Collage: Tablet Magazine; original images: Leo Baeck Institute; Zeitgeist Films
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A Shared Debt: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem

How ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ led the thinkers into a principled disagreement over Zionism and universalism that ultimately broke their quarter-century bond

Adam Kirsch
February 05, 2018
Collage: Tablet Magazine; original images: Leo Baeck Institute; Zeitgeist Films

The lives of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem were variations on the same fate. Two of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, they were born less than 10 years apart—Scholem in 1897, Arendt in 1906—to highly assimilated German Jewish families. Both would end up fleeing the collapse of German Jewry and remaking their lives abroad—Scholem in Palestine, where he emigrated in 1923, and Arendt in France, where she escaped from Hitler in 1933, and then in the United States, where she escaped a second time in 1940. Inevitably, being Jewish was the central fact of their lives, and they devoted much of their careers to wrestling with the historical and political meaning of Jewishness. Arendt became a political philosopher, a leading theorist of totalitarianism and anti-Semitism, while Scholem virtually invented the modern scholarly study of Jewish mysticism. In the process, each produced enormously influential books that are still urgently discussed and debated today, decades after their deaths.

The cover of The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem, newly published in English (edited by Marie Luise Knott and translated from German by Anthony David), underscores these similarities with a visual rhyme. Arendt and Scholem are each portrayed, in separate photographs, in the act of consulting a giant tome against a background of crowded bookshelves—emblems of lives spent reading, writing, and thinking. Yet as these letters show, it was the very things that Arendt and Scholem had in common that turned out to be responsible for the ultimate rupture of their friendship. In the end, the answers they gave to the question of Jewishness—and in particular, to the question of Zionism, with which both were intimately, idiosyncratically involved—were too different to be reconciled. Much of the time, these differences could be concealed or passed over, especially when Arendt and Scholem had a concrete task to cooperate on. But the gulf between kept reemerging, until their correspondence, which began in 1939 and lasted for 25 years, finally broke off in the worst kind of acrimony—the kind based on principled disagreement.

For all the length of their epistolary relationship, Arendt and Scholem were never intimate friends, and they met only a few times. What held them together was primarily their mutual loyalty to the man who introduced them—Walter Benjamin, the cryptically profound literary and cultural critic. Benjamin and Scholem became friends in their teens and were extremely close—Scholem would later devote an entire memoir to their friendship—while Arendt and Benjamin met much later, when they were both refugees in Paris. But in each of these friends, Benjamin provoked a deep sense of protectiveness, as if they knew he was unequipped to navigate the perils of Jewish life in 20th-century Europe. As it turned out, they were right: In September 1940, Benjamin took his own life after being refused passage across the border from France into Spain.

Some three weeks later, Arendt wrote Scholem with this news. The letter is brief and matter-of-fact, but it ends with a cri de coeur: “Jews are dying in Europe and are being buried like dogs.” The following summer, she followed up with a much longer and more detailed account of the last months of “Benji.” Arendt explained that, after the German conquest of France in summer 1940, Benjamin could not escape a growing sense of hopelessness and doom: “Benjamin began for the first time to talk repeatedly to me about suicide: There was always ‘that’ way out. In response to my energetic and emphatic objections that there was still plenty of time before the situation became that desperate, he predictably repeated that you could never know, and under no circumstances should you wait too long.”

In these early letters, the basic premise of Arendt and Scholem’s relationship was being constructed. They were the survivors, and they owed a debt to the dead—above all to Benjamin, who died basically unknown, with much of his most important work unpublished. For the next decade, the fate of Benjamin’s work and the challenges of getting it into print would be the primary subject of their correspondence. Before he died, Benjamin entrusted his literary estate to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who fled to America along with their Institute for Social Research. They apparently had possession of a crate of Benjamin’s papers. But some key essays only existed in manuscripts held by Scholem in Palestine and Arendt in New York. (Arendt had the only copy of Benjamin’s final work, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which has since become a key text of 20th-century thought.)

Arendt and Scholem shared a deep mistrust of Adorno and Horkheimer and believed that they would never do justice to Benjamin’s memory. Over time, their language about Adorno and Horkheimer becomes utterly contemptuous: “threat is the only language these gentlemen understand,” Arendt writes in 1943, while Scholem replies that an essay of Horkheimer’s on “The Jewish Question” was “an impudent, arrogant, and repulsive load of nonsense.”

