Hand-me-downs from one critic to another drew on alleged references in the book which no one seemed to have checked. The argument was by no means restricted to academic circles but exercised young and old, historians, philosophers, journalists, as in the case of [Anthony] Grafton’s father; priests of several faiths; atheists; community functionaries; and professional propagandists.
In his critique of Seyla Benhabib’s account of the Arendt/Eichmann controversy, which I wrote about earlier today, Richard Wolin makes an additional claim I’ve been puzzling over:
Second, a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence indicates that so great was her impatience with the proceedings that she never saw Eichmann testify. Arendt endured chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner’s lengthy opening statement and, following an absence of several weeks, returned to Jerusalem to witness the final verdict. But, remarkably, she never saw Eichmann himself take the stand. (Here, one suspects that Arendt’s rather brazen disregard for the value of testimony, not to speak of the norms of journalism, is an instance of Germanic philosophical arrogance. As J. G. Fichte said, if the facts fail to accord with the sublimity of the idea, so much the worse for the facts!)
I’ve spent the better part of this evening re-reading Arendt’s letters to her three main correspondents during the Eichmann trial—the philosopher Karl Jaspers, her husband Heinrich Blücher, and her friend Mary McCarthy—and I cannot find any evidence for Wolin’s claims; in fact, there’s much in the letters indicating that they are incorrect.
It helps first to remember three key dates from the Eichmann trial:
April 11, 1961: first day of the Eichmann trial
June 20, 1961: Eichmann takes the stand
December 11, 1961: the Israeli court issues its verdict
Right off the bat, it’s clear that Wolin’s chronology is off: Arendt could not have been in Jerusalem for the prosecutor’s opening statement only, left for a few weeks, and then returned for the verdict. Roughly eight months separate the first day of the trial from the announcement of the verdict.
And indeed, when the verdict was issued in December, Arendt was either in New York, nursing Blücher back to health (he had suffered from a ruptured aneurism), or in Middletown, Connecticut, where she would have been wrapping up a seminar on Machiavelli she had been teaching at Wesleyan that fall. The one place she would not have been was in Jerusalem, as is clear from a letter she wrote to Jaspers on December 30, 1961, and from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography.
But once I started poring over the correspondence, it became clear that Wolin got more than the dates of the trial and Arendt’s attendance wrong. He also seriously misstates what Arendt saw and heard at the trial and her attitude to the trial and its testimony. Most important, the centrally damning claim he makes—that Arendt never saw or heard Eichmann testify—is in all likelihood wrong. What’s more, the very evidence for its wrongness comes from the very sources Wolin cites as evidence: namely, Arendt’s correspondence.
Arendt arrived in Tel Aviv on Sunday April 9, 1961, two days before the trial began, and headed straight for Jerusalem. At the trial, she listened intently not only to Hausner’s opening statement, but also to lengthy recordings of Eichmann’s depositions. As she wrote to Blücher on April 20:
Here everything is going as expected…with the ghost in the glass cage listening to his voice sounding from the magnetic tape.
Arendt also heard testimony from a great variety of witnesses for the prosecution, including one of the leaders of the Warsaw Uprising; the father of Herschel Grynszpan, whose assassination of Ernst vom Rath had provided the pretext for Kristallnacht; and Salo Baron, the eminent Jewish historian. In fact, as the days went on, Arendt grew increasingly frustrated by this testimony, as so little of it had to do with Eichmann himself. As she wrote to Blücher on May 6:
The basic mistake—if one can say such a thing—is not only that Eichmann has been completely forgotten, his name often not mentioned for days on end (really typical, e.g.,: After the prosecution put 29 volumes [!] concerning Hans Frank on the table, Servatius [me: Eichmann's attorney] rose and asked: “Does the name Eichmann appear in any of these volumes!” The answer: “No”)…
Far from being uninterested in what Eichmann had to say, Arendt was profoundly interested in him and his testimony. She watched him closely throughout the trial: “Eichmann is no eagle; rather, a ghost who has a cold on top of that,” as she wrote to Jaspers on April 13. And throughout her stay in Jerusalem and in the time after that, she kept recurring to the six volumes of testimony (more than 3000 pages) he had given in his depositions. Not to mention the lengthy trial transcript she pored over for months as she prepared her articles for The New Yorker.
