"Anti-Semitism wasn't getting anywhere until the Jews got behind it," Paul Johnson quotes a nineteenth-century Viennese joke in his History of the Jews. New Left Review's December issue is life imitating humor, in which one Jew makes an anti-Zionist prophet out of another Jew with a scandalous ambivalence towards Nazism.
UCLA Professor Gabriel Piterberg, hailing Hannah Arendt as "Zion's Rebel Daughter," reviews the recent Arendt collection, The Jewish Writings. Nowhere does Piterberg mention Arendt's youthful love affair and lifelong apologies for the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who, while rector of the University of Freiburg during the 1930s, fervently supported Hitler, and who never repudiated Nazism.
Piterberg writes that Arendt's
report on Adolf Eichmann's trial, won her . . . virtual excommunication in Israel, and demonstrated the intellectual courage she showed throughout her life.
What has been largely hidden hitherto, however, is her body of work on antisemitism, Jewish politics and the Zionist project, mainly written during the 1930s and 40s, long before Eichmann in Jerusalem appeared. The publication of The Jewish Writings now allows the reader to reconstruct in detail the historical development of her ideas on Zionism; it is probably the best single bloc of writing—the most concrete, level-headed, powerful and prophetic—that Arendt produced.
Although sympathetic to Zionism in her youth, Arendt turned hostile to the Zionist movement during the 1940s, as Piterberg reports:
Arendt continued to hold to the view that Zionism's merit was to see through the self-deceptions of assimilation: Jewish identities could not, and should not, just be dissolved into the surrounding citizenries of the various European nation-states. But the policies formulated on the basis of its own opposite premise—the ‘utterly unhistorical' theory of an unalterable Jewish essence—had proved disastrous. In ‘Antisemitism' she had roundly denounced Zionism as a ‘betrayal of the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe' and a ‘vassal of British imperialism', expressing the bankruptcy of a ‘petite bourgeoisie pursued by pogroms and reduced to poverty in the East and of a highly imperiled bourgeoisie in the West'. In a 1941 Aufbau piece she savaged Chaim Weizmann's statement that the answer to antisemitism was to build up the Yishuv as ‘dangerous lunacy'.
Her alternative? As Piterberg approvingly notes, Arendt suggested employing the nationalities policy of the Soviet Union. "The Russian Revolution," she wrote, "found an entirely new and—as far as we can see today—an entirely just way to deal with nationality or minorities." Otherwise, Arendt suggested, "Palestine could form part of a Mediterranean federation, including Italy, France and Spain and their North African extensions, and eventually other European countries and the rest of the Near East, bringing the Arabs into union with the Europeans."
The "Mediterranean federation" idea was a fantasy, but conceivably the Jews might have been absorbed into the Soviet Union, although Piterberg does not indicate what they would have done once the Soviet Union collapsed. In 1944, she railed against Zionist hopes for American support:
Nationalism is bad enough when it trusts in nothing but the rude force of the nation. A nationalism that necessarily and admittedly depends upon the force of a foreign power is certainly worse . . . the Zionists, if they continue to ignore the Mediterranean peoples and watch out only for the big faraway powers, will appear only as their tools, the agents of foreign and hostile interests. Jews who know their own history should be aware that such a state of affairs will inevitably lead to a new wave of Jew-hatred; the antisemitism of tomorrow will assert that Jews not only profiteered from the presence of the foreign big powers in that region but had actually plotted it and hence are guilty of the consequences.
Commentary magazine rejected the essay because "it smacked of anti-Semitism," Piterberg allows.
Arendt's relationship to Heidegger has been the subject of several books and considerable controversy in recent years. The facts are indisputable that Heidegger to his death refused to repudiate Nazism, and that Arendt to her death defended Heidegger. Whatever her motives, these circumstances make Arendt a curious choice for a Jewish authority on the subject of Zionism. But that is no more curious than Piterberg himself, who believes that Israel's War of Independence was an exercise in ethnic cleansing. According to the website www.uclaprofs.com, Piterberg has campaigned for divestment in Israel and equated Israeli pilots with suicide bombers. Heidegger, at least, would have been pleased.