“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.
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
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.
COERCION, COLLUSION & CREATIVITY - Music of the Terezin Ghetto & the Central European Experience
NATIONALISM, CONTINUITY & SYNTHESIS - Music of Warsaw, Lodz, & other Eastern ghettos
KURT WEILL & THE MODERNIST MIGRATION - Music of Weill & Other Émigrés
Franz Kafka is hung in Israel for being a Nazi. Hannah Arendt laughs in the face of Auschwitz. Walter Benjamin cries for the lost revolution. With such visions, the Berlin-based-artist Volker März has carved out a space for himself as an artist of the thoughtful and the absurd. I met him last month at MEINBLAU, a gallery on Christinenstraße, his most recent exhibit in Berlin.
I was quickly ushered into an alternate reality. As you walk in, you must become acquainted with the März' artificial world.
This it the tale of Franz Kafka, who, in 1924, aged 41, does not die of tuberculosis but rows with his ape, Mr. Rotpeter, to Palestine, where he still lives to this day in Tel Aviv, aged 126. From here he provides a commentary on world events of the last 85 years, including the history of Israel in brief comments that I have gleaned from his letters and emails.
The exhibit that follows is titled "Israel Hangs Kafka." In März’s world, Kafka was tried and executed in Israel in 2009. He was accused of being a Nazi. In heaven Kafka finds "only a crowd of Kafkas, who tell him that every individual ends up in his own personal heaven in which he has to put up with hundreds of copies of himself." In 2010 there is a new government elected in Israel. Ashamed that the country had framed Kafka, the new government petitions God to have Kafka exonerated and return him to Israel. But as Kafka is falling back to earth, he goes astray and lands on the back of a Donkey in Ramallah in the West Bank. The Donkey carries Kafka to Pina Bausch who, like Kafka, is recently returned from heaven.
And this is just the textual frame for März's playful, gripping, and unexpected figures. The artworks themselves are thousands of miniature clay figures, hanging from the ceilings, attached to walls, and climbing throughout the exhibition hall.
They comprise a suggestive and inventive visual world. Kafka is naked, often erect, sometimes carrying an elephant or with his ape. He rides a donkey. He dances with Pina Bausch. He shoots a gun, he is blown up or drowned. Sometimes he addresses the Knesset. Behind each figure or scene is a story, but the exhibition does not provide the full narrative. For that, one should buy März's two bi-lingual volumes, Kafka In Israel, and In Search of Pina Bausch (Kafka: Auf der Suche nach Pina Bausch).
Volker März is tall, affable, and funny. "Kafka Hangs Israel" is the last of his "trilogy" of work on German-speaking Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century. His first show in the series, "Auratransfer," was inspired by Walter Benjamin. "The Laughter of Hannah Arendt/The Concentration Camp as Space of Thinking" is the show that brought März to my attention, along with his piercing motto that gets right to the heart of brutal reality of Arendt's thesis of the banality of evil: "Auschwitz is human." März pierces Arendt's insight that the evil of the holocaust—as evil—was enabled not by monsters but by human beings who were merely human, or, in other words, who did not think. The banality of evil is an expression of the awful potentiality of human action when mankind abandons the truly human capacity to think.
There is a sense in which the provocative motto “Auschwitz is human” gets Arendt wrong in a small way. For Arendt, the fact that Eichmann is banal is not to say that he is human. It is rather to point to the loss of his humanity. This is the reason that Arendt disavowed a connection between her work and the Stanley Milgram experiments, in which people applied increasing doses of electricity to test subjects when told to do so by the scientists running the experiment. For Arendt, the fact that most people do act with banality shows not that humans are evil, but that in the modern age human beings are in danger of losing their humanity. The motto “Auschwitz is human” gets at the heart of Arendt’s insight that Eichmann—and all real evil in the modern era of the bureaucratic machinery of evil—was rather thoughtless than monstrous. But she never acquiesces to the motto that thoughtlessness is human. On the contrary, the highest activity of humanity is to think.
