Friday, January 09, 2009

a home of mine that my neighbor respects

Denis Dutton's Arts and Letters Daily always contains something that interests. The other day he pointed to Adam Kirsch's New Yorker profile of Hannah Arendt and drew attention not, as I did, to the personal flaws which Kirsch says kept Arendt from any effective "confrontation with political evil, especially the evil of the Holocaust," but rather to Kirsch's comment that Arendt is "still a thinker for our time, ... a time when failed states have again and again become the settings for mass murder."

I like the way this statement draws attention to an oddity in Kirsch's argument.

Kirsch says Arendt kept an aristocratic disdain which made her unable to sympathize with, he says to love, people in any collective sense. He says this aloofness led her to believe that, in his words, "our love for the world actually makes it harder for us to love the people who inhabit it." This rings true as a trait of Arendt's, but the statement seems to me less than profound since it's true as well of other political theorists and public intellectuals both of her own generation and of ones that came before. Kirsch says Arendt's "rejection of inwardness" is key to appreciating the value of her work but he also says that it makes her legacy "questionable." Myself, I believe conscious separation of the personal from the public in her life and work shows a strength that she shares with her peers in the philosophic community. She and they recognize that while objectivity is unattainable, a person should try to create conditions which favor its possibility and to suppress conditions which are likely to prevent it.

Were she alive, Arendt, I believe, would have responded to Kirsch by saying that authentic love of people in any collective sense is nonsensical. During the avalanche of criticism that followed the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt was tasked with failing to show a "love of the Jewish people." In reply she said the word love is not appropriate for an abstract collective entity such as "Jewish people." Even if its close relation "belief" were substituted for the original "love," she said there would be little practical significance in the phrase. Religious belief made sense to her, although she believed it did not belong in politics. A non-religious fervor for a people did not.*

As Dutton shows, Kirsch praises Arendt for her recognition that the rhetoric of human rights does not help groups of people when they are attacked. When assaulted by others a people must fight back and if they have too little power they will be beaten. Kirsch mentions Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and Darfur in this connection, but does not point out that the struggle between Palestine and Israel is of the same character. Many Israelis were stateless before the formation of that nation and many Palestinians became stateless during the wars that followed that formation. Though their tactics differ dramatically, both sides have struggled to attain enough power to resist the other. The title of Kirsch's essay is Beware of Pity as if to say that the neutrality Arendt strove to achieve kept her from feeling sympathy with the Jews. I wonder, in the current conflict in Gaza what would pity avail; what does it avail? It is true of Gaza as it is true of Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Darfur, the problem is a political one "and it can be solved only politically."

Arendt had no illusions about the nature of this political problem or the difficulty of solving it. During the 1948 war for Israeli independence Arendt wrote that local inhabitants should not be driven out of what was then Palestine. She believed that Israel should not establish itself as a fortress Jewish state surrounded by hostile Arab ones. At the time she wrote: "A home that my neighbor does not recognize and respect is not a home." Instead of the state that was wished for by "world Jewry, Zionist and non-Zionist," Israel would be an armed and introverted society, in which "political thought would center around military strategy," degenerating into "one of those small warrior tribes about whose possibilities and importance history has amply informed us since the days of Sparta," leaving the Arabs "homeless exiles," and the Arab problem as "the only real moral and political issue of Israeli politics."
{The quotes are from ‘Peace or Armistice in the Near East?’, in Jewish Writings, pp. 444, 448, which I found in Zion’s Rebel Daughter, by Gabriel Piterberg.}

* In an article in the London Review of Books (‘I merely belong to them’, May 10, 2007), Judith Butler describes this exchange between Arendt and Gershom Scholem in 1963. She writes:
Scholem went on to impugn Arendt’s personal motives: ‘In the Jewish tradition there is a concept, hard to define and yet concrete enough, which we know as Ahabath Israel: “Love of the Jewish people”. In you, dear Hannah, as in so many intellectuals who came from the German left, I find little trace of this.’ Arendt, after disputing that she was from the German left (and, indeed, she was no Marxist), replies:
You are quite right – I am not moved by any ‘love’ of this sort, and for two reasons: I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective – neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons. Secondly, this ‘love of the Jews’ would appear to me, since I am myself Jewish, as something rather suspect. I cannot love myself or anything which I know is part and parcel of my own person. To clarify this, let me tell you of a conversation I had in Israel with a prominent political personality who was defending the – in my opinion disastrous – non-separation of religion and state in Israel. What [she] said – I am not sure of the exact words any more – ran something like this: ‘You will understand that, as a socialist, I, of course, do not believe in God; I believe in the Jewish people.’ I found this a shocking statement and, being too shocked, I did not reply at the time. But I could have answered: the greatness of this people was once that it believed in God, and believed in Him in such a way that its trust and love towards Him was greater than its fear. And now this people believes only in itself? What good can come out of that? Well, in this sense I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.
Butler's article is a review of Jewish Writings.


I've tweaked this post repeatedly in an effort to get it to say what I mean. I'm done now. I wish I had the self-discipline to revise my posts in draft until I'm fully satisfied with them.

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