You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Pariahs and Politics

Hannah Arendt and the Jews, Part II.
That was just Lamentations, it was not History...—Derek Walcott

The idea of the responsible victim was conceived by Hannah Arendt to restore the honor of the Jews. Victimization is a disgrace; but there is no disgrace in action, or in taking the consequences. Arendt's view of Jewish complicity in the anti-Semitic crime ironically resembles the vulgar Zionist view which exaggerates the Jewish resistance to it. Both recoiled from the grim chronicle of helplessness that is more or less the political history of the Jews ("the extraordinary spectacle of a people... which avoided all political action for two thousand years"), and so they invented a past that will less fully humiliate them. Arendt and the Zionists both wished to defend the Jews against the charge—as old as the Enlightenment, and fanned back into life by Sartre after the war—that they are essentially reactive beings, whose character and destiny are the work of others. But there the resemblance stops. Arendt's account is really just another humiliation. For what honor is there in collaboration? What glory in always coming back for more? Arendt's Jews are no longer passive, they stumble no more from one calamity to another, they are answerable, at least in part, for their losses; but they act only to become pariahs, or patricians who deliver their own people to the knife.

Arendt's writings on the Jews are all an attack upon what she called "the doctrine of eternal anti-semitism." Salo Baron called this the "lachrymose view" of Jewish history. It is the martyrological reading of the Jewish past, by now a cliche of Jewish consciousness, according to which the Jews had always been "the passive, suffering object of Christian persecutions," and later of the state's persecutions, and there are surely more to come. It is the law of history that those whom the gods would destroy they first make Jewish. This"lachrymosity" is one of the principal superstitions of Jewish life, and many of Arendt's criticisms are in order. Anti-Semitism is a problem, but it is not a destiny; and it is a historical, not a metaphysical, problem. Arendt correctly remarked upon the ahistorical nature of this collective morbidity. The preoccupation with persecution, the typological construction of Jewish history according to which the Arabs repeated the Nazis, who repeated the Cossacks, who repeated the Crusaders, poses grave dangers to the political wakefulness of the Jews. They will not properly perceive their enemies, if they believe that they already know them; and they will not act, if they believe that nothing can be changed. The memory of the Jews turns up similarities, but for statecraft it is the differences that matter.

"The doctrine of eternal anti-semitism," Arendt continues, became a political ideology, the historical-philosophical foundation of a mass movement, in Zionism. In "Zionism Reconsidered," written in 1944, Arendt castigated Jewish nationalism for "presupposing the eternity of anti-semitism in an eternal world of nations, and, moreover, denying the Jewish part of responsibility for existing conditions." Zionism appealed "to this basic Jewish attitude... the dangerous, time-honored, deep-seated distrust of Jews for Gentiles"; and for this reason Zionism was "irrational," The corollary of this "half-mystical" Zionist fatalism was "an utter resignation, an open acceptance of anti-semitism as a 'fact.'" It epitomized "the old mentality of enslaved peoples, the belief that it does not pay to fight back, that one must dodge and escape in order to survive." The escape was, of course, to Palestine.

Yet Zionism did not believe that anti-Semitism is eternal; such an opinion could not have moved so many Jews to conquer their despair and cross the seas. It did believe, however, that anti- Semitism is eternal, or at least indelible, in Europe. Nor did Zionism teach that "it does not pay to fight back," but that it pays to win, and the fight in Europe as it had been fought could not be won. Arendt rightly detected in the Jewish national movement a deep pessimism about Europe, and it was this that turned her against it.

Among all the misconceptions harbored by the zionist movement because it had been influenced so strongly by anti-semitism, this false notion of the non-European character of the Jews has had probably the most far-reaching and the worst consequences. Not only did the Zionists break the necessary solidarity of European peoples—necessary not only for the weak but for the strong as well... The Zionists would deprive the Jewish people of its just share in the roots and development of what we generally call Western culture.

Zionism was not quite as Levantine as all that; but it is true that for some Zionists the Jews did not belong among the "European peoples," and for others the time had come for the Jews, at least physically, to secede.