The transformative power of thinking lies behind Arendt’s own interest in Franz Kafka. For Arendt, Kafka's parables and texts were examples of thinking. Arendt is taken above all by Kafka’s account of the space between past and future, an image she took as the title of her 1954 book Between Past and Future. The parable concerns a person shoved forward from the past, pressed backwards by the future, someone who can jump outside the forces of history and find a space for thinking freely outside of history and free from social scientific predictions of the future. The space of thinking is found, she writes, in "the experience of thinking."
März’s exhibition in Berlin contained only a fraction of the Kafka figures he has created and tell only a fragment of the elaborate story that knits them together. That story is told in his two books on Kafka that can hardly be called the exhibition's catalogues. They are rather books in themselves, bilingual in German and English, and fantastic to read.
The first book is Kafka in Israel. It tells the story I have outlined above, up until Kafka's execution. In it we are introduced to Kafka and also Rotpeter, Kafka's ape. On the occasion of Kafka's 100th birthday the writer is invited to address the Israeli Knesset where he says: "Among all human beings, the Monkey is the one and only outsider." The ape, human but inhuman, is excluded. Which is why "we're pretty much agreed now that an ape is in urgent need of a continent of its own, one inaccessible to humans."
The second book, Kafka in Search of Pina Bausch, takes place after Kafka has been executed by Israel and returns to the West Bank where he meets the German choreographer Pina Bausch, herself recently returned from the beyond. More political than the first volume, the search for Pina Bausch is a raucous and often biting look at the hypocrisies and tensions in the political and culture divisions between Israel and Palestine.
Together, these two volumes make a fascinating journey in both pictures and text. They are accessible and brief, but compelling. You could do worse than to order yourself a copy. And while you are at it, don’t forget to order also März’s volume on Hannah Arendt, The Laughter of Hannah Arendt. These books by Märx are your weekend read.
During a conference organized in her honor in Toronto, Hannah Arendt was asked by Hans Morgenthau, to categorize herself as such: “What are you? Are you a conservative? Are you a liberal? Where is your position in the contemporary possibilities?”
Arendt replied: “I don’t know and I’ve never known. And I suppose I never had any such position. You know the left think that I am conservative, and the conservatives think that I am a maverick or God knows what. And I must say I couldn’t care less. I don’t think that the real questions of this century will get any kind of illumination by this kind of thing.”
It is precisely in this spirit that one should read Jens Hanssen’s recent paper “Reading Hannah Arendt in the Middle East: Preliminary Observations on Totalitarianism, Revolution and Dissent”.
Hanssen offers in his paper a rather detailed survey of how Arendt has been read – and misread – by the Middle East, beginning with Kanan Makiya’s World Policy Journal article (2006) “An Iraqi Discovers Arendt”, all the way to Israeli revisionist (and evidently critical of Israel) scholars such as Idith Zertal and Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin.
The particular examples he brings up are paradigmatic of this already established tradition of appropriations of Hannah Arendt that though emerging from her political thought, have much to do with politics and little with thinking.
For example, the case of Kanan Makiya is interesting if only because of his controversial – and rather maverick – position in the landscape of Iraqi politics. This Marxist engineer-turned-neo-conservative political advisor (in Hanssen's telling) is apparently credited with being the first Arab author to apply Arendt’s phenomenology of totalitarianism to Baathist Iraq.
Makiya makes a case for Iraq as a totalitarian regime in Arendt’s terms, drawing a straight line from anti-Semitism and intellectual support for Saddam Hussein to comparisons with Nazi Germany. Though his book The Republic of Fear stands for many Iraqis as the greatest testimony to the sad state of affairs under Hussein, the analysis is at best a misappropriation in many respects and seems to fall within the line of warmongering that Arendt so vehemently criticized as McCarthyism: To use totalitarian means to fight – real or imagined – totalitarian enemies.
The most interesting reading he brings up however is Vince Dolan’s course at the American University in Beirut, “Contemporary Philosophical Reflections on the Use of Political Violence”, in the spring of 1983. Dolan tailored the course to polemicize Arendt’s distinction between power and violence – perhaps the most difficult in all of her thought – by first exposing students to Habermas’ evaluation of Arendt’s project and then bringing her into conversation with Popper, Adorno and Horkheimer.
