‘I merely belong to them’

Judith Butler

‘You know the left think that I am conservative,’ Hannah Arendt once said, ‘and the conservatives think I am left or I am a maverick or God knows what. And I must say that I couldn’t care less. I don’t think the real questions of this century get any kind of illumination by this kind of thing.’ The Jewish Writings make the matter of her political affiliation no less easy to settle. In these editorials, essays and unfinished pieces, she seeks to underscore the political paradoxes of the nation-state. If the nation-state secures the rights of citizens, then surely it is a necessity; but if the nation-state relies on nationalism and invariably produces massive numbers of stateless people, it clearly needs to be opposed. If the nation-state is opposed, then what, if anything, serves as its alternative?

Arendt refers variously to modes of ‘belonging’ and conceptions of the ‘polity’ that are not reducible to the idea of the nation-state. She even formulates, in her early writings, an idea of the ‘nation’ that is uncoupled from both statehood and territory. The nation retains its place for her, though it diminishes between the mid-1930s and early 1960s, but the polity she comes to imagine, however briefly, is something other than the nation-state: a federation that diffuses both claims of national sovereignty and the ontology of individualism. In her critique of Fascism as well as in her scepticism towards Zionism, she clearly opposes those disparate forms of the nation-state that rely on nationalism and create massive statelessness and destitution. Paradoxically, and perhaps shrewdly, the terms in which Arendt criticised Fascism came to inform her criticisms of Zionism, though she did not and would not conflate the two.

She stated the matter quite clearly in The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951. Statelessness was not a Jewish problem, but a recurrent 20th-century predicament of the nation-state. What happened to the Jewish people under Hitler should not be seen as exceptional but as exemplary of a certain way of managing minority populations; hence, the reduction of ‘German Jews to a non-recognised minority in Germany’, the subsequent expulsions of the Jews as ‘stateless people across the borders’, and the gathering of them ‘back from everywhere in order to ship them to extermination camps was an eloquent demonstration to the rest of the world how really to “liquidate” all problems concerning minorities and the stateless’. Thus, she continues,

after the war it turned out that the Jewish question, which was considered the only insoluble one, was indeed solved – namely, by means of a colonised and then conquered territory – but this solved neither the problem of the minorities nor the stateless. On the contrary, like virtually all other events of the 20th century, the solution of the Jewish question merely produced a new category of refugees, the Arabs, thereby increasing the number of stateless and rightless by another 700,000 to 800,000 people. And what happened in Palestine within the smallest territory and in terms of hundreds of thousands was then repeated in India on a large scale involving many millions of people.

It may well have been such views, along with her criticisms of Zionism in 1944 and 1948, that led to Gershom Scholem’s sharp allegations against Arendt in an exchange of letters in 1963, after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Scholem called her ‘heartless’ for concentrating dispassionately on Eichmann’s understanding of himself as a functionary. Her text was controversial on a number of accounts. There were those who thought she misdescribed the history of the Jewish resistance under Fascism and unfairly foregrounded the collaborative politics of the Jewish Councils, and those who wanted her to name and analyse Eichmann himself as an emblem of evil. Her account of his trial, moreover, tries to debunk speculations as to his psychological motives as irrelevant to the exercise of justice. And though she agrees with the decision of the Israeli court that Eichmann is guilty and deserving of the death penalty, she takes issues with the proceedings and with the grounds on which that judgment is based. Some objected to her public criticism of the court, arguing that it was untimely or unseemly to criticise Israeli political institutions. That she finds Eichmann careerist, confused, and unpredictably ‘elated’ by renditions of his own infamy failed to satisfy those who sought to find in his motivations the culmination of centuries of anti-semitism in the policies of the Final Solution.

Arendt refused all these interpretations (along with other psychological constructs such as ‘collective guilt’) in order to establish, first, that ‘one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann’ and that if he is in this sense ‘banal’, he is not for that reason ‘commonplace’; and, second, that accounts of his action on the basis of ‘deeper explanations’ are debatable, but that ‘what is not debatable is that no judicial procedure would be possible on the basis of them.’

Scholem went on to impugn Arendt’s personal motives: ‘In the Jewish tradition there is a concept, hard to define and yet concrete enough, which we know as Ahabath Israel: “Love of the Jewish people”. In you, dear Hannah, as in so many intellectuals who came from the German left, I find little trace of this.’ Arendt, after disputing that she was from the German left (and, indeed, she was no Marxist), replies:

You are quite right – I am not moved by any ‘love’ of this sort, and for two reasons: I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective – neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons. Secondly, this ‘love of the Jews’ would appear to me, since I am myself Jewish, as something rather suspect. I cannot love myself or anything which I know is part and parcel of my own person. To clarify this, let me tell you of a conversation I had in Israel with a prominent political personality who was defending the – in my opinion disastrous – non-separation of religion and state in Israel. What [she] said – I am not sure of the exact words any more – ran something like this: ‘You will understand that, as a socialist, I, of course, do not believe in God; I believe in the Jewish people.’ I found this a shocking statement and, being too shocked, I did not reply at the time. But I could have answered: the greatness of this people was once that it believed in God, and believed in Him in such a way that its trust and love towards Him was greater than its fear. And now this people believes only in itself? What good can come out of that? Well, in this sense I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.