Then, on May 6, she writes to Blücher that she is leaving Jerusalem the next morning for Switzerland, where she will visit Jaspers. As she’s about to leave, she wonders:
The question is: Should I come back here again for the defense? I imagine I should, but I’m not sure….Of course it also depends on my appointments. Zurich on June 24th—etched in stone!
That date, the 24th of June, was a reference to a long-planned reunion between her and Blücher, who would be meeting Jaspers and his wife, both of whom had played such an important role in Arendt’s life, for the very first time.
As the weeks go by, first in Switzerland with Jaspers, and then in Germany, Arendt decides she must return to Jerusalem. The only question is when. “If I only knew when I have to go back to Jerusalem,” she writes McCarthy on May 31.
Why was Arendt so eager to return to Jerusalem? Simply and solely to see and hear Eichmann testify. And what did she mean by “if I only knew when I have to go back to Jerusalem”? The date that Eichmann was to assume the witness stand. Contrary to everything Wolin explicitly states and implicitly suggests in his piece, seeing and hearing Eichmann testify was a top priority for Arendt between the time of her first and second visit to Jerusalem.
On June 4, Arendt tells Blücher that she thinks she’ll be in Jerusalem by the 17th. And adds, “With a bit of luck, it might happen in the week of June 17 that Eichmann will be called to the witness stand.”
On June 14, a Wednesday, she writes Blücher:
So I’m flying to Israel on Saturday, as I already wrote you. The trial will start again on the 20th, and I’m afraid that Hausner will try to delay matters even further. But I have at least to try to see Eichmann <editor’s note: on the witness stand>….I will leave there on Friday the 23rd, either directly for Zurich, or via Athens—it all depends.
So, that’s all. Here’s my address again, just to be sure: Hotel Eden, Jerusalem till Friday the 23rd. After that, with you: Waldhaus Dolderer, Zurich.
On June 16, a Friday, she writes Jaspers: “I’m off tomorrow morning.”
Unfortunately, the three editions of her correspondence do not include any letters from this second visit to Jerusalem. Probably because she knew she was going to be seeing Jaspers and Blücher, the two people she corresponded with most intently during that time, within days.
What we do know, from Lipstadt, is that Eichmann did indeed take the stand on the 20th of June, and unless Arendt canceled her trip to Jerusalem at literally the last minute (“I’m off tomorrow morning”), we also know that she was in the city when he took the stand. It would seem strange if, after all these expressions of desire to see Eichmann in court, she decided not to stop by.
I should say that I’ve only managed to consult the sources I’ve cited here. There may be other sources out there that would confirm Wolin’s claims. If there are, I apologize in advance. But I would also like to claim an exemption on two grounds. First, I didn’t have access to those sources; I did the best that I could with the books that I have and the books I could access on the web. Second, Wolin himself claims that it was “a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence” that led him to the conclusion “that she never saw Eichmann testify.” Limiting myself to that correspondence, which I read carefully rather than perused, should have yielded at least some evidence for his conclusion. It has not, so I believe I am justified in concluding, that at least by Wolin’s own lights, his claim is not correct.
Update (7:30 am)
I’m getting reports this morning that Deborah Lipstadt, whose The Eichmann Trial I link to above, makes a similar claim as Wolin. I don’t have her book and was able to access those pages regarding the chronology of the Eichmann trial that I mention above only through Google. I’ll try to get a copy of the book and report back what I find. Lipstadt is a careful scholar, so I’ll definitely want to see what she says and what sources she cites. Perhaps Wolin got his claim from her, perhaps she has further information. Anyway, will report back once I have more information.
Update (10:30 am)
I’ve now been able, with the help of Amazon and Google Reader, to find out what Lipstadt says in The Eichmann Trial. The crucial passages are on pp. 178-180. Long story short, she confirms what I said in my post.
First, Lipstadt says that after traveling in Switzerland for five weeks (also Germany, actually), Arendt returned to Jerusalem to see Eichmann on the witness stand. There, she saw and heard Servatius, Eichmann’s attorney, ask him questions.
