Arendt’s Foresight

Brooklyn College’s Corey Robin has a fascinating piece in the latest LRB about Hannah Arendt, treating three objections that Arendt, who was sympathetic to Zionism, formed in the ’40s to certain currents of Zionist ideology. Now that Israel has elevated to cabinet level a racist who supports expulsion of Arabs, Arendt’s prescient critique is worth reviewing, especially as it touches on questions of identity and—my concern—the degree to which American Jewish identity is centered on devotion to Israel.

1. The Arab Question. “By 1944.. she had come to see it as the ‘most important’ challenge. Without ‘Arab-Jewish co-operation,’ she wrote in 1948, ‘the whole Jewish venture in Palestine is doomed.'”

2. Israel’s dependence on super-powers would allow it to show contempt for its neighbors. “Only folly could dictate a policy that trusts distant imperial power for protection, while alienating the goodwill of neighbours,’ she wrote. In a 1950 essay, she declared that Zionists simply ignored or failed to understand ‘the awakening of colonial peoples and the new nationalist solidarity in the Arab world from Iraq to French Morocco’.”

3. Some Zionists’ definition of Jewishness, as a people or nationality, was a “volk” concept that recalled the racist German definition of Jewishness. Writes Robin: “In 1948, the leader of Herut, Israel’s Revisionist party, travelled to America. Arendt drafted a letter of protest to the New York Times, which was signed by Einstein, Sidney Hook and others. Herut was ‘no ordinary political party’, she wrote. It was ‘closely akin in its organisation, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties’. It used ‘terrorism’, and its goal was a ‘Fuhrer state’ based on ‘ultra-nationalism, religious mysticism and racial superiority’. The letter also decried those ‘Americans of national repute’ who ‘have lent their names to welcome’ the Herut leader, giving ‘the impression that a large segment of America supports Fascist elements in Israel’. The leader of Herut was Menachem Begin.”