Posted by: sean | May 18, 2007

Back + Butler on Arendt on Zionism

After a horrible, horrible flight from New York to Paris (I won’t go into the details, but think 5 airports, 24 hours, horrible customer service and lost luggage), I’m back for a couple of weeks before returning to Lebanon.

Last week I read Judith Butler’s piece in the London reviewon Hannah Arendt’s Jewish Writings, which had some very interesting points to make and made me want to pick up the new collection:

In her critique of Fascism as well as in her scepticism towards Zionism, she clearly opposes those disparate forms of the nation-state that rely on nationalism and create massive statelessness and destitution. Paradoxically, and perhaps shrewdly, the terms in which Arendt criticised Fascism came to inform her criticisms of Zionism, though she did not and would not conflate the two.

She stated the matter quite clearly in The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951. Statelessness was not a Jewish problem, but a recurrent 20th-century predicament of the nation-state. What happened to the Jewish people under Hitler should not be seen as exceptional but as exemplary of a certain way of managing minority populations; hence, the reduction of ‘German Jews to a non-recognised minority in Germany’, the subsequent expulsions of the Jews as ‘stateless people across the borders’, and the gathering of them ‘back from everywhere in order to ship them to extermination camps was an eloquent demonstration to the rest of the world how really to “liquidate” all problems concerning minorities and the stateless’. Thus, she continues,

after the war it turned out that the Jewish question, which was considered the only insoluble one, was indeed solved — namely, by means of a colonised and then conquered territory — but this solved neither the problem of the minorities nor the stateless. On the contrary, like virtually all other events of the 20th century, the solution of the Jewish question merely produced a new category of refugees, the Arabs, thereby increasing the number of stateless and rightless by another 700,000 to 800,000 people. And what happened in Palestine within the smallest territory and in terms of hundreds of thousands was then repeated in India on a large scale involving many millions of people.



  1. Butler’s next book on the critique of state violence in Jewish thought is a great topic of discovery. I just hope she doesn’t “post-structuralize” or do-the-Derrida-Dance-it-out and in effect make the work utterly incomprehensible and meaningless like her other books. Still, I’m pretty impressed by that essay on Arendt. She effectively presents Arendt’s complex relationship with Zionism and Israel very succinctly and comprehensively.

    We’ve had this discussion before but I’ll repeat it again: Does Santayana’s famous humanistic and prescriptive dictum that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” really hold true in the modern world? Perhaps if we look more carefully at the development of Zionism, we may find that the exact opposite is true; the *problem* is not *forgetting*, it’s the other way around, dummy. Perhaps there is some truth to Clause Offe’s counter-assertion that strategic, targeted, categorical forgetting must be utilized (i.e. see Japan or Turkey) in historically-inescapable present political situations.

    What would Arendt say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today? Perhaps her ultimate nightmare may come into fruition if and when two idealist conditions occur: 1.) opponents denounce the historical existence of Israel because they dismiss its founding ideology, and 2.) Sacred democratic ideals are forgotten for the sake of survivalist interpretations of founding national ideals – of which the romantics will exacerbate and begin an unstoppable and violent myth-making complex. We’re perhaps living in a time between those two in which the romantics are pulling the two conditional ideological claims away from each other, a kind of dialectical tug-and-pull waiting to reach the violent synthetic culmination. Presently, in historical terms, it would seem that an ethically written history of Israel appears almost impossible. Let’s hope these two conditions never gain uncontrollable legitimacy.


  2. You might like a book read earlier this year, Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others. It includes an interesting discussion of this very subject.

  3. I’ve actually taken a seminar class by Seyla Benhabib. She really pushes forth the idea that “multiculturalism” in of itself should be treated as a universalistic teleological project. Yet, unlike the postmoderns, she emphasizes that “boundedness” between, within, and among communities, is a real empirical phenomena which must be negotiated with. In other words, she attempts to integrate ideology and structure within the framework of multiculturalism. Her understanding that “imagined boundaries” and “actualized boundaries” allow a space in which permanent multicultural policies may address the two is invaluable. Still, I’m not quite sure if using Arendt to promote multiculturalism is entirely appropriate, because after all, MC-ism is also a political ideology.

    I’d recommend reading Michael Ignatieff’s ” Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry” and “Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism”, two works which directly confront the issue among nationalism, national-development, and national-belonging. He also borrows much from Arendt.


  4. I’ll definitely give those a look.

  5. I really liked Martha Nussbaum’s For Love of Country, a collection of essays on these subjects (not Arendt in particular though). I think Butler may have contributed one essay. Naturally, I liked the Pinsky essay the best (poets beat philosphers everyday of the week and twice on sundays. Happy reading .. :)

    Oh, and KM, I was interested in Benhabib’s book not because I agreed with every thing she had to say, but because I felt some personal project coming through. I wrote a post on it, but did not finish or publish. Please read when I do and tell me where i am wrong as you seem a bit more learn-ed than I …

  6. Apokraphyte,

    I’ll look at what you write about Benhabib’s book. My comments were basically a very bad rehashed regurgitation of that class I took with her. Don’t count me as “learn-ed”. I’m kind of a social/political philosophy junkie contemplating an academic career.