Second, Lipstadt’s criticism of Arendt is that Arendt did not stay to witness Hausner’s cross-examination of Eichmann. Had she stayed, says Lipstadt, Arendt might have seen something about Eichmann, under Hausner’s withering critique, that she could not have gleaned from the transcript.
None of us, of course, knows if that’s true, but I suspect Lipstadt’s wrong. Given that Arendt was so irritated by Hausner’s and the prosecution’s general line of attack—Arendt felt that rather than trying Eichmann for his deeds, the state was more interested in narrating the larger history of the Holocaust—I suspect that seeing the cross-exam for herself would have only further confirmed Arendt’s premonitions. But that’s speculation. And in any event, immaterial to the larger issue of whether Arendt was ever there to see Eichmann testify. She was.
Third, Lipstadt is very careful to point out that simply because Arendt wasn’t there for part of the trial does not invalidate her conclusions; a great many accounts of trials, Lipstadt says, are based entirely on a reading of the transcript.
So, bottom line: Lipstadt does not provide any evidence for Wolin’s claim.
Lipstadt’s footnotes in this section make reference to Arendt’s correspondence with Jaspers and McCarthy, which I examined carefully last night and the results of which I reported in my post. Lipstadt also refers in her footnotes to p. 149 of Raul Hilberg’s memoir. Hilberg was a historian of the Holocaust. Indeed, he wrote the first genuinely comprehensive history of the Holocaust, from which Arendt drew extensively in her book—much to Hilberg’s chagrin; he felt like he never got the proper acknowledgment from her or from subsequent scholars of the controversy.
On p. 149 of his memoir, Hilberg claims that Arendt stayed in Jerusalem for ten weeks and then left three days before Eichmann assumed the stand. He claims that Arendt’s published correspondence with Jaspers shows this. Hilberg might be Wolin’s source, though I took Wolin’s “a perusal of Arendt’s correspondence” to mean that Wolin had done the perusing. In any event, Hilberg is wrong on all accounts: Arendt did not stay in Jerusalem for ten weeks; she did not leave three days before Eichmann assumed the stand; and her correspondence with Jaspers does not show any of this.
Two other sources.
According to a commenter on the blog, David Cesarini, no friend of Arendt’s, claims in his book on Eichmann that she was there for the first days of Eichmann’s testimony. Which fits with my account and Lipstadt’s.
Daniel Maier-Katkin, a professor at Florida State, has reconstructed the timeline of Arendt and the trial in footnote 44 of this post (h/t Patchen Markell). I don’t know what his sources are (I’ve emailed him to ask but have not yet heard back), but his reconstruction of the chronology largely fits with mine, albeit with some additional details:
The trial was in session between April 11 and July 24. Arendt was present in the courtroom from April 11 through May 8. Between May 8 and June 23 the trial was dominated by sessions on the admissibility of more than 1000 documents; Arendt, who was travelling in Europe during those weeks, had full access to all of those documents. Arendt was present between June 20 and 23 to hear the first sessions of Adolf Eichmann’s testimony, but not for the final two weeks of trial when he was cross-examined by Gideon Hausner, whose approach to the trial as a telling of the story of the Holocaust rather than a juridical inquiry into Eichmann’s role Arendt found tiresome and disquieting.
So, again, nothing in the correspondence even remotely suggests that Arendt was not there to witness personally at least some of Eichmann’s testimony. And much in the correspondence—and now secondary accounts—demonstrates precisely the opposite.
I hesitate to weigh in on this controversy for two reasons. First, I know both Richard and Seyla, and Richard is a colleague. And even though, when it comes to Arendt, I have consistently found Seyla to have the better of the argument, I have a great deal of respect for both of them and their work. Second, I may be writing about the war over Eichmann in Jerusalem in a lengthier piece in the coming months—More than a half-century after its publication, how is it that this book still manages to get under people’s skin? Is there any other book, not allied to a political or religious movement, that can do that?—so I don’t want to get too caught up in any one bit of the fracas right now.
