Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
18Feb/131

Hannah Arendt and Yiddish

“German Jewry, like Western European Jewry in general, never understood that the simple person is the true center of politics in all democratically governed countries.

And this is also the reason why German Jews often do not understand the just national aspirations of the Jewish people [folk]. Most do not know at all what a people [folk] really is and what it wants. The most beautiful Hebrew in the world will not teach them that. Let the German Jews learn to respect simple person [poshete mentshn], in general, and the simple Jew [yiddishe folks-mentsh], in particular – and then you will be able to speak to them about Jewish politics in all the languages of the world.”

These are the closing words of an op-ed written by Hannah Arendt in November 1942 for the New York Yiddish daily Morgen Zshurnal. The short piece is a response to an account of recent conflicts between German and Hebrew speakers in the Jewish settlement in Palestine (the Yishuv) written by Aaron Zeitlin, a Yiddish author and regular contributor to the newspaper.

Children in the Yishuv, 1941

It is, by all evidence, Arendt’s only Yiddish-language publication. (A year earlier, in December 1941, the News Bulletin of the “Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs” published a Yiddish translation of Arendt’s first Aufbau op-ed, “The Jewish Army – The Beginning of Jewish Politics?” But the Morgen Zshurnal piece seems to be the only one that Arendt published exclusively in Yiddish.) Arendt’s Yiddish voice is both familiar and surprising, and, as I shall sketch very briefly here, her exchange with Zeitlin fascinatingly prefigures significant moments in Arendt’s thinking and her dialogue with others later in life, for example her exchange with Gershom Scholem about Eichmann in Jerusalem.

In the fall of 1942, tensions between immigrants from Nazi Germany and the veteran Zionist community of the Yishuv had reached a violent peak with the bombing of a press in Jerusalem, which had been printing a German-language newspaper. Zeitlin bases his account of the event, and of the political atmosphere that led up to it, on a report by Menachem Ben Eliezer, which appeared in October in the Hebrew newspaper Hadoar, published in New York by the Hebrew Federation of America. The Hebrew reporter and the Yiddish commentator both blame the German Jews, known as “Yekkes,” for failing to assimilate into the society of the Yishuv and, especially, for obstinately refusing to learn Hebrew. In Zeitlin’s words, the German Jews are not patriotic because they lack a love of Israel (“ahavat Israel” or, in Yiddish, “ahaves Yisroel”).

Arendt, described in the byline as “a well-known German-Jewish writer and Zionist activist” who, “in 1935, visited the Land of Israel, where she spent three months and had the opportunity to get to know the Yishuv and the new immigration (Aliyah),” responds to the accusations ambivalently. Outraged by the violent act of the Hebrew purists of the Yishuv, she nevertheless concedes that the failure of German Jews to understand the simple Jews of Eastern Europe and their justified national aspirations is a problem.

The brief op-ed piece thus reveals a fascinating moment in the development of Arendt’s identity and her political affinities. Having recently arrived as a refugee from Europe, Arendt was writing for the German-language Aufbau and would soon start publishing in English-language publications such as Partisan Review and Nation. But her attention was evidently also devoted to publications such as Morgen Zshurnal and their Yiddish-speaking readership. As Thomas Wild has recently argued on this website, Arendt’s career would continue to move productively between German and English, for example when she substantially revised the English The Human Condition to produce the German Vita Activa.

And even after this brief stint, the Yiddish language did not disappear from her writing entirely, as I briefly mention below. She would also find opportunities to reflect publicly on issues of language choice, for example in her 1948 dedication of the German book Sechs Essays to her friend and mentor Karl Jaspers, where she explains the difficulty and the necessity of writing and publishing in her native language. But this Yiddish op-ed – written in a language that she had studied as an adult and that was rapidly moving aside to make space for English, not only in her mind but also in the American-Jewish public sphere – is probably the only statement that Arendt made about Jewish language politics.

