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Hannah Arendt: Jew and Cosmopolitan

Hannah Arendt : juive et cosmopolite
Natan Sznaider
p. 197-221


Cet article traite de la différence entre universalisme et cosmopolitisme. Ce qui rend le cosmopolitisme singulier est qu’il est toujours enraciné dans une identité donnée, qu’il prend en compte son particularisme et tente toujours de tolérer les autres identités. L’universalisme, lui, est fondé sur l’illusion qu’il peut dépasser les identités particulières – il essaie, en fait, d’imposer une identité unique à tout le monde. Cet article vise à ramener l’expérience juive particulière d’Arendt dans l’équation de ses horizons universels et, de cette manière, à montrer comment elle naviguait constamment entre l’universalisme et le particularisme par sa compréhension du jugement politique, de la tradition révolutionnaire, du républicanisme fédéral et d’autres questions qu’elle a examinées à travers le prisme du destin juif.

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  • 1 This essay provides a perspective from outside of France on issues very much connected to French de (...)

1There is a new cosmopolitanism in the air1. The old concept has not simply been rediscovered but reinvented for the global age. Many writers now maintain that cosmopolitanism is no longer a dream, but rather the substance of social reality—and that it is increasingly the nation-state and our particular identities that are figments of our imagination, clung to by our memories. But this goes too far. If cultural and ethnic nations were really just illusions, then the identities based on them would be nothing more than mistakes and delusions. And if that is what we think, we have not produced a new concept at all. We have simply reproduced an even more virulent universalism. The various social modalities of dealing with difference—universalism, relativism, ethnicity, nationalism, cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, etc.—have different characteristics. Universalism obliges us to respect others as equals as a matter of principle, yet for that very reason it does not require curiosity or respect for what makes others different. On the contrary, the specific characteristics of others are sacrificed to an assumption of universal equality that denies its own context of emergence and interests.

  • 2 On this point, see Beck and Sznaider (2010), and Beck and Sznaider (2006).

2I will demonstrate this through the work of Hannah Arendt. She tried in her work to combine universal concerns with particular belonging. She wanted to rescue Jewish cosmopolitanism from the confines of ethnic identity alone. Through her involvement with Jewish politics, she tried to define a political stance which goes beyond narrow identity politics even though it starts there. This becomes clear when one looks at her practical work retrieving Jewish books confiscated by the Nazis for Jewish organizations and when she wrote about general issues like guilt and responsibility. Through her Jewish engagements, Arendt‘s writings on totalitarianism and the Holocaust will receive a different interpretation. Though much of the literature on Arendt is concerned with her political theory, her Jewishness seems to be less explored and with it her re-affirmation of Jewish particularity. With regard to her particular Jewish stance, I will argue that her cosmopolitan thought should not be confused with universalism. Cosmopolitanism is, of course, a contested term; there is not a uniform interpretation of it in the growing literature. The boundaries to competitive terms like globalization, transnationalism, universalism, and post-colonialism are not distinct, and fault lines of all kinds cross them.2 Arendt was never obligated to universal modes of thinking. Rather she was a critic of universalism and her criticism was first of all Jewish and then cosmopolitan.

Cosmopolitan and Jewish: the avant-garde of modernity

  • 3 The fact that the claim of Jews being cosmopolitan came from the Right as well as from the Left may (...)
  • 4 In the early 1950s, the Soviet Union launched a semi-offical campaign against cosmopolitanism that (...)
  • 5 For the connections between Jews and modernity in the Soviet Union, see Slezkine (2005). Slezkine a (...)

3The combination of the terms cosmopolitan and Jewish is, of course, a very delicate one. In the history of the concept, “Jewish cosmopolitanism” was used against the Jews by Nazis and Bolsheviks alike. It was an anti-Semitic fighting term.3 Jews were a diasporic people and were often viewed as “cosmopolitans,” meaning to be without homeland and roots.4 The struggle against cosmopolitanism in the Soviet Union was a struggle against Jews. Jews were considered not only cosmopolitan, but also rootless, and in the late 1940s the term became a code word for Jews who insisted on their Jewish identity. Attacks against Jewish writers, poets, and actors intensified after Israel was founded in 1948, an initiative that the Soviet Union initially supported. The “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign encouraged anti-Semitic persecution.5

  • 6 Arendt borrowed from the French Jewish writer Bernard Lazare the dichotomy of Jews being either “Pa (...)

4Here, Hannah Arendt’s choice to explore these issues is not arbitrary. She turned the anti-cosmopolitan charges on their head. For her, to be worldless gave the Jews their sophistication, their breadth of vision, and their tolerance. Their culture came from many places, and, because their culture combined it all together in them, all of it felt familiar, as if it belonged together. In this way, they embodied the ideal of integration. It was an inextricably part of their ideal of individual cultivation.6 Among Jews like this, rootedness—being fixed in one place and submerged in one culture—was regarded as a limitation. Thus, Jews were the avant-garde of modernity.

5Many Jews were not aware of those characteristics themselves, or even rejected them. The enemies of the Jews were the ones who recognized these characteristics clearly, because those enemies were also enemies of integration and cultivation. This is what gives Arendt’s views the urgency of our times. Perhaps more than that of any other thinker of the twentieth century, the urgency of her writing on totalitarianism, democracy, critical judgment, and evil remains relevant today. Her being born Jewish, her engagement with the fate of the Jews (which caught up with her life in Germany in 1933), her work with Jewish and Zionist organizations, her criticism of Zionism from within, her engagement with Jewish history and politics on a theoretical and on a practical level—all of these things make her a good fit with the subject of cosmopolitanism.

