Navigate to Arts & Letters section

The Angel of History

A new volume of Hannah Arendt’s writing sheds light on the persistence of anti-Semitism

Paul La Farge
March 14, 2007

Last October, at a Bard College conference in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Hannah Arendt’s birth, Christopher Hitchens made an interesting, if troubling, argument about Arendt’s analysis of anti-Semitism in modern times. Hitchens’ argument went more or less like this: (a) Arendt treats anti-Semitism as if it can be understood in rational, historical terms, as a disorder in the nation-state, which led, over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, to the rise of a totalitarian government in Germany. But (b) consider the remarkable tenacity of anti-Semitic thought! Sixty years after the Holocaust, that old hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is posted on Hamas’ Web site; meanwhile Mel Gibson has been maligning the Jews to a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy. Might it not be, therefore, that (c) anti-Semitism requires an extra-historical explanation? Here Hitchens cited a remark from Rebecca West’s Balkan travelogue, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: “Now I understand another cause for anti-Semitism; many primitive peoples must receive their first intimation of the toxic quality of thought from Jews.” The Jews, Hitchens suggested, generalizing from West’s observation, may have introduced the rest of the world to the pain of intellectual activity and its attendant torments of doubt. And if that’s so, then could it not be that (d) the hatred of Jews is as intractable as the hatred by unthinking people of thought itself? In that case, Hitchens concluded, anti-Semitism would predate history; when we study it, “we would be looking down the corridors of our past and discovering the original scenes of tragedy.”

This is, it seems to me, a strange argument, not least of all because it presumes that there were entire peoples who walked the earth for centuries, and maybe even millennia, without thinking too hard about anything. It is also a depressing argument, in that if it’s correct, then the battle against anti-Semitism will never be won; thinking people can only struggle on the side of thinking for as long as their strength lasts, and hope that others will follow their example. I don’t know what spirit Hitchens offered it in, whether it was the product of long reflection, or something more fleeting: a collection of provocative thoughts offered to an audience who would, as he must have known, ask him about the Iraq war no matter what he said. I reproduce his remarks here not so much because they require a serious refutation, as because they testify to the strangely persistent difficulty of thinking about anti-Semitism as Arendt thought about it: in historical terms. Can it really be that, as she took pains to demonstrate in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “it should have been this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem that had the dubious honor of setting the whole infernal machine [of the Nazi ideology] in motion”? And if the “Jewish problem” really did play such an important role in the history of the twentieth century, doesn’t it make more sense to think of the Jews as representing something greater than themselves, something like “the toxic quality of thought”?

Hitchens is certainly right about one thing: questions about the nature of anti-Semitism have once again become pressing. And that being the case, the publication of a new volume of Hannah Arendt’s work, which casts a great deal of light on how she thought about the Jews, Judaism and Jewishness, is timely, to say the least. Arendt, who was born to Jewish parents in Hanover, in 1906, worked for Zionist organizations in France and Germany in the 1930s, and emigrated to New York City, where she died in 1975, is best remembered now for one particular work on Jewish themes: Eichmann in Jerusalem, her account of the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, which was the object of much controversy upon its publication in 1963. Because Arendt noted that the Judenräte, or Jewish Councils, in Europe cooperated with the Nazis (a fact which had come to light at the trial), individual Jews and Jewish organizations all over the world accused her of having blamed the victims of the Holocaust for their fate. Her enemies branded her an anti-Semite in public; her friends reproached her in private with lacking “love for the Jews.” Now that the cooperation of the Judenräte is a part of orthodox Holocaust history, the controversy over Eichmann is becoming hard to understand. Even so, one of the many good things about The Jewish Writings, edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman, is that it includes Arendt’s replies to a few of her accusers, which will, in their exhaustive precision, hopefully lay the specter of Arendt’s alleged anti-Semitism once and for all to rest.