Interestingly, at this juncture in her own linguistic affiliations, Arendt insists that the battle over languages is a political red herring. “Unlike Herr Zeitlin,” she writes, “I am of the opinion that the entire education and psychology of the world could not successfully separate people from their mother tongue […]. It is a process of a generation or two, and in America we have the best proof of that.” Instead of focusing on the struggle between the languages, Arendt points her readers in two different directions. The piece opens, in a familiarly sarcastic tone, with an expression of Arendt’s interest in Jewish militancy as a form of political response to the current crisis (an interest that was expressed in her contemporary writing for Aufbau): “I am of the opinion that it would be better for the Yishuv to boycott German merchandise rather than the German language, and that the hotheads would do better to save the bombs for Rommel’s soldiers rather than to use them against the Jews for their German language.” But it ends on a different note, with a vision of a post-Babelian politics that grows out of solidarity with the simple people. If the German Jews only understood what a true Jewish “folks-mentsh” is, the conversation could transcend linguistic divisions and one would be “able to speak to them about Jewish politics in all the languages of the world.”

As Elizabeth Young-Bruehl describes in her biography and as evidenced also in the early correspondence with Heinrich Blücher, Arendt had studied Yiddish with her friend Chanan Klenbort in Paris. But in the absence of further information about the composition process – was the piece written in German and translated into Yiddish? Or did a native speaker aid Arendt, in the way that friends such as Randall Jarrell and Alfred Kazin later helped her with her English? – one can only speculate about the significance of the highly Germanic style of the Yiddish in which the piece is written or of word choices such as “folks-mentsh” and “posheter mentsh.” Reading Arendt in Yiddish can feel like a glimpse through a door to an alternative history. What would have been the circumstances – in Arendt’s own intellectual development, in the history of the Jews – that would have compelled her to keep writing in Yiddish? Would the Yiddish version of The Human Condition have placed the “posheter mentsh” at the center of politics? In other words, the Yiddish op-ed focuses our view on Arendt’s preoccupations and her transformation during her early years in the United States. It also sharpens questions that have already been raised in relation to her writing for Aufbau: Does the writing of this period prepare the ground for her later philosophical and political work? And if it does, how should we describe this ground? Or does the shift of her positions on Zionism rather constitute a break in her thinking?

It is easy to see the continuity between the criticism Arendt expresses here and her sharp critique of German Jewry in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. But there are other, far more uncanny, linguistic continuities, not only in Arendt’s own writing but also in her dialogues and polemics with others. In his famous response to the Eichmann book, Gershom Scholem echoes Zeitlin – most probably unwittingly – when he laments Arendt’s lack of “Ahabath Israel” (as Scholem rather Germanically transcribes the Hebrew expression). Arendt seems to hear that echo when she inserts in her reply to Scholem’s letter a parenthetical inquiry about the history of the term: “I would, by the way, be very thankful if you could tell me since when this concept plays a role in the Hebrew language and scripture, when it first appears, etc.” Indeed, the echo seems to conjure up in Arendt elements of her original response to Zeitlin, and so she returns to the same simple person she had once hoped that German Jewry could listen to, in Yiddish or in “all the languages of the world.” Thus, when she attempts to defend her (to many readers indefensible) position on Jewish collaboration with the Nazis, she explains to Scholem: “There was no possibility of resistance, but there was a possibility of doing nothing. And in order to do nothing, one need not have been a saint, but rather one needed simply to say: I am a simple Jew (ein poscheter Jude) and I do not want to be more than that.”

The Yiddish was excised from the German version that was published by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in October 1963 (where it was replaced by “einfacher Jude”) and from the English translation published in Encounter in December 1964 (which refers to “a Simple Jew”). The act of self-censorship is probably as revealing as Arendt’s use of the term itself.

Arendt’s brief foray into Yiddish journalism also has a fascinating postscript on the pages of the Morgen Zshurnal (or rather its continuation Der Tog Morgen Zshurnal). As Richard I. Cohen has described, in 1965 the newspaper carried Aaron Zeitlin’s raging response to Arendt’s Eichmann book, a response in which he described her as the agent of the devil. Zeitlin does not explicitly mention his previous disagreement with Arendt, indeed, he conspicuously avoids mentioning her by name. But, in its emphasis on Arendt’s misnaming of Eichmann when she describes him as a “grey, simple (posheter) average person,” his vitriolic attack can be read as a response to Arendt’s polemic twenty-three years earlier

-Na’ama Rokem

Based on research and translation conducted in collaboration with Sunny Yudkoff. Many thanks to Barbara Hahn and Thomas Wild, who uncovered the Yiddish piece in the Hannah Arendt archive. 

NOTE: This Saturday, February 23, 2013 marks the launch of the Hananh Arendt Center three part series, "Music in the Holocaust: Jewish Identity and Cosmopolitanism". The series is made possible through the generosity of grant from the Bertha Effron Fund of the Community Foundation of the Hudson Valley. Learn more here.

