish culture lest one be accused of “anti-Semitism.”

For me, the film’s most crucial moment is its last, when Arendt/Sukowa states that her critics and detractors, in their zeal to denounce her as an anti-Semite for having dared challenge the purpose and integrity of the Eichmann trial, overlooked her real error: her failure to distinguish between “radicalism” and “extremism.” This failure was in fact Arendt’s ideological dilemma and life-long struggle. Although she was influenced in her early career, during which she wrote class-based analyses of anti-Semitism, by her husband, Heinrich Blücher, at the time a revolutionary Marxist, as well as by the iconoclastic critical theorist Walter Benjamin, Arendt was finally unable to move intellectually beyond her privileged, bourgeois class position and in that respect to break the Cartesianism she would never dispel, that is, the problematical notion that “thinking,” the ostensible lynchpin of human identity, comprises a dialogue of the self with oneself, and that looking outside the self is thus akin to looking within.

Arendt was basically a phenomenological realist.  Her understanding of the material world was not unlike that of her former lover, Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger, who conceived of objectivity trans-historically, as a fateful opening onto passionate being. Arendt’s understanding was mediated by Marxism, for which, by constructive contrast to Heidegger’s ontological idealism, objectivity comprises the political arena of socio-historical transformation and praxis. In her renowned but less frequently cited The Human Condition, an evolving and conflicted Arendt, by then living in post-Holocaust exile in the U.S., devoted at least a chapter to debunking superficially and in turn selectively sublimating the Marxism she had previously engaged but onto which she now implicitly projected the critique she had also been developing of Heidegger’s framework. By thus internalizing a Heidegger displaced negatively onto Marx, Arendt reinforced the ahistorical, Heidegger-inflected conflation of fascism and communism she performed in her prior The Origins of Totalitarianism, in turn reaffirming the classical Aristotelian “moderation” that would come to be interpreted by her libertarian acolytes, left and right, as the proper “center” for modern human thought and behavior.  (See: Seliger in Tikkun). It is this, post-Heideggerian Hannah Arendt which Hannah Arendt embraces and presents.

In this respect appearing to offer a credible, three-dimensional portrait of Arendt, von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt works to allay any anticipated ire from its Israeli funders, by averring at film’s end that this outspoken critic of Israeli policy was a flawed thinker, a veritable philosophical martyr who succumbed tragically, heroically, to her own, stubborn contradictions–much as did the Israelis in Arendt’s view. Epitomized by two exemplary scenes, one in which Arendt/Sukowa states that Zionism for her was mere “youthful folly,” and one in which she states that she reserves her love for her “friends,” not for any one “people,” von Trotta’s (and Arendt’s) perspective on Israel is positioned, in effect, as “post-Zionist,” not anti-Zionist.

Post-Zionism holds that Jewish nationalism was justified by the persistence of European anti-Semitism, but that it went quickly awry because of its undemocratic, hierarchical, “bureaucratic” development–which the film, faithful here to Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, correctly reminds us entailed collaboration with bellicose and despotic European powers including the Nazis. On Arendt’s post-Heideggerian analysis of the matter, which the film emphasizes and upholds over her earlier Marxist proclivities, this purported Zionist tendency toward bureaucracy and collaboration mirrors the political nature of the human condition itself and therefore can hardly be altered, much less ameliorated, in the Israeli (or Nazi) context unless Jews were to “think” differently about themselves, that is, to see themselves as integral to the human community rather than as an exception or “other” to it, and thus to start behaving in more “thoughtful,” compassionate and caring ways that would render them truly worthy and capable of national self-determination in the “divinely promised” Land of Israel.

In von Trotta’s cinematic rendering, the concomitant fact that so-called Jewish national self-determination thusly conceived entails by definition Jewish exceptionalism, not to mention a settler-colonial structure founded upon the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian people, is entirely overlooked, barely figuring in the film as it selectively excludes Arendt’s broader, more deeply observant and self-reflective reasoning on the subject: Arendt, like cultural Zionists generally, especially post-Holocaust, may have sympathized with and supported Jewish settlement in Palestine, but she did not advocate for mass immigration and was in fact highly critical of political Zionism, not least the violent, Revisionist tendency associated with Ze’ev Jabotinsky and his militant right-wing followers, but also Herzlian thought, which she likened directly to Nazi ideology. She argued famously–if, in the end, somewhat contradictorily–that no nation-state based upon ethno-chauvinist principles could ever be considered genuinely “human,” much less democratic, in the modern sense of that term. (See: Corey Robin in London Review of Books.)