The relationship between universalism and particularism

  • 7 Many inspiring books have been written on Arendt’s political theory. The most important for this st (...)
  • 8 A groundbreaking work on Arendt and Jewish identity is Bernstein (1996). See also Birnbaum (2008). (...)

6This, however, is not an essay about Arendt’s political theory.7 Her political theoretical work from the 1950s and 1960s is well known and established her reputation as one of the most important political thinkers of the twentieth century. Less well known are her writings on Jewish issues and her professional work with Jewish agencies and institutions, which in my view laid the groundwork for her later theoretical work.8 But even within this framework, Arendt is usually considered a secular thinker whose relationship to Jewish thought was one of critical distance. She was supposed to be engaged with Jewish politics but not with Jewish thought and philosophy. There are, of course, connections between her earlier work on practical matters of Jewish politics and her theories about politics, democracy, pluralism, and federalism. Her experiences during World War II, and what would later be called the Holocaust, kindled practical concerns about the future of the Jewish people and the future of Europe, and at the same time fed her theoretical interest in the relationship between universalism and particularism.

  • 9 For a good biography, see Young-Bruehl (2004).
  • 10 For a recent overview of Arendt’s life and theoretical concerns, see Villa (2009).

7Her life experiences—growing up in Germany as a Jew, escaping from Germany to Paris in 1933, leaving France in 1941 for the United States, working with Jewish organizations, her political observations, her philosophical writings—make her the embodiment of Jewish cosmopolitan existence, and through this analytical prism her life and work can shed light on the possibilities and impossibilities of such an existence. Arendt studied philosophy in Germany with Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. She studied ancient Greek and Protestant theology and enjoyed the typical classical education of assimilated German Jews.9 Arendt’s Jewish identity changed over the decades and she tried to combine universal philosophy and cultural Zionism, furthermore she became a politicized Jew through the rise of the Nazis and her exile in Paris, and in the end she turned away from Zionism and closed the circle through philosophy again.10

8My focus, however, is to bring Arendt’s particular Jewish experience back into the equation of her universal horizons, and in doing so to show how she constantly navigated between universalism and particularism through her understanding of political judgment, the revolutionary tradition, federal republicanism, and other issues she examined through the prism of the Jewish fate.

9Thus, in addition, this essay deals with the distinction between Jewish and Israeli memories of the past. To state this rather generally, historical memories are not the same in Israel as they are in Europe or the United States. Israel’s normalizing structures and institutions have it using force, often excessively. But, more than anything else, Israel sees itself as responsible for the safety of Jews. It does not see why it should give up the ethnic nature of its state. This in turn leads to strong and violent conflicts—these are not commodifiable conflicts, but fundamental conflicts that do not accept compromise and that run counter to any form of Jewish cosmopolitanism as expressed by Arendt. Israel has always been considered a Jewish state, even by Jews who consider themselves secular. Yet, it is also seen as a modern democratic state, even by Jews who consider themselves religious. Clearly, Zionism is not the same thing as Judaism. Zionism equals Judaism plus Liberalism, Liberalism with a capital “L,” Liberalism as the founding creed of a modern nation-state. Thus Europe and the United States, reluctantly, have had to accept that the Jewishness that lurked in the subconscious of the “secular” founding fathers was Judaism as a modern nationality, in the way Arendt understood it. Judaism was no longer a “spaceless” religion, but a people with a land and a history.

  • 11 For an intriguing analysis of Jewish cosmopolitanism as a challenge to Jewishness, see Miller and U (...)
  • 12 See especially Butler (2013), especially 11–180, and Zertal (2005). These books assume that Arendt (...)

10Today, Jewish cosmopolitanism is in danger of disappearing.11 Theories of cosmopolitanism rarely relate to Jewish experiences anymore; at the same time, much of current Jewish experience ignores the Jews’ own cosmopolitan heritage. Clearly, there exists the danger that Jewish cosmopolitanism is being swallowed up by an increasingly aggressive Jewish ethnic nationalism, on the one hand, and a universalism that denies the expression of any kind of particularity at all, on the other. Thus, the exploration of Arendt’s cosmopolitan thinking is a discussion about both Zionism and the ethno-national project of Israel. There exists a lively debate about Israel and Zionism, and many critics of Israel and the Zionist project use Arendt’s ideas either to defend a bi-national solution for Israel or to underwrite strong criticism of the state of Israel.12 I argue that Arendt was not an anti-Zionist thinker, but a Jewish cosmopolitan who envisioned a Zionist project based on more universal and humanist values. It was a Zionism anchored in Jewish minority politics and in the particular Jewish existence as a Pariah people. It is interesting to note that both Zionist accusers and anti-Zionist defenders ignore the Jewish side of Arendt’s story. This point also has important implications for the theoretical conception of cosmopolitanism.

11Cosmopolitanism combines appreciation of difference and diversity with efforts to conceive of new democratic forms of political rule beyond the nation-state. It neither orders differences hierarchically nor dissolves them, but accepts them as such—indeed, invests them with positive value. It is sensitive to historic cultural particularities, respecting the specific dignity and burden of a group, a people, a culture, or a religion. Cosmopolitanism affirms what is excluded both by hierarchical difference and by universal equality—namely, perceiving others as different and at the same time equal. Cosmopolitanism combines appreciation of difference and diversity with efforts to conceive of new democratic forms of political rule beyond the nation-state. As we will see, this corresponded with Arendt’s theory of political federalism. In this respect, cosmopolitanism differs fundamentally from all forms of vertical differentiation that seek to place social difference in a hierarchical relation of superiority and subordination.

