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Arendt is a famous philosopher

by | May 26

Arendt is a famous philosopher widely known for her work Eichmann in Jerusalem. This contained the idea ‘Banality of Evil’ idea (efficient bureaucrats rather than evil sadists carried out the Holocaust). 
After these introductory words in italics, I summarize part of TheOrigins of Totalitarianism. This book has three sections: antisemitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism. I will summarize (very loosely) only the first section; antisemitism. Her explanation of antisemitism is inseparable from a wealth of particular and specific historical details from the 1800s. This makes her explanation difficult to summarise. It also makes it difficult to ‘take something away’, that is to apply it to other cases of persecution (even against Jews) in other specific places and times. 
Arendt begins by critiquing several theories about the rise of antisemitism. She then redefines the question along the lines of “how did the Jews, a group declining in significance on the verge of vanishing within the population, find itself at the storm centre?”. 
This began with the ‘exception Jews’, who gained acceptance in ‘polite society’ (‘high society’) on the basis that they were at once exceptions to the Jews but, paradoxically, very Jewish. This was a hard act for these exception Jews to maintain. Notwithstanding, the greatest of them, British PM Benjamin Disraeli pulled it off so well that he became not only Prime Minister but something like a fairytale prince to Queen Victoria.
The problem with being an exception Jew appeared once Jews were emancipated. Gaining equal citizenship rights with other Jews, the exceptional Jews did not seem quite so exceptional. Now they were the same as ordinary Jewish brethren. The rest of society now had to confront Jews, not as a special group with specific rights and restrictions, but as equals. 
Creating equality, this radical experiment of modernity, was a huge mistake, according to Arendt. The social preconditions for equality had not been met.
Part 1 Antisemitism
1. Antisemitism as an outrage to common sense
Antisemitism in Western Europe in 1800 and 1900s, reached its climax in Germany when Hitler came to power and in France during the Dreyfuss affair.
Antisemitism did not originate in rampant nationalism.
The rampant nationalism theory implies that nationalism is xenophobic, xenophobia can incorporate antisemitism, thus, you can explain antisemitism as rampant nationalism. The problem with this theory is that antisemitism reached its height [the Holocaust?] just as the system of nations was breaking down. Nazism was imperialist; rather than promoting nationalism, it sought a single European empire. [France was also seeking an overseas empire focusing on North Africa and Indochina)
The idea of “Useless wealth” partly helps explain.
People hate others who have wealth but not power. Wealth without power is felt to be parasitical, useless, revolting. Wealth that exploits at least implies a relationship between exploiter and exploited. [The useless wealth theory implies that we hate the wealthy lottery winner, who has no power, much more than our wealth boss, who orders us around. Even if it’s just ordering us around, at least our boss has a function. The same cannot be said for the wealthy lottery winner].
Indeed, during the French revolution, the aristocracy was hated for its useless wealth…
Tocqueville wrote that the revolutionary French violently hated the aristocracy because they had useless wealth. At the start of the revolution, the aristocracy was relatively powerless but still held wealth. When they had been wealthy and powerful, they had served a social function (even if it was just ordering people around) and were tolerated. But when they lost power but retained wealth, they were useless parasites.
 But useless wealth only provides the historical context for antisemitism.
However, Jews had already lost their most of their wealth by the time antisemitism reached its heights. So they might have been useless, but in general, they were poorer than when they had provided finance for Europe’s states [in the 1600 & 1700s]. [So at the height of antisemitism 
Scapegoating theory doesn’t explain antisemitism either.
