June 18, 2019

The Enduring Controversy of Hannah Arendt

““A time will come, that you will not live to see, when Jews will erect a monument to you in Israel… and they will proudly claim you as their own,” the philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote to his close friend Hannah Arendt in 1963. That monument remains unbuilt in Israel 2019. Nearly 60 years have gone by since the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and Arendt’s name continues to generate fierce criticism among many Israeli intellectuals. Although she is considered by many one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, and even though she was a Holocaust survivor and a Zionist (at least for a certain period) – she was boycotted in Israel for many years and most of her writings have only recently been translated into Hebrew.

The strong feelings that Arendt, who died in 1975, arouses in scholars, especially Israelis, spring primarily from her 1963 book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” Based on a series of articles Arendt wrote for The New Yorker, the book is critical of the way Israel conducted the Eichmann trial and the way the defendant was portrayed. Instead of the murderous, anti-Semitic monster the prosecution sought to paint, Arendt saw something very different: a new type of mass murderer, but without malicious, necessarily lethal, motives, who neither considered the significance of his deeds or accept responsibility for them. She attributed to Eichmann what she termed “thoughtlessness,” an inability to think from the other’s point of view.

Her book immediately sparked bitter controversy that persisted throughout the 1960s. Arendt was denounced, including by some of her closest friends, as anti-Zionist and said to an example of “Jewish self-hatred.” She was accused of being favorably disposed toward Eichmann and of absolving him of guilt and responsibility for his crimes. Her good friend, the kabbala scholar Gershom Scholem, wrote to her that she lacked “love for the Jewish people.” Relations between them were severed in the wake of her response to his letter.”

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