Arendt and Jerusalem
Masha Gessen, Hannah Arendt, and Zionism
You may have read at this point about the debacle involving Masha Gessen’s Hannah Arendt Prize, which was supposed to be awarded today by the city of Bremen and the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, a think tank associated with the German Green party. The situation is confusing: at first it appeared that the prize would not be awarded to Gessen at all and the foundation was pulling out, now the Böll-Stiftung has said the prize will still be awarded, but at another location since the city of Bremen withdrew the venue they have provided. They have since tweeted: “We want to make it very clear that this withdrawal does in no way mean that we are distancing ourselves from Gessen, nor that we want to strip Gessen of the award, or that we no longer value Gessen’s works.”
This entire brouhaha was occasioned by an essay by Gessen on The New Yorker’s website entitled “In the Shadow of the Holocaust,” about the use and misuse of Holocaust memory. The offending passage compares Israeli actions in Gaza to the Nazi liquidation of ghettos. This crosses a bright red line in Germany: any type of parallel between the Jewish state and the Nazis is streng verboten. In one of the situation’s many ironies, a good deal of Gessen’s piece is dedicated to criticizing the very speech codes that lead to this kind of interdict; rules, which, in Germany, are not just informal taboos but actual state policy. Just as the antisemitic mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, once declared, “I decide who is a Jew,” the German government is in effect saying, “We decide who is an antisemite.”
The German-Israeli Society in Bremen declared that Gessen’s comments were "in clear contrast to the thinking of Hannah Arendt.” As many have pointed out—including Gessen in their own piece—it’s really not so clear: Hannah Arendt famously wrote an open letter in 1948 comparing Menachem Begin’s party to fascist and Nazi organizations. (Of course, another party Begin founded, Likud, is presently the governing party of Israel.) By the standards currently in place in Germany, it seems unlikely that Arendt would be awarded the prize that bears her name.
I think it’s worth saying that the specific comparison Gessen made in their essay is one Arendt would not have necessarily made. Despite Arendt’s eventual situation of Zionism in a chauvinistic, romantic nationalist tradition, her strenuous condemnation of Jewish terrorism and the Deir Yassin massacre in 1948, and her evident doubts about both the practical wisdom and moral correctness of the creation of a Jewish state, Arendt was above all a thinker of fine distinctions—sometimes too fine for of her critics. In regards to Gessen’s piece, I couldn’t help but think of a passage in her essay “Lying in Politics,” where, writing about the Vietnam war, she remarks:
The extreme fringe had the unhappy inclination of denouncing as "fascist" or "nazi" ,whatever, often quite rightly, displeased them, and of calling every massacre a genocide, which obviously it was not; this could only help to produce a mentality that was quite willing to condone massacre and other war crimes so long as they were not genocide.
Still, there are many absurd parts of this situation, not the least of which is that a German organization in charge of awarding a prize named for a Jewish woman that country sent into exile and has retracted (or not) the prize when it was awarded to another exiled Jew. This comes just days after the Russian state issued an arrest warrant for Gessen. Arendt might say that Gessen was in good company: she believed that pariah-dom was an essential part of the Jewish experience that lead to the unique contribution of Jewish intellectuals. Arendt herself experienced a “cancellation” avant la lettre for her book Eichmann in Jersualem, both for its account of the Holocaust and its depreciatory commentary about Israel and Zionism. Whether or not Arendt would have agreed with every word of Gessen’s essay is impossible to know and besides the point: the fact is that they are much more in the tradition of Arendt, if such a thing can be meaningfully invoked, than their critics.
But this tradition deserves more careful attention. Many, including myself, have posted screenshots or quotations of Arendt’s writings to vindicate Gessen and castigate the prize-givers. But what she actually wrote and thought about the issue is ill-fitted to the trends of discourse. For instance, it is fashionable to label Arendt a racist. Her comments about the backwardness of Palestinian Arabs in comparison to the civilized state of the Jewish emigres would certainly not get her on any “decolonial” reading lists these days. But the charge that she was driven by prejudice has also been used on the Zionist side of the debate, as well: namely, that her distaste for Zionism and Israel was merely that of a snobby, cultivated German Jew for Eastern European and Middle Eastern Jews. Arendt’s prejudices are so obvious and such common ones for a person of her background that pointing them out hardly constitutes a reading at all. Part of what makes Arendt valuable today is how “untimely,” as Nietszche would say, her writing has become. It tells its own history, which is quite at variance with the highly tendentious and simplistic ones that have become dominant.
Arendt was not always such a skeptic of Zionism. In fact, her political life as a young woman began with a Zionist organization. She had already developed a friendship with and almost daughterly admiration for Kurt Blumenfeld, president of the Zionist Federation of Germany. After the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, she wanted to do something to help the Jews and turned to Blumenfeld. She was tasked with collecting materials at the Prussian State Library that demonstrated the degree of antisemitism in German society. These would be eventually presented publicly to validate the Zionist program. This work was illegal and Arendt was briefly arrested in connection with it. I think it’s worth noting that Zionism’s critique of assimilation as a failure, its account of a world of intractable and permanent antisemitism, and its hope for a Jewish homeland as the only solution not only appeared highly plausible to Arendt, but, at that time, as the only realistic and authentic political response to Nazism. Even as late as The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, she wrote that the Zionist movement was “the only political answer Jews have ever found to antisemitism and the only ideology in which they have ever taken seriously a hostility that would place them in the center of world events.”
