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Exile and the prophetic: Hannah Arendt’s Israel moment

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

While the renewed media interest surrounding the film, “Hannah Arendt” misses the point of Arendt’s Jewish politics, it doesn’t mean that Jews of Conscience need to. 

Will Jews of Conscience take the media’s missed opportunity as a catalyst for reflection?  I doubt it.  That’s when it gets complicated.

Arendt’s involvement in Jewish issues was long and distinguished.  It began in the 1930s and lasted through the early 1960s when the assault she experienced over the Eichmann trial proved too much.  Several years before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Arendt threw her hands up in despair.  She spent the rest of her life on the Jewish sidelines.

The vitriol which greeted Arendt’s reflections on Eichmann was over the top.  Arendt knew it wasn’t leading anywhere.  The Jewish establishment’s “Holocaust as eternal anti-Semitism” headwinds were too strong.  That and the 1967 war overwhelmed her.

Here the story becomes muddled or cautionary, take your pick.  The great critic of Israel’s founding, the prophetic visionary who saw Jewish life narrow and who experienced her own predictions about the disciplining of Jewish dissent firsthand, became protective of Israel in its time of peril.

Arendt became a Jewish partisan in the passion surrounding the 1967 war.

Arendt’s biographer, Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, writes of this transformation: 

During the 1967 war in the Middle East, Hannah Arendt had been intensely proud of the Israeli victories.  Usually critical of Israeli policy, she behaved, as one of her friends remarked, ‘like a war bride.’  Arendt distinguished sharply between aggressive and defensive military involvement, and she thought of the 1967 war as reasonable as the 1956 one had been foolish.  Reflecting on the Six Day War in October 1967, she wrote to Mary McCarthy, ‘Any real catastrophe in Israel would affect me more deeply than almost anything else.’ 

Young-Bruehl writes of Arendt’s reaction to Israel’s 1973 war: 

In 1973, when Egypt and Syria invaded Israeli territory on Yom Kippur, the catastrophe seemed imminent, and Arendt feared that Israel might this time be destroyed.  The war began on 9 October, the day that Arendt started the week-long interview with Roger Ererra for French Television, and the script of the interview reflects her preoccupation.  ‘The Jewish people are united in Israel,” she said, and even went on to explain, without criticism, that Judaism was a national religion. 

What are Jews of Conscience to make of Arendt’s conversion to Israel in her later years, if conversion it was?  Did she abandon the Jewish politics she pioneered and was vilified for?   

Did Arendt suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, the trauma of her own displacement from Germany as well as the trauma visited upon her by the Jewish establishment? 

Arendt fell into the post-Holocaust prophetic Catch 22 she initially identified.   When the chips were down she identified with the state of Israel she thought could only lead to disaster.

It’s curious that the Jewish establishment refuses to identify Arendt as a Jew.  If they read her biography they could claim her as a dissident Jew who, at least in situations where everything was on the line, came on board.

For some, of course, Arendt’s late identification with Israel – or at least the Jewish community within Israel/Palestine – disqualifies her from the prophetic mantle.  Israel has gone so far in the last decades that nuances of thought and primal loyalties are disallowed.  They are typically used as fodder to condemn the wayward.

Have we arrived at a point where personal or even generational historical considerations are impossible to consider?  Where wayward thoughts aren’t allowed?  Where nuance is denounced? 

Arendt was a refugee from Nazi Germany.  She strongly identified as a Jew.  She had close relatives living in Israel.  The sense that Jews were in danger shook Arendt to the core.

To her last days, Arendt remained Europe-identified.  It’s telling that her public comments on the 1973 war were made in France where she was interned during the war.  Arendt’s commentary about America, as with most refugees of her generation, was thoroughly European.  She was enthralled by an America she lived in but understood from a distance.

What are we to do with a woman who laid the intellectual groundwork for deconstructing an Israel she opposed coming into existence and then in her last years embraced in war?

Hannah Arendt was a fascinating amalgam of critical thought and fierce loyalties.  When the chips are down are we any less complicated?


Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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11 Responses

  1. Citizen
    June 2, 2013, 2:14 pm

    Who is meant by the “we” Mr. Ellis addresses in his last sentence? Does he mean to say, when the chips are down are any humans less complicated? Or no? Either way, what’s the meaning to be derived?