12Universalism, on the other hand, is the dissolution of all difference and represents the countervailing principle to hierarchical subordination. Universalism obliges us to respect others as equals in principle, yet for that very reason it neglects what makes others different. On the contrary, the particularity of others is sacrificed to an assumed universal equality that denies its own origins and interests. Universalism thereby becomes two-faced, involving both respect and hegemony. Cosmopolitanism differs in its recognition of difference as a maxim of thought, social life, and practice, both internally and externally.

The double bind of Jewish modernity

13Many Jewish intellectuals were concerned with moral individualism, which is both transcendental and of this world (this was not, of course, exclusively a Jewish agenda). In their view, this was the true expression of modernity. The particular world of devout Jewry was no longer sufficient to cope with the challenges of modernity. Thus, they were looking for universal guidelines, both within and outside the state. This trend was exemplified by the late nineteenth-century French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who came from a religious Jewish family and described the birth of civil religion. Durkheim was a firm believer in the religion of humanity, the worldly belief in salvation through the action of human beings. It is this religion of humanity that also allowed Jews to be incorporated into the universality of the rational state. A similar point can be made today about the “secular” religion of cosmopolitan morality: it, too, has transcendental features and places the human being in the foreground. For cosmopolitan theory, this means the tangible human being—not the idea of a human being, the universal man of modern theory.

  • 13 Arendt’s “Organized guilt and universal responsibility” first appeared in Jewish Frontier in 1945 a (...)

14Arendt expressed this sentiment in an early essay in 1945 on guilt and responsibility. We will see how such concepts as guilt and responsibility became central to a cosmopolitan theory of being “my brother’s keeper.” What does “universal” responsibility mean? Arendt was asking this question at the end of World War II. She addressed it in one of her first essays in 1945; it occupied her for the rest of her life.13 The essay concludes with Arendt’s comments about universal responsibility and its relation to the concept of humanity, which she sees as part of the Jewish tradition: “Perhaps those Jews, to whose forefathers we owe the conception of the idea of humanity, knew something about that burden when each year they used to say: ‘Our Father and King, we have sinned before you,’ taking not only the sins of their own community but all human offenses upon themselves” (1994: 131–132). Thus both Durkheim and Arendt tried to push the boundaries of their collective existence from particular premises to universal ones, combining the monotheistic message of the Jews with the universal claims of the Enlightenment. Thus, Arendt and many of her Jewish contemporaries serve as personifications of a cosmopolitan ideal, with all its inherent contradictions.

15With Arendt, I want to distinguish cosmopolitanism from “universalist” modes of thought, which in this understanding treat people as abstract individuals and do not recognize their specific attachments. Arendt draws particular attention to the Enlightenment and the nationalist ideologies that emerged in Europe after the French Revolution. Both offer Jews inclusion and equality—but only, it seems, if they stop being Jewish. Arendt’s thought was cosmopolitan in precisely this “rooted” sense. Like a number of other twentieth-century Jewish intellectuals, she relied on Jewish particularity to advance broader, even “universal” claims about the nature of modern life and politics. Arendt also relied on the destruction of European Jewry to reflect on the emerging concept of “crimes against humanity”—without, at the same time, losing sight of the Holocaust’s irreducible specificity. Arendt’s attentiveness to both the particular and the universal is evident in her description of Nazi mass murder as “a crime against humanity committed on the bodies of the Jewish people.”

16She also challenged the notion that the destruction of European Jewry was a paradigmatic modern event that all human beings, in one way or another, shared in common. For Arendt, such claims not only neglected the history of a specifically Jewish catastrophe, but also absolved its German perpetrators of their particular responsibility.

17Looking at Arendt’s thoughts on Jewish matters, one can counteract current debates regarding the new Europe, where the particular experiences of Jews have been excluded. By excluding the memories of Jews, Europeans have the opportunity to fall back on a Kantian conception of universalism that has no conceptual or actual space for the persistence of particular attachments.

18Arendt presents a competing historical version of the Jewish experience showing the value of recognizing particularism in the context of Europe’s ethno-cultural-religious diversity. Arendt never bought into any kind of emancipatory illusion. Right in the beginning of her Origins of Totalitarianism (1951: 5–8) where she discusses anti-Semitism, Arendt rejected so-called scapegoat theories of anti-Semitism. One does not choose one’s victim arbitrarily. She also rejected what she called “eternal anti-Semitism,” in which Jew hatred was part of the natural order of the world. For her, neither theory explained what was new about anti-Semitism: The birth and growth of modern anti-Semitism has been accompanied by and interconnected with Jewish assimilation, the secularization and withering away of the old religious and spiritual values of Judaism (ibid. : 7).

19Arendt also looked at this from an “after the catastrophe” perspective, and to her, there was no way the scapegoat theory could explain the useless extermination of the Jews (see also Bernstein, 1996). It also did not explain that Jews were political participants in Europe, and that Jewish and European history could not be separated. Her argument was not about blaming the victim, but about the responsibility of the Jews for their own history. As she put it:

The result was that the political history of the Jewish became even more dependent upon unforeseen, accidental factors than the history of other nations, so that the Jews stumbled from one role into another and accepted responsibility for none (ibid., 8).

20This is a strong indictment about Jewish worldlessness. But what does it mean?

