Hannah Arendt & Zionism

In the current London Review of Books, an interesting look at Hannah Arendt’s work and the current use made of that work, in a review — titled Dragon Slayers — by Corey Robin of three books published in the wake of Arendt’s centenary: Why Arendt Matters by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: The Jewish Writings ed. Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman, and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt. Robin is critical of both Arendt’s thinking in The Origins of Totalitarianism and of the shallow and alibi-like uses made of that book by a range of contemporary writers and thinkers. He does however — and rightly so, I believe — think highly of the collection of Arendt’s writings on Jewish themes, and especially on her clear-sighted analysis of the problems of Zionism, and its relation to post-war US politics and ideology. Below, a few paragraphs of Corey’s review on the theme of Zionism and Arendt; you can read the full review here.

From its inception, Arendt argued, Zionism had exhibited some of the nastier features of European nationalism. Drawing ‘from German sources’, she wrote in 1946, Herzl presumed that the Jews constituted neither a religion nor a people but an ‘organic national body’ or race that could one day be housed ‘inside the closed walls of a biological entity’ or state. With its insistence on the eternal struggle between the Jews and their enemies, she wrote in the 1930s, the Zionist worldview seemed ‘to conform perfectly’ to that of ‘the National Socialists’. Both ideas, she added in 1944, ‘had a definite tendency towards what later were known as Revisionist attitudes’.

Initially a minor current, according to Arendt, Revisionism poured into the Zionist mainstream in the 1940s. The Revisionists knew what they wanted and used guns to get it. Far from denying them legitimacy, their violent audacity provoked only token disapproval from mainstream Zionists, who secretly or unwittingly supported their initiative. Revisionist violence spoke to a new dispensation among the Jews, which Arendt described in ‘The Jewish State’. After centuries of settling for ‘survival at any price’, the Jews now insisted on ‘dignity at any price’. Though Arendt appreciated the shift, she also detected a secret death wish in the spirit of machismo: ‘Behind this spurious optimism lurks a despair of everything and a genuine readiness for suicide.’ Many Zionists, she claimed two years later, would rather go down with the ship than compromise, fearing that compromise would send them back to the humiliating days of silent suffering in Europe.

In 1948, the leader of Herut, Israel’s Revisionist party, travelled to America. Arendt drafted a letter of protest to the New York Times, which was signed by Einstein, Sidney Hook and others. Herut was ‘no ordinary political party’, she wrote. It was ‘closely akin in its organisation, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties’. It used ‘terrorism’, and its goal was a ‘Führer state’ based on ‘ultra-nationalism, religious mysticism and racial superiority’. The letter also decried those ‘Americans of national repute’ who ‘have lent their names to welcome’ the Herut leader, giving ‘the impression that a large segment of America supports Fascist elements in Israel’. The leader of Herut was Menachem Begin.

The second failing of Zionism, according to Arendt, was that its leaders looked to the ‘great powers’ for support rather than to their future neighbours. Her disagreement here was both moral – ‘by taking advantage of imperialistic interests’, she wrote in 1944, the Zionists had collaborated ‘with the most evil forces of our time’ – and strategic. At the very moment that imperialism was being challenged throughout the world, Zionism had attached itself to a universally maligned form. ‘Only folly could dictate a policy that trusts distant imperial power for protection, while alienating the goodwill of neighbours,’ she wrote. In a 1950 essay, she declared that Zionists simply ignored or failed to understand ‘the awakening of colonial peoples and the new nationalist solidarity in the Arab world from Iraq to French Morocco’. Self-styled realists, they were profoundly unrealistic. They ‘mistook decisions of great powers for the ultimate realities’, she wrote in 1948, when ‘the only permanent reality in the whole constellation was the presence of Arabs in Palestine.’

Arendt did allow for one imperial future, however. ‘The significance of the Near East for Britain and America,’ Arendt wrote in a 1944 article entitled ‘USA – Oil – Palestine’, ‘can be expressed nowadays in a single word: oil.’ With America’s reserves dwindling, control over the world’s oil supply would ‘become one of the most important factors in postwar politics’. After the war, America would control roughly half the world’s shipping, and ‘that fact alone will force American foreign policy to secure its own oil hubs.’ Because of Europe’s reliance on Arab oil, she added, ‘America’s future influence on intra-European matters will depend to a large extent’ on its control over an intended pipeline in the Middle East. Though she hoped that America would not pursue an imperial policy, she had no doubt that oil would be a key factor in its deliberations. And with Israel responsible for the ‘caretaking of American interests’ in the Middle East, she wrote in ‘Zionism Reconsidered’, ‘the famous dictum of Justice Brandeis would indeed come true: you would have to be a Zionist in order to be a perfect American patriot.’

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1 Response

  1. billo says:

    Dear Pierre, thank you for posting this. Do you know off-hand if ‘Zionism Reconsidered’ is online?

    I’ve always thought that Hannah’s position was more enlightened and often wondered how Isaiah Berlin or Levinas -thinkers who I greatly admire-could have been so ambivalent (especially when pluralism and ‘the other’ were such fundamental aspects of their thinking).

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