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Hannah Arendt’s Conscience and the Dilemma of Zionism

Keith Morrison
Summer 1995

Hannah Arendt, philosopher, academic and author, was  
known for her vigorous stand against all kinds of totalitarianism. She was one  
of the first to place Nazism and Communism in the same political category of  

In a recent essay about Arendt, Tony Judt, writing in  
The New York Review of Books, notes that, "If Hannah Arendt understood  
something that so many others missed...it was because she was more concerned  
with the moral problem of ‘evil’ than with the structures of any given  
political system."

Writing in Nightmare and Flight in 1945, Arendt  
declared that, "The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of  
postwar intellectual life in Europe—just as death became the fundamental  
question after the last war."

Hannah Arendt was born into a Jewish family in Hanover,  
Germany on October 14, 1906. She received her Ph.D. in 1928 from the University  
of Heidelberg.

In 1933, the year the Nazi party took control of Germany,  
Arendt became involved in Zionist activities. She was stimulated to this position,  
in part, by the Reichstag fire and the subsequent attacks on Jews. At the time,  
she was doing research on anti-Semitic activities in Germany and was helping  
leftists escape from the country. Also in 1933, Arendt was arrested by the police  
and was questioned for eight days before being released. Shortly after her release  
she left Germany and arrived in France. She spent several years working for  
various Jewish causes in France.



Her Own Definition  

While Arendt considered herself a "Zionist,"  
her definition of this term was very much her own. Tony Judt writes that, "Hannah  
Arendt had become a Zionist in Germany, had passed through a neo-Zionist phase  
in which she was drawn to bi-nationalism in Palestine, and was never anti-Israel;  
as she wrote to Mary McCarthy in December 1968, ‘Any real catastrophe in  
Israel would affect me more deeply than almost anything else.’ But she  
was quite firmly anti-nationalist, Jewish or any other kind."

In May 1940, Arendt and other foreign Jews were rounded  
up by French authorities prior to the German victory and put in camps. Fortunately,  
Arendt’s camp was in the part of France that did not come under German  
occupation. Later she was able to leave the camp and receive an emergency U.S.visa.  
She left France in January 1941, and in May 1941 sailed from Portugal to New  

From May 2 to May 11, 1942, a conference was held at  
the Biltmore Hotel in New York for representatives of various Zionist organizations.  
Hannah Arendt attended this conference as a journalist for the German-language  
newspaper Aufbau. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, in a biography of Arendt entitled  
Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, characterized Arendt’s experience  
at the Biltmore conference this way: "Arendt was no supporter of Chaim  
Weizmann; she rejected his attempts to preserve the status quo with the British  
and was particularly offended by his dismissal of what he slightingly referred  
to as ‘the so-called Jewish Army.’ But she was just as reluctant to  
accept Ben-Gurion’s call for a Jewish state in Palestine."

In A History of Zionism, Walter Laquer described  
the Biltmore Conference as a partial victory for the ideas of David Ben-Gurion.  
The upshot of the conference was a call for the opening of Palestine for Jewish  
settlement following World War II. David Ben-Gurion envisioned the relocation  
of millions of Jews from Europe and elsewhere to Palestine.



A British Colony  

In the November 20, 1942 issue of Aufbau, Arendt  
wrote an article on the subject of Palestine. Dr. Young-Bruehl characterized  
it in these words: "She called on dissident Zionists to accept the idea  
that Palestine should not be a British colony, part of a colonial empire, in  
the manner outlined in the 1917 Balfour Declaration. And then she asked them  
to work for the establishment of Palestine as part of a postwar British Commonwealth  
rather than as an autonomous state."

The kind of Palestine Arendt hoped to see was one in  
which Jews could not persecute the Muslims nor the Muslims mistreat the Jews.  
She envisioned a society in which men and women would be treated equally, regardless  
of religion. It was her hope to avoid the negative effects of religious and  
ethnic based nationalism which had so damaged Europe. The last thing she wanted  
to see was a form of Jewish Fascism in Palestine. Because of the unpopularity  
of her views on these issues, she was unable to influence the Zionist movement.  

In 1948, Arendt noted that Jews in the United States  
and Palestine were reaching a consensus of sorts about the formation of a Jewish  
state. Dr. Young Bruehl wrote about Arendt’s observations at this time:  
"To Hannah Arendt this emerging unanimity...was ominous: ‘Mass unanimity  
is not the result of agreement, but an expression of fanaticism and hysteria.’...With  
sarcasm and condescension, she characterized what she considered a misunderstanding  
of Russian policy as a ‘childlike hope’ on the part of a ‘people  
without political experience’ for a ‘big brother’ who would ‘come  
along to befriend the Jewish people, solve their problems, protect them from  
the Arabs, and present them eventually with a beautiful Jewish state with all  
the trimmings’...Resorting again to terms heavy with echoes of the history  
she was writing in The Origins of Totalitarianism,Arendt claimed that  
the Jewish ‘master race’ is pledged ‘not to conquest but to suicide  
by its protagonists...Jewish leaders can threaten mass suicide to the applause  
of their audiences, and the terrible and irresponsible ‘or else we shall  
go down’ creeps into all official Jewish statements, however, radical or  
moderate their source."