While this practice is common among liberal academics, the integration of Arendt into the corpus of critical theory has been time and again debunked by serious Arendt scholars, of which I might bring only two salient examples:
First, Dana Villa (Arendt and Heidegger, 1996, p. 3-4) argues that although Habermas called Arendt’s theory of political action “the systematic renewal of the Aristotelian concept of praxis”, there is no one that would argue more vehemently against Aristotle (and the whole project of critical theory) than Arendt.
According to Villa, critical theory has immensely profited from Arendt’s renewal of Aristotelian praxis as opposed to the instrumentalization of action in order to highlight the intersubjective nature of political action, when in fact this renewal is a radical reconceptualization whose renewal is nothing but a renewal in order to overcome rather than to restore the tradition of political thought of and since Aristotle.
Second, Fina Birulés insisted in an interview from 2001 that there is a wide gap between Arendt’s radical theory of democracy and Habermas. According to Birulés, though Habermas is deeply indebted to Arendt, his theory of communicative action is hardly political at all and he reduces the concept of plurality to some sort of ideal community of dialogue.
Doubtless Hanssen is correct in pointing out that Arendt did not provide a concise definition of totalitarianism. Definition is a privilege of theory that Arendt’s story-telling didn’t embrace and she “merely” listed phenomenological elements. However he also indicates how Arendt insisted that only two forms of totalitarianism existed: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This distinction is crucial to understand the rest of his paper.
Nowadays totalitarianism – as much as the banality of evil – is a slogan in newspapers and politics, often lacking in meaning and intention and this brings to mind the whole post 9-11 discourse in philosophy and politics in which Islam and Islamism – among other things – take the place of the “old” totalitarian movements.
While it is true that in phenomenological and structural terms nothing since the collapse of the Soviet Union can be called strictly totalitarian, there is no doubt that there are totalitarian elements in many movements and policies not only in the Middle East today, but also in the democratic West.
Among other – far less influential readings of Arendt – Hanssen lists the translations into Arabic and Persian, providing crucial information about how and why Arendt informed certain – mostly – Arab authors.
Lastly there is an elaborate discussion on the use – and again, abuse – of Arendt by Israeli scholars since her “rehabilitation” in Israel that coincided with the rise to prominence of certain revisionist scholars.
Though Hannah Arendt wasn’t exclusively concerned with Zionism or the Jewish question, it is undeniable that her entire work was informed by her status and experience as a Jew in the Europe of the early 20th century.
There are many Hannah Arendts and to this effect Jerome Kohn writes in the introduction to her “Jewish Writings”: “In 1975, the year she died, she spoke of a voice that comes from behind the masks she wears to suit the occasions and the various roles that world offers her. That voice is identical to none of the masks, but she hopes it is identifiable, sounding through all of them”.
Something that is identifiable in her entire work – but not identical anywhere, is her concern with the young State of Israel in spite of the controversies into which she became trapped later on.
While it is true that Arendt was very critical of the Zionist establishment and of the course that Israel had taken, it is also important to remember that her writings (“The Crisis of Zionism” and “Peace or Armistice in the Middle East”) were anchored in an intense anxiety over the Jewish people regaining control of their own destinies and entering the realm of politics.
Julia Kristeva expressed this best in her speech upon receiving the Hannah Arendt Prize in 2006, making it clear how for Arendt the survival of Israel and the refoundation of politics in the West was part of one and the same task:
Thirty years after her death, added to the danger she tries to confront through a refoundation of political authority and which, as they get worse, make this refoundation increasingly improbable, is the new threat that weighs on Israel and the world. Arendt had a premonition about it as she warned against underestimating the Arab world and, while giving the State of Israel her unconditional support as the only remedy to the acosmism of the Jewish people, and as a way to return to the “world” and “politics” of which history has deprived, she also voiced criticism.
But Jerome Kohn writes also in the introduction to the Jewish Writings, “Already in 1948 Arendt foresaw what now perhaps has come to pass, that Israel would become a militaristic state behind closed but threatened borders, a “semi-sovereign” state from which Jewish culture would gradually vanish” (paraphrased from her “To Save the Jewish homeland”).