These replies, however, constitute only a small part of a large book. The Jewish Writings collects pieces written by Arendt from the 1930s to the 1960s, many of which have never been published in English before, or were only published in newspapers and periodicals and have long been unavailable. The subjects of some of these pieces have grown obscure with the passing of time: a 1943 essay on “Why the Crémieux Decree Was Abrogated” may puzzle a reader who has forgotten (or never knew) what the Crémieux Decree was in the first place. But the fact that these pieces were written in response to current events in most cases only adds to the interest of the book. In a series of articles written for the German-Jewish newspaper Aufbau between October, 1941 and November, 1942, Arendt made the case again and again for the formation of a Jewish army to fight the Nazis. The insistence with which she returned to this subject leaves the reader with a feeling very close to anguish: On the one hand, you feel the absolute urgency of Arendt’s argument that the Jewish people need to take an active part in the making of their history if they are to survive as a people at all; on the other, you witness the failure of this argument to sway the British government, or the American government, or even the American Jewish organizations which could have done something about it. (Indeed, The Jewish Writings speak eloquently, if implicitly, on a subject that is perhaps not discussed often enough by political theorists: the almost insurmountable difficulty of getting people and institutions to do anything.)

Arendt titled one of the Aufbau articles “Ceterum Censeo,” an allusion to the Roman statesman Cato the Elder, who called at the end of every speech for the destruction of Carthage, but the identification is wishful; in the 1940s, Arendt was less a Cato than a Cassandra. As the tide of the war turned, and the survival of at least some fraction of the Jewish people seemed assured, Arendt turned her attention to Palestine. She questioned the wisdom of obtaining a state from the British Empire’s colonial largesse, and observed presciently that “even a purely Jewish Palestine would be a very precarious structure without a prior agreement with all the Arab peoples on all its borders.”

The rise of Nazi Germany led Arendt to wonder if the nation-state had outlived its usefulness, or at least if it needed some other form of political organization to keep its excesses in check: “Future historians will perhaps be able to note that the sovereignty of the nation-state ended in absurdity when it began to decide who was a citizen and who was not,” she wrote, an assertion that must echo uncomfortably in the ears of any American who opposed the Military Commissions Act last year. Arendt argued for a commonwealth of nations in Europe, not unlike the present-day EU; she argued for a Mediterranean federation in which “the Arabs would be strongly represented and yet not in a position to dominate all others.”

The Jewish Writings is that most heartbreaking of books, an atlas of roads not taken, illuminated now and then by a sentence that rises out of the past to warn us against an error which it may still not be too late to avoid. Here is Arendt, writing about the onset of totalitarianism in Germany: “Once the businessman’s opportunism has suffocated peoples and nations by atomizing them in a politics of cliques and clans, despotism takes this atomization to its logical conclusion, until finally sons denounce their own fathers, neighbors and friends denounce one another, for the sake of their careers or personal security.” We have not, for the most part, yet begun to denounce one another (though Ann Coulter’s recent remarks about John Edwards suggest that American politics, at least on the right, is getting just about as ugly as it has ever been), but already globalization is atomizing us: our public space is broken into a thousand channels, an assortment of niche markets and fan bases, each with its tiny fraction of MySpace and its circle of Friendsters.

Whatever their ostensible subjects, the essays and articles collected in The Jewish Writings do not stray far from a single theme, which Arendt expresses now in one way and now in another, always in the hope that her words will lead, somehow, to action: the necessity for the Jewish people to recognize that they participate in history along with everyone else. “It is not true,” she wrote in Aufbau, “that we have always and everywhere been the persecuted innocents. But if it were true, it would be dreadful indeed—it would remove us far more completely from human history than any actual persecution ever could.” The emphasis is Arendt’s. She says it again and again: the Jews were betrayed by their naive sense that they had no political role to play in, say, early 19th-century Germany, or late 19th-century France. She calls this naivete “worldlessness,” and it is the Jewish analog of anti-Semitism: the belief that the Jews are fundamentally different from all other peoples, and therefore need not—or cannot—take part in world affairs. Neither a rush into the embrace of great Gentile thinkers (the description of which gives Arendt occasion to write one of the funniest sentences in The Jewish Writings: Of Dorothea Mendelssohn, who married the philosopher Schlegel, Arendt remarks, “She did not encounter the world, she encountered Schlegel”), nor a wild belief that the Jews can maintain themselves in Palestine against all comers (which amounts, Arendt contends, to a “despair of everything and a genuine readiness for suicide”) can remedy this worldlessness. The only cure for it is for the Jews to take their place as Jews among the other peoples of the world, to understand themselves as historical actors, to act and be acted upon, like everyone else.