21The beginning of this modern story lies in France and its revolution. And this is another point where romantics like Marx and Arendt agreed (even though she did not agree with anything Marx later had to say about capitalist relations). For Marx, the French Revolution was about making the bourgeoisie reign. For Arendt, the same revolution was about Jewish emancipation, which for her meant the end of significant Jewish collective existence. During the French Revolution, one of the defining moments in the debate in the French National Assembly focused on whether Jews could be citizens or needed to be treated like all the other foreigners. One of the more important speakers at the Assembly was Stanislas Marie Adelaide, Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, a liberal aristocrat, who argued for the inclusion of Jews and Protestants into the nascent French nation (he was killed during the storming of the Tuileries in 1792). On December 23, 1789, he gave a speech that became constitutive of Jewish modernity after the French Revolution. He defined the parameters of individual citizenship, stating they should not be based on ethnicity, nationality or culture:

Every creed has only one test to pass in regard to the social body: it has only one examination to which it must submit that of its morals. It is here that the adversaries of the Jewish people attack me. This people, they say, is not sociable. . . . But, they say to me, the Jews have their own judges and laws. I respond that is your fault and you should not allow it. We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals. We must withdraw recognition from their judges; they should only have our judges. We must refuse legal protection to the maintenance of the so-called laws of their Judaic organization; they should not be allowed to form in the state either a political body or an order. They must be citizens individually. But, some will say to me, they do not want to be citizens. Well then! If they do not want to be citizens, they should say so, and then, we should banish them. It is repugnant to have in the state an association of non-citizens, and a nation within the nation. . . . In short, Sirs, the presumed status of every man resident in a country is to be a citizen (Hunt, 1996: 86–88).

22These words contain hope and a curse at the same time. Jewish exile could end. Assimilation and civic equality became keys to the end of exile. Jews could stop being wanderers; they could be equal. This promise—especially in Western Europe—created the contradiction between nationalism as a universal force and the attraction of super- and supra-national modes of belonging—the modern form of life in exile. Clermont-Tonnerre told the Jews that there was no room for particular wills within the general will of the nation. This was a truly revolutionary thought and has remained one of the integral aspects of being European; in fact the European project of unity is based on it. Europe’s universal pride allowed Jews to be part of it as equals, to become integrated as Germans, French, etc. but not as Jews (a nation within a nation). And this was, of course, the major anti-Semitic argument. The Jews are a nation within a nation and assimilated Jews frantically denied this claim. France is exemplary in this regard, as it became the classic locus of the translation of emancipatory ideas into politics.

23Emancipation did indeed emancipate. It released the Jews from the confines of their community and had them enter modernity as individuals—moreover as individuals who like all other citizens had to rely on the protection of the state. However, from this moment on, Jewish “difference” became a modern problem that had enormous political consequences in later centuries. This was not only true for the Jews. The French Revolution did indeed try to dissolve all corporations in order to construct its new universal state. Citizenship promised to end the Jewish Diaspora and bring the Jews home, but not as Jews anymore, as citizens. Thus, citizenship was part of solving the Jewish problem. That was at least what the Jews in Western European countries believed and what the anti-Semites tried to deny them. The Jews were used to living in autonomous communities knit together by religious and community bonds. The revolution severed these bonds (nation within a nation) and provided universal citizenship in its stead, which is exactly where Arendt’s criticism of abstract universalism starts. With the destruction of these bonds, the question of Jewish solidarity and belonging became a predicament. Jews were provided “exit visas” from their “national and corporate” existence, but not “entry tickets” into the societies they lived in (Bauman, 1988).

24Arendt experienced this personally in France during her stay there between 1933 and 1941. After being interned by the French as an enemy alien, she fled to the United States. Her first publication in the United States was about France and the Dreyfus affair, which for many was the beginning of the end of Jewish emancipation in the country of its invention. Like for Theodor Herzl, the ideological founder of political Zionism, Dreyfus was the beginning. And not only that, the Dreyfus affair had turned into the symbol of European anti-Semitism. At the end of the nineteenth century, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew and officer, was falsely accused of treason. The French army, the last bastion of French revolt against the “liberty, equality, fraternity” of the French Revolution, attacked the Jew Dreyfus as a foreigner, a man without honor, a member of a nation within a nation and hence a traitor to the army and its followers (including what Arendt called the French mob). The enemies of the Jews considered them the embodiment of the French Revolution using notions like equality to dominate and subject the “true” French nation. This essay was the starting point for a lengthy Arendtian project of criticizing the French concept of universal nationhood and nearly ten years later became the first part of her Origins of Totalitarianism. For many Jews (including the Zionists), the Dreyfus affair symbolized the beginning of the end of Jewish emancipation in Europe more than three decades before the Nazis came to power. Jews could not escape the dilemma of being a “nation within a nation.” In an era when modernity was also a transition from “community” to “society,” the Jews were accused of being a “nation within a nation,” still a close knit community, that thus undermined universal claims of citizenship and at the same time of took advantage of the increasing privatization and commercialization of society. Thus, the Dreyfus affair was also a symbol of denying both honor and dignity to the Jews. The Jews were caught in a double bind, because they were (thought of as) too particular to be universal citizens and they were (thought of as) too universal to transcend the bounds of citizenship (cosmopolitans) to be particular citizens.

Rooted cosmopolitanism

25Thus, the history and political culture of France are for Arendt the crucial crossing for the pessimistic Jewish-national narrative that will end in catastrophe and destruction and this, of course, in opposition to the optimistic expectations and hopes of emancipation. This might be one of the reasons why Arendt was intellectually so concerned with France. Her experience of statelessness in France, her internment there impacted her thoughts and criticism of universal human rights. Arendt became increasingly concerned with the question of ethnic homogeneity in the context of Jewish homelessness. Being a stateless German Jew in France during the 1930s sharpened her views to questions of minorities and citizenship. It turned her into what we could today call a cosmopolitan. She had firsthand experience in the tensions between universal claims (life human rights) and the increased production of minorities in the newly formed ethnic nation-states. These were also the major dilemma of Jewish diaspora politics of the time, something Arendt was very familiar with as she traveled from Paris to Geneva in 1936 to participate in the founding meeting of the World Jewish Congress.

