Arendt, Israel, and Why Jews Have So Many Rules

For more than five decades, readers of Eichmann in Jerusalem have accused Hannah Arendt of being a self-hating Jew. In the current issue of The Nation, I turn that accusation on its head. Eichmann in Jerusalem, I argue, “is a Jewish text filled not only with a modernist sense of Jewish irony…but also with an implicit Decalogue, a Law and the Prophets, animating every moment of its critique.” The reaction against Eichmann in Jerusalem, on the other hand, often coming from Jews, “has something about it that, while not driven by Jew-haters or Jew-hatred, nevertheless draws deeply, if unwittingly, from that well.” What explains this reaction from Jews? Perhaps, I go onto write, it has something to do with the jump, within a relatively short period of time, “from the abject powerlessness of the Holocaust to the mega-power of the modern state” of Israel. That jump “not only liberated the Jew from his Judaism but also allowed him to indulge the classic canards against it.” Arendt was one of the earliest to spot that jump; the half-century-long campaign against her, which shows no signs of abating, is but one register of its consequences.

Along the way, I talk in my piece about the banality of evil, that moment in the 1960s when Norman Podhoretz wasn’t a fool, negative liberalism, the argument last fall between Seyla Benhabib and Richard Wolin, why Jews have so many rules, Matthew Arnold, and what the wrongness of Eichmann‘s readers reveals about the rightness of its arguments.

Read it here.


  1. jonnybutter May 14, 2015 at 1:11 pm | #

    I have a feeling that this piece is the best (current) thing I will read for a good week or more. Just so good.

  2. Tom May 15, 2015 at 12:40 am | #

    Thank you for the memorably well written, thoughtful essay in The Nation. This has proven to be a perennialy interesting topic, which has become something of a constellation of issues. Your essay does justice to its fifty years of complexity.

  3. Thomas Leo Dumm May 15, 2015 at 8:59 am | #

    This piece harkens back to the days of true public intellectual discourse. I thought it not possible anymore, but you’ve proved it can be done. I will wrestle with the essay for some time.

  4. glk65 May 16, 2015 at 1:35 pm | #
  5. Glenn May 18, 2015 at 2:49 pm | #

    Exceptional piece, Cory.

    A must for any further compilation of your writings, if there is to be one.

    • Lawrence Vogel May 21, 2015 at 11:38 am | #

      I apologize for the third-person character of this reply, but I intended to send it to The Nation, only to discover that Comments are closed. So I’ve kept it as is, and would be interested in whether I catch your drift.

      Corey Robin’s “The Trials of Hannah Arendt” may be the slipperiest essay of the many I’ve read on the Eichmann book. According to Robin, Arendt’s critics object to her “banality of evil” thesis primarily because it “puts at risk one of the 20th century’s most precarious moral ideas: the notion that despite no longer having an objective or shared foundation for our sense of what is good or right or just, we do know what is evil.” Arendt’s thesis – that Eichmann didn’t know what he was doing because he was unable to think from the standpoint of his victims – amounts to “a denial of evil as the summum malum, [and so] of [the] capacity [of the Holocaust] to serve as the basis of a political morality.” Eichmann was anti-Semitic, Arendt concedes, but his deeds stemmed from his careerism more than from criminal intentions. Rather than confront Arendt’s challenge, Robin charges, “her critics “evade it.” (10) Robin isn’t fair to Arendt’s critics here, for, bolstered by Bettina Stangneth’s disclosure of the Stassen transcripts, they plausibly conclude that Eichmann, even while affecting ignorance, knew that he was up to mass murder, wanted to help bring it about, and did what he could to hide it.

      Robin provokes further, however, by accusing Arendt’s critics of drinking from the well of anti-Semitism when they react venomously to “this very Jewish text by a very Jewish author presenting new moral challenges to Jews.” What makes her text paradigmatically Jewish, on Robin’s reading, is that Arendt ties the challenge of moral responsibility to our capacity to stop and think; this capacity, in turn, bears the hallmark of “the troubled conscience of the Jew: [her] eternal demand for justice, goodness, perfection, a paradise on earth that must be sought but never achieved.”

      If Eichmann’s susceptibility to anti-Semitism lies in his inability to stop and think, then Arendt’s critics share in that disability to the extent that they take the Israeli tribunal at face-value and fail to see an insidious complicity of right and might in the prosecution of Eichmann. Robin chides Arendt’s critics for having sacrificed the spirit of Judaism – with its strenuous aim of thinking beyond the horizon of everyday life and acting rightly – on the altar of Zionism – which is, according to Robin (following Hermann Cohen), about being happy, at ease, home at last. Arendt’s critics refuse her invitation to embrace “the fugitive destiny” of the Jewish people and, in so doing, mimic Eichmann’s own thoughtlessness. In effect, Robin accuses Arendt’s critics of allying with anti-Semites who “hate the Jew because the Jew asks so much of the world.” Arendt’s critics are framed as casualties of the Shoah and the creation of the state of Israel: events that have “not only liberated the Jew from his Judaism but also allowed him to indulge in the classic canards against it.” Instead of pointing the finger at Eichmann, Robin implies, her critics should live up to the demands of Judaic “mindfulness”: thinking about and trying to stop the evil that Israel is perpetrating in its own backyard.

      Robin’s pretzel logic needs to be untangled. There is no inconsistency between find fault with Arendt’s analyses and criticizing the policies of the state of Israel. And it’s ironic, to say that least, that Arendtian thinking – without banisters or fixed rules (following Nietzsche and Heidegger) – should become Robin’s vehicle of a Hebraic ethos that “relies on a network of prescriptions to guide to enwrap [a Jew’s] whole life.”