  2. seafoid
    June 2, 2013, 3:34 pm

    It’s hard to plough an alternative furrow when the prophetic is so far away in the future. Arendt’s prediction has arrived. I wouldn’t be so hard on her. Lots of people gave up. But she was right.

    Shlomo Sand channels Arendt in 2013

    “Israel, which insists on defining itself as a Jewish state and not as an Israeli republic, alienates and discriminates against 25 percent of its citizens who, to their misfortune, aren’t registered by the Interior Ministry as Jews. A normal democracy always sees itself as an expression of its citizenry and doesn’t make note of its residents’ ethnic origin or religion (imagine the uproar if in a Western country the population registry would mark the descendants of Jews as such, like is done in Israel, without asking or consulting with them).
    In view of the 20th century’s history of persecution and suffering, Israel can continue to serve as a place of refuge for descendants of Jews persecuted due to their ethnic origin or religious faith; but it cannot be both a democracy and at the same time belong to “world Jewry.” This is an oxymoron that has severe consequences: it creates injustice; it leads to exclusion of native locals, and it may bring destruction upon us all. ”

    It doesn’t matter if 99% of Jews disagree. You can’t build sustainability on evil.

  3. MHughes976
    June 2, 2013, 3:45 pm

    Arendt’s view of Eichmann was an expression of left-wing Zionism, I would think – it echoes Lenin’s State and Revolution in making bureaucracy the major political evil of our time – its endless machinations being an expression of inability to settle on any stable morality, with Eichmann as an ultimate b’crat. This view would not preclude support for Zionism, since Israel could be seen as a paradigm of commitment to ever-the-same moral principles, as a natural organism rather than a constructed organisation and as the essential step to world socialism for everyone’s benefit, quite a common view at the time. The illusions of very highly educated people can be quite tragic.

    • seafoid
      June 3, 2013, 3:59 am

      Arendt wasn’t the first intellectual to see through Zionist ideology. The Shoah was not sui generis. It wasn’t the central happening in world history. The Nazis did not start WW2 over Judaism. It is not possible to say “Never again” . See Cambodia, DRC , etc. It had nothing to do with “God’s plan for the Jewish people”.

      It’s understandable that she didn’t want Israel to be destroyed. “They may be sons of bitches but they are our sons of bitches”.

      Zionism is such a mess because dissent is not tolerated – without constructive criticism the vehicle is headed for the cliff. Even if mavericks like Arendt and Goldstone are comprehensively neutralised the ur-question of what to do with the Palestinians refuses to go away.

      And that is the rock on which Zionism will be broken

  4. DICKERSON3870
    June 2, 2013, 3:57 pm

    RE: “Arendt distinguished sharply between aggressive and defensive military involvement, and she thought of the 1967 war as reasonable as the 1956 one had been foolish.” ~ Marc Ellis

    MY COMMENT: It sounds as though she fell for the hasbara of her time regarding the ’67 war. In more recent times, it has become the general consensus that the 1967 war was not a defensive war on Israel’s part.

    FROM WIKIPEDIA (Controversies relating to the Six-Day War):

    [EXCERPTS]. . . After the war, Israeli officials admitted that Israel wasn’t expecting to be attacked when it initiated hostilities against Egypt.[15][16] Mordechai Bentov, an Israeli cabinet minister who attended the June 4th Cabinet meeting, called into question the idea that there was a “danger of extermination” saying that it was “invented of whole cloth and exaggerated after the fact to justify the annexation of new Arab territories.”[17][18] Menachem Begin said that “The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. (…) We decided to attack him”.[19][20] Israel received reports from the United States to the effect that Egyptian deployments were defensive and anticipatory of a possible Israeli attack,[21] and the US assessed that if anything, it was Israel that was pressing to begin hostilities.[18] Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister during the war, later wrote in his autobiography that Nasser’s assurances he wasn’t planning to attack Israel were credible: “Nasser did not want war. He wanted victory without war.” [22] Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld has written that while the exact origins of the war may never be known, Israel’s forces were “spoiling for a fight and willing to go to considerable lengths to provoke one”.[23] Israel’s attack isn’t seen as fulfilling the criteria of the Caroline test for anticipatory self-defence.[24] . . .