  • 14 Still topical, see Janowsky (1933); for a recent analysis, see Fink (2004).

26The Congress was initiated by the Comité des Délégations Juives, an organization formed on March 25, 1919, to coordinate the activities of several Jewish organizations at the Peace Conference in Paris; it also grew out of the American Jewish Congress. It was composed of delegations from Palestine, the United States, Canada, Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, East Galicia, Rumania, Transylvania, Bukovina, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece claiming to represent more than ten million Jews.14 The Congress was founded with the intention that it would be dissolved after the Peace Conference in Paris, but Jewish delegates understood that it needed to be institutionalized. One can rightfully claim that this transnational organization, which coordinated American and European Jewish political activities, inaugurated twentieth-century Jewish cosmopolitan politics. This was the beginning of Jewish minority politics.

27Jewish minority politics provides the subtext of Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem (Arendt, 1963). Through Arendt, Dreyfus becomes the pre-history to the perplexities of the rights of men and statelessness, and for Arendt it was no coincidence that both arose in France. Here we find not only the Origins of Totalitarianism but also the intellectual origins of her Jewish cosmopolitanism. Arendt marks the limits of an abstract universalism that is deadly for the Jews, and with it develops a rooted cosmopolitanism, rooted in a Jewish national experience. In her opinion, Jews as a nation should become compatible with the nations of the world. Since they were not, Jewish collective experience was doomed. This is also why, in the final analysis, Arendt preferred the American over the French Revolution. The promise of emancipation in Europe was a false promise. It promised equality under the condition of complete assimilation, whereas the American Revolution could offer an ethnic pluralistic model based on personal liberty and the preservation of difference in modernity. That, at least, was Arendt’s American Dream.

28Her experience as a refugee and stateless person, the experience of the Diaspora, where rights no longer have meaning, and her life in exile turned her attention to the counterpoint of life in territorial and temporal history. In her 1943 essay “We Refugees,” she writes about the worldlessness of the Jewish refugee:

  • 15 Zygmunt Bauman has recently taken the “We Refugees” essay as an opportunity to argue that European (...)

Remember that being a Jew does not give any legal status in this world. If we should start telling the truth that we are nothing but Jews, it would mean that we expose ourselves to the fate of human beings who, unprotected by any specific law or political convention, are nothing but human beings. I can hardly imagine an attitude more dangerous, since we actually live in a world in which human beings as such have ceased to exist for quite a while (Arendt, 2007: 273).15

29In May 1941, Arendt was able to flee France and Europe via Lisbon to the United States. After her arrival, she began her reckoning with her European past. In “Porvenir in Buenos Aires: A way toward the reconciliation of the peoples,” an essay published in 1942 in German in an exiles’ magazine (Arendt, 2007: 258–263), Arendt expresses her deep disappointment and anger at what remained of the heritage of the French Revolution.

  • 16 This essay is only the beginning of her analysis of the French revolutionary tradition, which culmi (...)

On that day in Compiegne, when Pétain put his signature to the infamous paragraphs of the German-French armistice, which demanded that every refugee in France be handed over to the Nazis, even those who fought under the French flag—on that memorable day Pétain tore the tricolor to shreds and annihilated the French nation” (ibid., 258).16

  • 17 Baron recalls this visit in his obituary of Hannah Arendt. See Baron (1976). See also the biography (...)
  • 18 This essay would later be incorporated into the first part of her “Origins of Totalitarianism” book

30In Arendt’s eyes, the French nation had perished, and with it the European tradition of citizenship. The year Arendt arrived in New York; she also paid a visit to Salo Baron to discuss the situation of the Jews in Vichy France.17 Apparently Arendt told Baron that she believed in the continuity of anti-Semitism in France from Dreyfus to Pétain. Baron encouraged her to write this as an academic article, which resulted in Arendt’s first academic publication in the United States (Arendt, 1942).18

  • 19 The Israeli Secret Service captured Adolf Eichmann in May 1960 in Argentina and brought him to tria (...)

31In America (and not in France), Arendt saw the realization of her European cosmopolitan dreams. Jews could be citizens without ceasing to be Jews. Universalism and particularism could exist side by side. American Jews, though a minority, were at large not a shunned and despised minority as they were in Europe. They could become political members of the United States as Jews. Arendt continued to labor over On Revolution during her trip to Jerusalem in 1961 to cover the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker.19 In Jerusalem she returned to some ideas she had developed just after the war. In “Approaches to the ‘German Problem,’” an essay published in 1945 in Partisan Review (Arendt, 1994: 106–120), she suggested taking the European Resistance’s call for a non-national Europe seriously. Now she tried to resurrect that idea in the context of the American Revolution, as part of a universalist solution to the dangers of nationalism.

  • 20 In an interview published in the New York Times on December 18, 1960, the prime minister of Israel (...)

