Friday, April 27, 2007

Response to Calev Ben David

It is an outrage that so much misunderstanding can be put in one article, in fact the article of Mr. Ben David in the Jerusalem Post can hardly be called a Book Review. Hereunder my response to this truly revolutionary piece.

Dear Mr. Ben David,

I've read with surprise your review on Arendt's recently published 'Jewish Writings', and the surprise comes by no means nolens volens but rather clothed in a thick air of what Nietzsche would call the eternal return of history; so that it is helpless to produce a proper response but however, one can grant himself the proper criticism. As things stand now, it is no longer surprising that the Israeli admirers and detractors of Hannah Arendt can hardly differ in their opinions - her lack of 'true' Jewishness or 'Jewish loyalties', her alacrity before issues surrounding the State of Israel following its establishment or her silence before Zionist issues after 1948 and in particular after the publication of the infamous Eichmann in Jerusalem; the humidity of this controversy has yet not ended some over fourty-five years after the Eichmann book and thirty following her death. Proof of the polemic character of this discussion has been even put into a book of contributions in Hebrew, by Israeli scholars and edited by Idith Zertal and Moshe Zuckermann, published in 2004.

Philosophically speaking Arendt is hardly the kind of thinker everyone would reckon with, her unpredictable style together with the ecclectic or original character of her reflections make her often an obscure thinker to conversate with, and one that even at that keeps leading political philosophers and commentators busy with their ideas. The difference between those polemic commentators like Dana R. Villa, Seyla Benhabib and Ágnes Heller (all of them Jewish, and not sure whether 'marginal' in your opinion) and the current Israeli public, is that as Arendt mentioned in regard to her Eichmann book, 'there's no discussion as heated as the one on a book no one has read'. It strikes me as particularly difficult to assess overall the oeuvre of a thinker whose roots in both Judaism and Western thought have not been properly explored and whose books remain unavailable to a great majority not only of the public, but also of the intelligentsia. Politically, it is undeniable that she stands out as one of the most influential theoreticians of the previous century and this is something few will argue against. Jewishly speaking, no less than ten years have unearthed Arendt's Jewish concerns and the paradoxical nature of her 'opinions' in the light of the Nazi Holocaust, the failure of Jewish assimilation in Europe and the State of Israel.

For your information, Arendt's 'Origins of Totalitarianism' examines the common roots of Nazism and Stalinism and their crystalization into Totalitarianism, altogether with the revision of other elements such as Fascism, Imperialism and Nationalism. This work was indeed the first one to establish this connection, and remains so far one of the most serious accounts; yet it is by no means a work of political philosophy as her later 'On Revolution' or 'In Between Past & Future' are. It is matter-of-factly a work of a historical outlook, at best one could call it philosophy of political history, yet not without being misled. This work did not aim to establish and raise empiricist objections about the writing of history, but rather to present a hermeneutic account of 'things as they were', if the saying of Herodotus could be deliberately translated into the past tense.

That Arendt was very difficult to classify as a Jew is beyond doubt, and this echoes to the long history of antisemitism (not only in modern times) where the Jews were unable to keep their identity in political terms because such had gone through a 'metamorphosis' by the onlookers everytime the 'chips were down' to use an Arendtianism, so that Jean-Paul Sartre would remark that in his opinion a Jew is who the others believe to be a Jew. This lack of labels and maverick-of-sorts style of Arendt is what undeniable characterizes her pariahdom and her Jewishness (not her Judaism) in the light of the public. A certain early Zionist writer commented that the Jewish people are a group whose existence is lived in time and not in space, characterization to which Arendt did not fail to live up. In her political philosophy she refused to come to terms with the lack of political role of Jews in Western history and this undoubtedly shaped her views on the concept of the political, no less than her inheritance from an old German-Jewish literary culture and her philosophical influences from personalities as divergent as Jaspers, Heidegger, St. Augustine and W. Benjamin.

For the record, the American discussion among political scientist on Arendt's oeuvre has by long ceased to be all too concerned with the Eichmann book, that few academic works cite today and that often has constituted the basis of reflections on ethics and moral philosophy, an inclination that Arendt kept through most of her active life, both in public and in writing. Eichmann in Jerusalem and the Origins of Totalitarianism were not written with a Jewish audience in mind and addressed both a concern with the public world (universalism, political theory) and with the already for long dichotomical and outmooded notion of privacy (particularlity, Judaism, the household). The book on Varnhagen is certainly a 'Jewish' text, to which even Gershom Scholem conceded broadly, yet its roots are a particularly German-Jewish problem that decissively shaped her thinking on politics during her exile in France.

The Jewish Writings are indispensable in any understanding of her work as a whole, because they shed the most information on subjects about which she remained silent, only if out of secular caution and an strict concern with privacy, no willy-nilly she was so fond of Auden's poem 'Private faces in public places / Are wiser and nicer than public faces in private places'. This only in order to show that no one really knows what Arendt believed in, yet her public life was in every respect remarkable. And precisely because Arendt constituted the last heir of that rich and old German-Jewish culture is the reason why her legacy should be explored and criticized; after the extermination of European Jewry, a certain tendency toward nihilism and values far removed from those of Classical Judaism took over the remnants in America and Israel; this lack of tradition (which Arendt recognized but that nonetheless she herself brought back to life in her writings) is precisely that 'gap in between past and future' that describes best the situation of Israeli culture and society in general.