Put bluntly, no unwitting spectator of Hannah Arendt, despite its apparent character complexity, will be given to understand that Zionism was the ideological rationale of a settler-colonial project originating in Europe, which, in the “humanitarian” name of Jewish safety, was responsible for displacing and dispossessing more than 750,00 Palestinian Arabs, massacring many hundreds of them in the process, destroying more than 500 of their towns and villages,  and, in the ensuing years, killing tens of thousands more of them–and which, furthermore, in the name of this Eurocentric project, forced substantial numbers of non-European Jewish Arabs throughout the region to conform to Zionist aims by emigrating to Israel against their better desires and inclinations, whereupon most of them became severely impoverished. Instead, the spectator will be given to see numerous light-skinned, well-nourished ultra-orthodox Jews overtly positioned within several of the film’s early 1960s Israeli scenes, possibly as an allegorical nod to the wartime victimization of religious, largely Eastern European Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators, and to the subsequent “redemption” of the survivors among them by Zionism, but at the same time figuring an anachronism typical of hasbara, which would rather pin the blame for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on religious fanaticism than on the secular majority that has always depended upon religion–selectively interpreted–to justify a majoritarian “Jewish” state.

To be clear, Hannah Arendt‘s abiding Arendtianism does by some contrast blur the boundaries between religious and secular Zionism, as such appropriately enabling some of the prevailing blame to shift from orthodox extremists (whose briefly represented criticisms of the Eichmann trial’s hypocrisy actually spur Arendt/Sukowa’s own critical evaluation of it) to “banal” Israeli secularists such as trial prosecutor Gideon Hausner.  The result of this mildly progressive move, however, is–apropos of Arendtian “thinking”–little more than the sort of seemingly endless self-reflection and deferral of real solutions to the conflict that continue to keep so many Jews, within and outside Israel, in the mental ghetto of Zionism, in the very name of the “human” that effectively excludes Palestinians, as well as non-Europeans of any stripe–except in the most oblique, sophistical ways: oh, how “friendly” are Arendt/Sukowa and Blücher (Axel Milberg) to their African-American doorman. One sees not a single Palestinian or noticeably Arab Jew in Hannah Arendt.

Where the contemporary reality and critique of Apartheid Israel are concerned, this “post-Zionist” projection is wholly insufficient, and there is simply no excuse for it. If von Trotta somehow held back on the possible extent of her cinematic critique because she was worried about being ostracized like Arendt was (highly doubtful), she’s a grand hypocrite who has now also completely forsaken the historical motivation, not always realized, of the New German Cinema: coming to terms with the past. Then again, von Trotta has always put a conservative spin on controversial political issues, from communism to lesbianism to ultra-leftism to religious obsession, consistently deploying “feminism,” to boot, as her entry point into the critique of human “excess.” Hannah Arendt is indeed commendable for its refusal, through a degree of cinematic reflexivity, to romanticize female sexuality and creativity or to trivialize the base reality to which patriarchal cinema has disparagingly confined these qualities. Considering nonetheless that a certain feminism has been hijacked by U.S. neoconservatives and their allies in the interests of Western, U.S.-led, corporate-backed, Israel-facilitated (and often -generated) warmongering across today’s “excessive” Global South, Hannah Arendt must seriously be taken to task, in light its representational selectivity, for this presumably progressive tactic as well.

Keep in mind: No film that receives production money from the state of Israel may question or attempt to undermine the fundamental Jewish character of Israel; it’s in the contract. Von Trotta is a major director who did not need to secure funding from Israel in order to make this film. Ask yourself why she made that veritable Faustian pact–and remember: “Faust” is the topic of a witty conversation between Arendt/Sukowa and her friend and eventual detractor Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen) in one of the film’s Jerusalem scenes, in which Arendt/Sukowa states, “Eichmann is not Mephisto”; ergo, neither, for her or von Trotta, is “banal” Israel.

Editor’s note. Marc Ellis has also written about the film here and here.

About Terri Ginsberg

Terri Ginsberg is a film scholar and Palestine solidarity activist presently based in Cairo. She is co-author of Historical Dictionary of Middle Eastern Cinema (2010), author of Holocaust Film: The Political Aesthetics of Ideology (2007), and co-editor of A Companion to German Cinema (2012). Her book on Palestine solidarity cinema is forthcoming.

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