Powerful critique of ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’

Powerful critique of ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’

Gertrude Ezorsky is a retired professor of philosophy at the City University of New York.  She is long associated with the democratic left (a member of the editorial board of the radical socialist journal, New Politics).   For some reason, Prof. Ezorsky sent her critique of Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” and “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (originally published in New Politics in 1963), to our chaver, Arieh Lebowitz.  Since I’ve recently published my own critique in Tikkun, Arieh passed along this article, “Hannah Arendt Against the Facts,” for my perusal.  

It’s noteworthy and heartening to me that a radical leftist like Ezorsky includes a section that shreds Arendt’s contention that Eichmann had true Zionist sympathies.  Ezorsky is at her most caustic in this paragraph:

One of Miss Arendt’s troubles is her conception of Zionism. … Miss Arendt does not find Eichmann’s 1939 Nisko project inconsistent with his Zionist opinions—although that project called for a “Jewish state” in an area without water and ridden with cholera, dysentery and typhoid. The earlier Nazi policy was to rob Jews and let them emigrate to Palestine for there were few countries which would accept Jewish emigrants. This is the stage that Miss Arendt consistently characterizes as “pro-Zionist.” Were the anti-Semitic hooligans who chased Jews in the streets of Eastern Europe yelling “Go back to Palestine” also pro-Zionist? The directive to allow Jews to leave Germany for Palestine came from Hitler after he had studied not the Zionist classic, Der Judenstaat, but a Nazi tract of Alfred Rosenberg’s on the racial question. Was Hitler also pro-Zionist?   

I can’t comment on her harsh criticism of “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (which I haven’t yet read) or of Arendt’s views in general, but Ezorsky’s criticism of Arendt’s view of Eichmann as “banal” is devastating.  For one thing, she points out that the only real evidence Arendt uses to contend that Eichmann wasn’t personally anti-Semitic, are his own self-serving words while being prosecuted in Israel.  Ezorsky’s article also reinforces my conviction that Arendt was shockingly unfair to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust by her wholesale attack on the so-called Jewish councils (the Judenräte), and her unseemly and factually flawed claim of Jewish passivity: 

…. Miss Arendt’s paradox of Jewish cooperation in the destruction of the Jews is even more implausible than her Eichmann paradox. Her readers are asked to believe that “wherever Jews lived,” … recognized Jewish leaders, “almost without exception” served in the murder of their fellow Jews. The very uniformity of her picture renders it suspect. Against Miss Arendt’s extraordinary notion of “extraordinary” Jewish cooperation, I would suggest an alternative, not so contradictory to common sense expectation. The Jews of Europe were heterogeneous and the reaction of their leaders to Nazism ranged from terrorized submission to heroic resistance. The strength of their response depended on their situation, personal qualities, traditions, and political habits. …

What does Miss Arendt mean when she asserts that Jewish leaders gave “more than compliance” to the Nazis, that they cooperated to a “truly extraordinary degree”? … what are her criteria for distinguishing normal from extraordinary cooperation in the face of Nazi terror? She never explains her conception of normal cooperation under such conditions. … She knows that those Jewish leaders who cooperated “in one way or another” were in all ways—themselves and their communities—under the duress of Nazi terror. At any rate, let it be said that some Jewish leaders—not the majority—“cooperated.” The Hungarian Jewish community leaders personally terrorized by threats of Dachau and immediate execution, complied with Nazi orders and counseled the Jews against the consequences of resistance.

Although Rabbi Leo Baeck ordered passive resistance in Thereisenstadt when death for anyone taken was certain, he “cooperated” up to that point. He was not personally terrorized for he had many opportunities to leave Germany and escape Nazi persecution; yet he refused to desert the German Jews. But he saw no way of helping Jewish deportees except to make the ordeal easier. Hence he “cooperated” by deciding that “Jewish orderlies should help pick up Jews for deportation . . . because they would be more gentle and helpful than the Gestapo.”

Now let us turn to the other side of the story: the non “cooperative” Jewish leaders. The response of Jewish leaders in Eastern Europe is a significant test of Miss Arendt’s thesis. Of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, three and a half million were the Jews of pre-war Poland. Moreover, the Polish Jews were organized in their own political parties. Let us see if Miss Arendt’s picture of “extraordinary” cooperation in which “there was no distinction between the highly assimilated Jewish communities of Central and Western Europe and the Yiddish speaking masses of the East” accords with the facts. (p. 104)

The late Philip Friedman, a Columbia historian who undertook a compilation of literature on the Jewish catastrophe, reported that “there were underground movements of General Zionists, Socialist-Zionists, Hashomer Hatzair, Revisionists, Mizrachi and the Bund.” ….

The Bund maintained a political opposition to the Nazi organized Judenräte (Jewish Councils) almost from the beginning. … Arthur Zyglboim, Bundist delegate to the Polish National Council and a member of the 1939 Committee for the Defense of Warsaw, who had undergone arrest as a hostage, joined the Council for a short period. He threw in his resignation when the Judenrat submitted to the formation of a Jewish Ghetto.