Both the tone and substance of Arendt’s argument raise questions about her understanding of Jewish belonging. What did she mean by saying she was a Jew as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument? Was she saying she was only nominally a Jew, by virtue of genetic inheritance or historical legacy, or a mixture of the two? Was she saying that she was sociologically in the position of the Jew? When Scholem calls her a ‘daughter of our people’, Arendt sidesteps the attribution of kinship but avows her belonging: ‘I have never pretended to be anything else or to be in any way other than I am, and I have never felt even tempted in that direction. It would have been like saying that I was a man and not a woman – that is to say, kind of insane.’ She goes on to say that ‘to be a Jew’ is an ‘indisputable fact of my life’ and adds: ‘There is such a thing as a basic gratitude for everything that is as it is; for what has been given and not made; for what is physei and not nomo¯.’

Being a woman and being a Jew are both referred to as physei and, as such, naturally constituted rather than part of any cultural order. But Arendt’s answer hardly settles the question of whether such categories are given or made; and this equivocation hardly makes her position ‘insane’. Is there not a making of what is given that complicates the apparent distinction between physei and nomo¯? Arendt presents herself as a Jew who can and will take various political stands, whether or not they conform to anyone else’s idea of what views a Jew should hold or what a Jew should be. Whatever this mode of belonging might be for her, it will not involve conforming to nationalist political views. Moreover, it is difficult to read her response to Scholem as anything other than an effort to make sense of, or give a particular construction to, the physei that she is. And since, in the 1930s, she had subscribed to the idea that the Jewish people were a ‘nation’, and had even dismissed those Jews who held themselves aloof from this idea, one has to wonder: what happened to Arendt’s views of the nation and of modes of cultural belonging between the 1930s and the mid-1960s?

Throughout The Jewish Writings, Arendt struggles with what it means to be Jewish without strong religious faith, and why it might be important to distinguish, as she does, between the secular and the assimilated Jew. She does, after all, mark herself as a Jew, which constitutes a failure of assimilation (the task of which is to lose the mark altogether). In an unfinished piece dated around 1939, Arendt argues that Zionism and assimilationism emerge from a common dogmatism. Assimilationists think that Jews belong to the nations that host them (the anti-Zionist philosopher Hermann Cohen wrote at the turn of the 20th century that German Jews were first and foremost German and could thrive and receive protection only within a German state), whereas Zionists think the Jews must have a nation because every other nation is defined independently of its Jewish minorities. Arendt rebukes them both: ‘These are both the same shortcoming, and both arise out of a shared Jewish fear of admitting that there are and always have been divergent interests between Jews and segments of the people among whom they live.’ In other words, living with others who have divergent interests is a condition of politics that one cannot wish away without wishing away politics itself. For Arendt, the persistence of ‘divergent interests’ does not constitute grounds for either the absorption or the separation of national minorities. Both Zionists and assimilationists ‘retain the charge of foreignness’ levelled against the Jews: assimilationists seek to rectify this foreignness by gaining entrance into the host nation as full citizens, while Zionists assume that there can be no permanent foreign host for the Jewish people, that anti-semitism will visit them in any such arrangement, and that only the establishment of a Jewish nation could provide the necessary protection and place.

Moreover, both positions subscribe to a particular logic of the nation that Arendt starts to take apart, first in the 1930s in her investigations into anti-semitism and the history of the Jews in Europe, then throughout the war years in editorials on Palestine and Israel published in Aufbau, the German-Jewish newspaper, and in her trenchant critique of the nation-state and the production of stateless persons in The Origins of Totalitarianism in the early 1950s.

Obviously, it would be an error to read her response to Scholem as an espousal of assimilationism. She was a secular Jew, but secularity did not eclipse her Jewishness so much as define it historically. She lived, as she put it, in the wake of a certain lost faith. Her experience of Fascism, her own forced emigration to France in the 1930s, her escape from the internment camp at Gurs and emigration to the US in 1941 gave her a historically specific perspective on refugees, the stateless and the transfer and displacement of large numbers of peoples. Arendt’s critique of nationalism emerged, in part, from the experience of exile and displacement that especially affected the Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, but for her, dispossession and displacement were not exclusively ‘Jewish’ problems. There was, she believed, a political obligation to analyse and oppose deportations, population transfers and statelessness in ways that refused a nationalist ethos. Hence her critique of both Zionism and assimilationism. Hence, also, the apparent nominalism of her remark to Scholem that she doesn’t ‘love’ the Jews or ‘believe’ in them, but merely ‘belongs’ to them. Here both ‘love’ and ‘believe’ are housed in quotation marks, but is it not also the generality, ‘the Jews’, to which she objects? After all, she has said she can love not a ‘people’, only ‘persons’.