[The “Scapegoating” idea is not useful in understanding antisemitism. Commonly in explaining persecution, it is said that if there is a social problem, “society” will choose a group, say that this group is the cause of the problem, victimize this groups, and then fell better.] The theory is applied to explain antisemitism; it is said that Jews are always scapegoated. The scapegoat idea implies that Jews were innocent, the victim of persecution might have been anyone, that nothing the Jews did, or were, bears any relationship to their stigmatization. [This ignores the history of the Jews. We need to understand the interactions of a persecuted group with their persecutors and the scapegoat theory side-steps this question]
Eternal Anti-semitism theory doesn’t explain modern antisemitism either…
Leaving aside the idea of scapegoating, the “Eternal Antisemitism” concept holds that Jews have always and will always be the victims of hatred and persecution. Understandably, professional antisemites see Jew hatred is normal and justified; but historians and even Jews have also adopted the theory. [Arendt thinks this is a useless, ‘escapist’ theory; because (1) it would absolve Jew haters of crimes including the Holocaust (their rationale being “Jews have always been hated; the hostility against Jews is eternal”) and because  (2) it is ahistorical].
…because the new antisemitism was different from the old religiously-based hatred of Jews.
[In the past Jews had been hated or being Christ-killers etc. Now Jews were hated for being part of an international conspiracy to undermine Christianity.]
[Arendt sees the “scapegoat” and the “eternal antisemitism” theories as faulty because:
1. They treat Jews as innocent victims. I think she dislikes the idea of Jews as innocent victims because she feels the Jews refused to organize politically. They lacked a nation, a state, and a language, so they needed to engage politically, but did not (with the exception of the Zionist movement–the only occasion in which Jews organized themselves politically). For Arendt, the Jews should have seen that they were under immediate threat and organized themselves. I imagine many Jewish people would find Arendt’s reasoning here offensive. But as Samantha Power writes in her introduction to the 2004 edition, “Hannah Arendt dated her awakening to the…day the Reichstag burned down. From the moment Adolf Hitler started using the fire as a pretext to suspend civil liberties and crush dissent, Arendt said “I feel responsible”….Her test for philosophy was…its capacity to improve the human condition”.
2. The absolve the murderers of guilt. The murderers could say that hating Jews was only natural. The extermination camp workers could see themselves efficient and impersonal instruments of an eternal course of events. (I don’t the camp worker thought “yep I’m just scapegoating Jews here”–the scapegoat theory probably wouldn’t absolve the murderers of guilt.)
3. They are ahistorical … ]
Modern antisemitism derives from specific historical conditions…
The Holocaust occurred in the “downfall of nationally organized Europe and the extermination of the Jews”. The source of modern antisemitism is the development of the nation-state and certain aspects of Jewish function.
…including Jewish assimilation…
Paradoxically, just when Jews were becoming assimilated and mostly insignificant, they came to be seen as the cause of all evils! And Jews who wanted to maintain their separate identity hit on the idea that antisemitism might actually help to keep a separate Jewish identity, “an eternal guarantee of” Jewish identity.
…the downfall of nationalism…
…and the triumph of antisemitism over other “-isms”
[Arendt is circular here: modern antisemitism derives from the triumph of antisemitism = antisemitism derives from antisemitism. So basically you have an insignifcant group that comes to be at the centre of European politics in the 20th century]
Chapter 2 The Jews, The Nation-State, & The Birth of Antisemitism
Emancipation/equality was equivocal
Jews were given citizenship and equality of rights [in various nations in the mid-1800s. Before then they were a group, like other groups in society with special privileges and special restrictions. Most people (well most liberals) these days would say equality of rights is a good thing. But, Arendt argues, it was destructive for the Jews. Prior to this ‘national’ identity, e.g. German or French, had been the basis of citizenship. This excluded Jews (who were not thought of as ‘German’ or ‘French’, but simply ‘Jews’) from citizenship. Emancipation gave Jews citizenship–they were now equal before the law]. This emancipation of the Jews only occurred because the nation-state could not stand having a separate population within the nation; “the nation within the nation could not be tolerated”
Restrictions and rights had to be abolished
Jews had special privileges as well restrictions–both had to be abolished. No longer could Jews be tolerated as a separate people.
But this emancipation/equality cannot deal with real differences between people
“Equality of condition, though it is certainly a basic requirement for justice, is nevertheless among the greatest and most uncertain ventures of modern mankind. The more equal conditions are, the less explanation there is for the differences that actually exist between people; and thus all the more unequal do individuals and groups become.” 