Still, I wanted to respond to this one paragraph in Wolin’s critique:
Benhabib’s claim that Kant’s moral philosophy plays a systematic role in Eichmann in Jerusalem is similarly unsustainable. Arendt’s reliance on Kant’s theory of judgment—the idea that we broaden our mental horizons by virtue of our ability to reason from the standpoint of other persons—is limited to one meager passage (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 48). Moreover, in the passage in question, Kant’s name is not even mentioned. Casual allusions along these lines hardly qualify as systematic or serious employment. As most Arendt scholars are aware, Arendt only developed these Kantian precepts in earnest circa 1970, in the course of her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy and in the complementary essay “Thinking and Moral Considerations.”
That last claim, which I’ve bolded, is simply not true.
In a brilliant article—”Arendt, Aesthetics, and ‘The Crisis in Culture’“—that totally changed how I see some of Arendt’s work, University of Chicago political theorist Patchen Markell shows that the Kantian presence in Arendt’s thought, particularly regarding these issues of judgment and enlarged mentality, well predate her 1970 writings, extending as far back as the 1950s. And in fact, as Patchen shows, most serious Arendt scholars know that.
If memory serves (I only read this essay in draft more than a year ago), Patchen looks at Arendt’s essay on culture from the 1950s, which finally appears in Between Past and Future in 1961 (the year Eichmann went on trial). He shows, among a great many other things, that Arendt and Jaspers were corresponding about Kant’s Critique of Judgment in the late 1950s (the text was very much on her mind), and that the Critique of Judgment very much informs her essay on culture, and how to think about questions of taste and judgment and their relationship to politics. In other words, whether or not Kant is present in what Arendt wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem (and again, I think Seyla’s got the better of that argument), he, and his writing about judgment, were clearly present in Arendt’s thinking on the eve of her travels to Jerusalem.
Inspired by Wolin’s piece (and Patchen’s corrective, avant la lettre), I read Arendt’s other essay from that period, “Culture and Politics,” which I don’t think Patchen actually discusses but which is nevertheless instructive.
In that essay, Arendt claims Kant’s Critique of Judgment as an explicit inspiration for her thinking about judgment and politics: it “contains,” she says, “what is in my opinion the greatest and most original aspect of Kant’s political philosophy.” That was in 1959, two years before Arendt would head to Jerusalem to report on the Eichmann trial.
As she goes on to develop the political implications of Kant’s theory of taste and judgment, Arendt writes:
It is as though taste decided not only what the world should look like, but also who belongs together in the world….The belonging-together-of-persons—this is what gets decided in judgments about a common world. And what the individual manifests in its judgments is a singular “being-thus-and-not-otherwise”….
As soon as I read that “who belongs together in the world,” I stopped. The passage has an eerie resonance.
In the epilogue to her report on the Eichmann trial, Arendt delivers what she thinks should have been the Israeli court’s judgment against Eichmann. Her very last two sentences read:
And just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations…we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.
Though I have no idea if Arendt intended these last sentences of Eichmann in Jerusalem to be read as such, it’s hard for me not to read them as an indication of how, for her, Eichmann’s crimes are a terrible and ironic perversion of the Kantian themes she was developing in her 1959 essay.
Just as a person reveals herself in her tastes (and what she reveals in part is “who belongs together in the world”), so does Eichmann reveal himself in his taste (or lack thereof), and what he reveals is who belongs together in his mind (namely, Aryans as opposed to Jews) and who belongs together in actuality: namely, he and all the other Nazis who refused to share the earth, as opposed to the rest of the peoples of the earth.
It is because of that terrible and ironic perversion of Kant’s theory of taste, which is connected to judgment, that Arendt insists so strongly on the court restoring the proper meaning of Kant’s theory of taste/judgment in its verdict on Eichmann: through its verdict, Arendt claims, through its revealing who or what it is, the court must decide who does indeed belong together in the world—namely, the peoples of the earth, in all their plurality—and who does not: those individuals, like Eichmann, who do not wish to share the earth with others.
