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.