The great proponent of secession was, of course, Theodore Herzl, that extravagant European, whose "solution for the Jewish problem was, in the final analysis, escape or deliverance in a homeland." Herzl is the villain in Arendt's piece, and Lazare the hero. "Both men were turned into Jews by anti-semitism," she wrote, but it was Lazare who "came to realize that the real obstacle in the path of his people's emancipation was not anti-semitism." Lazare preferred that the Jews remain and do battle—against their own wealthy, the true foes, and alongside the other revolutionary elements of Europe, the true friends. It is more than a little curious that Arendt's exquisite skepticism about revolution—her work was a powerful deposition against the costly passion for making men over— should not have entered into her expectations for the Jews.

Arendt's analysis of the anti-Semitism—"Jewish Folly and Gentile duplicity"— justified her confidence in Europe. The failure of the Europeans to overcome their hoary disdain for Jews did not shake her confidence, because in her view the Jews had to do the overcoming. Yet there could be no greater folly for Jews than to dissociate politics from memory, as Arendt recommended. Anti- Semitism may be only a problem, but it is a problem that persists. It is, as Zionism rudely suggested, "a fact," a fact that called into question the most cherished Jewish dream of the 19th century, the dream of a normal life in Europe. The Europeans reminded the Jews of their exile. Zionism, as mortified as its critic Arendt by the "ghetto mentality," did not ask, as she did, that the Jews come back for more, and hope always against hope; it was alone among the secular Jewish ideologies in owning up to the grain of historical truth in the mentality that had quieted the Jews for ages.

In that sense Arendt was right when she wrote that Zionism had fallen heir to a traditional Jewish attitude. To that attitude, however, Zionism added a shocking admission of national self interest; and so this time the memory of anti-Semitism meant business; it quickened the Jews, it did not hobble the settlers in Galilee or the statesmen in the Jewish Agency. (The foreign policy of Israel can always be located somewhere between memory and interest.) Arendt warned wisely against the self-fulfilling nature of the search for patterns in the past, against the palsying of the will by the martyrological regard for history. Yet the reluctance to bow to any general conclusions about the porousness of a culture, or of a political system, can be just as dangerous. The struggle for equality in Europe had suffered too many reverses for the Jews to go on believing that the verdict was still out. Zionism made up many myths about Jewish history, but the tenacity of anti-Semitism was not among them.

Zionism for Arendt, moreover, was still another instance of Jewish collaboration with the enemy. She was one of those detached historical thinkers (Carl Schorske is the most recent) who put into circulation the idea that Zionism has much in common with anti-Semitism; the idea has become quite a popular "irony" of history. Arendt liked to cite Herzl's blackest sentences ("it is the anti-Semites who will be our staunchest Friends"), and to linger over the haavarah agreement of 1933 between the Jewish Agency and the Reich Ministry of Finance, which enabled German- Jewish emigrants to Palestine to get out with half their holdings, as examples oF Zionism's " 'realistic' willingness to do business with foes of the Jewish people . . . and to take propaganda advantage of anti-Jewish hostility." Arendt's position in this matter is a little pure; and yet she called upon the Jews in Palestine to have dealings with Palestinians who were pledged to their destruction, some of whom were even more soiled than the Zionists for working with Nazis. It is rather mean to begrudge "realism" to a people in misery. Chaim Weizmann once startled some of his colleagues when he agreed to consider a meeting with Hitler, and he explained that to save Jews he would meet with the devil himself—that is the seriousness about survival that made Jewish nationalism into a powerful historical force. Herzl's remarks, furthermore, are no worse than Marx's wish that the capitalists prosper, so that the gulf between the classes grow great; those who think they are on the side of history are always opportunists. All that Zionism shared with anti-Semitism—here Arendt was bitterly on the mark—was the proposition that as a people the Jews could find no home in Europe. At times even Arendt assented to this, and proceeded to exalt homelessness.

