Arendt, Israel, and Why Jews Have So Many Rules

by Corey Robin on May 13, 2015

For more than five decades, readers of Eichmann in Jerusalem have accused Hannah Arendt of being a self-hating Jew. In the current issue of The Nation, I turn that accusation on its head. Eichmann in Jerusalem, I argue, “is a Jewish text filled not only with a modernist sense of Jewish irony…but also with an implicit Decalogue, a Law and the Prophets, animating every moment of its critique.” The reaction against Eichmann in Jerusalem, on the other hand, often coming from Jews, “has something about it that, while not driven by Jew-haters or Jew-hatred, nevertheless draws deeply, if unwittingly, from that well.” What explains this reaction from Jews? Perhaps, I go onto write, it has something to do with the jump, within a relatively short period of time, “from the abject powerlessness of the Holocaust to the mega-power of the modern state” of Israel. That jump “not only liberated the Jew from his Judaism but also allowed him to indulge the classic canards against it.” Arendt was one of the earliest to spot that jump; the half-century-long campaign against her, which shows no signs of abating, is but one register of its consequences.

Along the way, I talk in my piece about the banality of evil, that moment in the 1960s when Norman Podhoretz wasn’t a fool, negative liberalism, the argument last fall between Seyla Benhabib and Richard Wolin, why Jews have so many rules, Matthew Arnold, and what the wrongness of Eichmann‘s readers reveals about the rightness of its arguments.

Read it here.



marcel proust 05.13.15 at 6:27 pm

Only 3 links to the article in (about) 250 words? How do you expect anyone to be able to find it?


Corey Robin 05.13.15 at 7:17 pm

Ha! I know, a little over the top.


Jason Weidner 05.13.15 at 7:28 pm

Very interesting and thought-provoking article. There’s a lot in it to digest, but the part that jumped out to me most was this, especially the concept of careerism as a “structure of action” (which sounds almost Bourdieusian to my ears):

“In the modern world, the most common mode of collaboration is work itself. Requiring the cooperation of millions, it extends across continents, and, with a few exceptions, everyone does it. That is why Arendt pays so much attention to Eichmann’s careerism, less as a personal motivation than as a structure of action.”


Anderson 05.13.15 at 7:31 pm

Good article. I am afraid that many who should take it to heart will instead dismiss it because of their preconceptions re: both author & subject — “oh, just the kind of supporter Arendt deserves.”

(Because criticism is in my DNA, I *did* find myself wondering, if the book is the “most Jewish of texts,” where does that leave the Torah? Still in the top 5?)


Anarcissie 05.13.15 at 7:55 pm

So, was the evil of Eichmann a thing, or the absence of a thing? Arendt seems to go for the latter; her enemies and opponents, the former.


Jerry Vinokurov 05.13.15 at 10:26 pm

Good reading, Corey. Thanks.


PatrickinIowa 05.13.15 at 11:22 pm

Allow me a pedantic moment:

“Do we know of a Trojan War that is not intimately Homer’s, a Richard III who is not Thomas More’s? ”

There, fixed it.


Jim Henley 05.14.15 at 6:25 pm

An implication that arises from the article has nothing to do with Israel or Jewish thought but American conservatism. Arendt’s emphasis on structure and action over motivation seems to prefigure the contemporary discourse on structural inequality and institutional racism and the emphasis today’s anti-racists place on behavior vs. what’s supposedly in your secret heart.

Contemporary US conservatism is committed to defending the structures of white supremacy by appeals to motive – “don’t see color”; “not a racist bone in my body”; “victimologists”; “you’re the real racist if you think that”. This project entails attacking Arendt’s perspective.


Julius Cortes 05.15.15 at 7:11 pm

[The book has become the event, eclipsing the trial itself.]

Can you imagine being able to have a long lunch or dinner with Hannah, say at the point before she sent the piece that was to become the book, to The New Yorker, together with Umberto Eco. [The Umberto of today, the one who has already written and published The Prague Cemetery.]

There has to be a book in that, no?