    In terms of Benhabib’s book, I really like how she emphasizes the need to institute policies that reflect social realities. Cultures, she says, are actually not “pure” but “porous” and “ever changing”, thus, the world is responsible for instituting human rights policies that *reflect* such realities in areas of ethnic conflict. In that way, I think she does a good job in actualizing some of Arendt’s reflections about the dangers of the romantic-culturalist ideologies which tend to erase social realities. My main critique is that multi-culturalism itself is a potent ideology which may or may not contain the potential for what Arendt calls “the banality of evil”; in fact, Arendt has been against *all* ideologies.

    Yet, I suppose Behabib somewhat saves herself in the promotion of multiculturalism by introducing Kant’s notions of “cosmopolitanism” and “perpetual peace”, because in this way, she’s really saying that in order to reach such final ideals, they can only be finalized until *all communities* (local, regional, national, international) progressively de-legitimize all forms of violence (except pre-emption under certain circumstances) to the extent that the use of violence cannot be ever considered a useful option. Ultimately, her assertion claims that “multiculturalism” is the correct, advanced, modern system and form which has the best chance for us to achieve cosmopolitanism and perpetual peace. If all this talk about “post-national” forms at the moment (see Habermas and “constellational democracies), is correct, then it *must* be the case that there will be *winners* and *losers*.

    Ignatieff, continuing, also works with the Kantian framework. Unlike Behabib, however, Ignatieff propose s a *realization* rather than an *ideology*, and so in this way, he may avoid the pitfalls that Arendt warned her entire life about. Saying that we should remove the “narcissism of minor differences” (phrase from Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents), he proposes that we must all realize an empirical fact: the differences between individuals are actually larger than the differences between groups. This *realization*, he says, should be made political, because in doing so, the already institutionalized liberal-democratic systems would follow suit towards cosmopolitanism and perpetual peace. The current danger, he says, is that globalization is causing the breakdown of locality, and we may not only witness peripheralized groups (i.e. Kurds, Palestinians) attempting to awaken new nations, but even *unrealized* groups will fight for power.

    As a means to encapsulate the entire debate about ideology, belongingness, and systems, all started by Arendt, I’ve underlined one of her controversial lines here in “Origins of Totalitarianism”:

    ” As a group, Western Jewry disintegrated together with the nation-state during the decades preceding the outbreak of the first World War. The rapid decline of Europe after the war found them already deprived of their former power, atmoized into a herd of wealthy individuals. In an imperialist age, Jewish wealth had become insignificant; to a Europe with no sense of balance of power between its nations and of inter-European solidarity, the non-national, inter–European Jewish element became an object of universal hatred because of its useless wealth, and of contempot because of lack of power.”

    In other words, predominant and bounded political forms have implications for minority groups who have been both constrained and enabled. From this point of departure, Arendt continues that *Zionism* as national-ideology *violently* and *instrumentally* removes the experiences of those *affected* by it. The situation is so bad that Zionism itself simultaneously attempts to move and remove itself from the spirit of secular liberalism, but of which the state of Israel is subject to the hatred of the people around it, thereby making Zionism a totalitarian ideological beast on its own.

    What’s at stake? What’s at stake is the question if *ideology* itself suffices for us reach the desired necessary ends (if you are Kantian, this means perpetual peace and cosmopolitanism). Yet, ideology itself destroys past and present realities for such desired ends. Arendt categorically opposes all ideology in this respect and she critiqued Zionism for this very reason. Should we, then, promote multiculturalism as a competitive ideology, or should we categorically fight against *all* forms of ideological claims found all throughout the world today? (Still, to be fair, Arendt also did caution that we must not let words like “liberty”, “equality”, “justice” -secular democractic terms- lose meaning in modernity). These are questions, I think, that Zionism makes for a very rich and necessary case study. Also, come to think of it, perhaps all this talk of the evil/usefulness of ideology has been a fundamental aspect of what’s painfully divided the Left.

  7. Euf. It looks like you are going to make me stretch and see what I have left of my undergrad education …. :) But, yes actually, my tentative title is exactly this: Cosmopolitan Federalism: A Jewish Question? I found her use of Kant interesting because Kant was very much a rabid anti-Semite, often telling people what to do by saying: dont be a Jew. I also found it interesting that she is a sephardic jew from istanbul, but I will save the rest for my post. But yes, please do read.

  8. I didn’t know that Arendt was a Sephardic Jew from Turkey. That’s really interesting.

    I’ve got a few essays lined up about the Ottoman Empire + Tolerance if you’re interested. The comparative macro-historical experience between the West and the Ottomans in their treatment of Jews and understanding of diversity sparks a lot of interesting debate. I can send them to you if you like.

    This just makes me wonder if Arendt were ever inspired by her own cultural heritage as a Turk…


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