Anti-Semitism may have made Herzl into a Jew, but it did not make the Jews into a people. Zionism's repudiation of Europe presupposed a national definition of Jewish identity: and Arendt understood that beneath the political program there was an ideology of separateness. She called it "a modernization of the old myth of chosenness," though it was really no more than the psychological enfranchisement, the (amourpropre, that attends all national Feeling. Arendt did not wish to be separate. A view of history for which the fundamental distinction was between Jews and non-Jews abandoned her to company that was not of her choosing. She greeted with great excitement Jacob Katz's description of late medieval Judaism's picture of the world. Katz imputed to the Jews the view that "the difference between Jewry and the nations was fundamentally not one of creed or faith, but one of inner nature"; and Arendt deduced from this that the belief in "the alien character of the Jewish people, which... is the condition sine qua non for the birth of antisemitism... occurred in Jewish self-interpretation first." Katz, however, meant no such thing. His subject was the inward reinforcement of a minority culture; and the indifference of that culture to the majority was a sign that it was, in its spirit, truly free. The insularity of traditional Jewish life was an expression of independence, of a robust reliance upon its own resources, which were not yet depleted by self-doubt. It was part of the Jews' entitlement as a people, Arendt saw in this pride only a provocation.

What finally offended Arendt, who once called herself a Zionist, was Zionism's blunt insistence that the national identity of the Jews be made flesh in a state. The Origins of Totalitarianism, after all, pointed to the nation state— to the modern dogma that each nation have a state, that each state be fitted to a nation—as a main condition for the emergence of 20th-century tyranny. "The misfortune of the building of a Jewish National Home," she wrote in 1950, "has been that it was accompanied by a Central European ideology of nationalism and tribal thinking among Jews." Arendt undertook her reconsideration of Zionism in the wake of a resolution adopted unanimously by the World Zionist Organization in 1944 which presented the demand for "a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth... which [shall] embrace the whole of Palestine, undivided and undiminished."

This is a turning point in Zionist history; for it means that the Revisionist program, so long bitterly repudiated, has proved finally victorious... It seems to admit that the only opportunist reasons had previously prevented the Zionist movement from stating its final aims... It is a deadly blow to those Jewish parties in Palestine itself that have tirelessly preached the necessity of an understanding between the Arab and the Jewish peoples. On the other hand, it will considerably strengthen the majority under Ben-Gurion, which, through the pressures of many injustices in Palestine and the terrible catastrophes in Europe, have turned more than ever nationalistic.

Arendt admired the agrarian romantics of Socialist Zionism for their "entirely unpolitical character"; she thought that the early kibbutzniks "were completely content within the small circle where they could realize their ideas for themselves," that "they were too decent for politics, the best among them somehow afraid of soiling their hands with it." And she discerned in the sterling, impractical politics of Judah Magnes and the other advocates of binationalism in Palestine a "non-nationalist tradition" in Zionism. "The main achievement of the Herzlian tradition was the Jewish State... The main achievement of the [other] tradition was the Hebrew University."

The Jewish renewal that Arendt praised was not only sublime; it was also toothless. The sacking of the Hebrew University in the first Arab-Israeli war should have convinced her that arts and sciences are not a national defense. And she exaggerated the spiritual delicacy of Labor Zionism: as early as 1919, at a conclave of agricultural workers in Petah Tikva, the hewers of wood and drawers of water declared the final aim of Zionism to be the establishment of a Jewish state. There were politicians and intellectuals within Labor Zionism who matched Magnes's concern for reconciliation with the Arabs; they refused to surrender, however, the rudimentary ambition of political Zionism, which is that there be in Palestine an entity in which Jews remain the majority. Arendt wished the Jews to be "a boon to mankind" and "a beacon of peace" by abstaining from the community of states and resisting the allure of sovereignity. She believed that the state had become "the greatest obstacle to national survival for small nations," that she was witnessing "the catastrophic decline of the national-state system in our time." (This was an extraordinary misjudgment: the durability of that system has been dramatically proved by the proliferating small states of the postcolonial world.) But Zionism was intent upon parity for the Jews in politics, that is, upon power; and power, sometimes for worse, comes in states.