Increasingly Disillusioned  

Hannah Arendt had become increasingly disillusioned with  
the path the Zionist movement was taking. In The Fate of the Jews, Roberta  
Strauss Feuerlicht writes that, "A number of Zionists were concerned that  
the emerging Jewish state might be bad not only for the Arabs but for the Jews.  
In 1944 Hannah Arendt mourned the fact that Zionism had adopted the revisionist  
program that gave the Arabs the choice of ‘emigration or second class citizenship.’  
She wrote that if Zionists continued to ignore the indigenous population and  
serve the major powers they would be viewed as ‘the agents of foreign and  
hostile interests,’ which would lead to a new wave of anti-Semitism. She  
described Zionism as a national movement that started out idealistically but  
‘sold out at the very first moment to the powers-that-be, that felt no  
solidarity with other oppressed peoples...that endeavored...to compromise with  
the most evil forces of our time by taking advantage of imperialistic interest.’"  

In 1948, Arendt wrote, "The idea of Arab-Jewish  
cooperation...is not an idealistic daydream but a sober statement of the fact  
that without it the whole Jewish venture in Palestine is doomed." She wrote  
that in a Jewish state surrounded by hostile Arabs "political thought would  
center around military strategy; economic development would be determined exclusively  
by the needs of war."

In Arendt’s view, anti-Semitism was the father of  
Zionism, in the sense that Zionists believed that Jews could not live normal  
lives in any but their own country. But, she believed, such separateness and  
exclusivity was not exclusively forced upon them by anti-Semitism but was often  
the chosen position of some Jews themselves. "The belief that the Jewish  
people had always been the passive, suffering object of persecutions,"  
Arendt wrote, "actually amounted to a prolongation and modernization of  
the old myth of chosenness."

As events developed, Arendt favored President Truman’s  
1948 call for a trusteeship for Palestine administered by the United Nations  
as the only way to avoid either Jewish or Muslim terrorists from taking control.  



Begin Visit  

After Israel came into existence in 1948, a leader of  
its far-right Freedom Party, Menachem Begin, visited the U.S. The main object  
of this visit was to obtain funds to help elect Begin Prime Minister of Israel.  
His political platform called for the incorporation of most of Jordan and other  
adjacent territories into Israel so that the new state would include the original  
boundaries of biblical Canaan.

Begin’s record of terrorism as the leader of the  
Irgun was well known to the State Department and his visa application was rejected  
until President Truman issued a presidential order to grant entrance. Although  
many prominent American politicians supported Begin’s visit, the Welcoming  
Committee, which by then included eleven U.S. Senators and twelve governors,  
began to disintegrate as the truth about Begin’s career and program became  
more widely known. Prominent clergymen, among them the Protestant Dr. Henry  
Sloane Coffin, Catholic Father John La Farge, and Rabbi Morris Lazaron, a prominent  
member of the American Council for Judaism, warned the U.S. politicians and  
called for the repudiation of Begin.

Kansas Senator Arthur Capper claimed he did not know  
how his name happened to appear in a newspaper advertisement concerning Begin.  
Senator Herbert R. O’Connor of Maryland said he had never approved of acts  
of terrorism. Congressman John F. Kennedy wired the Committee that, "Belatedly  
and for the record I wish to withdraw my name from the reception committee for  
Menachem Begin, the former Irgun Commander. When accepting your invitation,  
I was ignorant of the true nature of his activities, and I wish to be disassociated  
from them completely."

A particular incident involving the Irgun which attracted  
much outrage in the U.S. and throughout the word occurred in the Arab village  
of Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948. At that time, 254 women, children and old men  
were killed and their bodies thrown down a well. This village was a peaceful  
one and had managed to keep out of the turmoil of fighting and the excesses  
of nearby Jerusalem until that moment. Haganah commander David Shaltiel noted  
that Deir Yassin had been "quiet since the beginnings of disturbances...not  
mentioned in reports of attacks on Jews, and one of the few places which had  
not given a foothold to foreign bands." Deir Yassin had done nothing to  
provoke the attack. It was the Muslim sabbath when the attack was launched on  
the village by the combined forces of the Irgun and Stern Gang.



