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Understanding Anti-Semitism

Hannah Arendt on the origins of prejudice.

Ideas, in the last century, were the masters of facts, but in this century the facts have returned to haunt them. The duty of free minds once was to discover vast new conceptions of humanity which would free more minds and smash the tyrannies; but the tyrannies generally were not smashed, they were replaced, and the vast new conceptions only reshackled the minds they were meant to free. The duty of free minds now is to discover these facts. The cruelest fact of all, after the long adventure, anointed by reason, in starting society over, is that the truth about human institutions is as strange as it always was. Reason was not introduced into politics with revolution. It is plain in the newspapers that the wretched of the earth do not make quite the calculations of interest we expect them to make. The oppressed, like the oppressors, are not usually sensible. Their values are odd, and obscure. They are easily led. Often they simply hate. They do not, in any case, conform tidily to the categories that were invented to understand them. And so the understanding of much political behavior has slowly slipped from the goodwilling grasp of many intellectuals. The crime of the intellectuals, too often, is that they are insufficiently credulous. They have been lulled by democracy, in which so much is unimaginable. They are, many of them, strangers to strangeness.

There is no stranger truth about the West, no larger obstruction to the rational understanding of politics, than anti-Semitism. Economic misery and political absolutism are usually proposed as the reasons for the great mass upheavals of contemporary history; but upon such sane and compassionate explanations the hard mailed fist of Jew hatred sometimes comes crashing down, exposing the illusion that the downtrodden wished only to improve their own lot, leaving instead the foul spectacle of entire populations choosing the persecution of the Jews over the struggle for genuine social and material progress. A common enemy is won more cheaply than a common good. There has been almost no revolution, of the right or the left, that has not justified anti-Semitism. Jews are usually discovered in the eye of the storm. "Many still consider it an accident that Nazi ideology centered around anti-Semitism," observed Hannah Arendt in the opening pagesof The Origins of Totalitarianism; and this "failure to take seriously what the Nazis themselves said is comprehensible enough." The anti-Semitic construction of history was just too stupid, the plan to slaughter all the Jews just too crazy. Anti-Semitism, as Arendt correctly insisted, was "an outrage to common sense." The particular senselessness of anti-Semitism, of course, had seized Europe many times before; but that this ancient embarrassment to culture survived into the late enlightened centuries, that it battened upon the modern convulsions too, that it flourished no less in the midst of the great campaigns against intolerance and unfreedom, as vigorous among the poor as among the privileged—this was the bizarre fact that had to be acknowledged and then explained. The age that would transform, and perfect, the whole human world did not transform this, though it did perfect it.

The persistence of anti-Semitism, and its unlikely but essential place among the critical motives of modern politics vexed Hannah Arendt deeply. Her many writings on the Jews begin with this fact. It was Arendt who summoned intellectuals to the modern story of the Jews, who began by announcing the strange truth that ''of all the great unsolved political questions of our century, it should have been this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem that had the dubious honor of setting the whole infernal machine in motion." She liked to quote David Rousset's terrifying remark that "normal men do not know that everything is possible." Arendt's own Jewishness, her bitter quarrel with Zionism, her startling misrepresentation of Jewish conduct under the Nazis were all generated by a method of making sense out of anti-Semitism, a method which marked her as perhaps the last great Jewish believer in Europe. Yet the consequence of Arendt's analysis was, in the end, to make the truth much less strange. The "outrage," which it was her merit to name, was eliminated by a theory, and "common sense" restored. This was accomplished in an account" of the Jews' career in modern Europe which raises grave methodological and moral questions.

"There is hardly an aspect of contemporary history more irritating and mystifying"— her words, once more—"than the fact that of all the great unsolved political questions of our century, it should have been this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem that had the dubious honor of setting the whole infernal machine in motion." But it was not the Jewish problem that tripped the wire, and exploded Europe. It was the German problem, and this is not a quibble.

