Is Hannah Arendt a Jewish Thinker?04-12-2013
Is Hannah Arendt A Jewish Thinker? On one level, the answer is obvious. Arendt was indeed Jewish, raised in Germany during the first three decades of the 20th century. True, Arendt was non-religious and in much of her writing was deeply critical of Jews and Jewish leaders. Yet she was arrested twice as a Jew, once in Germany and once in France, escaping both times. If one is attacked as a Jew, she said, one must respond as a Jew. That she did. She led Jewish Youth to Palestine and wrote essays during the war calling for a Jewish army. She attended the first meeting of the Jewish World Congress. She worked for years for the committee for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. Her first two books—Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of Jewess, and The Origins of Totalitarianism—are deeply infused by her understanding of the Jewish question. So too is her best known book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. It would be folly to deny that her thinking is influenced by her experience of being a Jew.
But to ask if she was a Jewish thinker is something else. It is to ask whether her political thinking is inspired by or in some way quintessentially Jewish. The question is posed this way often by students hoping to find something in Arendt with which they can identify. Others ask it in the hope of redeeming Arendt from the perceived sins of her book on Adolf Eichmann. And the question of the Jewish influence on Arendt is also a scholarly question.
For some Arendtian scholars, her thinking is a distillation of the work of her first teacher and youthful lover, Martin Heidegger. Others trace the source of her political ideas to her dear friend and mentor Karl Jaspers. She is often said to be an Aristotelian; one super-intelligent recent Ph.D. argued to me last week that the decisive influence on her work was Niccolo Machiavelli. A recent article argues that Arendt’s Denktagebuch proves that her most influential interlocutor was Plato. And then there is of course a Jewish reading of Arendt, one first explored in depth (and in its complexity) by Richard Bernstein in his book Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question.
In all such arguments seeking Arendt’s true source, there is painfully little tolerance for letting Arendt be Arendt, for recognizing her to be the original thinker she is. Contextualizing is the scholarly obsession. At some point, however, we must stop and admit that Arendt represents something new—which means only that any effort to claim one privileged influence upon her work will be incomplete.
The impact of her Jewish experiences on Arendt’s thought is most visible in the distinction she makes between the social and the political realms, which runs through her entire body of thought. As Leon Botstein has written, “Arendt’s basic theoretical claim, the separation of the social form the political, originated in her understanding of the Jewish problem as decisively political rather than social in character.” Arendt sought in her early Jewish writings to make a space for Jews to preserve their social aloofness (their being separate and living according to their own laws) while at the same time engaging in political action.
At the same time, Arendt’s distinction between society and politics is infused by her reading of Carl Schmitt as well as by her rejection of the Western philosophical canon that elevates contemplation over action. In The Human Condition, where Arendt first fully develops her distinction between the social and political, Jewish concerns are absent. And yet, the roots of that distinction are explored in Antisemitism, Book One of The Origins of Totalitarianism. It would be “irresponsible,” as Jerry Kohn has written, to doubt the importance to her thinking of what Arendt experienced as a Jew. Still, it would be saying too much to call her a Jewish thinker. Arendt is, quite simply, an original. She is impossible to compartmentalize or box in. She is neither liberal nor conservative, neither Jewish nor universal. Of course she is a Jewish thinker—and so much more.
I raise these reflections in response to Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order, an important new book by Natan Sznaider. Sznaider visited the Arendt Center last week and in two public presentations made his case for two theses: First, that Arendt’s mature political thinking has its roots in her Jewish experience from the 1930s through the 1940s; and second, that she has helped articulate a uniquely Jewish perspective on human rights conveyed and concretized through catastrophe and memory around the holocaust.
The foundation for Sznaider’s argument is an exceptional archival reconstruction of Arendt’s until-now little-known work for the committee for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR). Arendt was the research director for JCR in the 1940s, when she was hired by Salo Baron, a specialist in Jewish history at Columbia University. Baron hired Arendt and gave her what was her first paid position in the United States. As research director of JCR Arendt was thrust into post-war Jewish politics. Based on fruitful work in the Salo Baron archives at Stanford, Sznaider develops an account of the close intellectual, personal, and political relationship between Arendt and Baron, based on a shared belief in what he calls a “hidden Jewish tradition.” Against the mainstream Jewish tradition of victimhood and withdrawal, Arendt and Baron shared a belief in a vibrant and glorious tradition of Jewish political activity.
In her work for the JCR, Arendt compiled inventories of Jewish cultural artifacts. Relying on a network of Jewish refugees around the world, she published lists with titles like: “Tentative List of Jewish Cultural Treasures in Axis-Occupied Countries.” Sznaider makes the case that these lists “are among her important publications on Jewish matters” and should be considered part of the Arendt canon. Working from these lists, Arendt then traveled to Europe and negotiated with German, Israeli, and U.S. military authorities to determine the fate of Jewish cultural treasures that had been stockpiled by the Nazis or saved by European communities.
Arendt’s work at the JCR was importantly an opportunity to engage in Jewish politics as a representative of world Jewry. She was one of the few unelected Jewish leaders tasked with deciding how the salvaged cultural heritage would be distributed to Jewish communities around the world. A large part of her work was convincing the U.S. military to depart from settled international law, which required that these treasures be returned to the communities from which they came. As there were no Jews left in these ravaged European Jewish communities, Arendt and Baron, along with Gershom Scholem in Israel, argued that the Jewish cultural heritage should be distributed to new Jewish communities in Israel, America, and around the world.
According to Sznaider, Arendt saw herself as an emissary of the Jewish people. “Arendt believed that the JCR would be the representative of the Jewish people as a collective and not of Jews as citizens of their respective countries.” Through her work for JCR, Arendt came to believe in the possibility of a Jewish politics outside of traditional nation states. It is in this context, he argues, that Arendt distanced herself from Zionist circles. She was, he writes, convinced that “the only viable answer for modern Jews is politics—not necessarily Zionist politics, but collective politics of some kind.” In lieu of the security of a national state, Arendt hoped for a “federal principle of political organization, not only for Jews but for all European peoples.” It is in this sense that Sznaider argues that Arendt’s political thinking as it emerges in her later writing is deeply indebted to her experience of Jewish political action.
Sznaider has many aims in his book and one is to enlist Arendt as the progenitor of what he calls “rooted cosmopolitanism,” a modern politics that is both rooted in particular identity and also open to the modern demand for equality. Another is to argue that there is a particular Jewish perspective on human rights that is rooted in the Jewish experience of catastrophe. Human rights, he argues leaning on Arendt, does not have a philosophical ground. But Jewish history and the memory of the holocaust offer a non-metaphysical ground for human rights in fear itself.