    • Footnotes
    15. ^ “Various Israeli officials said later… that ‘Israel had not in fact anticipated an imminent attack by Egypt when it struck June 5’”. The Case for Palestine: An International Law Perspective, p. 164; John B Quigley –
    16. ^ ‘Armed Attack’ and Article 51 of the Un Charter: Evolutions in Customary Law, by Tom Ruys, page 280 “It has been observed that several official Israeli sources admitted after the war that Egypt did not have the intention of attacking Israel” link –
    17. ^ Quigley, John (1990). Palestine and Israel: A Challenge to Justice. Duke University Press (May 1990). p. 170. ISBN 0-8223-1023-6.
    18. ^ a b The Myth of Annihilation and the Six-Day War, by Joseph Ryan (Carnegie Council, September 1, 1973) –
    19. ^ Menachem Begin, the first Likud Prime Minister of Israel, also said: “In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.” “Israel’s First Fifty Years”, by Robert Owen Freedman, page 80; for another quote, see Cooley, Green March, Black September, p. 162.
    20. ^ Address by Prime Minister Begin at the National Defense College, 8 August 1982. (Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs)-
    21. ^ U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban that the U.S. intelligence assessment was that “the Egyptian deployments were defensive in character and anticipatory of a possible Israeli attack”. Memorandum of Conversation, Washington, May 26, 1967, 10:30 a.m.; The Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael B. Oren has acknowledged that “By all reports Israel received from the Americans, and according to its own intelligence, Nasser had no interest in bloodshed…” Israel’s assessment was that “Nasser would have to be deranged to take on an Israel backed by France and the U.S. Sixth Fleet. War, according to the Israelis, could only come about if Nasser felt he had complete military superiority over the IDF, if Israel were caught up in a domestic crisis, and, most crucially, was isolated internationally—a most unlikely confluence.” Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Oren 2002, pp. 59–60).
    22. ^ Abba Eban: An Autobiography, Random House, 1977. (p. 360)
    23. ^ The Sword And The Olive: A Critical History Of The Israeli Defense Force (Martin van Creveld) p. 172 –

    SOURCE –

  5. Citizen
    June 2, 2013, 4:51 pm

    I’m guessing Mr. Ellis would approve of this very detailed essay of Arendt’s life and convictions by a liberal zionist:
    Am I wrong?

  6. Citizen
    June 2, 2013, 5:24 pm

    I’d say one in a thousand jews have even a clue of Arendt’s POV over her years. And one in ten thouand Americans. Again, check out this Zionist interpretation of Hannah Arendt’s struggle with with Zionism: from @CityJournal

    It’s amazing to me that Zionist jews insinuate that the US didn’t care care about jews
    because they thought the best thing to do for the most of humanity under attack was t0 spend their military resources during WW2 on what would defeat that enemy. The Zionist interpretation is that the entire Allied force should have been devoted paramount to helping the Jews, even if that was dubious, like there were no other peoples being heavily harmed by Nazism.

    • Tuyzentfloot
      June 6, 2013, 10:03 am

      Hello Citizen. When I visited Auschwitz, the polish guide emphasized the allies’ inaction and disinterest, even suggesting the allies quietly approved of the operation.

      I think that goes too far but I would agree that saving the Jews in the camps was not the thing foremost in the minds of the allies, and that this was not that strange. The priority was winning the war.

      I have one resource that is little known, an old interview on dutch television with Physicist Freeman Dyson. He served in Bomber Command at the time and he said he never encountered the subject coming up. He also thought there was very little that could have been done to save the people in the camps apart from sending in soldiers on the ground.

      In other words the priority of winning the war was right. The issue comes up between minutes 59 and 1h02 . The whole interview is worthwile, he’s got a sharp intellect.

  7. James Canning
    James Canning
    June 2, 2013, 7:14 pm

    The US was not going to let Israel be destroyed.

    But, Nixon was foolish not to back Soviet request the US force Israel out of the Sinai.

  8. crypticvalentin
    June 6, 2013, 1:24 am

    when Arendt was in Jerusalem covering Eichmann’s trial, she expressed her revulsion at the ‘Asiatic hordes’ she witnessed there, referring to Sephardic Jews..

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