But who are these Jews to whom Arendt is speaking? The question is perhaps so basic that she did not think to ask it. And yet it seems worth asking: Are the Jews adherents of a religion, like, say, the Catholics, or are they an ethnicity, like, say, the Kurds? Are you a Jew by birth or by election? In fact—and this is one of the more complicated things about The Jewish Writings—Arendt defined Jewishness in different ways at different times. In the summer of 1940, she wrote to a French friend:

The first prerequisite [for obtaining recognition of the Jewish people in a European parliament] is for us to be rid of all those Jews who do not want to be Jews. Even under the best of circumstances the times will remain far too grave for us to continue to afford the luxury of assuming before the whole world moral and political responsibility for people who do not want to be a part of us.

Which would seem to imply that Jewishness is elective: one can opt out of the Jewish nation—or at least be expelled from it. A year later, though, she wrote an article for Aufbau, in which she took to task “those Jewish snobs who… loftily declare themselves above ties to their nation.”

Well [she remarks], treason has never yet put an end to the existence of an entire people, and just as “emancipated” women have had little success in saving the world by removing the difference between male and female, our “emancipated” Jews will not succeed in arguing themselves and us out of this world.

Setting aside the interesting implications this sentence has for Arendt’s sense of the relations between the sexes, it’s not hard to see the parallel she is drawing here: Jewishness is like womanhood, at least to the degree that neither one can be erased by an act of will. One can no more expel a Jew from the Jewish people than one could expel a woman, however “emancipated,” from the biological condition of womanhood.

Beneath this apparent contradiction lies a fact which would have been as obvious to Arendt as it was to anyone reading her at the time: Between the first statement and the second, Germany and its allies had completed their conquest of Western Europe. It had become unconscionable to think of “being rid” of any Jews, even those who by inaction functioned as traitors to their people. In the end, Jewishness is, for Arendt, a political category: Neither a biological fact nor a matter of individual election, it is an alliance between one person and another, between writer and reader, an alliance whose terms vary depending on the circumstances in which it is formed. The Jewish people, united neither by country nor by language, exist in a public space, the existence of which cannot be taken for granted; it must be maintained by assent (and communication, and dissent) among the community of Jews. In other words, the “emancipated” Jews did not succeed in arguing Jewry out of existence for this reason alone: there was someone who argued back.

In this, if Arendt is correct, the Jews are no different from any other people. And the converse is also true: other peoples are no different from the Jews. As Ron Feldman notes in his introduction to The Jewish Writings,

[I]t wasn’t the spread of the Jewish “god” of money that defined the modern age, as Marx would have it. Rather, the modern age was characterized by the cause which underlay the Jews’ reliance on money wealth: the lack of any physical place to which people were rooted and from which they could orient themselves to the world, grasp reality, and experience history. The unique worldless situation of the Jews increasingly became the generalized condition of mankind.

The Jews are exceptional among human beings only in that, for a moment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were ahead of other peoples: They were like the land on the other side of the valley where the storm has already hit. Now the storm has hit everyone, and we have all, to some extent, been uprooted. In light of this frightening fact, Christopher Hitchens’ gloomy assertion of an original, ineradicable anti-Semitism looks almost like nostalgia. For a time when it was possible to believe that the Jews really were different from everyone else, and that—because they were different—some people on earth might not share their fate. History has already proved that belief false. If Arendt teaches us anything, it is that our only hope for survival lies in history, and not beyond it.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.