Tag Archives: Palestine

“Hannah Arendt” – Why Now?

Okay, so here’s the transcript of my talk from last night.  I ad-libbed some stuff about questions from yesterday’s blog post.  I plan to rewrite it for publication, so any thoughts/suggestions/haikus would be appreciated.

“Hannah Arendt” – Why Now?

Thank you, and thank you to everyone who worked together to put on this event:  ASPECT, Religion and Culture, Political Science, and the professors here.  Rather than try to do a critique of the film as a whole and somehow fit it all into the body of Arendt’s work, I instead decided to bring out four key points from the film that stood out to me (which actually might be doable in ten minutes):  Arendt’s own Judaism, the status of Arab Jews, the position of the bureaucrat, and the funding for the film itself.

No outward signs of Judaism in her house:

Arendt was Jewish, but culturally so.  She was a secular Jew, and her home showed it.  There are none of the tchotchkes associated with Judaism on the shelves, no mezuzah on the door.  Even in Jerusalem, she maintains her Western appearance and does not dress as traditionally as the other women she interacts with.  Revisionism to make Arendt seem more “Jewish” may have done something for her character in the film, but the film pulled no punches, showing her as others perceived her and keeping her in this motif.

Arab Jews have no voice/presence in film:

Along with that attention to historical accuracy, Arendt’s personal beliefs on types of Jews shows up obliquely in the film.  Arendt is known for believing that German Judaism was the best Judaism, remarking that it was lucky for Eichmann to have three German Jewish judges in Israel, who she called the “best of German Jewry.”[1]   She stated to Karl Jaspers once that the Israeli police force “gives me the creeps, speaks only Hebrew, and looks Arabic.”[2] (xvii).  This, in comparison to her championing the rights of Arab Palestinians seems strange.[3]  It is remarked upon in the film that she never quite forgave Germany for letting her down as a German, yet she is inseparable from Germany in culture.  The film portrays this subtly; while she passes Arab Jews and Eastern European Jews in the streets of Jerusalem, she does not interact with them.  All of her Jewish friends are German Jews and she argues with them from the point of view of German continental philosophy.  The film did an excellent job keeping this reality in place, in spite of the fact that it makes Arendt look less than favorable to non-German Jews.

Bureaucrats:

The status of the bureaucrat comes up often in the film, as in Arendt’s work, and has definite applicability to discussions of the modern Israeli state.  Part of Arendt’s arguments for the banality of evil are the bureaucratic persona of figures like Eichmann—dedicated pencil-pushers who just followed orders.  I’ll go out on a limb of controversiality here and say that these arguments are fascinating when one considers some of the more contentious policies of the Israeli government with regard to border control and settlements in the West Bank.  Many of these policies, which Arendt herself cautioned against, could be seen as being able to be perpetuated by a banality within the bureaucracy of Israel.  Groups like J Street represent American Jews against the policies of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and there are many op-ed writers within Israel who speak out often against Israeli treatment of Palestinians, yet these policies continue.

When Arendt criticizes Israel’s right to even try Eichmann, her colleague Kurt Blumenfeld responds, “Be a little patient with us,” implying that Israel is a new state bound to make some mistakes.  But how long is too long to remain being patient?  At what point does “Be a little patient with us” become a crutch for not having to take a closer look at divisive policies?  If nothing else, this film spurs the audience toward reevaluating the current state of affairs in Israel through Arendt’s lens.

Funding of the film:

I’d like to conclude with the funding and the making of the film.  According to Heinrich Blücher, “History more than one man” was on trial during the Eichmann trial.  It is with this point of view on history rather than individual that I do wonder why make this film? Why now?  Two Jewish film funds, the Israel Film Fund (a 501c3 nonprofit) and The Jerusalem Film and Television Fund (under the auspices of the Jerusalem Development Authority, a joint venture between the Israeli Government and the Jerusalem Municipality), partially sponsored the film.  But why?  Why now?  Was it to redeem Arendt’s reputation amongst a new generation of Jews?  Or was it to teach a new generation why Arendt’s views were dangerous to the Israeli state?