February 23

COERCION, COLLUSION & CREATIVITY - Music of the Terezin Ghetto & the Central European Experience

April 20

NATIONALISM, CONTINUITY & SYNTHESIS - Music of Warsaw, Lodz, & other Eastern ghettos

April 27

KURT WEILL & THE MODERNIST MIGRATION - Music of Weill & Other Émigrés

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
29Feb/121

Maikel Nabil and Peaceful Resistance

What if the meaning of peaceful resistance had to be revisited for the 21st century? Where would you turn to then?

Though examples of civil disobedience, conscientious objectors and peaceful protests are by no means rare nowadays, it is necessary to turn to extraordinary events of the kind that attach new meanings to historical circumstances; the meanings are never new but what remains is the novelty of the event.

Revolution is of course the event par excellence in which history is interrupted and something is begun anew. In the 21st century even though the word revolution is constantly heard, there is no more salient example than the Egyptian revolution.

Inspired by Tunisia, on January 25, 2011 thousands of Egyptians took to the streets and assembled at the now iconic Tahrir Square to demand the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. On February 11 2011 the long-time president departed from office after the Egyptian army took the protesters’ side and apparently helped to complete the revolution.

A slogan – was coined then: “The Army and the People are one hand”. After weeks during which the same army brutalized the demonstrators and killed hundreds of them, the sudden change of heart was welcome and the power vacuum left by the regime was quickly filled by the army, with the promise implied that a transition to civilian rule would happen eventually.

The rest of the story of the Egyptian revolution is now known all over the world: Military trials, virginity tests, NGO raids, constant clashes – often violent – between demonstrators and the security apparatus, massacres, and more than anything a power vacuum that has left the country sliding into a fierce slope of violence and counter-violence, as it was aptly put by Egyptian businessman Hany Ghoraba in his article “Egypt: The Wild Wild East”.

What happened to the Egyptian revolution and to the peaceful protests that in theory overthrew a regime? The question here for political theory (an expression not free from irony) doesn’t have to do necessarily with the particulars of Egypt – the rise of Islamism, the weakness of liberalism and the fact that leftovers of the deposed regime remain intact in office.

One has to ask himself the question whether a revolution is possible nowadays and under which conditions. It is clear by now that the concept of revolution is challenged today by a variety of circumstances that should bring us to examine briefly two aspects of revolution: The distinction between power and violence and the nature of non-violent resistance.

In his reading of Kant, Foucault tells us what it is that Kant considers significant in revolution: “What is significant is the manner in which the Revolution turns into a spectacle, it is the way in which it is received all around by spectators who do not participate in it but who watch it, who attend the show and who, for better or worse, let themselves by dragged along by it.”

This might well lead us to a very basic insight of Hannah Arendt: “Revolutionaries do not make revolutions. The revolutionaries are those who know when power is lying in the street and then they can pick it up”. What is then this power that Arendt is trying to grasp? There is almost unanimous agreement among her readers that the distinction between power and violence is the most crucial and yet difficult aspect of her political theory.

Power is the human ability to act not as an individual but in agreement within a group and this power remains alive only for as long as the group is bound together; it can disappear anytime and temporary as it might be, it is the only cure known to the fragility and meaninglessness of human affairs.

Violence is the opposite of power that has been for long glorified as its exact equivalent, turning power into an instrument that needs justification to pursue its own ends but is always at risk of outgrowing the means and remaining at the level of instrument only – means without an end. In her words: “And what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything”.

Then we assume that power can become violent and violence but power can never grow out of violence and is in fact destroyed by it. Power – that unmediated action that grows out of common agreement in action between men – is the only thing that can destroy violence and tyranny as it is exemplified in Gandhi, but whatever the reality and success of this non-violent resistance as power is put to test in the modern world often with tragic results.

Arendt is no idealist at this point and she expresses herself with clarity about her reservation on the effectiveness of non-violent resistance after fascism:  “In a head-on clash between violence and power, the outcome is hardly in doubt. If Gandhi’s enormously powerful and successful strategy of non-violent resistance had met with a different enemy –Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, even prewar Japan, instead of England, the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission. However, England in India and France in Algeria had good reasons for their restraint.” Needless to say this has been the outcome of each and every Arab revolution where power hasn’t been enough to defeat violence.