There is a good deal of personal and political subtext here which the letters do not make explicit. In addition to thinking of Adorno as a careerist and possibly a self-hating Jew (Arendt pointedly refers to him by his original, Jewish last name, Wiesengrund), Arendt and Scholem saw Adorno as their opponent in a battle for Benjamin’s intellectual allegiance. Scholem was always urging Benjamin toward Jewishness and mysticism, his own scholarly fields, believing that these were the true sources of Benjamin’s inspiration. Adorno, on the other hand, pulled Benjamin toward revolutionary Marxist politics, and in Benjamin’s last years he seemed to have the upper hand. The fight over Benjamin’s papers was a posthumous extension of this intellectual contest: Who had the right to claim him, the Jews or the Communists (who were, for the most part, also Jews)?

Meanwhile, Arendt and Scholem mostly avoided the subject of the Holocaust unfolding in Europe. Instead, they thought about ways to get Benjamin’s work into print; they complained about the millionaire publisher Salman Schocken, who first committed to the project and then abandoned it; and they discussed the publication of Scholem’s magnum opus Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, which appeared in 1941. If there is something uncomfortable about this focus on books and careers at such a time, it is nonetheless understandable. As the survivors of a civilizational catastrophe, all Arendt and Scholem could do was try to keep their work and themselves alive. Thinking and writing was their response to the Holocaust, even when they were not explicitly addressing it.

After the war, Arendt and Scholem had the opportunity to contribute more concretely to this intellectual rescue mission. In 1949, Arendt became executive secretary of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, an organization headed by the Columbia University historian Salo Baron, whose mission was to retrieve Jewish books and ritual objects looted by the Nazis. Scholem, in Jerusalem, was in charge of asserting the state of Israel’s claim on these books. There ensued a detailed and technical correspondence between Arendt and Scholem about the fate of particular collections and libraries in Germany, which occupies the middle section of the book. While there is little of biographical interest here, these letters show once again how seriously Arendt and Scholem took their responsibility as survivors: It was up to them to collect the fragments of a broken civilization and try to put them to use again.

But what was the future of the Jews after the Holocaust? More particularly, where was this future—in Israel or the diaspora? This was the central question that divided Arendt and Scholem, whose attitudes toward Zionism were both complex, but finally very different. Scholem had been a convinced Zionist since his teens who took the extremely rare step of leaving Germany for Palestine in 1923, a decade before Hitler came to power. (It was then that he exchanged his German name, Gerhard, for a Hebrew one, Gershom.) Scholem was not greatly interested in politics–he describes himself in one letter as an “anarchist,” and he was an early member of Brit Shalom, a small movement of intellectuals that called for a binational, Arab-Jewish state. But finally, he believed in the legitimacy and necessity of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and he saw his own fate as intimately bound up with that homeland.

In the 1930s, Arendt too was drawn into the orbit of Zionism. After fleeing Hitler in 1933, she worked for Youth Aliyah, an organization that trained young European Jews for emigration to Palestine. During the war, she wrote in the American Jewish press about Zionist politics and championed the creation of a Jewish army that could fight alongside the Allied powers. But for Arendt, this would be a multinational army, not a Palestinian one. She believed that the life of the Jews, like her own Jewish life, was properly international, with deep roots in Europe and America. The evolution of Zionism, under the pressure of war and Holocaust, toward a more assertive claim on Jewish statehood left her alienated. Her rejection of nationalism and her distaste for what she saw as Jewish parochialism made it impossible for her to be a Zionist in the way Scholem was.

This difference between Arendt and Scholem emerged into the open in 1946, after Arendt published an article titled “Zionism Reconsidered” in the Menorah Journal, an American Jewish magazine. In this piece, Arendt offered a biting critique of what she called “the tragic abdication of political leadership by the vanguard of the Jewish people”—that is, the Jews of Palestine. Zionism, she argued, entangled the Jews in a new nationalism, just when the dangers of nationalism had been made clear to all. The quest for a Jewish state could only end in permanent hostility between Jews and Arabs; and because a Jewish state could not survive without the protection of a great power, Jews would end up in the very position of dependency that Zionism was meant to cure. Finally, a Jewish state would do nothing to solve the problems of Jews in the diaspora, including anti-Semitism. Arendt’s analysis of what went wrong with Zionism began at the very beginning, with Theodor Herzl, and concluded with a complete rejection of what she called “its whole obsolete set of doctrines.”

Reading “Zionism Reconsidered” today, it is remarkable how many of Arendt’s warnings have proved prophetic. What is not clear from her essay is whether an alternate history of the last 70 years, in which Israel did not exist as a Jewish state, would have been an improvement. Arendt’s habit of judging politics by the standard of the ideal, rather than seeing it as the art of the possible, is part of what made her a great political philosopher; but it also made her a rather poor analyst of the actual politics of her time. Certainly, in 1946, the option Arendt preferred—the incorporation of Jews and Arabs into an international confederation—was simply not a possibility, since no one actually living in Palestine would have stood for it.