Update (12:30 pm)
Patchen Markell has a very useful comment and corrective in the comments section, which I’m reproducing here. But first, here is the published version of that article of his that I discuss. And now here’s Patchen:
Thanks, Corey. I just sent you the the published version of the piece, which is in Nikolas Kompridis, The Aesthetic Turn in Political Thought. Although the Jaspers correspondence does contain a letter from 1957, when she was busy re-reading the Critique of Judgment, that makes it pretty clear how seriously engaged she was with that text, the place to go to really see this is her Denktagebuch or notebooks, published in 2002, which contain 15 pages (in the published version) of handwritten notes from the third Critique, including notes and comments on the idea of an “enlarged mentality,” the importance of the presence of others for the validity of judgments, etc. The editors of the Denktagebuch themselves observed how significant it was that this material came prior to, not after, the Eichmann trial. The Anglophone scholar who reconstructs this stuff best, and really focuses in a way I do not on the continuities between the Kant reading of 1957 and the lectures of 1970, is David Marshall, who published a very detailed piece on this history of Arendt’s readings of Kant in Political Theory (2010): http://ptx.sagepub.com/content/38/3/367.
Also, for the geeky record, “Culture and Politics” is the English translation of a German lecture that Arendt subsequently incorporated into “The Crisis in Culture” (in Between Past and Future).
Update (2 pm)
I’ve been reading Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem, which is what has kicked off this latest round of the Arendt Wars, and she tells a story there about Eichmann, which I posted about on Facebook over the weekend. It seems pertinent to this discussion re Kant and enlarged mentality. Here’s what I said:
In 1950, Adolph Eichmann, along with 15 others, managed to flee Europe and set sail for Argentina from Genoa on the Giovanna C. Years later, in a text titled “Meine Flucht,” he reminisced about the relief he felt, finally to have escaped his would-be tormentors. Drawing a parallel only he could have drawn, he marveled, “Once it was the Jews, now it was–Eichmann.” This is the sort of thing Hannah Arendt had in mind when she talked about Eichmann’s thoughtlessness.
It should be noted that Stangneth does not read the Eichmann comment in this way, but I found her reading tortured and unpersuasive, and unsupported by the text.
George Steiner writes somewhere that the deepest source of anti-Semitism may lie in three Jews: Moses, Jesus, and Marx. Three Jews who formulated a great and demanding ethics/politics, an almost unforgiving and humanly unbearable ethics/politics, that the rest of the world has repeatedly bridled at and hated. And never forgiven the Jews for. Setting aside the bit of self-congratulation that lies at the heart of that formulation—ah, we Jews, we’re so ethical and righteous—I wonder if some part of that may not lie at the heart of the rage and reaction that Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem has elicited over the years. There is something unforgiving at the heart of that book. It is a relentless indictment—not just, pace what Arendt herself said later of the book, of one man, but of many men, and women—an indictment, despite Arendt’s best and professed intentions, in which ordinary readers (ordinary men) can’t help but see themselves. And an indictment in the name of (or at least implicitly and distantly in the name of) a difficult and demanding ethics and politics. An indictment that seems to stir the same kind of reaction to Arendt that historically was stirred up against the Jews. Oh, that Hannah Arendt: she sets herself apart; she thinks she’s smarter than the rest of us; she belongs to no one, not even the Jews. Only this time it’s not the reaction of just non-Jews to Jews, but also of Jews to a Jew. Shana Tova.
For a change of pace…
In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt makes the argument that one of the reasons the French Revolution took such a violent and authoritarian turn was that it allowed the social question—simplistically put, issues of poverty and the poor—to enter and then dominate public discussion. Unlike the American Revolution, which was more properly concerned with truly political questions like the organization of public power, constitutions, and civic action. Once issues of economic need are put on the table, Arendt suggests, tyranny cannot be far off. So pressing and overwhelming are the physical needs of the body, so much do they cry out for our response, that they almost introduce, by their very nature, an element of compulsion into public life. That compulsion mirrors the compulsion of biology. Such needs are best left in the shadows.
Arendt also claims that an additional driving force toward tyranny in the French Revolution lay in the revolutionaries’ horror of hypocrisy, their desire to take off the public masks we all present once we enter the world of our peers. Inspired by Rousseau, Robespierre and the Jacobins sought to strip the person of her inevitably public persona, to make inner self coincide with outer presentation. (Trilling makes a similar argument in Sincerity and Authenticity, though he refracts the point through a discussion of Jane Austen, as I recall.)
