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“The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt” – Amos Elon

Amos Elon presents a fair account of the controversy over Eichmann in Jerusalem in “The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt.” He paints the controversy in vidid hues.

We don’t know the outcome of this quarrel. One thing we do know: more than three years after the publication of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil first appeared in print, the civil war it had launched among intellectuals in the United States and in Europe was still seething. Describing the debate that raged through his own and other families in New York, Anthony Grafton later wrote that no subject had fascinated and aroused such concern and serious discussion as the series of articles Hannah Arendt had published in The New Yorker about the Eichmann trial, and the book that grew out of them. Three years after the publication of the book, people were still bitterly divided over it. No book within living memory had elicited similar passions. A kind of excommunication seemed to have been imposed on the author by the Jewish establishment in America. The controversy has never really been settled. Such controversies often die down, simmer, and then erupt again. It is perhaps no accident that at this time of a highly controversial war in Iraq, Arendt’s books are still widely read and that, even though close to 300,000 copies of her book on Eichmann alone have so far been sold, a new edition has now been published by Penguin.

Elon lays to rest (or at least tries to) some of the canards that have plagued Arendt in the last 50 years. For example, he is clear that Arendt did not,  “as was frequently maintained, make the victims responsible for their slaughter “by their failure to resist.” In fact, she bitterly attacked the state prosecutor who had dared make such a heartless claim. Still, this accusation even found its way into the Encyclopedia Judaica. (4) In a similar vein she was falsely accused of having claimed that Eichmann was an enthusiastic convert to “Zionism” and even to “Judaism.” Hand-me-downs from one critic to another drew on alleged references in the book which no one seemed to have checked.”

It might very well be if the banality of evil simply meant that evil men are normal or look normal once put on trial, as Elon writes. But that was not Arendt’s argument. The banality of evil is the thoughtlessness that allows evil to flourish, and that is something very different. Elon also writes that Arendt’s sarcasm and tone left her susceptible to legitimate criticism. So too did her prejudices against Eastern-European Jews. No one should try to turn Arendt into a saint. Elon does not and he is right here. But he does recognize the importance of her book and her thinking–at least in part for the right reasons. His longer account is worth a read. 

The full essay can be read here.

-RB

Posted on 4 November 2011 | 1:36 pm

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