In her piece “Peace or Armistice in the Middle East,” Arendt laid out what is in my opinion a foundation for what could be the ideal of Arab-Jewish cooperation in the Middle East – including even a surprisingly rare background on Arab personalities that had lent support to the possibility of a Jewish settlement from Lebanon and Egypt – but the element of religious fundamentalism and anti-Semitism that have crystallized now in the Middle East couldn’t be foreseen by Arendt, or at least not to the extent that they were articulated by Kristeva:
Although many of her analyses and advances seem to us more prophetic than ever, Arendt could not foresee the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, nor the havoc it is wreaking in a world faced with the powerlessness of politics to respond, and the apolitia, the indifference created by the omnipresent society of the spectacle.
Hanssen concludes from reading Arendt on totalitarianism, revolution and dissent in the Middle East that “one of the most powerful (in Arendt’s sense of power as consent-based), non-violent movements coming out of the Arab World today is the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestments campaign that Palestinian civil society groups have called for in 2005 and has now become a global counter-hegemonic phenomenon” and raises the question whether Hannah Arendt would have supported Palestinian BDS movement to bring about the end of Israeli occupation.
On the one hand he argues that “the intellectual merit of BDS campaign from an Arendtian standpoint is that it is not based on old and invalid hyperbolic equation of Israel with Nazi Germany.” On the other hand, he also says:
There is certainly ample room for this kind of non-violent action in her writings. For one, she supported the economic boycott of German businesses in the 1930’s and was furious when Zionist Organization in Palestine broke it.
Leaving the associations with Nazi Germany asides, it is vital to recall that it was Arendt who said that not even in the moon is one safe from anti-Semitism and that the State of Israel alone wouldn’t come to solve the Jewish question.
It is clear by now that BDS campaign has blended elements no doubt altruistic of non-violent struggle with elements from the old anti-Semitism, in which there’s little distinction made between Israelis and Jews.
BDS has come to include not only boycott to the settlements (as has been articulated with great intelligence by Peter Beinart and his book “The Crisis of Zionism”) but also academic and cultural boycott. In extreme cases, there have been boycotts of products not for being Israeli or produced in the settlements, but merely out of being kosher products produced in Britain and the United States.
While it is more than clear that Arendt saw and foresaw the risks and dangers to which Israel polity was exposed by its leaders, she also articulated with clarity that it wasn’t the Jews alone who were responsible for this sad state of affairs and whether or not Hannah Arendt’s ideal of a binational state is at all realizable at this point – bearing in mind the complexities of Arab Spring – what is clear is that an ideology fed on old anti-Semitism and prejudice as much as on uncritical views of Arab and Palestinian history is very unlikely to produce the Arab-Jewish councils (at the heart of her theorizing on revolutions) upon the basis of which a secular and democratic state might be founded.
In 2010, Peter Beinart made waves with an essay in The New York Review of Books that laid bare the conflict between the Zionism of the American Jewish establishment and the liberalism of many young American Jews. The key faultline of his essay is this:
Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.
On Thursday, April 26th, The Arendt Center, along with JStreet U at Bard, is co-sponsoring a lecture by Peter Beinart on his recently published book, The Crisis of Zionism. The lecture will be held at Bard in Olin 102 at 6:30 PM.
A new film, “Five Broken Cameras,” has won praise for doing something as difficult as it is simple: bearing witness. Here is how The New York Times describes the film made by Emad Burnat, a Palestinian Villager who started making his film when he was given a video camera at the birth of his son:
The new documentary intersperses scenes of villagers fighting the barrier with Mr. Burnat’s son Gibreel’s first words (“cartridge,” “army”), undercover Israeli agents taking away friends and relatives, and Mr. Burnat’s wife, Soraya, begging him to turn his attention away from politics and be with his family. Over six years, Mr. Burnat went through five cameras, each broken in the course of filming — among other things, by soldiers’ bullets and an angry settler. At the start of the film, Mr. Burnat lines up the cameras on a table. They form the movie’s chapters and create a motif for the unfolding drama — the power of bearing witness. Mr. Burnat never puts his camera down and it drives his opponents mad.
It takes incredible courage and resolve to do something as simple as tell the truth. And yet, the truth is absolutely essential in our world. To do so is both selfish (in regard to one's family) and selfless (insofar as one sacrifices oneself to the public need for truth). As Jaqueline Bao wrote on this blog in September, "In bearing witness, we carry the burden of the unpleasantry of truths just as we give life to the permanence of the world by establishing a common reality."