I’m not sure if Arendt explicitly says this or not (it’s been about five years since I taught On Revolution), but there’s also a suggestion in the text that the drive against hypocrisy and desire for sincerity, with its manic hunt for any signs of deception or doubt in the inner self, is related to the rise of the social question, the entrance onto the public stage of those orders of society that had been previously hidden behind the walls of the household. Following in the footsteps of Nietzsche, Arendt suggests that when the laboring orders of society barge into public life, they inevitably will take down all the barriers that previously separated the hidden recesses of society from the stage of politics.
Now this is a vastly simplified—and, to be honest, vulgar—version of Arendt’s much more complicated and interesting argument. (I’ve just read an amazing article, forthcoming in the American Political Science Review, by Steven Klein, who’s a grad student at the University of Chicago, that’s going to totally change how we think about Arendt’s understanding of the social question in the modern age.) But I’m simplifying and vulgarizing for a reason.
Because it occurred to me, while I was sitting in a discussion this afternoon of one of my graduate students’ dissertation chapters (on Thoreau’s conception of the self, and how it relates to both Arendt’s and Rousseau’s conceptions of the self), that I would love to know what Arendt would have made of Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Though Arendt has a fascinating discussion of Billy Budd in On Revolution, I don’t recall her ever talking about Benito Cereno. I could be wrong, of course, but I don’t think she ever wrote about—or perhaps even read—Benito Cereno.
If I’m right about Arendt’s non-engagement with Benito Cereno (I’m awaiting confirmation from various friends who are Arendt experts and know far more than I do), there might be an interesting reason for that. For Benito Cereno turns upside some of the basic theoretical architecture of On Revolution. It’s a story about a slave revolt on a ship. Babo, a black slave, and his fellow slaves seize control of a ship, captained by Benito Cereno, and kill a good portion of the crew and the slaves’ master. After drifting somewhere in the ocean for a matter of days or months (can’t remember now), the ship encounters another ship captained by Amaso Delano, a Yankee whaler or something like that. Babo organizes a massive deception: he and his comrades pretend that the white Spaniard Benito Cereno is still in control of the ship and that they, black Africans, are still slaves. They force Benito Cereno to play a role he has long since vacated, and they do the same. It is an ingenious plan, thought through (on the spot) to the last detail. They almost pull it off.
In Arendtian terms, there’s something slightly fantastic, if not impossible, about such a story. (And as Greg Grandin has taught us, Benito Cereno was in fact based on a true story, which was almost wilder than the fiction Melville constructed.) The moment the social question is put onto the public agenda, the moment the laborer with his body is pressed into the public square, the hunt for lies, the inquisition of private life, begins. All forms of representation and mediation become suspect; transparency and directness is all. (In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke made an even more incisive and terrifying version of the argument, seeing the poor Parisians’ capture of the royal family, and invasion of the Queen’s bedchambers, at Versailles, as the emblematic moment of the Revolution’s assault on all private space and its launch into violent tyranny.)
Yet here we have black slaves, in revolt, putting the social question of black bonded labor onto the public stage, in a very literal sense. They are performing slavery for an audience. (Performance is a big category for Arendt; it is the hallmark of a truly political form of action, one that is not concerned with social questions but rather with the glory of words and deeds.) They are engaged in deception and duplicity, crafting and presenting public personae that are diametrically opposed to their actual selves. Much like the Greeks did. That public presentation of self, for Arendt, is in part what it means to be political, and it’s precisely what’s not supposed to happen, not supposed to be able to happen, once the social question enters the public scene.
It seems to me that Benito Cereno presents a mother lode of raw material for Arendtian theory, waiting to be extracted. Or perhaps someone has already mined that vein?
In the annals of moral casuistry, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of the perils of moral reasoning than this defense, brought to you by The New Republic, of the slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza:
We can say that there is a principle worth fighting and dying for: Civilians cannot be used to make just wars impossible and morality will not be used as a tool to disarm. And once we have that principle, the proportionality calculation changes. The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally. It is the protection of that world, one in which moral soldiers still have a fighting chance, that justifies Israel’s operations against Hamas today. And it is that greater cause that decisively outweighs the terrible toll in innocent life.
That’s the last paragraph of a piece that attempts to confront one of the many challenges of defending the Gaza war: namely, that on a critical principle of just war theory—the proportionality principle, which states that “the military value of a target must outweigh the anticipated harm to civilians”—Israel, as the author acknowledges, “may seem to fail the test.”