“The great challenge to the modern period, and its peculiar danger, has been that in it man for the first time confronted man without the protection of differing circumstances and conditions. And it has been precisely this new concept of equality that has made modern race relations so difficult, for there we deal with natural differences which by no possible and conceivable change of conditions can become less conspicuous. It is because equality demands that I recognize each and every individual as my equal, that the conflicts between different groups, which for reasons of their own are reluctant to grant each other this basic equality, take on such terribly cruel forms.”
[I think Arendt’s point here is that actual class–and perhaps she also means racial–differences occur between groups of people. Papering over these with the pretense of legal equality does not deal with the uniqueness of each group. Perhaps Arendt also means that equality of rights does not deal with pervasive and entrenched prejudice, chauvinism, or racism; and may, as per Jim Crow era, entrench these attitudes. The abolition of slavery forced Whites in the south to confront blacks not as slaves but as equals. Whites could not abide this, and formed KKK, undertook lynching etc. The KKK was formed in the same year as slavery was abolished, 1865.
Arendt is not arguing against equality; but just giving equality is not enough. That point is not so foreign to current readers has been for example, the third wave feminist critique of liberal reforms. Just giving women equal rights at work, in citizenship (the vote etc.) was not enough to create true equality. You need to go past just legal reform to destroy patriarchy]
[The Holocaust would not have occurred if Germans hadn’t been forced to confront Jews as equals, but instead could interact with them as pariahs with special rights and restrictions]
Between Pariah and Parvenu
Jews gained acceptance only by ‘selling out’ themselves and their people.
During the 150 years [prior to the Dreyfuss affair i.e. 1750-1900] when Jews truly lived amidst, and not just in the neighborhood of, Western European peoples, they always had to pay with political misery for social glory and with social insult for political success. Assimilation, in the sense of acceptance by non-Jewish society, was granted them only as long as they” were exotic and different. At the same time, they were not to be like ordinary Jews, they had to be more educated.
The [process began with the] new Humanists, who were keen to embrace the Jews…
The new Humanists [of the 1800s embraced the ideas of rationality, progress, emancipation, anti-slavery, and equality. They were opposed to the conservatives, who sought to maintain the power of monarch, aristocracy etc.. They] needed proof that all men were human. It turned out that they didn’t need to travel to the four corners of the world. Rather they turned to the Jews.
…whom they constructed as strange people of Asia
The ‘Oriental’ Jew could amply serve their purpose. The Jews were the “strange people of Asian driven into our regions”. To fulfill this role Jews had to be construed as more alien and exotic than they really were.
…and yet more Humanist in outlook than the Humanists themselves.
 The Jews as new specimens of mankind were mintenselysely pure examples of humanity. They would show greater tolerance and Humanist values than other men. Thus, Goethe [the famous German poet and humanist] was disappointed to find a Jewish poet’s work to be ordinary and mediocre; this shows that Goethe had high expectations of a Jew.
The Jews only had to pretend to be hyper-Jewish…
…and not really Jewish at all.
The Jews had, at the same time, to be exceptions to their own people.
The classic exception Jew
The exception Jew is hyper-Jewish 
Rather than playing down his Jewishness, Disraeli, who was thoroughly assimilated and had been baptised as a Christian, played it up. He realised that the aristocracy and bourgeousie delighted in vices; Jews and homosexual were entertaining and exotic to these bored upper classes. Being Jewish, like being homosexual, was a vice. Disreali also realised that these ‘vices’ [being Jewish or a homosexual] were thought of as crimes outside high society. What is a crime in normal society, is merely a vice for the upper classes; something exotic and dangerous, which society finds exciting.
Mob and the Jews
The 19th century saw the growth of the modern mob, comprised of the declasse of each class, producing leaders who made the Jews the key to history and source of all evils.
You have to agree with Arendt that Nazism was Imperialistic, not Nationalistic, for Arendt’s argument to work. The Fortress Europe and Liebensraum Nazi dreams are nationalistic; a way of Germanising the lands west and east of Germany; rather than a neutral empire. So Arendt’s argument doesn’t work for me here.
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