Today I spoke with a girl visiting from Israel. I of course asked her how things are different than in the United States. She stated things were more expensive. I asked her about safety and she stated she feels extremely safe there because there are so many armed guards everywhere. She said her country is beautiful. With this opening I knew it was time to write my reaction to the movie Hannah Arendt that I watched just a few days ago. I will not provide a “move review” in the traditional sense, but get a feel for the questions the movie seems to ask. The questions move from specific questions such as was Hannah Arendt anti-Semitic to what is the role of a philosopher?
First the question regarding Hannah Arendt’s anti-Semitism is a very difficult question that I will not answer with a yes or no answer. For Arendt the answer to the political problems of the Jews was Zionism. Arendt was a Zionist when she was younger. She says in her own words, “The only political answer Jews have ever found to Anti-Semitism (was Zionism). For her Theodor Herzl (founder of Zionism) created something, “startingly new, so utterly revolutionary in Jewish life, that it spread with the speed of wildfire”. Later in Arendt’s life however she found that Herzl’s Zionism chose a path that looked down on true revolutionary movements, and the potential she saw in creating a path for Jews was dashed.
Most of the movie was concerned of course with what Arendt wrote in 1963 in the New Yorker magazine. This is where Arendt reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was the Lt. Colonel of the Nazi SS. One of the questions the movie asked through Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil is this idea of complicity. She remarked that the Jewish leaders of the time should be called into question regarding the complicity they showed in the murder of their fellow Jews. This of course caused a great uproar and even cost Arendt some very close friendships. It is with this line, “Wherever Jews lived there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another for one reason or another with the Nazis” that most of the controversy surrounded itself around. This leads to a question that is still relevant today: Will all critiques of Jews and Israel always be considered anti-Semitic? For Arendt and others the need to universalize critique is more important and the main goal of thinking itself is to think beyond difference and ideology. She even stated if she is from anywhere then her home is within the German philosophical tradition, by placing herself within a lineage of thinking instead of nationalism she is extracting herself from nationalism and the entire historical ideology that comes with it. She would term this idea in the sense of the pariah–a way of thinking that “renegotiates its fundamental assumptions”. The pariah is in a sense the impartial witness that eschews labels and particular viewpoints but instead considers these viewpoints and seeks a universality within them.
It is this idea of what Arendt would come to call natality, which does often sound a lot like being “born again” in the Protestant tradition, but it is with this term that the ideas of Arendt should be understood, and this movie should be framed within. It is also within Augustine’s City of God where Augustine declares that birth creates new possibilities, which is a precursor to the way Arendt would use it. Natality provides us with the idea that to be created a new is what creates novelty, and to produce the “infinitely improbable”. She relates this to the idea of revolution but she also states that one of the problems of course is that once the revolution is over then the revolutionary turns into a conservative thinker in order to preserve the once revolutionary ideas. Bifurcation comes to mind which then loops back upon itself unless more permutations sever off.
In my estimation Arendt is not being anti-Semitic but instead she is being anti-humanist, the great humanist ideas have failed and she is calling these into question, “It is many years now that we meet Germans who declare that they are ashamed of being Germans, I have often felt tempted to answer that I am ashamed of being human”. It is within this context she makes her critique of evil which was ongoing throughout all her work.
Gershom Scholem wrote a letter to Arendt condemning her article in the New Yorker, and in the reply Arendt states Scholem is correct (in this one thing) regarding the possibility that “radical Evil” doesn’t exist. Evil can be extreme but never radical. In Kant’s idea radical evil is the evil based on the propensity of man himself to carry out the evil in question, his morality is the only basis that man takes in order to carry out the act. In this case Arendt is bracketing the idea that Nazism is demonically evil because the banality of evil is the idea that evil is often not spectacular but instead often takes place under orders from a higher authority. As we know the law in Nazi Germany was placed under an exception which allowed Nazis to equate the law with the person of Hitler himself. In this sense the orders of Hitler became law, and to not carry out his or hers duty meant breaking this very law.
The movie itself stylistically was excellent and the acting impressive. Watching the movie will not provide us an answer to the question was she or wasn’t she, but it will frame the debate in which to critique Israel and to ask questions that are uncomfortable regarding Nazi’s is the only way to steer the course of our modern political landscape where Liberalism seems to be creating the conditions itself for an Orwellian condition.
Here are some links of interest: