Sunday, April 15, 2007

Arendt at Bar Ilan University (2)

Hannah Arendt and “The Human Condition”
Note: Some of my friends have expressed concern that I have recently become slightly obsessed with Ms. Arendt. They really have no cause for concern. Arendt is, of course, important for many reasons. However my specific interest in Arendt arose from a desire to research the political category “totalitarianism.” My political and theoretical experience has convinced me that this is a pivotal, litmus sort of category. In most instances, those who subscribe to the need to confront the totalitarianism of both the right and the left, those who equate Fascism and Communism and, of course, Hitler and Stalin, cannot and do not understand the basic principles of progressive politics. This core problem led me to Hannah Arendt’s “classic“, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951, 1954. Arendt was, of course, a brilliant genius. But the question is a brilliant genius for whom and for what.

Hannah Arendt’s contribution to modern political theory is to be celebrated in an upcoming conference at Bar-Ilan University dedicated to one of her central philosophical works, The Human Condition. It is a well known that Arendt’s philosophical texts are complex, and her style rather murky. This might help to understand why it is so unclear whether she belongs to the left or the right, and why despite this lack of clarity, there are many on the left who consider her an exponent of their values. However, with the exception of her important, critical articles on the Eichmann trial, the main thrust of her writings expressed a hesitant kind of liberalism, more amenable to the right than the left.

Those, who reject, with due cause, the idea that Arendt’s political philosophy (as opposed to her outstanding in-depth journalism on the Eichmann trial -1961) is close to the left, can cite two interesting comments connected to “The Human Condtion.” In a letter to Arendt (September 8, 1958), Norman Podhoretz, then editor of Commentary and already one of the leading figures in the formation and the rise of the new right in the US, waxed eloquent over “The “Human Condition,”: “The book is superb, fully equal to the astonishing daring of what it undertakes.” (Library of Congress, Arendt Correspondence # 008982).

In the same context, Professor Russel Jacoby considered it is important to recall that Arendt seriously considered dedicating the work known as The Human Condition to the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger was, of course, a well known collaborator with the Nazi regime and a devoted admirer of the Fuhrer. She wrote to Heidegger that she refrained from the dedication “because things had not worked out” between them but she wanted him to know that the book “owes practically everything to you in every respect.” (Russel Jacoby, Professor of History UCLA, Chronicles of Higher Education, December 8, 2006)

Of course there is the objection that Heidegger’s long time, slavish affiliation with National Socialism does not, in itself, disqualify his philosophy. Even so, it is rather unlikely that precisely Heidegger’s philosophy would inspire and sustain a rational, humanistic set of values on the Human Condition. And if we actually want to get to the roots of The Human Condition, wouldn’t it be more logical, following Arendt’s own admission, to devote the conference to Heidegger.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Conference on Hannah Arendt at Bar Ilan University

An international academic conference devoted to the subject “Hannah Arendt and the Human Condition” is to take place at Bar-Ilan University this month. The Heinrich Bell Foundation, the Mark Rich Foundation and the Faculty of Jewish Studies at the University of Basle are co-sponsoring the event which is being convened with the support of the President of Bar-Ilan University, Professor Moshe Kaveh.

The tremendous prestige of Hannah Arendt (born in 1906) among intellectual circles in the United States and Europe over the second half of the twentieth century explains the reason for a virtual flood of conferences, lectures and publications marking the hundredth anniversary of her birth. But all during the period that Arendt’s status was steadily rising in the international academic arena, she did not enjoy comparable good fortune here in Israel. In Israel she was vilified and banned.