What forms of political organization, then, did she propose? In Palestine, a federation of small peoples—as if the disturbances of history are always the work of large peoples. And there was America, that other experiment in getting away from Europe, and Israel's only real competition for the future of Jewish history. Arendt's great attraction to her adopted country no doubt owed much to the fact that America was an innovation in nationalism—a state that was not fitted to a nation, but was more loosely wrapped around many national groups. In this respect the United States was also the fulfillment of the political ideal of German-Jewish humanism, Hermann Cohen, the lofty Jewish neo-Kantian of Marburg, wrote that "insofar as isolation in a nationality is necessary, it is in no way hopeless, for its realization is possible without a state of one's own"; and it was this tradition of sweet thinking, which disliked separateness and rejected the exclusiveness of the nation in favor of the fellowship of nationalities, to which Arendt was philosophically in thrall.

Cohen was sure, as Acton had been a few generations earlier, that such a democratically inflected nationalism was possible in Europe. Arendt was not so cruelly deceived. Dreyfus, and then the death camps, proved that pluralism there was a fantasy. A Jewish lobby is as inconceivable in Europe as a Jewish army. Arendt's prescription for Europe's Jews remained vague. At times she seemed to espouse a kind of progressive's Micawberism: the right revolution would turn up, allies would be found, sooner or later, whose insurrectionary energies would not be misdirected at the Jews. The Spartakusbund, according to Arendt's fond essay on Rosa Luxemburg, was such a moment of illumination, ended by bullets in the back, when some gifted Jews of the bourgeoisie discovered their revolutionary calling and created a camaraderie, sired as much by Lessing as by Marx, for which origins were finally a matter of no consequence. In the history of the Jews Luxemburg must surely be numbered among the few who shed their Jewishness successfully, that is, without having anti-Semitism return it to them. She and the other Jews of her "peer group" (the phrase is J.P. Nettl's) were promoted, by doctrine and by personal relations, to a higher humanity, to a small society of Jewish and non- Jewish radicals whose universalism was astoundingly genuine, who really lived as if they came from nowhere. The translated Rosa then hardened her heart to the particular hardships of the Russian Jews; the party of humanity hears no special pleading. The woman already lived in the future.

What Arendt finally settled on for the Jews of Europe, however, was a little different, and a little less, than this millenarian exaltation. It was the condition of the pariah.

That the status of the Jews in Europe has not been only that of an oppressed people but also of what Max Weber has called a 'pariah people' is a fact most clearly appreciated by those who have had practical experience in just how ambiguous is the freedom which emancipation had assured, and how treacherous the promise of equality which assimilation has held out. In their own position as social outcasts such men reflect the political status of their entire people. It is therefore not surprising that out of their personal experience Jewish poets, writers and artists should have been able to evolve the concept of the pariah as a human type—a concept of supreme importance for the evaluation of mankind in our day.

The Jews had lost their old home, and they had not found a new home. They should, she concluded, give up on homes. They can show how much may be made of dislocation, and how little the human spirit has need of roots. The renunciation of place: that is the ministry of the Jews to the moderns.

Arendt's glorification of exile was a product of the damp, disillusioned climate of the 1940s. She belonged to a generation of displaced persons, of intellectuals whose outlook was unfairly shaped by passports and borders and other considerations that once were petty. It was natural that these intellectuals should see in extraterritoriality a kind of election. The Jews, according to Arendt, had pioneered in this supremely modern malaise; long ago their existence had been pared down to what they could carry. In 1943 she wrote ruefully of "a world in which you have to be sort of politically minded when you buy your food," but the Jews had moved in such a world for centuries. They were the heroes who had done without. And among the Jews, worthy still more of admiration, were the pariahs' pariahs, writers and thinkers like Heine and Lazare, who were banished even by their own. These men inhabited the interstices between the Christians and the Jews, and there they were left, with only their imagination, to make their way. Kafka was the climax of this "hidden tradition" within Judaism. His marginality was positively breathtaking.

