Paranoid Arendt-Blogging 3.0
January 12, 2009
Dorothy King with worries, live from England:
“Anti-Semitism has always been an issue in Europe, but until recently it was largely confined to blue collar workers. In the past we had to listen to rants from taxi cab drivers. Now it is rearing its ugly head amongst the educated elite. Bernie Madoff has given them more ammunition.”
When I first saw reports of the Madoff scandal, my reaction had little to do with pity for those he swindled or outrage that he’d done so. I was worried because he was Jewish, and not in a way with much to do with shame. Then a part of me (as bad as this will sound) hoped that he was merely in the business of swindling fellow Jews. It seemed safer that way. And certain ill-advised blog posts make me worry that using “Madoff” as synechdoche for “Jew” isn’t as distant as I’d like.
I’ll admit, I’m being neurotic. To whatever extent this is a European problem, it is far less of an American one. There is a (historically) weird relationship here between Jews and greater society — nobody minds! And, as a commenter on her site points out, there are “legal barriers” in place in Europe that are supposed to prevent anything approaching the depths of the mid-twentieth century from even beginning. But it’s also very easy to remember that German Jewry never saw it coming, and thought they were more or less more German than Jewish.
Which brings me to Adam Kirsch’s condensation of Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy: “Thou shalt not be a shlemihl.” As much as she may have found herself in hot water with many Jews in the post-war era for her opinions on Jewry, something akin to that lesson has certainly been absorbed into the Jewish psyche; I don’t think you can begin to understand Israel without that eleventh commandment. And, I’d say, time has begun to show that evil is banal; that this banality only makes it more terrifying (see Leonard Cohen’s “All There Is To Know About Adolf Eichmann”; had then man looked like a monster he would have seemed less of one).
So all I have to say for the foreseeable future about the present war in Gaza is that it ought to be read, at least partially, in light of Arendt writing sixty-eight years ago:
“One truth that is unfamiliar to the Jewish people, though they are beginning to learn it, is that you can only defend yourself as the person you are attacked as. A person attacked as a Jew cannot defend himself as an Englishman or Frenchman. The world would only conclude that he is simply not defending himself.”
There is a difference between defending oneself as an Israeli and as a Jew. And while I don’t pretend to have any explanation or grand understanding of the interplay, recognition that Israel is trying to do both is essential here; it is also essential to understanding why the devotion of American Jewry to Israel is not seen as interfering with equal (or greater) devotion to America.