Hannah Arendt had, through her active involvement in aiding the escape and emigration of refugees to Israel after Hitler’s rise to power, acquired first hand knowledge and experience with the Zionist establishment. Despite this, Arendt expressed concern that chauvinism was emptying Zionism of its ethical content and she gravitated to Martin Buber’s group formed around similar anxieties. Moreover, from the first years of Israel’s existence, she was among the sharpest critics of Ben Gurion’s policies and opposed Israel’s arrogant attitude towards the Arab environment. The years of tension between Arendt, who was on her way to international renown, and the Zionist leadership, found their most profound and dramatic expression after she came to Israel in 1961 to cover the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker. Arendt dared to express blunt criticism of the proceedings on the pages of the New Yorker and refused to join the chorus of admiration for the Israeli legal system. The entire Jewish-Zionist establishment accused her of villainous treachery against the holy of holies, the official Zionist version of the Holocaust and its meaning.

Meanwhile, over the years, Arendt had become the high priestess of right-wing , anti-Marxist liberalism. Her book, the Origins of Totalitarianism,
(1951) became the authentic and quasi- official text for justifying the Cold War waged then and later by the United States government. Arendt “succeeded” in providing the theoretical foundations for the superficial and simplistic thesis that the battle between the United States and the Soviet Union was the battle between liberty and tyranny. In this period, she became a prominent member of a group, later termed the New York intellectuals, which received thinly disguised covert support from the newly operative CIA. Of course, this unpleasant connection does not in any sense exempt us from the obligation to relate seriously to Arendt’s contribution on the theoretical and philosophical levels. (1) While Arendt made a name for herself by virtue of her analytical insight into major universal issues of political philosophy, her antipathy for the Zionist and Israeli establishment was an open secret.

Her clear distaste for Israeli policies and practices explain why radical circles in Israeli academia respected her and held her in high esteem. Indeed, Arendt never hesitated to attack official Zionism or the Israeli political establishment led by David Ben Gurion and his successors. Her courage in this respect earned her the undying hatred of the local political and media establishments which sought to turn the world famous political theorist into an object of scorn and ridicule. Important professors played a leading role in the campaign of personal vilification against Arendt. At the same time, not so paradoxically, many critical, left- wing academicians, usually of the younger generation, were attracted to Arendt and saw in her a thinker of the left or someone whose work could not be defined on the left-right axis. In fact, the ideological content of Arendt’s major work is closer to the right than to the left. The writer hopes to provide, in due course, the basis for this assertion, which exceeds the scope of this article.
The years went by. Arendt died in 1975. Meanwhile, there are almost no other serious liberal, but intensely anti-Marxist and anti-Communist thinkers of her caliber. Arendt, whose impressive intellectual talents are widely recognized, is studied and appreciated as an intellectual prophet for her generation. Thus, it transpired that Israeli academia had a serious problem. When the Israeli academicians go abroad they encounter unstinted praise and deep admiration for Hannah Arendt. But when they return to the homeland, they are reminded that she is a “hater of Zion” of the worst sort – a disloyal daughter who has turned away from the tribe.

The local establishment had to wrestle with a serious dilemma. What should be the decisive factor in determining how to relate to Arendt’s status and her influence? Is it her international “rating” or her local “rating”? The decision to hold the conference at Bar-Ilan University which is the last in a series of conferences during 2006 in Arendt’s honor gives us the answer. At Bar-Ilan, Israeli academia has surrendered shamelessly (from its own point of view) to the members of the academic left who have embraced Hannah Arendt in no small degree because of her ability to reject local chauvinism. It is the international rating that decides the issue.
This result can be explained from a different angle. The Israeli academic establishment is willing to conform to the prevailing global approach to Hannah Arendt because her status as an anti-Marxist, anti-Communist theoretician is overwhelmingly more important than her “reservations” regarding Zionism. It will turn out that the disloyal daughter is truly faithful because of her contribution to the “right side” in the battle of civilizations, a contribution that is sorely needed these days.

(1) The rise and fall of the New York intellectuals has been conclusively documented. See Allen Wald (1987) and Frances Stoner Saunders (2000). Irving Kristol, a leading member of the group summed it all up beautifully when he explained that for him there is no difference between the CIA and the Federal Post Office System, except for the tendency in the CIA to be blabber mouths.