Hannah Arendt on antisemitism: It’s more about politics, less about hate

In the aftermath of the recent violence between Israel and Hamas, a surge in antisemitic events — from vandalism to assault — has caught the attention of the American media and political class. In addition to a spate of outright condemnations (with a few mealy-mouthed exceptions), the morally enlightened response has taken the form of a rudimentary lesson in logical non-contradiction:

You are not less supportive of Palestinian rights for your denunciations of antisemitism; neither is your condemnation of antisemitism any weaker for your support of Palestinian rights.

The prevalence of this summation attests to the success of the efforts of progressive Jewish organizations to convince us that anti-Zionism and antisemitism can be disentangled. These organizations have seeded the ground and the blossoming of this logic all over the place is a credit to their work. That antisemitism and Islamophobia must be contested at the same time has become akin to a creed or a chant. Indeed, the conflation of Jews and Israel — if you listen to those on the left — is now the surest sign of antisemitism.

Yet, despite the morally intuitive appeal of these statements, they leave a lot to be desired. Most of all, they radically oversimplify the question of the relationship between antisemitism and the American Jewish relationship to Israel. They are not only too simplistic for often being posted on Twitter (though this is also true), but because they presuppose the idea that antisemitism is altogether rooted in hatred and not at all in reality.

The hope at the core of the progressive logic is to be able to silo and condemn antisemitism, while encouraging the rights to freely protest and denounce Israel’s actions. But is antisemitism really so easily disentangled from political reality? Is it so clear that antisemitism stems from an underlying hatred of Jews rather than an intelligible, if not excellent, assessment of certain political conditions?

Of course, these questions are somewhat shocking. Can I really be calling Jew-hatred “rational” or “realistic?” Is there ever a time when hatred isn’t totally malignant and unjustified?

The answer is yes. That is, hatred is not always malignant and utterly unjustifiable. It is always malignant, to be sure. But sometimes its malignance is tied to a reality on which it is predicated. As Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish political thinker pointed out about German antisemitism, antisemitism’s malignance is actually exacerbated by the real-world conditions that can motivate people to hatred. For antisemitism to broaden its appeal, as we’re seeing now, it must have some roots in reality.

“Widespread antipathy towards Jews,” writes Arendt, “becomes dangerous only when it can link itself with other political trends.” She refers to this as “the narrow basis of reality that has to underlie all antisemitic slander (Antisemitism, The Jewish Writings, 106).

For Arendt, documenting the rise of antisemitism in the 19th century, this “narrow basis of reality” was the overlap between “bourgeois reform” and “Jewish emancipation” as two developments that were both useful to the Prussian state in its battle against the aristocracy. This hyper-parochial point, argues Arendt, facilitated the conflation of “bourgeois” and “Jewish,” which became so central to antisemitism’s rise in 19th century Germany. The reactionary German aristocracy (the Junkers) hated the state, and since the bourgeois and the Jews were both considered allies of the state, it was no jump to start lampooning Jews as rootless, money-grubbing, bourgeois cosmopolitans.

Most of us have heard of the antisemitic slurs that equate Jews and money. Arendt does not make this hateful equation kosher, nor blame Jews for their own persecution. “That the Jews are the source of antisemitism,” she writes, “is the malicious and stupid insight of antisemites” (48). Nevertheless, Arendt attends to the mundane realities that were necessary for the flourishing of antisemitism in her time. Antisemitism is thus not presented as a baseless hatred, but as something both more ordinary and more difficult to resist for the fact of what is ordinary in it.

In the current moment, the mundane realities underlying the rising appeal of antisemitism are obvious. The strategy now being employed by the left to denounce antisemitism betrays this obviousness with the volume and repetitiveness of its assurances that Jews and Israel are clearly distinct.

So let’s make the obvious explicit: American Jews everywhere are bound up with Israel, for better or worse, whether they like it or not. For starters, let’s take the sizable portion of the American Jewish community that believes this to be true about themselves. Some see the state of Israel as the first flowering of the redemption for the Jewish people and the whole world; some see Israel as the only true insurance policy against genocidal antisemitism; and some, including many non-Zionist Haredim, take it for granted that the fate of all Jews is inextricably bound together. Considering that Israel is home to a little less than half of global Jewry, it is hard for these Jews not to feel identified with Israel in some form or fashion.

Now, what about all those Jews who assure us that Jews and Israel are separable? That antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not the same thing? That there is no contradiction between condemning the occupation and condemning antisemitism?

They are right, of course. Increasing numbers of American Jews are condemning the occupation, questioning Zionism, and agitating for Palestinian rights. And yet, does large-scale Jewish participation in Israel critique really prove the easy separability of Jews and Israel?

It seems to me that the opposite is true: investment in Israel’s future is nowhere more palpable than among those most exercised by its failings. Those who are angry at Israel could withdraw from the discussion; instead, they see Israel’s misdeeds as further reason to engage. Put simply, the intensity of American Jewish critique of Israel is the surest proof we’ve ever had of Jewish identification with Israel.

We have to admit, then, that the recent rise of antisemitism is rooted in two true-blue realities. First is the recent violence between Israel and Gaza. The hostilities led to more than 60 dead Palestinian children, which quite understandably has inflamed passions. Second, there is the fact—undeniable as ever—that American Jews identify with Israel, either in support or in critique. The merger of these two realties adds up to, though of course does not justify, some of the antisemitism we’ve seen: American Jews violently held responsible for Palestinian deaths.

You’d think from recent progressive statements that analyzing and fighting antisemitism is as simple as calling an ogre an ogre. But, it’s not so simple. Antisemitism now, as in the past, is motivated by a lot more reality than we’d like to admit. If the left wants to say something less wishy-washy about antisemitism, then it will have to take a longer look at the political realities that it currently finds so easy to dismiss.

About the Author
Judah Isseroff is a PhD candidate in Religion, Ethics, and Politics at Princeton University. His dissertation "Beyond Political Theology: Hannah Arendt's Jewish Theology of Givenness" gives a novel theological interpretation of Arendt's writings on Jewish politics and antisemitism. He lives in New York with his wife and their twins.
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