The mind's duel with evil—an old duel, but never more to the death than in this century—frequently unmans the mind. Explanations are produced which blunt the horror and protect the philosophical continuity of the culture. The intellectual extenuation of evil has always been a real temptation for moral natures. Theodicy, the extenuations were called, when the responsibility could still be God's. When it is plainly man's they take new forms. Where they once exalted the criminal they now diminish the crime. This is done by blurring the distinction between guilt and innocence, between the villain and the victim, And this, in turn, is done in two ways, which respectively characterize discussions of the age's great evils, the Soviets and the Nazis. The savagery of Stalin and his successors has led certain writers (generally those still lured by socialism's early promise) to make the villain into a bit of a victim; Stalin is portrayed as a sorry prisoner of the illusions of power, Brezhnev as the panicked steward of a crumbling economy. The savagery of Hitler has led certain writers (generally Jews ashamed of the death camps) to make the victim into a bit of a villain; the Jews of Europe, it is said, had a share in fashioning their grisly fate.

Hannah Arendt found no pathos in Stalin's life of murder, no softening human considerations about the author of the archipelago. It was she who first described with tough-minded precision the machinery of “total domination” and brilliantly identified the new type of despotism made of terror and ideology; and in her account of the Communist dictatorship she left nothing morally or historically equivocal about the part of the manipulated masses. She was no less uninterested in the disorders of Hitler's personality when she came to describe the Nazi regime. Her subject, quite rightly, was a political system without precedent, and the instruments of control—the propaganda and the police—which tamed an entire nation. But in the Nazi variety of totalitarianism, according to her later work, there appeared a chink. This tyranny was not exactly total; there were at least some victims who were not merely manipulated, but remained masters enough of events to assist in their own destruction.

These exceptional victims were the Jews.

Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis. The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people. 

These were the unfortunate sentences in Eichmann in Jerusalem that ignited the controversy (and, it must be said, ignited also the interest of many intellectuals in matters that had not yet become a common measure of moral and mental seriousness). What Arendt's many critics failed to remark, however, was that her blunder was the result of a view of anti-Semitism, based precisely upon how the Jewish people had been "organized," that she had been espousing since the 1940s. It was a view she took from Bernard Lazare, an eloquent and rather unlearned French-Jewish moralist of the Dreyfus years, who was Arendt's model Jew.

"The demoralization of a people of the poor and the prosecuted, receiving a dole from its rich and having rebelled only against persecution from without and not against oppression from within. Revolutionaries in the society of others and not in its own." Thus did Lazare aphoristically account for the misery of the Jews: they were kept down by their own rich and educated, who had their privileges to preserve. The Jewish plutocracy, according to Lazare, required the poverty of the masses, and the assimilating Jewish intellectuals required their backwardness, as proof of their own success. The philanthropic institutions established by the Geldjuden for the Jewish community only disguised the class interest they had in their brethren's need for alms. Lazare did not expand upon his discovery, which was owed in part to his vulgar and unsystematic socialism. Arendt, for other reasons, did.  

In 1944 Arendt published "The Jew as Pariah," and two years later "Privileged Jews," essays which staked out, a little too dazzlingly, the subject of her greatest contribution to the study of Jewish history—the social psychology of assimilation. Arendt's speculations on the inner life of the exceptional cases, on the psyche of the parvenu, remain unsurpassed. The parvenu wished, as the poet J. L. Gordon urged, to "be a man in the street and a Jew at home." But this, commented Arendt, "actually amounted to a feeling of being different from other men in the street because they were Jews and different from other Jews at home because they were not ordinary Jews,'" The ordinary were the background against which the extraordinary would shine. The parvenu thrived, then, upon the existence of the parish: in the 1820s, for example, the Rothschilds withdrew a substantial subsidy from the community at Frankfurt in order to counteract reformers who wanted Jewish children to have a general education. The material and cultural affliction of the many followed remorselessly from the same prosperity of the few. In the end the prosperous also met the consequences of their greed. When the state, whose imperialist adventures began to attract non-Jewish capital that previously had been interested only in private investment, eventually dispensed with the services of Jewish financiers, and when society, which had suffered some Jews in the salons to help relieve the bourgeois boredom, eventually lost its fascination for the outcast, no Jews were spared.  

The judenräte, then, did what the Rothschilds had done. They played the same historical role in the undoing of their people. They, the bankers at the courts and the bureaucrats in the ghettos, deluded the herd and made profit from the government, and so were the real agents of anti-Semitism, the callow instruments of the war against the Jews. The emancipation of the Jews in modern Europe, Arendt concluded, was defeated by the internecine rivalries of Jewish society. The opportunity of the new Europe, politically and philosophically reconstructed, was squandered. Arendt never doubted that such an opportunity existed; but what is most objectionable about her account of anti- Semitism is not its sunny faith that the malice might have been rolled back; it is her method. Arendt blames the victim. "Jews… do not wish under any circumstances to discuss their share of responsibility," whereas "the sources of modern anti-Semitism must be found in certain aspects of Jewish history and specifically Jewish functions during the last centuries.”  