Is it legitimate to be a Zionist, that is, to declare a specific loyalty to and solidarity with the Jewish people? Or does such loyalty conflict with one’s ethical duty to humanity as a whole?

When Scholem read Arendt’s article, he was aghast to see how far apart they were on such a crucial issue. Scholem’s long letter of Jan. 28, 1946, and Arendt’s reply dated April 21 come to grips with the key question: Is it legitimate to be a Zionist, that is, to declare a specific loyalty to and solidarity with the Jewish people? Or does such loyalty conflict with one’s ethical duty to humanity as a whole? “I am a nationalist and am entirely unfazed by ostensibly ‘progressive’ denunciations of a position that people repeatedly, even in my earliest youth, wrote off as obsolete,” Scholem writes. To which Arendt replies: “How is it possible that someone can spend his life in the serious study of philosophy and theology and … can present himself as a believer in an ‘ism’?”

This debate remains absolutely central to Jewish politics today, and the exchange between Scholem and Arendt is a classic statement of each side. Arendt herself doubted whether their friendship could survive what she sarcastically called “this orgy of truth-telling,” but surprisingly, perhaps, it did. Their shared work for JCR and their loyalty to the memory of Benjamin were enough to allow Scholem and Arendt to stay friends, if not especially close friends. (Perhaps it was only because they were never very close to begin with that their relationship could survive.) Most of their correspondence for the next several years had to do with JCR business. After that business was concluded, they had less to say to one another, and from 1953 to 1963 they exchanged just 25 letters total. These were mainly brief notes about arrangements to meet in Europe or exchanges of their new books.

It was the publication, in 1963, of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem that finally brought the curtain down on the correspondence, and on the friendship. Scholem’s hostile reaction to the book, and Arendt’s indignant, disappointed response, were a replay of the exchange over “Zionism Reconsidered” 17 years earlier. Scholem took issue with several of Arendt’s particular assertions and arguments—above all, her severe judgments of Jews who served on the Nazis’ “Jewish Councils,” and her famous thesis that Adolf Eichmann demonstrated “the banality of evil.” But at the heart of his reaction lay something more intuitive and emotional: a shocked rejection of Arendt’s tone, which he saw as unacceptably ironic, high-handed, and detached. “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,” he wrote. “With you, my dear Hannah, as with so many intellectuals coming from the German left, there is no trace of it.”

Once again, Scholem’s fundamental objection to Arendt had to do with the question of solidarity. A Jew, he believed, should write about the Holocaust only from a position of shared grief and empathy: it was something that happened to us, not just an event in world history. This was especially true of people like Arendt and Scholem themselves, who lived through the Holocaust and lost many friends and family members to it. (Scholem’s brother Werner, a Communist activist, died in Buchenwald.) “In treating such a theme, isn’t there a place for the humble German expression ‘tact of the heart’?” he asks.

To Arendt, on the other hand, national or religious allegiance was something to be avoided, since it led to partiality and sentimentality. Of course, she replied, she considers herself to be part of the Jewish people: “Not only have I never acted as if I was something else, but I have never even felt the temptation to do so. It’s as if I were to say I am a man and not a woman. In other words, it would be sheer lunacy.” But exactly because Jewishness is such a fact, something given and not chosen, Arendt believed it is wrong to make it the object of pride or love. “How right you are that I have no such love,” she forthrightly says. “I have never in my life ‘loved’ some nation or collective.” She goes on to recall a conversation with Golda Meir, in which Meir told her, “I do not believe in God, I believe in the Jewish people.” To Arendt, this is “a horrible comment,” because it resembles mere chauvinism and self-worship. People should be loyal to the good and the true, and to the friends they choose; they should not be loyal to identities or groups, which always leads to the abdication of individual thought.

At Scholem’s initiative, this exchange of letters was published, and the final pages of the Correspondence deal with arrangements for the publication. The last item in the book is a letter from Scholem, in 1964, lamenting Arendt’s “silence” and asking to meet her in New York. But the silence persisted, and they never met again. Surprisingly, it was Arendt, who seemed the more conciliatory party in their earlier clash, who now broke things off. The reason may lie in her complaint that Scholem was influenced by the “distortion campaign” which she believed was being organized against Eichmann in Jerusalem by Jewish organizations. She had become convinced that criticism of the book could not be made in good faith; if so, then Scholem was no longer a friendly critic, but an enemy. Ironically, however, the letters documenting the end of their friendship may be the most important legacy of that friendship. Half a century later, Scholem and Arendt offer an exceptionally clear illustration of the clash between particularism and universalism, which remains one of the major issues in Jewish life.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

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