But Kafka, for all his exemplary torment, was also a Zionist. The choice between the village and the castle—which Arendt shrewdly glossed as a parable of the political predicament of emancipated Jews—was for him no choice at all; he wanted an utterly new arrangement. Kafka understood, too, that pariahdom is a paltry replacement for the rabbinic tradition. The characterization of the Jews as a pariah people is only another way of defining them by what they are not, by what the others are. It reproduces the triumphalist condescension of the Christian majority for peoples who are outside. Arendt denied that the Jews were outside. She appreciated, however, that they were not exactly inside. She cared only that they remain in some essential relation with Europe, even if a relation of unrequital was all they could get. Better they be outsiders in Paris than insiders in Tel Aviv. The concept of the pariah, then, does not resolve the contradictions of Jewish life, it merely blesses them, and fixes forever the spiritual uncertainty, the psychological habits of the stranger, which lamed the whole enterprise of assimilation. It is an admission of defeat.

Arendt's analysis consigns the Jews to a permanent state of abjection. It is a counsel of despair, but there is a payoff, and it is that the Jewish difference is annulled. The Jews are apostles of an alienation that has become—no greater consummation than this—common. They are not marginal, they are exemplary. Again Arendt brings to mind the German-Jewish apologists she detested; she, too, justifies the suffering of the Jews with the claim that they have a mission to the world. The reverends apostrophized monotheism, and adduced the prophets, and argued that Jews were true Germans. Arendt apostrophized homelessness, and adduced Kafka, and argued that Jews were true Europeans. Indeed, the only true Europeans:

The positions and Functions of the Jewish people in Europe predestined them to become the 'good Europeans' par excellence. The Jewish middle classes of Paris and London, Berlin and Vienna, Warsaw and Moscow, were in fact neither cosmopolitan nor international, though the intellectuals among them thought of themselves in these terms. They were European, something that could be said of no other group. And this was not a matter of conviction; it was an objective fact... Their fatherland was actually Europe.

Arendt demanded that the Jews, who were perched in the most exposed position of their time, become the preservers of the European tradition. Nobody else, it seemed, could be trusted. It was a lot to ask.

It is not difficult, of course, to understand this attachment to a world of metaphysics and waltzes, Arendt's allegiance to an old-fashioned principle of humanity, moreover, and the magnitude of the Jewishness which accompanied it, look rather good when compared to the preachments of certain overly racinated American Jews who demote Jewishness to an ethnic or theological tribalism. (As in this remark by Cynthia Ozick, the noted Jewish writer and cheerleader, in a recent issue of Salmagundi: "Mandelstam was martyred and perished because he compared Stalin's mustache to an insect; but the only thing that happened to Brodsky in his oppression was his allying himself with the paternal generation of his oppressors by vaguely turning Christian joining, in short, the pogromchiks." Of course this was not "the only thing" that happened to Brodsky, but hard labor and exile offend Ozick less if the victim's Judaism is not in order.)

And yet Arendt erred exactly as they do: she did not go beyond the overheated 19th-century notion that culture is the expression of a nation, Arendt's opposition to Zionism was based upon the fear that if the Jews constituted their own nation they could be barred from the spiritual productions of other nations. They could have Rashi and Bialik, but not Mozart and Hoffmansthal. Anti-Semitism, of course, concurred. And yet the evidence was all around her, in the terrible time in which she lived, that no laws or pogroms can rob a Jew of the sonnets and the symphonies he has soul enough to possess.

Like some Zionists, Arendt could not envisage a nationalism that did not colonize every corner of life. Her abhorrence of the identification of culture with the nation-state led her to conclude that its true bearers must wander. But Zionism does not require that Jews indenture all their being to the nation. It requires a political solution to a political problem. It presumes upon no more of the spirit than is necessary to make the Jews safe. Gershom Scholem, who writes in German in Jerusalem, perfectly illustrates this unexaggerated nationalism. Scholem removed to Palestine in 1923 not least because it was only from there that he could honestly participate in German culture; his history of mysticism, which is an extended brief for the autonomous character of the Jewish tradition, drew comfortably upon Romantic theories of symbolism. Others went to the Levant to translate Kant. These Zionists did not desist from politics, and they made no religion of it.