32In Israel in 1961, Arendt found the reverse of the cosmopolitan tendencies she so admired in the American setting. In Israel, she saw an ethnic nation-state based on European principles; her report on the Eichmann trial showed her trying to come to terms with a European tradition she thought she had buried and left behind.20Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil


33But Eichmann in Jerusalem was not only a book about the Holocaust. Nor was it only a continuation of The Origins of Totalitarianism that dealt with the legacy of the Holocaust for human rights. It was a book about the moral evaluation of Nazi crimes as an example of the ever-present possibility of mass murder in modern times. And it was a book about Jewish responsibility and politics during the dark times. Finally, it was a book about Israel and the meaning of Israel for Jews. Not written, of course, in such a vein, the book was read by many of its Jewish detractors as an attack on a Jewish nation still in its infancy. Arendt’s interest in the Eichmann trial, however, lay in its status as the first attempt to apply the doctrine of “crimes against humanity” outside the context of occupation authority, and therefore the first attempt to use that doctrine as a real authority for legal action. And yet, as Arendt saw immediately, the concept of a “crime against humanity” was being used by Israel, a Jewish nation-state, on behalf of the Jewish people. One cannot get more particular or more self-interested than that.

Particular trans-nationality and trans-national particularity

34Another result was that “the Jewish question” had turned into a symbol for all of Europe’s unresolved national questions. She considered the Jewish question a purely political one:

Justice for a people, however, can only mean national justice. One of the inalienable human rights of Jews is the right to live and if need be to die as a Jew. A human being can defend himself only as the person he is attacked as. A Jew can preserve his human dignity only if he can become human as a Jew. For a Jew—in a time when his people are persecuted and the scraps of desert land that he has turned into fertile fields through the work of his own hands are threatened—that means fighting for the freedom of his people and the security of his land(ibid.: 261–262).

  • 23 On this point, see Diner (2007).

35During the early years of World War II, Arendt continued to demand the formation of a Jewish army to fight the Nazis. Here also lie the perplexities of her reading of Jewish collective political action. She wanted the Jews to be “powerful” and to act as a sovereign state, forming an army, recognizing and fighting one’s enemies. She wanted the Jews to be a politically active people. At the same time, as she knew only too well from her own experience, the Jews were not a unified collective nation but a diasporic one, unable to act collectively.23 Arendt was aware of this tension, and it may be no coincidence that she took Walter Benjamin’s last manuscript, “On the concept of history”—a document of “the last European” that slowly gained recognition over the years—with her to the United States. The manuscript itself was the result of many conversations between Arendt and Benjamin in Paris. History did not play a role here; rather, it was turned into messianic hope. The manuscript was only published twenty-seven years later in English, in a Benjamin reader edited by Arendt (Benjamin, 1969).

36Not only were Jews as citizens facing a predicament, but so were Jews as socialists. Socialism was the second great promise for European Jews to leave the pale of the exile. In his On the Jewish Question, Karl Marx reflected on the political emancipation of the Jews and why it would necessarily fail. Marx did not believe that the Jewish problem could be solved through legal means. Equal citizenship was not the problem, capitalism was: “The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism,” and this statement became not only a battle cry for enemies of the Jews, but for Jews themselves who saw in Socialism a secularized solution to ancient Jewish longings of salvation now termed “human emancipation.” Jews as Jews undermined this universal claim. Marx put the Jews center stage in the European drama of modernity. Jews became the symbol of all modern paradoxes. As a figure of particularity, they undermined the universal claim of the Enlightenment, and thus became outsiders to the Enlightenment, still living in fantasy worlds of close-knit communities.

37However, at the same time, Jews were also the symbol of the opposite: trans-nationalism, homelessness, abstraction, multiple loyalties, and the money economy. This defines the paradoxical situation of the Jews: their trans-nationality was particular and their particularity was trans-national. Again, it was Arendt who tried to re-cast this predicament as a virtue. When she criticized the Enlightenment as being hostile to Jewish experience, she sought a political Jewish solidarity transcending the solidarity of the nation (perhaps modeled on class solidarity). She believed in the “nation within a nation”: not the nation in the old medieval corporate sense but in a new political sense. Before the foundation of the state of Israel, this “nation within a nation” principle often prompted Arendt to argue for a Jewish army (as though the Jews were indeed a nation and had the power that the anti-Semites always assumed the Jews indeed have) to combat its enemies. As she stated many times: “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew (e.g., Arendt, 1994b: 12).” She adhered to this line of thought in her later practical and theoretical works. Her work on the Origins of Totalitarianism is about the Jewish condition in disguise and is a bridge between her earlier works on Jewish matters and her later work on universal matters, culminating in an account that purports to be both (Eichmann in Jerusalem, published in 1963).

38It is also in this book that she draws a comparison between the radical Right and the radical Left when it comes to their resentment of Jewish particularity. Here, her views of totalitarianism arise from a Jewish reading of the Right and Left attitudes to Jewish existence. Arendt is neither apologetic towards the Liberals who think that Jews are like everybody else, nor does she buy into Leftist arguments that claim some kind of affinity between fascism and capitalism, where anti-Semitism is just an arbitrary by-product. As Arendt demonstrates in her final analysis in Origins of Totalitarianism, the worldlessness of the Jews became their deadly fate. Deprived of citizenship, turned into stateless refugees, killed in the camps with no one to claim or protect them, they had become a superfluous people.

39Through her meetings with the Jewish historian Salo Baron in New York, Arendt tried to formulate a conception of Jewish history that was not based on victimhood, but on Jews as political actors. Born at the end of the nineteenth century in Galicia, which was then part of the Habsburg Empire, Baron, later an eminent professor of Jewish history at Columbia University, was skeptical of modernity and its emancipatory side effects on European Jewry. For him, pre-modern formations that provided minority-group rather than individual rights ensured cultural autonomy, while emancipation was predicated on assimilation leaving the Jews without collective protection. For Baron, territory came secondary to the need for group autonomy, foreshadowing an important feature of Jewish trans-nationalism. Arendt and Baron shared concerns for Jewish minority politics and Baron introduced the status of Jews in imperial contexts, where rights-based autonomy trumped the assimilating demands nation-states associated with emancipation.

