In response to:
At Home in This Century from the April 6, 1995 issue
To the Editors:
I would agree with Tony Judt that the controversy about Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann book [NYR, April 6] was “absurd,” if the object of his judgment was merely the meeting called by Dissent, and in which I regret to say I took part, to debate Ms. Arendt’s theses. And this before persons assembled to either execrate or adore her. I do regret my participation in that affair and broke with Irving Howe years later when he asked me to write something justifying it.
It was not proper to address complex ideas as the Dissent meeting tried to do. But I am not sure that Tony Judt limited his critique to that meeting alone. Could he have meant that it was “absurd” to review Ms. Arendt’s book seriously? Even though it dealt with important matters, about which, as Judt himself concedes, Hannah was inadequately informed? I think quite the contrary: it would have been absurd to not challenge Ms. Arendt’s “aggression”—the word comes from her friend, Karl Jaspers—against Israel and the Jews.
One thing more. I would like to know just what “life-sustaining lies” I depended on, as Tony Judt claims, in my review of Eichmann in Jerusalem, a work whose a priori sociology was backed by so many errors of fact per page. If Tony Judt needs some education in this regard, I suggest that he look at a definitive article on the subject, Gertrude Ezorsky’s “Hannah Arendt Against the Facts,” in the Fall 1963 issue of New Politics.
New York City
Tony Judt replies:
I am grateful to Lionel Abel for his letter, as it helps me understand better why he reacted as he did to Eichmann in Jerusalem. It was not a particularly difficult book, but it did require careful reading. Mr. Abel is not a careful reader. As my review made clear, what was “absurd” about the furor over Arendt’s book was not the fact that it aroused so much debate and was reviewed seriously in so many places, but that commentators like Abel—both in his contribution to the infamous Dissent meeting and his 1963 Partisan Review article—could so patently misrepresent it. Moreover, Karl Jaspers did not charge Arendt with “aggression…against Israel and the Jews” but cautioned her of the price she would pay for attacking some of the “life-sustaining lies” on which so many people depend. Mr. Abel’s reaction, then and now, confirms Jaspers’s warning.
One of these “life-sustaining lies” is the fiction that “Israel and the Jews” form a single bloc and that to criticize any part of one is to perpetrate an unacceptable attack on both. The role of a certain narrative of the Holocaust in Israeli pedagogy and in the national foundation myth was prominent and remains so. Arendt was quite right to place it at the center of her analysis of the trial; for all her errors of fact (fewer than Mr. Abel implies), her intuition has since been taken up and debated by scholars. The history of Jewish leadership during World War Two is complex and sometimes troubling, and cannot be served up as a simple tale of criminals, heroes, and victims. Like other national stories of collaboration and resistance it is full of gray zones. Mr. Abel feels understandably discomfited to see his beliefs challenged. But to persist in describing Arendt’s disquieting insights as an attack on “the Jews” shows that Mr. Abel has forgotten nothing and learned nothing in the thirty years that have elapsed since his first unfortunate foray into this arena.
May 11, 1995