Zionism might be the only political answer in Arendt’s view, but it did not make it necessarily one above reproach. As the formation of the State of Israel approached and the full horrors of the Holocaust became evident, her thought on the issue became more critical. In her essay Zionism Reconsidered, written in response to the Zionist conference in Atlantic City in 1944, she particularly deplored what she saw as the effective takeover of the movement by the Revisionists, the same forces she would label “fascist,” and its total lack of recognition of the Arab population:
This is a turning point in Zionist history; for it means that the Revisionist program, so long bitterly repudiated, has proved finally victorious. The Atlantic City Resolution goes even a step further than the Biltmore Program (1942), in which the Jewish minority had granted minority rights to the Arab majority. This time the Arabs were simply not mentioned in the resolution, which obviously leaves them the choice between voluntary emigration or secondclass citizenship. It seems to admit that only opportunist reasons had previously prevented the Zionist movement from stating its final aims. These aims now appear to be completely identical with those of the extremists as far as the future political constitution of Palestine is concerned. It is a deadly blow to those Jewish parties in Palestine itself that have tirelessly preached the necessity of an understanding between the Arab and the Jewish peoples. On the other hand, it will considerably strengthen the majority under the leadership of Ben-Gurion, which, through the pressure of many injustices in Palestine and the terrible catastrophes in Europe, have turned more than ever nationalistic.
She wrote that this was setting up the condition for an “insoluble, tragic conflict” and pointed to the problem that Israel still struggles with—its reliance on the support of larger powers:
Nationalism is bad enough when it trusts in nothing but the rude force of the nation. A nationalism that necessarily and admittedly depends upon the force of a foreign nation is certainly worse. This is the threatened fate of Jewish nationalism and of the proposed Jewish state, surrounded inevitably by Arab states and Arab peoples. Even a Jewish majority in Palestine, even a transfer of all Palestine’s Arabs, which is openly demanded by Revisionists-would not substantially change a situation in which Jews must either ask protection from an outside power against their neighbors or come to a working agreement with their neighbors.
Her critique of Zionism turned not only to its practical developments but to its ideological underpinnings as well. In the same essay she wrote that Zionism:
..is nothing else than the uncritical acceptance of German-inspired nationalism. This holds a nation to be an eternal organic body, the product of inevitable natural growth of inherent qualities; and it explains peoples, not in terms of political organizations, but in terms of biological superhuman personalities. In this conception European history is split up into the stories of unrelated organic bodies, and the grand French idea of the sovereignty of the people is perverted into the nationalist claims to autarchical existence.
A retrospective review of Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State situates it as both a reaction to the kind of chauvinistic, ethnic nationalism that appeared in the era of The Dreyfus Affair, but also a creature of the same intellectual and political trends:
When he wrote The Jewish State Herzl was deeply convinced that he was under some sort of higher inspiration, yet at the same time he was earnestly afraid of making a fool of himself. This extreme self-esteem mixed with self-doubt is not a rare phenomenon; it is usually the sign of the "crackpot." And in a sense this Viennese, whose style, manner, and ideals hardly differed from those of his more obscure fellow journalists, was indeed a crackpot.
But even in Herzl's time-the time of the Dreyfus affair, when the crackpots were just embarking on their political careers in many movements, functioning outside the parliaments and the regular parties-even then they were already in closer touch with the subterranean currents of history and the deep desires of the folk than were all the sane leaders of affairs with their balanced outlooks and utterly uncomprehending mentalities. The crackpots were already beginning to be prominent everywhere-the antisemites Stoecker and Ahlwardt in Germany, Schoenerer and Lueger in Austria, and Drumont and Deroulede in France.
Herzl wrote The Jewish State under the direct and violent impact of these new political forces. And he was among the first to estimate correctly their chances of ultimate success. Even more important, however, than the correctness of his forecast was the fact that he was not altogether out of sympathy with the new movements. When he said, "I believe that I understand antisemitism," he meant that he not only understood historical causes and political constellations, but also that he understood-and to a certain extent, correctly-the man who hated Jews. It is true, his frequent appeals to "honest antisemites" to "subscribe small amounts" to the national fund for the establishment of a Jewish state were not very realistic; and he was equally unrealistic when he invited them "whilst preserving their independence [to] combine with our officials in controlling the transfer of our estates" from the Diaspora to the Jewish homeland; and he frequently asserted, in all innocence, that antisemites would be the Jews' best friends and antisemitic governments their best allies. But this faith in antisemites expressed very eloquently and even touchingly how close his own state of mind was to that of his hostile environment and how intimately he did belong to the "alien" world.
Despite this radical—in the very Arendtian sense of going to roots of an issue—line of critique, there were things Arendt found deeply admirable that arose out of Jewish settlement in Palestine. Among these were the Cultural Zionists’ formation of Hebrew University and its fidelity to the Jewish tradition of learning, that institution’s first chancellor Judah Magnes’s programs for Arab-Jewish peace and cooperation, and the new modes of human solidarity and production pioneered by the kibbutz movement. Already in her time the possibilities those forces represented seemed to be slipping away and her writing about them is even quite rueful, despite her vaunted lack of sentimentality. She feared that these civilized hopes would be “first victims of a long period of military insecurity and nationalistic aggressiveness” to be replaced with “Chauvinism of the Balkan type [that] could use the religious concept of the chosen people and allow its meaning to degenerate into hopeless vulgarity.” It is heartbreaking to reflect that the first victims of October 7th were among the remnants of that Utopian tradition—peace-oriented kibbutzniks—and the nation that arisen to avenge their murders is not the one they wanted to build; It is much more the dark scenario that Arendt foresaw.