  • 24 It is interesting to note that many contemporary followers of Arendt see her advocating a bi-nation (...)

40Yet Arendt’s criticism cut both ways. Arendt was looking for cosmopolitan Jewish politics in the depths of the Jews’ darkest hour. The Zionist belief at the time was that Jews needed their own sovereign state to protect themselves. This was an admission of weakness Arendt was not willing to make. She thought the Jews were stronger than they actually were. At the same time, she had set the terms of the debate, distinguishing between politicized Jews who understood themselves as cosmopolitan actors and Jews who believed that only the sovereignty of a state could protect them. She concluded that the Zionists were wrong to trust in the national state as a guarantor of security. Instead, she introduced her hope for a federal principle of political organization, not only for Jews, but for all European peoples. Thus, in 1944 she wrote in “Zionism Reconsidered” (Arendt, 2007: 343-374) for Jews, “There is only too little reason for rejoicing in the decline of the national state and of nationalism. We cannot foretell the next steps of human history, but the alternatives seem to be clear. The resurgent problem of how to organize politically will be solved by adopting either the form of empires or the form of federations” (ibid.: 371), she expressed her hope that federalism could be a sound alternative to what she considered an outdated nationalism.24

  • 25 See also Beiner (2000).

41And in 1950, she published an article in Review of Politics called “Peace or armistice in the Near East?” in which she again proposes federalism as the solution for the Near East. This essay concludes with the claim that “national sovereignty, which so long had been the very symbol of free national development, has become the greatest danger to national survival for small nations” (ibid.: 450). Arendt refused to see sovereignty as the solution for the Jewish homeland.25

The paradox of modern cosmopolitanism

42What can we take away from Arendt, thirty-five years after her death? Does the possibility and reality of the negation of the fundamental principles of modernity, emerging with the radicalisation of modernity, not compel a reintroduction of the concept of “evil” (see for instance Wieviorka, 2012)? Evil, a major tool for Arendt, would then denote actions and ideas beyond concepts and imagination, beyond any kind of justification, beyond any kind of defense, and beyond crime, because crimes take place within the framework of the law and are subject to procedures of sentencing and punishment. In then end, then, it’s a matter of judgment. Since Kant, that evil has been considered the reverse of freedom, not as deficit, but as a fundamental component of what simultaneously presupposes and negates human existence. The hatred of Jews plays a central role in this. It is no accident. Jews are not just scapegoats. Jews should be considered actors in all accounts of anti-Semitism, and we should reject the view of passive Jewish victims, if we do not want to be speechless when it comes to understanding. Hannah Arendt used the term “dark times” to describe the era that challenged democracy and was deadly for European Jews. She borrowed it from Berthold Brecht’s poem “An die Nachgeborenen” (To Those Born After Us), which Brecht wrote in 1939 in exile and which begins, “Truly, I live in dark times.” In 1959, Arendt elaborated:

History knows many periods of dark times in which the public realm has been obscured and the world become so dubious that people have ceased to ask any more of politics than that it show due consideration for their vital interests and political liberty (Arendt, 1968b: 11).

  • 26 On this conundrum, see Birnbaum and Katznelson (1995).

43Arendt was looking for a new kind of language that could give expression to the predicament of Jewish and human existence in a post-Holocaust world. Existentially, the question for Jews was whether to assimilate or not. This was an intellectual puzzle. Can a Jew assimilate? Or is the idea oxymoronic by definition? Because the more you assimilate, the less you are a Jew. And if you still feel very much like a Jew, despite adopting the clothes and manners and way of life of the mainstream culture, then this proves that you haven’t yet fully assimilated.26 Arendt’s basic answer is: if it is not possible to be both, it is not possible for the Jews to exist. The Holocaust made it impossible for her to consider her Jewishness something secondary.

44For Arendt, the modern idea of cosmopolitanism arose from the ashes of the Holocaust. The innumerable statements and institutions built on the idea of cosmopolitanism in the second half of the twentieth century eventually produced a new foundation for thought, a new, universalist form of common sense. The experience of the Holocaust also inaugurated a much broader process, in which all social and political theories based on national or ethnic “traits” had to navigate between the universal and the particular. Although this was still more a set of regulatory ideals than a reality, it nevertheless represented a change. Arendt espoused this change in theory, and Jewish organizations tried to put it into practice. In her analysis of the paradoxes inherent in what it means to be “human,” Arendt used the destiny of the Jews to characterize the paradox of modern cosmopolitanism—namely, that the international protection of human rights undermines state sovereignty, but at the same time lacks the means to enforce that protection because it lacks sovereignty itself.

45Giving up her Jewish identity would be a betrayal of self and of millions. For a more current formulation of the issue, moving from a Jewish perspective to a more generalized minority perspective, a historical analysis may shed light on current xenophobic sentiments against immigrants, which may be just as much a hallmark of Europeanness as its purported cosmopolitanism. To be sure, anti-immigration sentiments can be found in all corners of the world. However, Europe is distinguished by its failure to come to terms with difference, which was facilitated by the effectiveness of the Holocaust in eliminating its primary “other.” In theory, Europe remembers the Holocaust. But the depth of that memory may be doubted when many Europeans seem to have forgotten that their continent was home to other outsiders well before the arrival of today’s Muslim minority. Inverting previous multicultural ideas and policies that celebrated particularism, many European states and intellectuals now reject Islamic traditions by portraying them in their most particularistic extremes. To conclude, Jewish history is not only the object of history, but also becomes a mirror for understanding the complex consolidation of European memory.

