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?