No Warning Given  

Author Alfred Lilienthal notes that, "No warning  
had been given to the villagers, as was later claimed (Begin has stated that  
all victims of Irgun attacks had been warned beforehand), because the armored  
truck with its loudspeaker had tumbled into a ditch and been tossed on its side  
far short of the first houses of the village. Advised by a nightwatchman of  
the approaching Jewish raiders, some inhabitants, with only a robe thrown around  
them, managed to flee to the west. The initial resistance of the men of Deir  
Yassin to the attack was soon overcome, and all of the town’s inhabitants  
were ordered out into a square, where they were lined up against the wall and  

In the book O! Jerusalem by Larry Collins and  
Dominique Lapierre, the daughter of one of the principal families of Deir Yassin,  
is quoted as saying that she saw "a man shoot a bullet in the neck of my  
sister Salhiyeh, who was nine months pregnant. Then he cut her stomach open  
with a butcher’s knife. Most of the men of the village were absent because  
they worked in Jerusalem. When the terrorists entered, there were only women  
and children and older people."

Haganah commander David Shaltiel was told by Irgun commander  
Mordechai Tamaan that Deir Yassin was completely under control and a Haganah  
unit should be sent in to take over. Shaltiel replied: "We’re not  
going to take responsibility for your murders." Another Haganah member,  
the commander of the youth organization Aliyahu Arieli, stated, "All of  
the killed, with very few exceptions, were old men, women or children. The dead  
we found were all unjust victims, and none of them died with weapons in their  

Hannah Arendt and a number of other prominent Jewish  
figures protested Menachem Begin’s visit to the U.S. The New York Times  
of December 8, 1948 included a letter from, among others, Arendt, Albert Einstein,  
Sidney Hook and Seymour Melman. It declared, in part: "Among the most disturbing  
political phenomena of our time is the emergence in the newly created State  
of Israel of ‘The Freedom Party’...a political party closely akin  
in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the  
Nazi and Fascist parties. It was formed out of the membership and following  
of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist right-wing chauvinist organization  
in Palestine."

Deir Yassin  

The authors state that, "The current visit of Menachem  
Begin, leader of this party, to the United States is obviously calculated to  
give the impression of American support for his party in the coming Israeli  
elections, and to cement political ties with conservative elements in the U.S....It  
is inconceivable that those who oppose fascism throughout the world, if currently  
informed as to Mr. Begin’s political record and perspectives, could add  
their names and support to the movement he represents...A shocking example was  
their behavior in the Arab village of Deir Yassin...this incident exemplified  
the character and actions of the Freedom Party. Within the Jewish community  
they have preached an admixture of ultranationalism, religious mysticism, and  
racial superiority...their record of past performance in Palestine bear the  
imprint of no ordinary political party. This is the unmistakable stamp of a  
Fascist party for whom terrorism (against Jews, Arabs and British alike) and  
misrepresentation are means, and a ‘Leader State’ is the goal...It  
is all the more tragic that the top leadership of American Zionism has refused  
to campaign against Begin’s efforts, or even to expose to its own constituents  
the dangers to Israel of support to Begin..."

Later, when in 1952 the Israeli Defense Ministry was  
responsible for a number of attacks on Arab villages, in one of which 52 Arabs  
were killed, Hannah Arendt responded this way: "The shortest statement  
to be made would be: Thou shalt not kill, not even Arab women and children.  
And this certainly is a little too brief. The whole business is absolutely nauseating.  
I decided that I do not want to have anything to do with Jewish politics any  

For several years, Arendt kept this promise. Then, in  
1961, she went to Jerusalem to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann for The  
New Yorker.
She attended the trial daily and later expanded her articles  
into the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,  
which was published in 1963.



Israel and Weimar  

While in Israel, Arendt was disturbed by some of the  
things she saw. She was particularly troubled by a huge parade of tanks. Israel  
reminded her of the old Weimar Republic of Germany. The non-separation of church  
and state in Israel was another troublesome matter. Concerning this movement  
toward theocracy in Israel, Arendt wrote: "But I could have answered: the  
greatness of this people was once that it believed in God, and believed in Him  
in such a way that its trust and love towards Him was greater than its fear.  
And now this people believes only in itself."

The book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, stirred widespread  
controversy. Edward Alexander, in The Holocaust and the World of Ideas,  
reported that, "The book aroused a terrific storm of controversy primarily  
because it alleged that the Jews had cooperated significantly in their own destruction.  
‘Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized leaders, and this leadership,  
almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or  
another, with the Nazis.’ Except among her most passionate disciples it  
is now generally accepted that Arendt was woefully and willfully mistaken in  
this central assertion."