I was left unclear by the film itself.  While the audience is naturally pulled toward supporting Arendt, both through Barbara Sukowa’s stunning performance and the weight of Arendt’s words herself, the negative responses to her work in the film far outweigh the positives.  Arendt’s rousing defense of her work before the students and faculty of the New School at the end of the film leaves the audience thinking the film will have a positive dénouement, yet the mood is ruined by her dear friend and colleague Hans Jonas not being convinced and disowning her.  The film ends as it began, Arendt alone in her apartment, listlessly smoking a cigarette, isolated with her thoughts.

Characters in the film talk about how Arendt is asking questions about things best laid to rest, but why?  Simply because the questions make us uncomfortable?  And what does it say that Israel funded a film that reopens all these questions?  The good news is, we are asking these questions.  By having a panel such as this, we’re trying to find out how Arendt’s work is still valuable today, and I would definitely argue that it is, indeed, valuable.


[1] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil  (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), xviii.
[2] Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil  (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), xvii.
[3] Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil, 13.

Hannah Arendt (film): A Personal Review

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.

Day 10+ (July 2-3) – Princesses, LAU, Shatilla, Le Péché, Flight

For those of you still following my trip blog, I do apologize for the delay.  there is just such a finality to writing this post, and I honestly haven’t wanted to deal with it.  While my post-fellowship plan includes extensive blogging of my trip research, this is really the last “Today we did X” kind of post, and it really does end the trip in some ways.

Originally planned for our last day in Beirut was a wrap-up session with the LRF and a farewell dinner at Le Péché.  Through some discussion of our goals and some amazing flexibility on the part of the LRF, we were able to have several extra meetings, including meeting with Druze Princess Hayat Arslan, one of the coolest women I’ve ever met.  Arslan met with us at her home in Aley, a beautiful mansion overlooking Beirut.  It looks a little something like this:

Hayat Arslan's House

No big deal… Just kind of huge.

Arslan and her two daughters spent about an hour and a half with us, discussing women’s place in politics in Lebanon.  Currently, there are only four women in Parliament, which Arslan sees as a huge problem for equality.  She proposes a quota system requiring a minimum of 30 women in Parliament at any given time.  Without the quota, she argues, women will never have the opportunity to run for office effectively.  Right now, the few women who do choose to run for office are often bullied out by a much stronger, better financed good-ol’-boy system.  I’m honestly not quite sure how I feel about that.  I can see both sides of the issue.  I’m planning to do an election-related piece later on this blog when I’ve had more time to think about it.

I was also able to cross “make an idiot out of myself in front of a Princess” off my bucket list at Arslan’s house.  Totally tripped and spilled tea all over her patio.  Saved the china though.  Go me.

ANYWHO, after that, we visited the Lebanese American University, who hosted us for a goodbye lunch of falafel, a tradition in their SINARC program.  Our study visit escort, Linda Funsch, had helped start an Arab Women’s Studies a program at LAU, and it was really cool to go back with her after 30 years and meet with people she knew then.  We also were able to interact with students in the summer Arabic program, talking about Model Arab League and our joint experiences in Beirut.

Originally we were then supposed to visit Shatilla, the Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut.  Unfortunately, we were not able to do more than drive by, but the sight was heartbreaking even from the street.  Beirut is a city where the buildings are fairly close together, but nothing prepared me for the cube-shaped concrete apartments crammed together in Shatilla.  As the camp was supposed to only be temporary, the land it is on cannot possibly accommodate its current numbers, and residents have had to build up, not out.  I plan to do an entire post on Palestinians in Lebanon at some point, so more on this to follow.

After a marathon of packing and photo-swapping back at the hotel we left for our farewell dinner at Le Péché in Junieh.  The restaurant was stunning, with a open air area overlooking the water, mountains, and city below.  Dinner consisted of different types of fish, grilled calamari, mezze, dessert, wine and arak.  We stayed far longer than I think any of us anticipated, enjoying our last night with our wonderful hosts.

We arrived back at the hotel near midnight with only an hour and a half to get back to the airport to depart.  It was both exciting and sad to be going home, and I think we were honestly all pretty tired as well.  I flew home with the same group of 6 I came over with.  It was a completely different flight this time, with all of us knowing each other so much better than on the flight from DC.

In the coming weeks, I will continue to blog about Lebanon.  I’ve only barely begun to think and process this wonderful study visit.  This blog will continue to talk about Lebanon, and really anything else that pops into my head.  Next on the agenda definitely is a post comparing the pros and cons of traveling with a laptop v. an iPad.