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1 This essay provides a perspective from outside of France on issues very much connected to French debates on Hannah Arendt, cosmopolitanism and universalism. The essay does not refer to any of the numerous French sources existing on the subject in order to preserve the external viewpoint.

2 On this point, see Beck and Sznaider (2010), and Beck and Sznaider (2006).

3 The fact that the claim of Jews being cosmopolitan came from the Right as well as from the Left may have been another inspiration for Arendt to write about totalitarianism as political landmark of both right-wing and left-wing politics.

4 In the early 1950s, the Soviet Union launched a semi-offical campaign against cosmopolitanism that was first of all directed against Jews. From there the anti-cosmopolitan campaign spread throughout the Eastern Bloc. For a detailed account of the anti-cosmopolitan campaigns against Jews, see Grüner (2010).

5 For the connections between Jews and modernity in the Soviet Union, see Slezkine (2005). Slezkine also turns anti-Semitic arguments on their head.

6 Arendt borrowed from the French Jewish writer Bernard Lazare the dichotomy of Jews being either “Pariahs” or “Parvenues.” While working for Schocken Publishing House in New York she edited some his writings in English. See Lazare (1948).

7 Many inspiring books have been written on Arendt’s political theory. The most important for this study include Benhabib (1996); Canovan (1992); Hansen (1993); Kateb (1983); and Villa (1999). The author of this essay works within the German and English-language tradition of Arendt’s thought. The French reader will find many relevant studies on Arendt in French, which are not considered in this essay.

8 A groundbreaking work on Arendt and Jewish identity is Bernstein (1996). See also Birnbaum (2008). Arendt’s writings on Jewish matters were recently published in a volume edited by Kohn and Feldman (Arendt, 2007). Many of the essays published there—especially those from the 1940s—were scattered throughout small Jewish journals and magazines, and some (like her columns in the German émigré magazine Aufbau) were available only in German. With the publication of this volume, her writings on matters Jewish can now be incorporated in her political canon.

9 For a good biography, see Young-Bruehl (2004).

10 For a recent overview of Arendt’s life and theoretical concerns, see Villa (2009).

11 For an intriguing analysis of Jewish cosmopolitanism as a challenge to Jewishness, see Miller and Ury (2010).

12 See especially Butler (2013), especially 11–180, and Zertal (2005). These books assume that Arendt took an anti-Zionist stance and identify with it. For another perspective, one defining Arendt as an anti-Zionist and resenting her for it, see Yakira (2006).

13 Arendt’s “Organized guilt and universal responsibility” first appeared in Jewish Frontier in 1945 and is reprinted in Arendt (1994: 121–132).

14 Still topical, see Janowsky (1933); for a recent analysis, see Fink (2004).

15 Zygmunt Bauman has recently taken the “We Refugees” essay as an opportunity to argue that European Jews wrestling with assimilation were the pioneers of the post-modern condition. See Bauman (2008).

16 This essay is only the beginning of her analysis of the French revolutionary tradition, which culminated in her “On Revolution,” published in 1963.

17 Baron recalls this visit in his obituary of Hannah Arendt. See Baron (1976). See also the biography of Arendt by Young-Bruehl (2004: 165-166).

18 This essay would later be incorporated into the first part of her “Origins of Totalitarianism” book.

19 The Israeli Secret Service captured Adolf Eichmann in May 1960 in Argentina and brought him to trial in Israel. Eichmann’s responsibilities included the organization of the transportations of the Jews to the camps. For a historical study of Eichmann that takes issue with Arendt’s reading of Eichmann, see Cesarani (2005).

20 In an interview published in the New York Times on December 18, 1960, the prime minister of Israel claimed that “only a Jewish state can try him from a moral point of view” (Ben-Gurion, 1960). In the same interview Ben-Gurion insisted on Israel’s legitimacy to conduct the trial and stressed sovereignty: “Israel does not need the protection of an international court.” By doing so, Ben-Gurion laid to rest Jewish appeals for protection to international courts during the inter-war period. Ben-Gurion wanted to reestablish Jewish power and normalcy by judging Eichmann.

21 Benhabib calls this book Arendt’s “most intensely Jewish work” (Benhabib, 1996: 65–85). For a summary of the controversy the book stirred up amongst Jewish intellectuals in the United States, see Rabinbach (2004: 97–11). For the meaning of the Eichmann trial for interpretations of the Holocaust in the United States, see Novick (1999). For the reactions of German Jews who saw their legacy threatened by Arendt’s account, see Cohen (1993).

22 For the twists and turns of Arendt’s definitions of evil, see Bernstein (1996) and Diner (1997). The book even inspired the famous 1970s Milgram experiments on obedience, even though the book does not really deal with obedience at all.

23 On this point, see Diner (2007).

24 It is interesting to note that many contemporary followers of Arendt see her advocating a bi-national state. She was federalist not bi-nationalist.

25 See also Beiner (2000).

26 On this conundrum, see Birnbaum and Katznelson (1995).

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Natan Sznaider, « Hannah Arendt: Jew and Cosmopolitan », Socio [En ligne], 4 | 2015, mis en ligne le 28 mai 2015, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/socio.1359

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Natan Sznaider

Natan Sznaider est professeur de sociologie à l’Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo en Israël. Ses recherches, au cours des dernières années, se sont centrées sur l’étude sociologique des processus de trauma et de victimisation, ainsi que sur la théorie politique d’Hannah Arendt. On compte, parmi ses publications, Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order, Malden, Polity Press, 2011 et The Compassionate Temperament: Care and Cruelty in Modern Society, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000. Il est également coauteur avec Daniel Levy de Human Rights and Memory, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010, et de The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age, Philadelphie, Temple University Press, 2006.

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