In many ways, philosopher Hannah Arendt represents a range of twentieth-century Jewish experience. German, refugee, Holocaust survivor, and later, an American citizen, she was at times Zionist and at other times anti-Zionist, an author who celebrated Jewish culture but was later attacked by many Jews for her controversial views—e.g., her most contentious work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, caused total furor. Much of the controversy had to do with Arendt’s discussion of the role Jewish leaders played in the Holocaust, which she saw as collaboration at worst and inaction at best. In her essays on Eichmann’s trial, she publicly targeted the Jewish leaders who had cooperated with the Nazis in their misguided attempt to spare human life. She wrote, “The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people” (Arendt 125).
This vitriol can perhaps be understood in hindsight, and in light of her wartime experiences. Born and raised in Germany, Arendt was the student of some of the greatest philosophical minds of the twentieth century, including Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, and the more controversial Martin Heidegger, with whom she had a romantic relationship. Their connection was not enough to protect her (not that she sought it), and she was forced to flee Nazi persecution in 1933. She took refuge in Paris for a few years, where she began working for an organization that helped Jewish children emigrate to Palestine (an activity she would later continue).
In 1940, she was sent to the concentration camp Gurs, a detainment center near the Pyrenees in the southwest of France, but was lucky enough to escape with her second husband, philosopher Heinrich Blücher. They fled to New York in 1941, and Arendt began writing essays for various publications, a practice she continued throughout the war. She developed her controversial reputation in these years, and her early criticisms of Zionist policy alienated her from their community.
An assimilated Jew born into a secular family, Arendt wrote about the evils of assimilation in an early work published during the height of the war, "The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition” (1944). This short essay was penned the same year she began her first major work, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), and like the latter, it remains oddly poignant. In it, Arendt discusses the role of the Jew as a perpetual outsider through the framework of relevant artists—Heinrich Heine’s poetry, Bernard Lazare's political journalism, Charlie Chaplin’s films, and Franz Kafka’s novels, particularly his final, incomplete work, The Castle.
In The Castle, a man known only as K. arrives in a village and learns he needs permission to live and work there. He seeks out the unseen authorities residing in a nearby castle, but is never able to reach them directly. As in Kafka’s novel The Trial, the protagonist engages in an ultimately endless, frustrating struggle with the bureaucratic machine. In her essay “The Jew as Pariah,” Arendt read The Castle as a sort of modern interpretation of the tale of the Wandering Jew. She wrote of the “despised pariah Jew, dismissed by contemporary society as a nobody” (83). She quotes a line from the novel that seems to sum up her argument: ”You are not of the Castle and you are not of the village, you are nothing at all” (115).
The myth of the Wandering Jew dates back to early medieval Europe and focuses on a man who mocked Jesus on the cross and is cursed to wander the earth until the second coming. This figure bears a relationship to the biblical Cain and to medieval elegiac poems about lonely exiles like “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and “Deor.” The figure of the Wandering Jew would return with renewed popularity in the nineteenth century, particularly in Germany, in everything from opera (Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman) to theater, music, and poetry. Gradually, the Wandering Jew began to be associated with Jews in general, and was twisted again a few decades later in emerging Nazi propaganda.
In German, the Wandering Jew is known as the Eternal Jew (“der ewige Jude”), a title used by the Nazis for an exhibit of degenerate art displayed in 1937 and 1938, as if to say that anything the Nazis disapproved of was fundamentally Jewish in nature. Most infamously, it was also the name of the Nazi regime’s most flagrantly offensive, anti-Semitic propaganda film, a repulsive pseudo-documentary about the life of a Jew.
While there are also modern slants that see this mythic entity as a figure of wisdom or rebellion, Arendt’s interpretation of the Wandering Jew is more in line with nineteenth-century views of this exiled figure as symbolic of an entire people. In 1843, German historian Bruno Bauer published The Jewish Question, a treatise on how Jews should reject their religious and cultural identities in order to achieve political emancipation. It was countered by Karl Marx later the same year in “On the Jewish Question,” a seemingly anti-Semitic essay that does not reject religion, as Bauer had done, but that associates Judaism with the evils of capitalist greed.
This question of a religious vs. national identity for Jewish citizens of various countries, which became an increasingly poignant topic in the nineteenth and early–twentieth centuries, is the same struggle that Arendt writes about in “The Jew as Pariah.” She says,
When it comes to claiming its own in the field of European arts and letters, the attitude of the Jewish people may best be described as one of reckless magnanimity. With a grand gesture and without a murmur of protest it has calmly allowed the credit for its great writers and artists to go to other peoples (90).
While this debate about the cultural identity of an artist or their work feels dated in today’s world—e.g, Woody Allen is frequently described as both a great American filmmaker and a great Jewish one—the crux of Arendt’s argument is less about cultural ownership than it is about the rights of a people. Like Jews under Nazi rule, Kafka's K. is stripped of legal residence—the fundamental right to live, work, and own property—by the totalitarian powers in the Castle that control the surrounding countryside. This state reflected the lives of thousands of refugees wandering the world between WWI and WWII.