Zyglboim addressed a crowd of over ten thousand Jews in the streets of Nazi occupied Warsaw.  In the name of the Jewish trade unions and the Bund, he told the people to keep up their courage, to refuse to go into a ghetto and to resist if the were forced to do so…. The name of this extraordinarily uncooperative Jewish leader does not appear in Miss Arendt’s book.

In Eastern Poland Jewish political leaders had been killed or imprisoned by the Soviet occupation before the Nazi invasion.  Three and a half million Polish Jews were murdered without the “cooperation” in any sense whatsoever of the major pre-war Jewish political leadership. Yet Miss Arendt would have her readers believe that Jewish leaders and Jewish party organizations “almost without exception” cooperated with the Nazis. The fact is that the ghetto resistance against the Nazis in Eastern Europe was spearheaded by Jewish organizations. The Zionists and Bundist parties and their youth organizations, together with Communists, formed the resistance organization that led the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto. In Bialystok a bloc of Jewish parties, the “Anti-fascist committee,” together with their youth movements prepared armed action in defense of the ghetto. In Vilna an “Emergency Committee” representing the Jewish parties set up a ghetto combat force, the “United Partisan Organization.” …

Miss Arendt finds the absence of testimony at the Eichmann trial concerning cooperation between Jewish leaders and Nazi rulers to be “the gravest omission from the ‘general picture’.” (p.110) Yet the gravest omission from her “general picture” is her failure to mention the “extraordinary” heroism of so many “recognized Jewish leaders.”

Emmanuel Ringelblum, a Labor-Zionist leader, “one of a triumvirate representing his party in Warsaw, was an underground fighter. He and two other resistance leaders rejected an offer of rescue from the Polish government-in-exile. They answered, “We must fulfill our duty to society.” Ringelblum stayed with the remnant of Polish Jewry and was murdered by the Gestapo. Abrasha Blum was the first ranking Jewish Bundist leader under the Nazi occupation Blum, a sick man, fought unarmed against Nazi soldiers in the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto. Nathan Widavsky, a leading Zionist of Lodz, took his life lest he reveal under torture the names of his underground acquaintances. Rabbis Zemba, Stockhammer and Shapiro, the last three rabbis to remain alive in Warsaw refused to abandon their congregations for the safety guaranteed them by the Court of Bishops. In Warsaw, Mordechai Anielewicz, a twenty-four year old leader of the Hashomer Hatzair, was the commander of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

I do not intend to commit an absurdity—parallel to Miss Arendt’s—and claim that all or even most Jewish leaders in Eastern Europe were heroes. Yet her wholesale damning of Jewish leaders, as Quislings who cooperated in the Final Solution seems willfully ignorant. A glance at the history of modern East European Jewry could have warned her against her own pronouncements. For decades before the Nazi occupation Jewish leaders had battled anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. They organized Jewish self-defense units that fought on the streets of East European cities with anti-Semitic hoodlums and pogromists. Two years before the war, anti-Semitic regulations in Polish universities were authorized by the government. Jewish leaders organized nation-wide protest strikes in which every Jewish worker laid down his tools. How could anyone believe for a moment that Jewish leaders and Jewish organizations bred to a militant stance against anti-Semitism would become “instruments of murder” in the slaughter of Jews. (p. 105)

…. Miss Arendt, who proclaims the cooperation of “recognized” Jewish leaders “almost without exception,” did not produce a single name from Eastern Europe—where millions of Jews lived—to support her story. She refers to Judenrat officials, the Nazi-appointed councilmen, and declares that “whereas the members of the Quisling governments were usually taken from the opposition parties the members of the Jewish Councils were as a rule the locally recognized Jewish leaders.” (p. 104) In Eastern Europe, where the majority of Jews were located, the reverse is true.

Due to the lengthy nature of Prof. Ezorsky’s article, I’ve decided to continue it in a second post.  Click here for this continuation, including material on the diverse nature of the Judenrate leadership and the degree to which Jews resisted the Nazis despite impossible odds.  

By | 2011-07-05T13:08:00-04:00 July 5th, 2011|Blog|2 Comments


  1. Anonymous July 6, 2011 at 9:38 pm - Reply

    Pleasant Post. This transmit helped me in my college assignment. Thnaks Alot

  2. Anastasia F-B January 16, 2012 at 2:35 am - Reply

    Hello from England! The subject of Arendt came up in discussion on the GoodReads site, following my review of The Kaiser’s Holocaust, a book about the massacre of the Herero and Nama people of what was then German South-West Africa. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8250985-the-kaiser-s-holocaust

    I’m going to re-read Eichmann in Jerusalem with the intention of adding a review. It was while scouring the internet for criticisms that I came across your interesting blog. Anyway, thinking ahead, the title I intend to work under is Hannah (sometimes) in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of a Book.

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