[Maybe someone should. I hope so, anyway. Could be an email exchange . . . the writer playing HA, UE replying for real, as if it were really her, or a ghost.]


F. Foundling 05.16.15 at 2:01 am

Some takeaways (I’m likely to have misunderstood some of these, since the matter is complex):

1. Being good (really good, with mindfulness and consquentialism and all that) is a typical Jewish thing. Unlike Christians, who just think about the purity of their souls. If Arendt advocated being good, it must be because of her Jewish heritage, even though she was not an observant Jew. There’s just no other way she could have thought of such a thing.

2. Giving a hunted Jew a truck, for which you get executed, is a “small step” just like the various trivial commandments of the Bible. Observing every trivial commandment of the Bible implies risking your life to save people, because it teaches you that even small details such as this are important.

3. Having to learn, instead of a unifying principle, *a myriad of separate commandments* about all details of life, which are *not* explicitly or clearly motivated in terms of their consequences, makes you especially good at applying a *general unifying moral principle* to all details of your life in *accordance* with their consequences.

4. Opposing genocide of other people(s), as Anton Schmid did, has *always* been recognised as a form of God-ordained righteousness in Jewish tradition, as a cursory reading of the Bible will ascertain beyond any doubt whatsoever.

5. Arendt and Arendt-boosting Jews are more Jewish than Arendt-bashing Jews!

6. The fact that God promised the Jews sovereignty over Canaan and then took it back in punishment for their idolatry means that God never wanted the Jews to have sovereignty in the first place and that sovereignty is bad (for Jews?). God is an anti-Zionist, and has been one all along!

I expect I’ve got all of this horribly wrong and the text doesn’t say or imply any of that at all, of course.


F. Foundling 05.16.15 at 1:14 pm

I’ve just realised that I’ve forgotten one final, very important takeaway:

7. There exist theories in the world that are *too* self-congratulatory for the author’s tastes.


Wallace Stevens 05.16.15 at 1:46 pm

This is a very fine and, in parts, even moving essay. Congratulations. There is food for a lot of thought here, but I will just highlight for now one point that occurred to me when I was reading it.

Coincidently, I am at the mid-point of a months’ long project to read the Tanakh. (Jewish Study Bible, Oxford, with all the notes, hence the “months’ long”) In the context of this reading, I was struck in Corey’s essay by how much Arendt and her critics actually shared–the assumption that genocide was wrong, that when it happened it was a mysterious evil that needed to be explained, that forming judgements about individual responsibility for, and individual scope for preventing, genocide required hard thinking–and how starkly THEIR assumptions contrasted with those of the writers of the Tanakh. In the Tanakh genocide is seen in pure, instrumental terms. Nobody wants it to happen to them. But there are no qualms about inflicting it on others. Instead of denial and cover-up, kill-rates are inflated and credit is taken for genocides that historians doubt ever even occurred. Genocide is even a divine commandment, and, at least in part, Saul’s career as king is undone by his failure to follow God’s genocidal instructions to the letter. There are boasts of ripping open pregnant women’s bellies, and David trades 200 foreskins, collected as war trophies, for a bride. I stress, although I hope it’s not necessary, that this is no reflection on the Jews. The Tanakh is just a very detailed record of what was generally acceptable to all people living in that time and place.

Today, we still have genocide, but there is shame attached to it for the perpetrators and revulsion for those who observe it.


F. Foundling 05.16.15 at 6:21 pm

@Wallace Stevens
>I stress, although I hope it’s not necessary, that this is no reflection on the Jews. The Tanakh is just a very detailed record of what was generally acceptable to all people living in that time and place.

True that. I’m pretty sure that if the Amelekites, the Ammonites or the Moabites had been given the job of writing the book destined to be the ultimate source of ideas about Good, Justice, Humanity and the Meaning of Life for progressive academics the world over during the next 3000 years, there would have been just as much genocide in it and the literary quality of the prose would have been much more lackluster. :)


Josh 05.18.15 at 12:51 am

Wonderful, provocative piece. But I would suggest that “One man will always be left alive to tell the story” echoes Job more than Genesis.

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