Even when not explicitly on the agenda, knocking Israel seems to be a favorite pastime in the academy nowadays. I recently attended two events at New York University. One was a conference over the weekend of Dec. 2-3, honoring the legacy of Hannah Arendt on the hundredth anniversary of her birth. The other, which I will discuss at another time, was a speech by the outspoken NYU historian, Tony Judt.
Arendt was a controversial and complex character — a political philosopher and vocal social critic, whose most contentious work was probably “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” It stemmed from her observations at the momentous trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1963, which she covered as a correspondent for The New Yorker magazine. She’s probably been attacked as much or more for the subtitle as the content of her book.
She did not truly regard either Eichmann or evil as “banal,” but insisted on regarding this gray emissary of death in human terms, not as a demonic “other” radically apart from the rest of us. He was a bureaucratic careerist, who made sure that the trains ran on time to the death camps and was possibly not even antisemitic in a personal sense.
Arendt’s book included an indictment of the Jewish Councils, the Jewish community leaders ensnared by the Nazis into collaborating in the Holocaust. In placing them on the same continuum of evil as Eichmann, she may have gone too far in blaming the victims, but I’ll have to read her more closely before passing judgment. The judgment she passed on the Jews, however, was too harsh for some critics to bear. But as someone who fearlessly (or brazenly) confronted us with the moral imperative to take responsibility for our actions, she became an heroic figure to many others who read her.
What doesn’t help her with many stalwart Jews is that she is also on record as a critic of Zionism. But, as the screening of an interview conducted with her made clear, after leaving Nazi Germany for Paris, she worked with great dedication and satisfaction for Youth Aliya, preparing young German and Polish Jews to move to Palestine in the 1930s. Then she emigrated to the US where she helped make the New School for Social Research (along with other exiled Jewish academics) into a pioneering institution.
A number of great Jewish-refugee minds from this period are honored in certain intellectual circles, not only for their academic work, but also for supposedly being critics or opponents of Zionism. Most of this is anti-Zionist wishful thinking or exaggeration; for example, Albert Einstein probably preferred a dovish stand toward the Arabs, but he was a renowned supporter of Zionism and Israel. The same can be said of the famed theologian-philosopher Martin Buber, who definitely was a peacenik, but spent nearly half of his long life as an oleh in Palestine and Israel.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl is a psychoanalyst who has written two books on Hannah Arendt. She co-organized the Arendt program at NYU. I missed her presentation early in the conference, but I did catch her later. She articulated a psychoanalytic theory of “Israeli militarism” that Israelis obsessively repeat the trauma of persecution or the Shoah with the goal of “getting it right this time.” I don’t appreciate this reductionist and caustic way of thinking about Israel’s predicament.
This statement was made at a session with Rony Brauman, the writer for a film on the Eichmann trial, “The Specialist.” His main claim to fame was as president of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) from 1982 to 1994, when MSF withdrew from humanitarian efforts in Ethiopia and in eastern Zaire/Congo; both were situations that implicated humanitarian organizations in politically-induced crises. His discussion focused upon the need for taking responsible decisions under morally difficult circumstances, something that made him find inspiration in the work of Arendt.
For whatever reason, Mr. Brauman had to add that he, a secular Jew, was “not Zionist” (supposedly like Arendt). During his rambling presentation, in his halting English, Brauman even gratuitously made the bizarre claim that the 1967 war was caused by Israel being a nuclear power.
At the following and final session, another difficult moment occurred for me when Steven Wasserman, a New York literary agent, recounted Arendt’s response to Gershom Scholem’s accusation that she didn’t “love the Jewish people.” Her response was that she couldn’t love the Jewish people or any people — an abstract entity — because this makes no sense.
In the Q & A, I indicated that I knew what Arendt meant logically, but that she was ignoring the deep sentiment that Scholem expressed. Was he really wrong in feeling “love” for his people? And, at any rate, he was simply a scholar of Jewish mysticism; he didn’t do anything wrong.
Wasserman responded that Scholem wasn’t such an innocent; he had tried to get the refugee-intellectual Walter Benjamin to join him in immigrating to Palestine. At which point I quickly interjected, “And this would have saved his life.” Wasserman had to admit that to be true.
On the panel with Wasserman was Walter Mosley, the famed writer of crime stories. In responding positively to my complaint, he reminded the audience that he’s Jewish on his mother’s side, as well as African-American via his father. Mosley said that people have the right to identify as they want, but sooner or later the reality of who you are tends to hit you in the face.
Now Wasserman is not exactly a cold non-Jewish Jew and he indicated that Arendt was not either — that she was actually proud to be a Jew. Wasserman recommended a new anthology by Pantheon Books of Arendt’s “Jewish Writings,” due to be released in January. He also recalled seeing a seven-hour German film on Hitler some years back in LA (he edited the Los Angeles Times Book Review for a decade until last year) and going to the men’s room to find himself at a urinal next to Walter Matthau (the now deceased comedic actor) — to whom he exclaimed in wonderment, “Nu, two Jews seeing a film about Hitler!” Matthau explained that he never missed a film about Hitler; Wasserman’s point was that it’s too bad that only Jews seem interested in Hitler.
But Wasserman still felt compelled to express a visceral hostility toward Zionism, which emerged awkwardly as if he objected to people saving themselves from the Holocaust. Whether it’s Mr. Wasserman or Hannah Arendt, intellectuals can be so high-minded and lofty in their criticisms, that they are blind to the realities on the ground.
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