It’s a pleasant day in the summer of 2013, and I sit with a Jewish-Israeli intellectual in a lively Tel Aviv café. She is a member of the far Left who advocates a one-state solution and is adamantly anti-Zionist. (She has since emigrated from Israel.) She asks me what I’ve been reading lately, and I mention Hannah Arendt. “Oh, she hated Zionism!” my companion responds with gusto.
This is a commonly held belief on the left—and, as it turns out, on the right. Arendt’s writings on Zionism and Israel are cited with increasing frequency by leftist advocates of a “non-Zionist” or binational state, who hail her presumably prophetic vision regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and regard her as an authority on it. Accolades like “impressively accurate,” “remarkably prescient,” and “trenchant” are heaped upon her; she is praised for her brave denunciations of “the follies and crimes of Zionism.” From the opposite end of the spectrum, conservative supporters of Israel heartily agree that Arendt was a concerted enemy of Israel and the mother of “Israelophobia.” Depending on one’s politics, Arendt is saint or sinner, prophet or traitor, goddess or devil.
In fact, she was none of the above. The attempts to use Arendt—uses that are always highly selective—to support contemporary positions vis-à-vis Israel almost always get her wrong. And yet to parse her views on Zionism is important. Most of the things she cared (and worried) about—nationalism, sovereignty, resistance, collaboration, freedom, justice, judgment—are entwined with her writings on Zionism, the Shoah, and Israel.
Arendt wrestled with Zionism, and then with Israel, for over three decades: with force and passion, respect and scorn. She wrote hundreds of thousands of words, scores of articles and essays, and, most famously, the book Eichmann in Jerusalem. She derided Jewish political sovereignty yet argued fervently for a Jewish army and Jewish self-defense, the Jewish right to Palestine, and the creation of a specifically Jewish politics and a specifically Jewish world. (“A people can be a minority somewhere only if they are a majority elsewhere,” she observed.) Arendt was a scathing opponent of assimilation and an ardent admirer of Zionist accomplishments—economic, political, intellectual, and social—in Palestine and, later, in Israel, though she also expressed disgust at actually-existing Zionism. She opposed the partition of Palestine and became a critic of Israel after the state was founded, though she unambiguously supported Israel in the 1967 and 1973 wars. In short, her attitudes toward Zionism oscillated: not only between months or years or decades, but within them. These attitudes cannot be whittled down to “pro” or “anti,” despite the efforts of reductionists to do so. Arendt was sometimes right but, in my estimation, more often wrong, both in her analyses and in her predictions. Yet this is the least important aspect of her views.
The reason to read Arendt on this topic is not to victoriously cherry-pick particular lines: “She said this! No, she said that!” Nor can one plausibly argue that there was always an overriding logic to her views on Zionism. On the contrary: It is precisely the extreme contradictions in her writings—evidence, I believe, of a genuine effort to tackle what she saw as the most crucial issues—that can act as a sober antidote to the coarse simplicities to which current debates on Israel have descended. The reason to read Arendt on Zionism is to bring home to us the nettlesome difficulties that have always confronted the establishment of a state for the Jewish people. Equally important, Arendt’s writings on Israel are a warning—though not against Zionism or the nation-state, as she thought and as her contemporary admirers believe. Her writings are a warning against imposing abstract political theories, even brilliant ones, on a distinct political problem.
From The Lions’ Den by Susie Linfield. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Susie Linfield teaches cultural journalism at New York University. A former editor at the Washington Post and the Village Voice, she has written for a wide variety of publications including the New York Times, The Nation, Dissent, and the New Republic. Her previous book, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.