What is required from non-violent resistance to generate the quantity and quality of power that can effectively defeat violence? Here it is obvious that an association with the military and with militarism in general can never be the answer, and while there are no definite answers to draw from tradition or otherwise, there are always singular examples one can meditate on.

On March 28, 2011 an Egyptian blogger, Maikel Nabil, was arrested by the military police and sentenced to three years imprisonment on charges of insulting the military in a long blog post from March 8 2011, titled “The Army and the People Were Never One Hand”.

In his blog, Maikel Nabil provided sound evidence of how activists had been tortured and killed by the army, during and after the revolution and expressed in different words an insight that was already known to Toynbee in his studies of world history: One of the patterns in the breakdown of civilizations is the suicidalness of militarism and its intoxication with victory, out of which periods of freedom have never emerged.

This simple insight proved very dangerous at a time when the power of the people had become a monolithic whole, aptly expressed by Maikel in one fragment written from prison: “Maybe there are many who don’t know the simple distinction between seeking unity and seeking tolerance, but we saw the core difference between the two things and how unity leads to failure while tolerance earns you strength and pushes you to succeed.”

Human action and power – its plural version – can only unfold in plurality and the fact that such was no longer the case attests to the extent to which the suicidalness and intoxication of militarism had already infinitely weakened the power of the revolution. In an entirely un-revolutionary fashion, the sentence delivered on the blogger was celebrated by many and at best met with indifference because of his rather unpopular ideas: Peace with the State of Israel and the end of compulsory military conscription.

Nevertheless, the consensus fostered by militarism and the price paid by the search for unity at the expense of plurality and tolerance was levied on Maikel Nabil not because of a failed analysis but by simple exclusion in a battle of opinions from which truth as a public power – to use the metaphor of Philip Goodchild – was absent; which of course places power in the status of refugee and violence as the supreme ruler.

Arendt insisted  that the truths of any age must be always challenged for every generation and it is in this challenge that the power of non-violent struggle resides. It was she who popularized the Austrian adage “there’s no discussion as heated as that on a book no one had read” in reference to the controversy sparked by her book about the Eichmann Trial.

Maikel Nabil wrote from jail that people who supported him should support him for his thoughts and not for his personality because it was his thoughts what put him in jail. It was his thoughts that led him to a hunger strike that lasted over a hundred days. And even after he ultimately was released after a long legal battle of ten months with a clearly illegitimate authority, most of the people who supported him—and those who did not—still don't know much about his thoughts.

Thinking becomes the keyword here: Roger Berkowitz writes of Hannah Arendt that reasoning and thinking are not the same and that thinking for Arendt constitutes a form of action and the basis of all political life and experience – nothing to do with political philosophy or Realpolitik but with our appearance in the world among others.

Thinking and the ability to take responsibility for the consequences of our thoughts is the building block of our ability to appear in the world and as such is the most effective form of resistance under totalitarianism and forms of tyranny in which truth – the material out of which power is made – is absent from the common world.

In an interview of 1974 with Roger Errera, Arendt concluded by saying:

The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only a lie – a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days – but yet get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such people you can then do what you please.

This cynicism is precisely the risk that unthinking unity poses – that thinking, plurality and truth might disappear altogether, and with them power as well. For Arendt, plurality demands the courage for plural individuals to enter the public sphere, which is why courage, she writes, is the first virtue of politics.

Was Maikel Nabil courageous? The answer to this question is obvious but I disagree with Arendt about the political nature of courage as a virtue.

Susan Sontag writes that courage and resistance have no intrinsic value in themselves unless they are coupled with an adjective – for there is amoral courage and resistance too – by means of which it is qualified. The value of courage and resistance depends on the specific content of whatever it is that is being defended. Heroism isn’t what is stake here, for it is something that always comes in hand with tragedy and pathos and it is precisely heroism what the political consequences of thinking mean to dispose of.

Sandra Lehmann writes: “If heroism is to overcome, it can also dispense pathos and vanity. It needs no reward, not even that of great importance and meaning. Probably only heroism without reward is true heroism. It is a matter of the moment and of a far off future.”

What Maikel Nabil was defending was the life of the mind, and in this crusade against those who want to terrorize the life of the mind lies the true nature of non-violent resistance and the potential of every action that might attain revolutionary power – it begins in the solitude of our thoughts one good day and yet, it can unmake the world. All thinking is dangerous.

- Arie Amaya-Akkermans

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.