No. It is to be found in certain aspects of German history, and French history, and Russian history. Not in Jewish money, but in German industry; not in Rahel Varhagen's attic, but in the drawing rooms of the Faubourg-St. Germain; not in the stratification of the Jewish community, but in all the unlucky classes beneath the kaisers and the czars; not in Jewish achievement, but in the pitiful inability of certain political cultures to tolerate it; not in the Jewish insistence upon difference, but in the non-Jewish insistence upon sameness. Study the goyim, in short, not the Jews—and the whites, not the blacks. And the secret police, not the informer. There is something morally quite simple about totalitarianism, and about the hatred for whole peoples and races, that corresponds to the historical fact that the victims were, in these systems of slavery and murder, simply powerless.  

What led Arendt to such an interpretation of anti-Semitism was the problem of its plausibility.  

An ideology which has to persuade and mobilize people cannot choose its victim arbitrarily.... If a patent forgery like the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion' is believed by so many people that it can become the text of a whole political movement, the task of the historian is no longer to discover a forgery.... The chief historical and political fact of the matter is that the forgery is being believed.  

The popularity of anti-Semitism, in other words, is a sign that something about it is founded in fact. A sheer falsehood would not have met with so much success. Arendt appears to have forgotten, in this instance, about the gross ideological duping of the masses, which has been a regular feature of modern politics, and about the gullibility of groups in need of solace. The tender position of the Jews no doubt fitted them perfectly for the lie that the tyrants needed for their tyranny; but that hardly means that the Jews themselves were responsible for that position, or that the lie was any less a lie.

Arendt has here misunderstood the nature of prejudice, which is precisely a feeling that is not based upon, and so cannot be revised by, evidence. Anti-Semitism in German universities between the wars, for example, flourished most in those institutions in which there were no Jews. The anti-Semite does not see the Jews and then hate, he hates the Jews and then sees. The prejudice is always prior. The Jews did not cause it and they cannot cure it. The Jewish bourgeoisie believed that if it improved itself, and acquired all the appurtenances of art and commerce, and fought for the flag in the trenches, its enemies would go away. And Arendt, who yielded to none in her contempt for these nervous Jewish philistines, repeated their error. She knew, of course, that there was no political reward for gentility; a change in the political fortune of the Jews would take more than paintings and portfolios. But, she believed, had Europe's Jews rebelled against their rich and repented the alliances with rulers that they struck in their name, they might not have come to such a bad end.

This is not to deny that the behavior of the Jews has some impact upon the policies of governments and the sentiments of populations toward them. But a distinction must be made between political opposition and racism. The Jews did not meet with opposition; or, rather, they met with no opposition that was not also that other malignancy. In Europe the term of Jewish politics was not interests—only America allowed them that much—but rights, which were reluctantly conceded and often revoked. Emancipation was not a struggle for power but for legitimacy; and legitimacy, or the right not to disappear, is not something that can be argued for. (The cost in self-esteem in making the argument is itself too crippling,) The Jews, then, may have influenced all kinds of political developments and economic events and popular perceptions, but it was precisely what they could not influence, what was blind to their words and deeds, what came of nothing except the anti-Semite’s own unhappiness, that doomed them. Anti-Semitism may be defined as an attitude about the Jews that they cannot influence. For that reason it cannot be refuted, it can only be fought. It is always a judgment already made.  

An analysis of prejudice that finds a part for the victim only lessens the scandal. It is a retreat to rationality, which may be noble. But against such an analysis the innocence of the victim must be upheld, hard as it is for the mind to bear. The political wisdom of the Jews was not very great, but they did not desire to be set upon. Anti-Semitism was an intervention in Jewish life; it came unbidden from outside. It discriminated against Jews and tortured them and killed them, all without their consent. When the victim is innocent, evil is radical. When the victim is an accomplice, evil is—banal. 

This the first part of a two-part essay. Here is part two. 

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

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