For Hannah Arendt, the world can survive without justice. But it cannot survive without truth. As she writes:
“What is at stake is survival, the perseverance of existence, and no human world destined to outlast the short life span of mortals within it will ever be able to survive without men willing to do what Herodotus was the first to undertake consciously—namely, to say what is.” (Truth and Politics, 229).
I have not seen Five Broken Cameras. But I hope to. I am sure it tells one side of the complicated story that is euphemistically referred to as the Middle East Crisis. And yet, in Mr. Burnat's resolve to bear witness, we encounter one way that the truth must be told.
Five Broken Cameras won the Audience Award at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, and is one of about a dozen films competing at Sundance this week in the World Documentary category. You can watch the trailer for Five Broken Cameras Here.
In the year of Hannah Arendt's centennial, 2006, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College's inaugural conference: Thinking in Dark Times. Young-Bruehl was, along with Jerry Kohn, instrumental in establishing the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard, and she has been a good friend of the Center since its inception. It is with great sadness that we at the Arendt Center mourn her untimely passing. At such times it is important to recall the power of her thought and the beauty of her writing. One example of her thoughtful prose is the talk she gave at that inaugural conference, a talk that has since been published in the volume Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics.
Titled "Hannah Arendt's Jewish Identity", Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's talk traced the roots of Arendt's cosmopolitanism to her Jewish identity, amongst other sources. It is not unimportant, Young-Bruehl begins, that Arendt's teacher, Karl Jaspers, identified the Jews of Palestine as one of the five Axial Age peoples:
The topic of Hannah Arendt’s Jewish identity can be approached from many directions. In this essay, I am going to consider Arendt in the context of the vision of world history articulated by her teacher and mentor Karl Jaspers, in which her people, the Jews of Palestine, were considered as one of the “Axial Age” peoples—the five great peoples who reached pinnacles in their development between 900-800 BC to 400-300 BC. Jaspers was the first thinker to see these great Axial civilizations as the origins of a worldly cosmopolitan civilization, one that attends to the world as it is, and one that could imagine "a world made one by a worldwide war and by technological developments that had united all peoples, for better or for worse."
Arendt too, writes Young-Bruehl, had a connection to common cosmopolitan world.
It is Arendt’s Jewish identity—not just the identity she asserted in defending herself as a Jew when attacked as one, but more deeply her connection to the Axial Age prophetic tradition—that made her the cosmopolitan she was....
In her essay, Young-Bruehl identifies four common characteristics of cosmopolitan thinking that she finds in common between Karl Jaspers and Hannah Arendt. These four ingredients are:
1. The capacity for and exercise of “enlarged mentality.” Arendt often invoked this capacity for thinking your way into the viewpoint, the position, the experience, of other people.
2. What Jaspers called “a sense of history.” For Arendt, this meant a sense for the un-predictability of human affairs. Since no one group can have a privileged view of history, the view encompasses the entire world.
3. What Arendt called a sense of the human condition. Arendt named six human conditions—earth, life, world, natality, mortality, plurality—that, although susceptible to change, are human, by which is meant "common to all mankind."
4. That people are shaped by their particular historical experiences—e.g. the way that Arendt was shaped by her experience as a Jew—but that they are also moved, usually unconsciously, by needs and experiences and conditions shared by all human beings.
This last characteristic of cosmopolitanism is most interesting, for Young-Bruehl here argues that Arendt, in spite of her well-known disdain for psychology, had a deep understanding of the unconscious motivations of the human condition.
For example, Arendt's well-known recognition of the human need to act politically shows her understanding of unconscious and cosmopolitan human drives. While particular historical experiences might make people look and behave and sound more different than they are, they share more than their differences would suggest. Young-Bruehl concludes:
"As an aphorism by Kant’s contemporary Georg Christoph Lichtenberg that Hannah Arendt once quoted to me conveys: “People do not think about the events of life as differently as they speak about them.”
Read the entirety of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's essay here.
Click here to visit the Elisabeth Young-Bruehl Memorial Page.
Arendt Center Associate Fellow, Jennie Han, gives us an interesting look at the talk by Idith Zertal at the recent Arendt Center Conference. She examines how one's personal identity can sometimes interfere with our search for the truth.