Culture is not available to the Jew only as a pariah or a parvenu. The higher authority of beauty obtains even in a Jewish state. There are Jews who complain that they cannot listen to Bach, for being so Christian, or to Wagner, for being so German; but it is only Christianity or Germanness that they hear. (These are usually the same Jews who admire the Talmud or the Kabbalah for being so Jewish.) Assimilation, they cry, but the very word is too much a concession, because what is vital in a work of art is not its provenance; it is no more "theirs" than it is "ours." It is a grace given to anybody who can be pleased by it, and who is free to see or hear it. The Jews built a state because they had to, but it is not their state that will come between them and culture. Culture is indifferent to the state. It has bigger things to contend with.

Don't show it to me, please don't show it to me. It'll only make me hate the Jews more than ever." These were the words of a woman, reported by Orwell, on being offered a book about Nazi atrocities. The idea that Auschwitz would put an end to anti-Semitism is ridiculous. It may even encourage it, for what was once only dreamed of has now been done. A threshold was crossed. Almost all the Jews were butchered, and the world went on. Anti-Semitism after Auschwitz is like a sin after the fall.

Hannah Arendt was aware that not even the death camps would discredit the hatred of Jews. She warned them that it would reappear in the Middle East: "the anti-semitism of tomorrow will assert that Jews not only profiteered from the presence of the foreign big powers in the region but actually plotted it." That is a pretty good summary of the current calumnies against Israel. It is true that Palestinian nationalism is not anti-Semitism; but it is no less true that since the revolution of 1917 no more respectable cover for anti-Semitism has existed than Palestinian nationalism. The PLO discriminates between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and the world, not for the first time, gives credence to the moral discriminations of terrorists. But if by "racism" the UN General Assembly meant the denial of national identity to a people, and of its legitimate right to be embodied in a state, which is what the Jews are said to deny the Palestinians, then there is no more perfect example of racism than anti-Zionism.

Jewish nationalism, of course, is not the only ground for the fight against anti-Semitism. The persecution of the Jews is an affront to the democratic idea. Yet that idea, at least in Europe, did not secure the Jews against it as effectively as a homeland. The persistence of anti-Semitism after the establishment of the Jewish state is often cited as proof of the failure of Zionism, and in this respect Herzlian nationalism did indeed fail. That failure, however, is not the shame of the Jews; it is the shame of the world. Anti-Semitism recurs whatever Jews do. It is the pornographic strain in Western politics. In Argentina it satisfies the sadism of the right, in Russia it satisfies the sadism of the left. Last spring the Russians were imagining Zionists in Poland, where there are almost no Jews.

It is not hard to be unnerved by the frequency of such an evil. That is why intellectual honesty is very much at stake in the interpretation of anti-Semitism. The intellectually unintimidated wilt acknowledge it without flinching, will call it by its name, will resist the sops of good sense that explain it away. Arendt was, in the matter of anti-Semitism, a humanist too easily appeased. Which is not to say that the strangeness of Jewish fate warrants an abandonment of reason, or that the intellectual must surrender his sobriety to such things as the demonic. The demonic once had a very precise meaning, but it has become the stock-intrade of demagogues in the academy who prefer mysteries to complicated historical analysis. Anti-Semitism appears in different situations for different reasons; it is a subject for politics and psychology, not poetry. And for reason, but not for the timid or optimistic reason bequeathed by the 18th century. Reason in this age must be stretched. It must be taught new expectations. As Walter Laqueur has recently written, in a study of the common failure to believe the strangest news of all, "any rational analysis of the situation would have shown that the Nazi aim was the destruction of all Jews."

There are not anti-Semites because there are Jews, and there are not Jews because there are anti-Semites. There are peoples, and a longing for paradise. The Jews are there for when the longing goes bad, when it ends in tumbrils or in boxcars. But now they have Israel, and America, and the night vision that has always sustained them, that has helped them to believe in the best even as they know the worst, and kept them steady, and on their course, in the dark.  

This the second part of a two-part essay. Here is part one.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.