How Hannah Arendt Was Labeled an "Enemy of Israel"

By Maier-Katkin, Daniel | Tikkun, November/December 2010 | Go to article overview

How Hannah Arendt Was Labeled an "Enemy of Israel"


Maier-Katkin, Daniel, Tikkun


ADHOMINEM ATTACK IS NOT NEW IN JEWISH POLITICS. INTIMIDATION of critics of Israeli policy is as old as the modern State of Israel itself. The discourse within Zionism about Israel's path to security and peace has not been tolerant of dissenting ideas. A recent example known to Tikkun readers was the disturbingly odd graffiti attack on Rabbi Lerner's home in May that portrayed him embracing Justice Goldstone, declaring "any enemy of Israel is a friend of mine." (Goldstone authored the UN report that accused both Hamas and Israel of war crimes in the Gaza invasion of almost two years ago.)

Goldstone and Lerner are not the first Jews to have detractors equate their criticism of Israel with treason against the Jewish people. Perhaps the most famous example is the reception of Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendts experience in the 1960s offers an early example of repressive strategies for the punishment and repression of dissent. Arendt's story has value to progressive Jews not only because she is a matriarchal figure in the development of progressive Jewish political thought, but also because the campaign against Arendt illuminates the recurring threat to freedom of thought that still menaces Justice Goldstone, Rabbi Lerner, and others in the present moment. That Arendt's ideas are now so widely respected should make us think twice about those pilloried in similar ways today.

Arendt was born into a comfortable, educated, secular Jewish family in East Prussia at the beginning of the twentieth century. She was educated to the highest university levels in classics, Greek, Latin, continental philosophy, and German literature. She was not a Zionist because she did not personally have any impulse to emigrate to Eretz Yisroel. She was at ease with her identity as a Jew in the diaspora, happily European, immersed in the warm glow of Enlightenment culture and Western civilization. Palestine would have been an "exotic" destination for her; Paris and New York were not.

Nevertheless, Arendt respected the idealism, acumen, and courage of the Zionists and greatly admired her friend Kurt Blumenfeld, the dashing, brilliant president of the German Zionist Organization. It was library research on the extent of anti-Semitism in Germany just weeks after the Nazi seizure of power, undertaken at Blumenfeld's request, that was denounced by a librarian as anti-state propaganda, precipitating Arendt 's arrest and eight days of police detention, after which she immediately entered exile, slipping into Bohemia and making her way to France.

Arendfs Solidarity with the Jewish People

IN PARIS ARENDT WORKED TIRELESSLY FOR ZIONIST ORGANIZATIONS, PRINCIPALLY Youth Aliyah, which rescued Jewish young people from Europe, preparing them to emigrate to Palestine as agricultural workers. Caring for these penniless youths entailed feeding and clothing them, providing instructors and social workers, dealing with the parents whom the youth would leave behind, dealing with legal documents, and above all raising money to keep the whole operation afloat.

In New York, after the fall of France, she became Senior Editor at Schocken Press, the largest publisher of Judaica and Jewish-themed books in the world. She emerged quickly as a respected figure in New York literary, cultural, and progressive circles. Her first published essays reflect solidarity with the Jewish people, calling for the creation of a Jewish Army to join the armies of the world in confronting Hitler, warning Jews that a people that "does not have a place in the war, will not have a place in the peace." After the publication of Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt became an internationally prominent public intellectual.

When she returned to Germany for the first time after the war, in 1950, it was as research director of the International Commission for the Cultural Reconstruction of European Jewry. In this capacity she assumed responsibility for one and a half million objects, books, and artifacts of Judaica held by Allied authorities as "abandoned property. …

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