By Ralph Seliger
Even when not explicitly on the agenda, knocking Israel seems to be a favorite
pastime in the academy nowadays. I recently attended two events at New York
University. One was a conference over the weekend of Dec. 2-3, honoring the
legacy of Hannah Arendt on the hundredth anniversary of her birth. The other,
which deserves a separate discussion, was a speech by the outspoken NYU
historian, Tony Judt.
Arendt was a controversial and complex character -- a political philosopher
and vocal social critic, whose most contentious work was probably "Eichmann in
Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil." It stemmed from her observations
at the momentous trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1963, which she covered
as a correspondent for The New Yorker magazine. She's probably been attacked
for the subtitle as much or more than the content of her book. She did not
regard Eichmann or evil as "banal"; but she saw this gray emissary of death as
shockingly ordinary, not a demonic "other" radically apart from the rest of
us. He was a bureaucratic careerist, who made sure that the trains ran on
time to the death camps and was possibly not even anti-Semitic in a personal
Arendt's book included an indictment of the Jewish Councils, the Jews trapped
by the Nazis into collaborating in the Holocaust. In placing them on the same
continuum of evil as Eichmann, she may have gone too far in blaming the
victims, but I'll have to read her more before passing judgment. The judgment
she passed on the Jews, however, was too harsh for some critics to bear. But
as someone who fearlessly (or brazenly) confronted us with the moral
imperative to take responsibility for our actions, she became an heroic figure
to many others who read her.
What doesn't help her with many stalwart Jews is that she is also on record as
a critic of Zionism. But, as the screening of an interview conducted with her
made clear, after leaving Nazi Germany for Paris, she worked with great
dedication and satisfaction for Youth Aliya, preparing young German and Polish
Jews to move to Palestine in the 1930s. Then she emigrated to the US where she
helped make the New School for Social Research (along with other exiled Jewish
academics) into a pioneering institution.
A number of great Jewish-refugee minds are honored in certain intellectual
circles, not only for their academic work, but also for supposedly being
critics or opponents of Zionism. Some of this is anti-Zionist wishful thinking
or exaggeration; for example, Albert Einstein may have preferred a dovish
stand toward the Arabs, but he was a renowned supporter of Zionism and Israel.
The same can be said of the famed theologian-philosopher Martin Buber, who
definitely was a peacenik, but spent nearly half of his long life as an oleh
in Palestine and Israel.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl is a psychoanalyst who has written two books on Hannah
Arendt. She co-organized the Arendt program at NYU. I missed her presentation
early in the conference, but I did catch her later. She articulated a
psychoanalytic theory of "Israeli militarism" that Israelis obsessively repeat
the trauma of persecution or the Shoah with the goal of "getting it right this
time." I don't appreciate this reductionist and very hostile way of thinking
about Israel's predicament.
This statement was made at a session with Rony Brauman, the writer for a film
on the Eichmann trial, "The Specialist," whose main claim to fame is as
president of Medecins San Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) from 1982 to
1994, when he led MSF to withdraw from humanitarian efforts in Ethiopia and in
eastern Zaire/Congo -- both were situations that ensnared humanitarian
organizations in politically-induced crises. His discussion focused upon the
need for taking responsible decisions in morally difficult circumstances,
something that made him find inspiration in the work of Arendt. Somehow-- for
whatever reason -- Mr. Brauman had to add that he, a secular Jew, was "not
Zionist" (supposedly like Arendt). During his rambling presentation, in his
halting English, Brauman even gratuitously made the bizarre claim that the
1967 war was caused by Israel being a nuclear power.
At the following and final session, another difficult moment occurred for me
when Steven Wasserman, a literary agent in New York, recounted Arendt's
response to Gershom Scholem's accusation that she didn't "love the Jewish
people." Her response was that she couldn't love the Jewish people, or any
people, because loving an abstract entity makes no sense.
In the Q & A, I indicated that I knew what she meant logically, but that she
was ignoring the deep sentiment that Scholem expressed. Was he really wrong in
feeling "love" for his people? And, at any rate, he was simply a scholar of
Jewish mysticism; he didn't do anything wrong.
Wasserman responded that he wasn't such an innocent; he had tried to get the
refugee-intellectual Walter Benjamin to join him in immigrating to Palestine.
To which I quickly responded, "And this would have saved his life." Wasserman
had to admit that to be true.
On the panel with Wasserman was Walter Mosley, the famed writer of crime
stories. In responding positively to my complaint, he reminded the audience
that he's Jewish on his mother's side, as well as African-American via his
father. Mosley said that people have the right to identify as they want, but
sooner or later the reality of who you are tends to hit you in the face.
Now Wasserman is not exactly a cold non-Jewish Jew and he indicated that
Arendt was not either -- that she was actually proud to be a Jew. Wasserman
recommended a new anthology by Pantheon Books of Arendt's "Jewish Writings,"
due to be released in January. He also recalled seeing a seven-hour German
film on Hitler some years back in LA (he edited the Los Angeles Times Book
Review for a decade until last year) and going to the men's room to find
himself at a urinal next to Walter Matthau (the now deceased comedic actor) --
to whom he exclaimed in wonderment, "Nu, two Jews seeing a film about Hitler!"
Matthau explained that he never missed a film about Hitler; Wasserman's point
was that it's too bad that only Jews seem interested in Hitler.
But Wasserman still felt compelled to express a visceral hostility toward
Zionism, which emerged awkwardly as if he objected to people saving
themselves. Whether it's Mr. Wasserman or Hannah Arendt, intellectuals can be
so high-minded and lofty in their criticisms, that they are blind to the
realities on the ground.
Ralph Seliger is editor of ISRAEL HORIZONS, the magazine of Meretz USA, and
also of the Weblog at www.meretzusa.blogspot.com
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