Can we confidently say that the anticipated harm to innocents is justified by Israel’s expected military gains? The degrading of Hamas’ rocket capabilities, and most of all the destruction of its terrifying network of offensive tunnels (fortified by the limited cement that Israel permitted into Gaza for humanitarian purposes) are valuable military goals. But as the Palestinian death count rises above 500 [editorial note: it's now over 1000]—many of these civilian—I find myself bewildered: Are these tunnels really worth the lives of all those children?
A normal person might be drawn up short by such a question. A normal person might answer that maybe, just maybe, the war isn’t worth it. But a normal person is not a philosopher of war.
Rather than confront reality, the philosopher of war resorts to reason. If the problem is the mismatch between the terrible grandeur of the means and the pedestrian poverty of the ends, don’t rethink your means, much less the war; simply inflate the ends.
There is, however, a way out of this paradox. And we find it at the moment we realize that Hamas’ actions have made this war about more than Israel or Palestine; it’s a war about future of morality in armed conflicts. For if Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack. And make no mistake: The eyes of the world are on Hamas, and terrorist groups worldwide will—as they have for generations—learn from the tactics of Gazan terrorists and the world’s reaction. So if Israel allows Hamas’ human shields to defeat it now, we will all reap the results in the years to come.
And that’s how we come to that gruesome last paragraph.
The Gaza war, you see, is not a war over tunnels. It’s not even a war in defense of Israel. It’s a war about…war, a war in defense of just war. Once upon a time, crackpots thought they were fighting a war to end all wars. That was its justice. Now they’re fighting a war in order to make just war possible. That is its justice.
The theory of just war is supposed to impose limits upon the launching and fighting of wars. It’s a condition of, a constraint upon, war. But here it becomes the end—both the aim and the justification—of war. Because that is the aim of Israel’s war, “civilians cannot be used” to make such a war “impossible.” They must instead be used to make it possible.
Hannah Arendt would have had a field day with this kind of reasoning: how it takes an action that it acknowledges to be dirty, puts it through the ideological rinse cycle, and makes it come out clean; and how it turns the manufacture of human corpses into the instrument of a higher law. It’s not, as the idealist would have it, that the law places a condition or constraint on the manufacture of corpses. Nor is it, as the cynic would have it, that the law provides an excuse or justification for the manufacture of corpses. It’s something stranger, more terrible: the law requires the manufacture of corpses.
So I finally saw Hannah Arendt this weekend.
As entertainment, it was fine. I enjoyed the tender portrayal of Arendt’s marriage to Heinrich Blücher (though the rendition of her relationship to Mary McCarthy was painful to watch). I loved the scenes in their apartment. Even though the depiction of its style and decor was more Mad Men than Morningside Heights, and the roominess, airiness, and light of the apartment gave little suggestion of the thick and heavy German hospitality for which Arendt and Blücher were famous. And, yes, a lot of the dialogue was painfully wooden and transparently devoted to narrative exposition, but I didn’t mind that so much.
My real problem with the film is that I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why it was made. As my wife pointed out to me, it doesn’t shed any new light on the Eichmann controversy or Arendt. There’s nothing in it you wouldn’t know from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography or those drive-by summations of the Eichmann controversy that you get in standard intellectual histories of the period. So why make the film?
Films of this nature are supposed to dramatize something you can’t see in—or understand from—other genres. But does Hannah Arendt do that? I know there was much talk when it came out of the way that it captures on screen the process of thinking, but frankly I found those to be some of the more embarrassing scenes in the film. It’s a Hollywood producer’s idea of thinking: resting on the sofa, eyes closed, smoking, an idea crosses the thinker’s mind, eyes open. That that may have been how Arendt in fact did think—parts of it fit with Arendt’s own descriptions (not the cheesy eyes opening bits)—doesn’t quite redeem it, for the simple reason that seeing it on the screen doesn’t add anything to reading about it on the page.
I suppose one could argue that the film brings this story of Arendt and the Eichmann controversy to viewers who didn’t know anything about it. And that’s not nothing. But Hannah Arendt—who managed not only to bring stories to readers who didn’t know anything about them, but to tell those stories in a new and distinctive way, in part by the pioneering nature of her genre-bending writing—deserves better than that.