Dr. Alexander was criticizing Arendt for being too judgmental  
of the European Jewish leadership. It should be pointed out that the quote used  
by Alexander accuses Jewish leaders of complicity but says nothing about their  
motives. It must be remembered that all of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe  
were under severe pressure. Jewish leaders may have acted as they did from a  
variety of motives, some good, some bad. Many observers believed that Arendt  
was too harsh and sweeping in her indictment of the European Jewish leadership.  

Michael A. Mussmanno, a witness at the Eichmann trial  
and a U.S. judge at the earlier Nuremburg trials, wrote a review of Eichmann  
in Jerusalem
which appeared in the New York Times Book Review of  
May 19, 1963. Among other things, Judge Mussmanno wrote: "There will be  
those who will wonder how Miss Arendt, after attending the Eichmann trial and  
studying the record and pertinent material, could announce, as she solemnly  
does in this book, that Eichmann was not really a Nazi at heart, that he did  
not know Hitler’s program when he joined the Nazi party...and that, all  
in all, Eichmann was really a modest man."



Arendt Criticized  

Judge Mussmanno harshly criticized Arendt for seeming  
to sympathize with Eichmann’s claims of innocence. In Arendt’s defense,  
Dr. Alexander points out that, "In her epilogue, Arendt deals with the  
objections that had been raised to the capture (by kidnapping) of Eichmann in  
Argentina and to his trial by an Israeli court...She also takes it upon herself  
to say how she would have addressed Eichmann in pronouncing the death sentence  
against him (a sentence in which, it is often forgotten, she concurred.)"  

Reviewing the heated controversy which took place about  
Eichmann in Jerusalem, Tony Judt, writing in The New York Review of  
(April 6, 1995) provides this assessment: "It was this cultural  
abyss, as much as the substance of the work, that explains the otherwise absurd  
furor over Eichmann in Jerusalem. At thirty years’ distance the  
book seems much less controversial. Copious research on the Judenräte,  
the Jewish Councils of Nazi-dominated Europe, suggests what should have been  
obvious at the time: Arendt knew little about the subject, and some of her remarks  
about Jewish ‘responsibility’ were insensitive and excessive, but  
there is a troubling moral question mark hanging over the prominent Jews who  
took on the task of administering the ghettos. She was not wrong to raise the  
matter, nor was she mistaken in some of her judgments."

Beyond this, Judt argues that, "Ben-Gurion was less  
interested in establishing Eichmann’s responsibility, or even in extracting  
revenge, than in educating a new generation about the past sufferings of the  
Jews, and thereby further strengthening the foundations of the still fragile  
Jewish state. Arendt was thus raising fundamental questions about memory, myth,  
and justice in the postwar world. Her critics, like Lionel Abel and Norman Podhoretz,  
could score ‘debater’s points’ as Mary McCarthy scornfully put  
it in a sympathetic letter, but they had no clue about what she was trying to  
accomplish and probably still don’t. Like so many others in the initial  
postwar decades they were dependent on what Karl Jaspers called ‘life-sustaining  
lies’...Today, with much of Europe taken up with issues of guilt, memory,  
past responsibility, ‘gray zones’ of compliance and collaboration,  
and the problem of individual and collective retribution, Arendt’s concerns  
are once again central."



Nazis and Zionists  

If Hannah Arendt was harsh in her assessment of Nazism  
and Communism, she was equally critical of the Zionism to which she was initially  
drawn. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she pointed to the intimate connection  
between Nazis and Zionist leaders, who were the only Jews in the early months  
of the Hitler regime to associate with the German authorities and who used their  
position to discredit Jews who were opposed to the Zionist idea. According to  
Arendt, they urged the adopting of the slogan, "Wear the yellow star with  
pride" to end Jewish assimilation and to encourage the Nazis to send Jews  
to Palestine. She points to the then-secret agreement between the Jewish Agency  
for Palestine and Nazi authorities to assist in Zionist plans for illegal immigration  
into the Holy Land, toward which end even the Gestapo and the SS were willing  
to cooperate, for this was another method removing Jews from Europe.

In a letter to Protestant theologian Karl Jaspers, her  
long time teacher and friend, Hannah Arendt reflected that "even good and,  
at bottom, worthy people have, in our time, the most extraordinary fear about  
making judgments. This confusion about judgment can be found in those not remarkable  
for their intelligence."

Hannah Arendt was not afraid to judge, and she applied  
her principles equally. Her changing attitude toward Zionism was no exception.  
Tony Judt expressed a widespread view when he concluded that, "She made  
a good many little errors, for which her many critics will never forgive her.  
But she got the big things right, and for this she deserves to be remembered."

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