Tonight, along with several of my ASPECT colleagues, I will be presenting on the 2013 film Hannah Arendt at VT and will have something much more coherent and scholarly to say by then. But the film kept me up for most of the night, and I just need to say a few things.
The film itself is visually and emotionally stunning. Arendt shines through as the antihero, spurned by most of her closest friends, but sure of her views. Her beliefs are well-represented, and at times, the script is a direct quotation from Eichmann in Jerusalem. The Heidegger bits of her life are tastefully done and not as salaciously presented as in other accounts. The viewer is left devastated by Arendt’s naivete regarding her work and how it would be received.
This naivete, I think, is what kept me up so much last night. I work a lot with the writings of Arendt, Butler, and other Jews on the fringes of the Zionism/Israel/Palestine debate. I try to be as objective in my analysis as possible when discussing these issues, but the problem becomes that it becomes absolutely impossible to enter into debate with those who do not separate their religion from their politics (and how can you as a Jew talking about Israel?).
As seen through the film, most of Arendt’s friends who disowned her hadn’t even read her pieces in The New Yorker. They were going off hearsay and quotes out of context. Barbara Sukowa’s performance is stunning, and you can feel the despair that Arendt felt through the closing act of the film.
I had a conversation with a colleague just yesterday about my dissertation. Its current title is purposely provocative (Mama needs a book deal, y’all). He pointed out that it’s a great title if I never want a job. I retorted that if someone didn’t want to hire me because of my research, I probably wouldn’t want to work for them.
Probably a stupid point of view in the current academic hiring environment.
But on some level, I do believe in what I said. It would be impossible to be a part of a department that didn’t at least respect my research. Judaism has always been a religion that revolved around asking questions. Questions are the basis of the entire Talmud. Abraham, Moses, even Job (though G-d really does get a bit snarky with him…) question G-d. Elie Wiesel’s The Trial of God puts G-d on trial (and G-d is found guilty) for the crimes of the pogroms. To question faith, G-d, and even Jews is part of the rhetorical tradition of my chosen faith.
So the viciousness of the response to Arendt’s work was painful, absolutely painful to watch. Arendt even admitted later in life that she could have worded things better/more clearly in Eichmann, that she could have been less sarcastic.
As a sarcastic person myself, I completely understand hiding behind words to distance myself from tough topics.
Arendt was not antisemitic. Like many European Jews of her time, she was, unfortunately, orientalist in many of her views of non-Western Jews, and for that, I am disappointed. But her portrayal of Eichmann in many ways is spot on and deserves respectful discussion, even if you disagree.
I have been called antisemitic by those who disagree with my research on numerous occasions, and given I am a practicing Jews, these slurs are so hurtful. As Butler states in Parting Ways, to be critical of any of the State of Israel’s policies has been turned into being an antisemite. Leave off the table any discussion of Israel’s legitimacy, right to exist, etc., because frankly I don’t care (Israel is there, and we can’t change that. Deal with reality, people). Any government can be criticized for its failure to live up to its own stated goals.
I find it interesting that while her work was eventually banned in Israel for a period, initially the backlash against Eichmann was far worse in the US than it was in Israel (Haaretz was actually quite kind, at first). It’s not all that surprising, though. Many of the most vocal supporters of Israel tend to be from outside Israel in the Diaspora.
Here’s where I’ll probably get lambasted like Arendt herself. Israel is a Jewish state. Questioning everything is a Jewish tradition. To ask questions is not to demonize. No one has a problem with questioning the US government over its actions. Israel should be no different. Israel, as a relatively new state, should not want to be different in this way.
I loved this film, but it terrified me. What if I pour all of this time and love and energy into a dissertation (and hopefully book) that explicitly states what I want it to, yet is dismissed because people assume its content rather than actually reading it? What if it ruins my career before it even starts?
If we ask questions, but no one actually reads the questions, what’s the point?
The point is that we must ask questions, of Israel, of Palestine, of any and all governments in this world community of ours. We must question our leaders, our public thinkers, hell, even each other. Even if the questions anger us, enrage us, make us have to think about things we don’t want to think about.
These half-baked ideas brought to you by a complete lack of sleep. My actual talk for tonight will be posted tomorrow.