I suspect that for those of us who made it to the end of the Arendt Center’s conference this past weekend, the final panel with Idith Zertal and her discussant, Norman Manea, stands out more as a heated debated about the character of Israel’s occupation and the Palestinian threat than an engagement with the theme of truthtelling. I want to put this discussion aside, however, and talk about what I took to be Professor Zertal’s main point about the nature of truthtelling. Underlying the seemingly intractable Israel-Palestine question was, I think, a strong statement about what is required of us if we are to engage with one another as seekers of truth.
One might see Professors Zertal and Manea as speakers of two different “truths,” one of which is the Palestinian experience under Israeli occupation and the other, the Israeli experience of living with a terrorist threat.
As rational and fair as this opposition might seem, it does a grave injustice to the idea of truth and what it is to express a truth. Professor Zertal’s critique of the Israeli government’s use of the Holocaust as a symbol made powerfully clear that regardless of whatever a truth might be, it cannot be a personal identity. To justify, as the Israeli government does, the military occupation of the West Bank by an appeal to Israel’s identity as a nation born out of the catastrophe of the Holocaust, or to assert the authority of one’s opinion, as Norman Manea did, by invoking one’s identity as a survivor of the genocide does not tell any particular truth. Instead, it silences the truth and precludes the kind of thinking about one’s own position and ideas alongside those of others that is necessary for sound judgment and productive discussion.
Arendt locates judgment in the capacity of individuals to “think with an enlarged mentality,” which requires that one “trains one’s imagination to go visiting” (Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, edited by Ronald Beiner, p. 43). Interpreters of Arendt usually emphasize the intersubjectivity of Arendt’s understanding of judgment, which defines the faculty by its capacity to transcend the individual thinker’s own specialized knowledge or ability to think. This aspect of judgment is undoubtedly crucial, and it allows Arendt to locate in the individual and his capacity for thought a faculty for public mindedness and worldly concern. In other words, in judgment, the world becomes a part of our individual selves and we, as distinct, thinking individuals, become a part of the world.
But what is taken for granted in this focus on the intersubjectivity of judgment is that individuals possess a mentality that is open to others’ visits in the first place. To experience the enlarged mentality that judgment demands, there must be minds out there that one can actually visit. Professor Zertal’s talk was not as an exhortation to the audience to feel the depth of the suffering of the Palestinian people or to confront the absurdity of the Israeli government’s perpetuation of a people’s suffering in the name of the past sufferings of its own people. It was, at the most basic level, a warning of the dangers, political and personal, that arise when we become so colonized by a particular identity that we are no longer able to imagine ourselves as having any feelings, interests, or desires beyond those dictated by this identity. An identity that is defined by a historical event necessarily excludes the particular: under the vastness and unspeakable catastrophe of the Holocaust, the individuals who died and suffered are transformed into mere instances of a grand event. And when one occupies an identity, one is not open to the visits of others, for one is little more than a representative of an external event that is, at this point, defined as much by those who would manipulate its meaning for political gain as it is by the historical fact of the event itself.
The political dangers of seeing a past catastrophe as an incontrovertible source of authority and accepting appeals to this past as tantamount to a divine authorization to act are tragically evident in the continued expansion of Jewish settlements and the continued occupation of the West Bank. The personal dangers were evident in phenomenon much closer to home: the absence of any real engagement and debate between Professor Zertal and her discussant and her audience, despite her best efforts to have such a debate. Neither the audience nor Professor Manea could step outside of his identity as a supporter of the Israeli military or as a supporter of the Israeli state’s stance on the Holocaust to see Zertal’s critique of the Israeli state as just that—a critique of the Israeli state and not a personal attack on Norman Manea or any audience member. When one understands oneself as an identity, one reduces oneself to a collection of ideas and concepts that have been created outside oneself, and there would be as much reason to visit this mind as there would be to travel abroad if every country in the world were identical in every way.
I think that the point of Professor Zertal’s talk was that in occupying the identity of the particular sort of Israeli Jew that the government wants one to be—one who accepts the unconditional authority of any and all appeals to the Holocaust—one loses oneself as a particular source of ideas and thoughts and effaces oneself as a particular place that others might visit, get to know, and debate and disagree with. Honoring the Holocaust does not mean that one must accept as legitimate whatever action is taken in its name. This is, Zertal points out, to dishonor the individuals in whose lost lives the Holocaust is much more than an abstract event or symbol.