      Professor Lawrence Vogel
      Connecticut College Philosophy Department
      New London, CT

      • Sanych May 27, 2015 at 11:02 pm | #

        There are no comments for the article at “The Nation”. I believe they were never allowed.

        Just about everybody knows Arendt’s “banality of evil” expression. Fewer know that she is the author. Even fewer have actually read the book.

        I think she was wrong about Eichmann – he was an ideological antisemite not just a simple bureaucrat. However, that’s not what I found most interesting in her book.

        I have a paperback version published in 1964. In it she consistently refers to Zionists visiting Nazi Germany to negotiate visas for Jews as “Palestinians”.

        The book itself is yet another proof that this identity is very new.

  6. dtc May 28, 2015 at 6:39 pm | #

    Why a new identity? My understanding is Hummus, Belly Dancing, Hookah smoking, etc. were introduced to the Palestinians by the East Europeans (or is it conquerors, as Max Blumenthal discovered how they refer to themselves):

    Incidentally, passing themselves off as “Palestinians” was a ploy of Zionists to not call out attention to their aim of ethnically cleansing Palestine, a tradition that goes back all the way to the 19’th century as outlined by the “Father of Zionism” himself, Jabotinsky who penned his “I have a dream” moment in his diary of of an Palestine free of Palestinians (“the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discretely and circumspectly”):

    • Sanych June 2, 2015 at 9:44 pm | #

      Hilarious! Another plot by the Zionist elders!

      So, according to you, Arendt, who was not a big lover of Zionists, was also on this ploy. Right?

      “Jerusalem Post” was called “Palestinian Post” then. They were “passing themselves” as Palestinians as well.

      The simple fact that you will not find on shmondoweiss nor by reading Maxie is that it was the language of times – Jews living in Palestine were called Palestinians and Arabs were not. When Israel was created this identity became vacant – for about twenty years. Then your friends decided to appropriate it since it fitted nicely with the name of Palestine Liberation Organization, which was established in 1964.

      So, “Eichmann in Jerusalem” published in 1963 is probably the last book where Jews were still called “Palestinians”.

      Another news for you – humus was not invented by Palestinians, nor was it invented by Arabs. It is just a dish of the region popular among many ethnic groups. Belly dancing is not unique to Arabs, and hookah is actually a Persian word.

  7. David Green May 30, 2015 at 2:19 pm | #

    Arendt’s critics marked the beginning of what Norman Finkelstein later called the Holocaust Industry. On behalf of Zionism, but also increasingly on behalf of the foreign policy establishment in general, we are to believe in an eternal and incorrigible anti-Semitism (Goldhagen).

    Arendt engaged in both institutional analysis and moral criticism. She attempted to explain behavior in context without letting perpetrators off the hook. She of course can be criticized on various points. Nevertheless, her critics couldn’t and still can’t tolerate this fundamental tension. Ironically perhaps, they are invested in the notion of Germans lack of moral agency, and a kind of political/cultural determinism. Adding a whole new level of confusion and contradiction, they also assume that someone “like them” would have made better choices in the 1930s: not to be a collaborator, a capo, or a killer. Instead of grappling with this contradiction, and recognizing the problematic nature of assuming one’s own ability to be truly heroic in the context of political oppression and fear, they simply ask us to accept the existence of overwhelming political evil, and at the same time their own innocence (or that of the Jewish state).

    So who is going to be remembered for intellectual conscientiousness and political integrity, Podhoretz or Arendt? The question answers itself. Meanwhile, we are subject to the current banal rhetoric about “do-overs” in Iraq and elsewhere, and mainstream opinion will not even allow that we can have a “think-over” about our criminal wars in the ME. This sort of moral evasion only serves to prove Arendt’s point about the banality of evil (see David Brooks). Arendt’s critics–and the rest of us–are asked to contend with their “inner Eichmann.” Obviously, we can’t be allowed to go there–not good for the empire.

  8. fosforos17 June 1, 2015 at 11:32 am | #

    This is a brilliant essay. Thank you. One point I’d like to add–those who treat the evil of the Nazi holocaust as “absolute evil,” as the very definition of evil, wind up justifying, by advocacy or silence, acts that–absent the holocaust–would be obvious exemplars of such absolute evil.
    The French rightist politician Jean-Marie LePen was criminally prosecuted and convicted for referring to Auschwitz as an “incident” in the history of World War II. But in the last months of the war, when the death camps no longer existed, four “incidents”–the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki–burned alive a larger number of human victims than the total number of corpses (previously murdered through slave labor, starvation, disease, and the gas chamber) incinerated in the crematoria of Auschwitz over its three years of operation. In the entire “civilized” world nobody has ever been publicly reviled, let alone criminally prosecuted, for treating those “absolutely” evil acts, implicitly or explicitly, as mere “incidents.”

  9. Peter Friedman June 29, 2015 at 5:50 pm | #

    I think the real problem with Arendt’s thesis is that she accepted Eichmann’s persona as he constructed it for the purposes of his trial. Bettina Stangneth’s “Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer” presents rather compelling evidence both in connection with his work on behalf of the Third Reich and his years in Argentina that Eichmann was a very self-aware and determined force intent on the extermination of all Jews. He was no mere bureaucrat tasked with a particular job. He was a bloodthirsty anti-semite who said, in the dying days of Hitler’s regime, that he would go to his grave happy that in doing so he was following 5 million Jews he had sent there first.

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