Hannah Arendt has been in the news a lot lately — and it seems her time has come again. Her classic work Eichmann in Jerusalem — always a subject of controversy and even opprobrium in Jewish intellectual circles — has been challenged again, this time by Bettina Stangneth, based on new research into Eichmann’s memoirs and interviews that paint a newly complex picture of the eponymous Nazi’s psychopathology.
As usual, the central critique focuses on the phrase that forms the subtitle of Arendt’s original work and summarizes her core thesis, namely her description of “the banality of evil.” While the critics understood this to mean Arendt’s exculpation of Eichmann’s guilt and an attenuating of the seriousness of his crimes, Arendt’s argument was actually philosophical more than legal: Eichmann’s evil derived not from a well-developed, intentional, and therefore demonic ideology, but rather from a frighteningly widespread and — in her word, “thoughtless” — obedience to a culture gone mad, the product of paranoia, anti-Semitism, and loyalty to a cause. The “banality” lay in the absence of a root theological or otherwise neat ideological explanation for the evil, in the widespread deterioration of the morality of a culture.
Seyla Benhabib provocatively explains that “by coining the phrase ‘the banality of evil,’ and by declining to ascribe Eichmann’s deeds to the demonic or monstrous nature of the doer, Arendt knew that she was going against a tradition of Western thought that sees evil in terms of ultimate sinfulness, depravity and corruption.”
It has never been fully clear to me why Arendt was consistently subjected to the vitriol and resulting alienation that she received after publishing Eichmann; not having lived through the drama, I am not party to the prevailing cultural climate that made the work seem to stand so far outside the Jewish consensus at the time. I’m sure it arose in part due to Arendt’s Jewish politics more broadly, as well as due to other contentious claims made in the book that in turn rendered the core “banality” thesis suspect, and raised loaded questions about the depths of her loyalty to the Jewish people. Then, as now, character assassination could be a ploy to avoid a genuine reckoning with a philosophical or political critique.
But the thesis requires our attention anew, perhaps now more than ever. It was difficult, even as a historian, a theological skeptic, and a liberal, not to be affected by the cosmic images of the brutal terrorist massacre in Jerusalem this week, and to read into this story the familiar narrative of Jewish history and its iconography that uses cultural memory as its mechanism of interpretation.
Daniel Gordis saw the pogrom at Kishinev; my colleague Yossi Klein Halevi poignantly saw in the iconic image of the tefillin-wrapped arm of one of the victims the return — or perhaps the persistence — of the conflict as centered on a war not against Israelis but against Jews. It was easy to be reminded of the Midrashic teaching that surfaces around the Torah portions we are about to read that famously — if terrifyingly — understands the conflict of Jacob and Esau as a permanent one, a metaphor for the deep existential loneliness of the Jew in his struggle against a world that hates him, for the eternally persistent Jew-hatred that must always be feared regardless of whatever advances we make.
These readings and these instincts, in turn, inform and create a political ideology around these killings and about the conflict more generally. The conflict becomes a Manichean struggle between good and evil, between those that rise up now — as in every generation, echoing the Haggadah — to kill us, and on the urgency for both solidarity for our own and a newly Zionist-age acquired sensibility for vigilance of the highest order. This is the ironic juxtaposition of values that comes with Revisionist and right-wing Zionism: a deep awareness of history and memory to recognize, identify, and name the persistence of anti-Semitism whenever it appears, and to see it as the continuation of a long narrative of perpetual Jewish victimhood, and at the same time, to use this memory as a catalyst for military vigilance and the strong arm of retribution.
I have major issues with this ideology, particularly for its failure to acknowledge that the Jewish people acquired a different kind of agency in the exercise of power in the late 20th century that changes our essential condition in the world. And yet this past week, the images of the slaughter made me understand and empathize with it for the first time. How many times can a person recite the martyrology on Yom Kippur without becoming conditioned to the need to recognize a pogrom when it actually happens?
But here is why Arendt still matters. A full embrace of this ideology translates into an interpretation of the conflict that will never allow for its resolution, and which will make us players in this drama with a side we should never want to take. I saw this briefly manifest during the recent Gaza war, with insistences by certain voices in the Jewish community that we name the enemy as “Amalek.” This deploys the memory-imagination to see our opponent as not only bloodthirsty and hell-bent on our destruction, but also to see ourselves as obligated by God to genocidally obliterate this enemy.
There is no way to remember Amalek, or to live by the ideology of Esau-hates-Jacob, without simultaneously animating a genocidal sensibility in ourselves. It may originate as defensiveness, but it translates to fundamentalism. And at this moment in Jewish history, the perpetuation of this ideology in a culture that is blessed with weaponry and military strength is to condition our own thinking toward outcomes that will condemn us.
The massacre in Jerusalem was evil, because it was largely banal; because though there may be Esaus hiding in the shadows, the handing out of candy by Palestinian terrorist sympathizers is symbolic more of banality than medievality. The terrorists acted demonically without being demons; they were not battling the forces of good on the plains of heaven, but were playing out a fantasy borne of their toxic political culture, a paranoia that may have some root causes in political realities but which has been poisoned and rendered out of control by inflamed rhetoric and the false sense that there are no alternatives.
They were products of a society that too often makes terrorism a source of pride and falsely — tragically falsely — believes that terrorism succeeds against an Israel that actually only becomes hardened in its resolve. And finally — and it must be said — they were individuals operating in the context of a conflict whose intractability belies the failure of all of the political actors to lead, under the guise of mistaken beliefs that such a conflict can never be resolved.
Theological explanations of evil may not help us resolve this conflict, but they can certainly exacerbate it. It will be difficult, as we pray for the memory of the victims and for the stability of their orphaned children, not to slip into sloppy theological narratives that constrain our own agency and throw us into the throes of a medieval past.
But recognizing the very banality of this evil may be the most powerful and ethical way to salvage what we can in interpreting and working hard against the forces that keep this terrorism going. Arendt’s condemnation of Eichmann — unpopular, provocative, unsettling — may be our best bet.