Unfortunately, the wisdom of Idith Zertal’s message that we must imagine ourselves and others as more than mere instances of symbols or historical facts if we are to have any real political, philosophical, or personal discussion was made most clear by way of a negative example of a persistent refusal to see her as embodying anything more than an opposing side. It is possible that Professor Zertal herself helped to create the problem by focusing so much of her talk on a critique not of Israel’s appropriation of the Holocaust as a political symbol, but of Israel’s policies in the West Bank. While her main point was that Israel undertakes these policies in the name of the past, it was at times difficult to see past her particular political position and the strong emotions and political commitments it predictably incites. To the extent that Professor Zertal wants her audience to recognize the problems that arise from the politicization of particular experiences, lives, and positions, and views, even the appearance of aligning herself with a partisan position in this debate could undermine her project. And the audience and Professor Manea’s singular focus on her political views to the exclusion of any discussion of her fundamental critique might in fact be evidence of how Zertal might have undermined herself .
But if we are to take her principal message to heart and acknowledge Professor Zertal as presenting herself as one place that we might productively go visiting, we might come to a better understanding of how at least to think about and engage with others with respect to the question of Palestine and Israel. At her best moments, Professor Zertal embodied what it could mean to tell the truth in an age without any particular truths or facts to tell: she made herself and her thoughts and opinions available to others to visit. She did not hide behind the truth of statistics or figures, relying on their coercive power to do the talking for her. Such facts are undoubtedly important, but because of their supreme importance, I am not sure how significant the bearer of these facts is in relation to them. When we cannot rely on such facts, when there is little more than our own opinions, principles, interpretations, and judgment, we can only invite others to come visit and visit others’ opinions and principles in turn. What we take from the trip and what judgment we ultimately make of another’s mental home need not be one of agreement or approval. But without making the trip, each of us would remain each his own world and identity, unable to speak to or hear anyone else.
Guest blog by Kathleen Jones
“And even if Jews were to win the war...[t]he ‘victorious’ Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities.” Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings, eds. Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman, New York: Schocken Books, 2007, p.396
This week, President Mahmoud Abbas plans to take his case for a Palestinian state to the United Nations Security Council. It is a move that both Israel and the United States oppose. Whether a Palestinian state will improve or exacerbate the current situation is debatable. But the demand for statehood brings to mind Arendt’s 1948 essay, “To Save the Jewish Homeland.”
Six months after the partition of Palestine by the U.N. in 1947, following a civil war that had broken out between Arabs and Jews, David Ben-Gurion declared the state of Israel had been created, sending a letter from the Jewish Agency proclaiming Israel “as an independent republic within frontiers approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations in its Resolution of November 29, 1947.” The result of this announcement of the creation of a state in May 1948, recognized by President Harry Truman, was further mobilization of Arab forces and invasion of Palestine.
As the war continued, with no clear outcome in sight, Hannah Arendt’s fears that another catastrophe might befall the Jewish people increased. She expressed these fears in a plaintive and prescient essay:
And even if Jews were to win the war...[t]he ‘victorious’ Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities. The growth of a Jewish culture would cease to be the concern of the whole people; social experiments would have to be discarded as impractical luxuries; political thought would center around military strategy; economic development would be determined exclusively by the needs of war.
Arendt urged finding a new way to think about the creation of a Jewish homeland, one not be based on the same principles of ethnic nationalism she critiqued in writing that would become a central part of her argument in The Origins of Totalitarianism. She made a passionate appeal for Jewish-Arab cooperation. The goal of having a Jewish homeland in Palestine, “must never be sacrificed to the pseudo-sovereignty of a Jewish state.” She envisioned “local self-government and mixed Jewish-Arab municipal and rural councils...It is still not too late.”
It may, indeed, be too late now to return to the plea she made for a federated republic in the region. But her prescient warning in 1948 about the centering of Israeli politics on questions of military security should serve as a reminder of the dire consequences of what continues to be a missed opportunity, not only in relation to Middle East politics, but in all parts of the globe where nations define themselves in fearful opposition to others.