In Philosophy and Kafka, Isak Winkel Holm explains,
According to Arendt, the masses of allegedly superfluous persons—refugees, expatriates, deported aliens, stateless persons and displaced persons—spelled out the need for a basic human right, namely the right to live as a rights bearing member of society and not, as K., to live in a normative vacuum outside the bounds of law (Holm 160).
“The Jew as Pariah,” then, provides a glimpse into much of Arendt’s future philosophical threads. Though she is not known for a cohesive vision throughout her writing, she frequently returned to ideas about citizenship, statehood, public spaces, and the right to work.
This discussion of an individual’s need for rights—and a government resistance to provide them—is also deeply related to her future discussion of bureaucracy and evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem. What is so radical about the latter is that she accused Eichmann of not being an especially inhuman variety of evil—suggesting that such a thing doesn’t exist at all—but instead, an average human one bound up with ambitions and selfish concerns and swept along by the tide of history. What she wrote about the Jews’ relationship to a hostile government in “The Jew as Pariah” could easily be applied to her argument about Eichmann's treatment of his victims. She says:
In the eyes of the minor bureaucratic officials his very existence was due merely to a bureaucratic 'error,' while his status as a citizen was a paper one, buried 'in piles of documents forever rising and crashing' around him. He is charged continually with being superfluous 'unwanted and in everyone's way,' with having, as a stranger, to depend on other people's bounty and with being tolerated only by reason of a mysterious act of grace (115–116).
It is easy to see how this sentiment—and the experience of living in Nazi Germany—originally led Arendt to be a proponent of Zionism, though she was critical of its community (and later, of the Israeli government). Perhaps ironically, Zionist leader Kurt Blumenfeld introduced her to the writings of Bernard Lazare—one of the subjects of “The Jew as Pariah”—who penned Antisemitism, its History and Causes (1894) and who was among the first to write passionately in the defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. In Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question, Richard J. Bernstein writes,
Not only was Lazare an important figure for Arendt in her own Jewish political education; she even identified with his eventual marginalization and isolation from his fellow Jews. Lazare’s conception of the Jews as a pariah people, and specifically his portrait of the ‘conscious pariah’ who rebels and transforms the outcast status thrust upon the Jew into a challenge to fight for one’s rights, fired Arendt’s imagination (Bernstein 9).
Her own struggle with voicing her ideas and being ostracized by the Jewish community after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem are foreshadowed in “The Jew as Pariah,” when she states, “K.'s idea seems to be that much could be accomplished, if only one simple man could achieve to live his own life like a normal human being. Accordingly, he remains in the village and tries, in spite of everything, to establish himself under existent conditions” (Arendt 119). Almost 75 years later, it is tempting to read this as a message for the human condition in general, rather than a specifically Jewish one. I think this is one of the elements that keeps “The Jew as Pariah” relevant as compared to the work of Arendt’s contemporaries, like Sartre’s well-meaning but ultimately misguided Anti-Semite and Jew from 1948.
Arendt’s impassioned defense of the exiled, rebellious Jew, forced by society to be a refugee and a pariah, is particularly interesting in light of current global conflicts. According to the American Refugee Committee, the New York Times, CNN, and many other sources, the world is facing one of the worst refugee crises it has ever known, with more then 39 million people displaced from their homes. According to the United Nations, it is the first time this has occurred since WWII, making an unfortunate parallel with Arendt’s youth and early adulthood. While there are a variety of causes, conflicts in places like Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine rank high on the list, as well as persecution and poverty in Africa and Southeast Asia.
Thanks to the establishment of Israel, Jews are arguably more secure than in the ’30s and ’40s, though Arendt would likely be critical of their treatment of Palestinians. The recent rise of anti-Semitic attacks around the world, including in France, Germany, and the UK, is certainly a cause for alarm and has resurfaced old fears. Sartre wrote that the anti-Semite fears and hates Jews because they are a sign of difference, change, and modernity. But when Arendt said that the assimilated Jew (whom she refers to as “parvenu”) is equally at risk, it’s not a far stretch to see how this applies to anyone who opposes such conservative, violent regimes currently at work in the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia:
The pariah Jew and the parvenu Jew are in the same boat, rowing desperately in the same angry sea. Both are branded with the same mark; both alike are outlaws. Today the truth has come home: there is no protection in heaven or earth against bare murder, and a man can be driven at any moment from the streets and broad places once open to all. At long last, it has become clear that the "senseless freedom" of the individual merely paves the way for the senseless suffering of his entire people (121).
Samm Deighan is a freelance writer in Philadelphia, PA, and a grad school dropout with a continued love of Nietzsche, Bataille, and the Frankfurt School. She maintains a film blog, Satanic Pandemonium, and is currently writing a book about WWII and cult cinema.