Once the 19th century nationalism narrative ceased to have enough strength to be a secular political theology, there was nothing left in this country to be named a stronghold, so that the youth of Israel have preferred to turn their backs not only to everything that can be called their own, but are decidedly rejected by everybody else for that very same reason. Western Postmodernism is not an alternative for a Jewish nation, not for the nation of the Bible, and the fact that it has slowly found a warm nest among the citizens of Israel, can only be a sign that those you call marginal like Arendt and Heine, do represent after their own fashion a bridge in between the old and the new that was irretrieveably lost in the course of modern Jewish historiy. The narrative has ceased to be able to narrate the reality, and whatever else might be of recourse to fix this problem, is demonized as 'diasporic' or 'old-fashioned', not in the case of Arendt though, thereby it is simply called 'German'. Forgetting of course the role German Jewry played in the revival of the Hebrew language, the foundation of the earliest insitutions like the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the printed media and the literary culture in general... so that today in the postmodern generation German Jewry remains a vital source of Jewish culture for a good number of educated Israelis that found themselves in this 'gap' where the Israeli Modernity could by no means re-invent itself because of the lack of relevance of the categories on which it had been founded.

It is entirely mistaken to assert that she lost all interest in what you term 'parochial Jewish affairs'; it is worthwhile remembering her involvement in the Committee for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction in Germany from the 1950's until her death, and her undeniable role as a 'Jew' during her public life in Germany, helping to shape positions and propositions that remain nowadays difficult to swallow even among the most liberal fractions of European society. Needless to go into details regarding the Eichmann controversy, that has been abused by the Israeli left to claim Arendt for their own ideological purposes; whoever takes the time to read this book not as a historical account but as a philosophical text and the memoir of a generation that lived in the old Jewish burgeoisie and experienced the Holocaust and the rather difficult course taken by the Israeli state, will see that what is most poignantly important about this book is not its 'facts', for since the Enlightenment already, truth has been decissively separated from matters of factuality, so that the notion of truth in politics is as futile as any attempt to assert the reality of politics itself.

Arendt did make quite clear what this lack of 'love for the Jewish people' meant, so that once again one returns to her original intellectual conception of the co-existence of the universal and the particular in one person (which had been already echoed in Goethe) instead of circling around dialectics. Arendt sustained a lively correspondence with some members of the German political and literary elite, with whom she made clear her position in the world as a Jew, no less than when speaking about public affairs in her adopted country. Her speeches at the receipt of the Lessing and the Sonning Prize, clearly attest to this. To her this narrative remained the only way to speak about the Holocaust as a Jew and whatever she foresaw as the outcome of Israeli politics has come into reality now more than ever; we have certainly not failed to sustain the country and protect it, but no doubt we have failed in doing politics. The conformity in the air and the lack of revolutionary spirit that accompanied the 19th century Zionism are today more stringent than ever before; few would be able to take this country as a political institution seriously, its secured position as an 'existential home' for the Jewish people is not political, it is a distinction made on the basis of an awful blend of love and guilt, and ultimately of pity. Arendt's work has for long been associated with the Augustinian dictum 'for the love of the world' (amor mundi) but in radically reverse terms, this is certainly proven by her involvement in public affairs, instead of the contemplative position to which the philosopher since Plato, has been relegated. Hannah Arendt, not unlike her favourite character, Lessing, refused to make herself at home in this world but yet remained so critically committed to it, and ideology is something that quickly jumps out the window whenever the word criticism is around.

Arendt's pariahdom and that of those she wrote about (Benjamin, Heine, Varnhagen) is something we really could not comprehend today, so that instead of mourning we might as well try and catch a fragment of what it meant back then before the greatest tragedy of the Jewish people to which Arendt, without theologies or theodicies to help her, could never come to grips with. Chaplin did not represent a 'pariah Jew', for as you well know he was not Jewish, but it was his natural courage and ability to distinguish between right and wrong what won him a place among those heroes of Arendt's legends that resemble more Germanic folk-tales than political essays, and that is where her talent at its best displayed: Gathering so much aestheticism from the ruins of dark times not in order to atone for them, but to show the obsure clarity of the abyss they have placed before us.

That Arendt is a marginal Jewish thinker is something that only time will tell, for certainly the price of pariahdom is very high but it does not come without a reward, it comes with the ability to love the world enough to make ourselves responsible for it with body and soul, to quote Arendt... a responsibility that escapes most of us in the inexorable demands that a 'home' bestows upon us. Because the outcome of our education has proven the opposite true, that there is no such a love for the world any more but rather a mere conformity before the unfolding circumstances, is the main reason for which these so-called 'Jewish Writings' deserve to be read with care, not only by the scholarly community, but by those of us who still harbor the hope that in not giving up the difficult enterprise of asking difficult questions, we might as well engage in handing over to the next generation a world in which they might be able to live in, rather than surviving, like most of us at present do, without much success.

Ari Akkermans-Amaya

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