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On the American “Jewish street” of the mid-1960s, you did not need to have read her work to have an opinion about Hannah Arendt. The German Jewish émigré to the United States had written a famous book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, which showed that anti-Semitism was at the core of the Nazi program—thus, she was good for the Jews. This massive tome also argued for structural similarities between Nazism and communism—which, I suppose, made her good for Cold War America. But many Jews were angered by Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Four aspects of that much-discussed book rubbed Jews the wrong way. When Arendt attached to Adolf Eichmann the phrase “banality of evil,” the meaning of which remains obscure to this day, many Jews thought she was trivializing Nazi persecution. Arendt also exaggerated out of all proportion the degree to which some Jewish leaders in Europe cooperated with the Nazi authorities in the forlorn hope that doing so would improve matters. At the time of the book’s appearance, failures of Jewish leadership were little discussed outside of specialized or bitterly partisan circles within the Jewish community, and in any case the question is of dubious relevance to Eichmann’s guilt. Then, Arendt implied that Eichmann’s trial had been a political one, conducted by the Israeli government for its own purposes. Finally, though her recondite meditation on whether Eichmann should have been executed concluded that he should have, the very intricacy of her discussion tempted the impatient to ascribe to her the opposite stance. As a refugee in the 1930s and later, Arendt had been active in various Zionist projects, albeit more from a humanitarian than from a national perspective. Eichmann ruptured some of her long-standing friendships with distinguished intellectuals, most publicly Gershom Scholem.

When I reached college in the late 1960s, my Talmud teacher, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, said that Arendt’s The Human Condition ought to be on my reading list. I read as much of Arendt’s work as I could, and I continue to return to it. She was, to me, a great and opinionated philosophical storyteller, imaginative in an era in which so much Anglophone political theorizing was arid and social-scientific. By Teutonic philosophical standards, she could sound remarkably down-to-earth.

Personal biases also attracted me to Arendt. She was the model of the heroic armchair thinker whose insights derive from profound reflection combined with serious but not excessively dusty historical research. I enjoyed her sharp phenomenological distinctions—for example, her contrast between the political, the civic mode exemplified by a somewhat idealized American revolution and the paradigm of Athenian democracy, and the social, a civic orientation dedicated to improving private life and economic welfare and exemplified by the French and Russian revolutions. I valued her trenchant though idiosyncratic distinctions among power, force, violence, and so on. I was excited by her defense of the vita activa in The Human Condition, a stance that recognizes the roles and significance of labor, work, and action, especially political action. Her conceptual delineation of spheres and phenomena bears some resemblance to the most ­creative Talmudic analysis, though Arendt did not pursue the textual and analytic dimensions of analysis with the same precision.

I was not blind to Arendt’s limitations. Her approach was formalistic in the manner of Talmudic jurisprudence, sometimes to the point of missing concrete realities. At the prescriptive level, Arendt’s idea of the political as a realm of spontaneous free action made genuine political action rare and tenuous: a short period in Athens, Rosa Luxemburg in post–World War I Germany, the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Such a high view can lead us to neglect the workaday political activity that is the basis of a long-lasting order. Her vision of politics was more utopian than practical. This weakness became clearer to me with time. Nonetheless, her categories still come to my mind almost instinctively.

When I first read her work, I thought little about Hannah Arendt’s Jewishness. Unlike the Jews who debated Eichmann, I did not treat her as a Jewish thinker. To be sure, her identity as a Jew was indelible, and her experience as a Jewish refugee was central to her thought. The social and psychological aspects of her self-understanding interested me. Yet I didn’t read her seeking insights into Judaism, for Arendt was an intellectual who showed no interest in Judaism and seemed almost entirely ignorant of its classical sources. It may have been easier for me than for others to remain detached from the Eichmann controversies of the 1960s—a time when dogmatic anti-Zionism was not yet common in liberal-progressive rhetoric and was not perceived as a serious menace. In any event, Arendt’s attitude to Zionism was far more ambivalent than one would guess from the use to which she is put today. Looking back, I think it likely that the firestorm that blazed after Eichmann in Jerusalem provoked some Jewish intellectuals to talk out for the first time the importance of the Holocaust to their sense of their own Jewishness. Precisely because my Jewish identity and commitment came from elsewhere, I did not share their agitation.

I can put my finger on the moment when, years later, I first reacted against Arendt’s attitudes about Judaism and Jews. During the Eichmann controversy, her mentor and friend, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, bucked her up by comparing her critics to the Jewish thinkers who rejected Spinoza’s philosophy. He used the phrase “hate-filled” to describe the opposition to Spinoza by the eminent founder of the Marburg school of neo-Kantianism, Herman Cohen. He said the same of the proto-existentialist Franz Rosenzweig. When this letter was published in the late 1980s, I recoiled from Jaspers’s demonization of the two leading German Jewish thinkers of the early twentieth century. If Cohen and Rosenzweig, credentialed by the best German universities, could be labelled “hate-filled” merely because they objected to Spinoza’s pantheism and his rejection of his people, what about Jews who are not intellectual grandees? Suddenly, Arendt’s snide disparagement of the Eichmann prosecutor Gideon Hausner as a “Galician Jew,” “one of those people who probably don’t know any language,” and her distaste for Oriental Jews who spoke Hebrew and looked like Arabs, became comprehensible to me. They manifested less a snobbish affectation than a pattern of thoughtlessness.

There was no point in becoming outraged or taking offense at judgments made in private letters, especially letters written for particular circumstances. Yet I was saddened by this glimpse into the correspondence between the two philosophers. Hannah Arendt is said to have valued friendship enormously. When Gershom Scholem accused her of lacking love for the Jewish people, her response was that she felt love only for her friends. She was committed to helping her friends and fiercely loyal. It is sad, and it diminishes her, to know that her circle of human understanding was constricted by the conceit of cultural superiority and cleverness.

In this respect, Arendt illuminates a universal human condition. The enclosed fraternity of those who imagine themselves uniquely gifted is a perennial temptation for all of us, and particularly for intellectuals who attach exaggerated value to their parochial feelings of solidarity. Hannah Arendt may not have intended to offer this warning to philosophers of friendship, but we ignore it at our peril.

Photo by Ryohei Noda via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.