What is wrong with the notion of loving the Jewish people? In the late 1930s, Arendt argued that efforts to ‘emancipate’ the Jews in 19th-century Europe were invested less in their fate than in a certain principle of progress, one that required that the Jews be thought of as an abstraction: ‘Liberation was to be extended not to Jews one might know or not know, not to the humble peddler or to the lender of large sums of money, but to “the Jew in general”.’ Just as there were exceptional Jews, such as Moses Mendelssohn, who came to stand for ‘the Jews in general’, so the ‘Jew’ came to stand for the progress of human rights. The effect, according to Arendt, was to sever the principle from the person: progressive Enlightenment opposition to anti-semitism consistently cast the ordinary Jew as noxious at the same moment as it championed the rights of the Jews in general. So when Arendt refuses to love ‘the Jewish people’, she is refusing to form an attachment to an abstraction that has supplied the premise and the alibi for anti-semitism.

Scholem’s rebuke is especially problematic since he is writing from Israel in 1963 and objecting to Arendt’s merciless account of the Israeli court procedures at the Eichmann trial. He is accusing her not only of not loving the Jewish people, but of questioning whether Israel and its courts – and perhaps also its strategies of demonisation – were working in legitimate ways. Effectively, when he refers to the Jewish people, he excludes the diasporic or non-Zionist Jew, and so rhetorically reproduces the schism within Jewish culture and politics between the self-loving and those who are not.

Arendt is clearly opposed to a Jewish nationalism founded on secular presumptions. But she doesn’t find a polity based on religious grounds any more acceptable. A just polity will extend equality to all citizens and to all nationalities: that is the lesson she learns from opposing Fascism. She worries openly about the devolution of Judaism from a set of religious beliefs into a national political identity. ‘Those Jews who no longer believe in their God in a traditional way but continue to consider themselves “chosen” in some fashion or other,’ she writes, ‘can mean by it nothing other than that by nature they are better or wiser or more rebellious or salt of the earth. And that would be, twist and turn it as you like, nothing other than a version of racist superstition.’ She claims at one point that ‘our national misery’ began when the Jews relinquished religious values: ‘Ever since then we have proclaimed our existence per se – without any national or usually any religious content – as a thing of value.’ Although she understands the struggle to survive as an indispensable aspect of being Jewish in the 20th century, she finds it unacceptable that ‘survival itself’ has trumped ideals of justice, equality or freedom.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Arendt thought that the Jews might become a nation among nations, part of a federated Europe; she imagined that all the European nations that were struggling against Fascism could ally with one another, and that the Jews might have their own army that would fight against Fascism alongside other European armies. She argued then for a nation without territory, a nation that makes sense only in a federated form, that would be, by definition, a constitutive part of a plurality. Later she would prefer the proposal of a federated Jewish-Arab state to the established notion that the state of Israel should be based on principles of Jewish sovereignty. Indeed, ‘Jewish sovereignty’ would be a dire category mistake, since it allies a single nation with the state in ways that would inevitably produce massive injustice for minorities. ‘Palestine can be saved as the national homeland of Jews only if (like other small countries and nationalities) it is integrated into a federation,’ she wrote in 1943.

Although this is a secular political solution, in 1941 she states the rationale for it by referring to a religious parable. ‘As Jews,’ she writes, ‘we want to fight for the freedom of the Jewish people, because “If I am not for me – who is for me?” As Europeans we want to fight for the freedom of Europe, because “If I am only for me – who am I?”’ This is the famous question of Hillel, the Jewish commentator of the first century ad. Here, and elsewhere, she draws on the Jewish religious tradition to formulate political principles capable of organising the secular field of politics (which is something other than grounding a secular politics on religious principles). Arendt doesn’t quote Hillel when she writes to Scholem 22 years later – there, she refuses to offer a religious formulation of her own identity – but an echo of Hillel can be heard in the words she does use: ‘I cannot love myself or anything which I know is part and parcel of my own person’; and ‘now this people believes only in itself? What good can come out of that?’ She cannot be only for herself, for then who would she be? But if she is not for herself, who will be?

In the 1930s and early 1940s, the non-Jew Arendt has in mind is, of course, the European gentile. Later, she would make some effort to think about what ‘belonging’ might mean for Jews and Arabs who inhabit the same land, but her views throughout this early period are emphatically Eurocentric. ‘We enter this war as a European people,’ she insisted in December 1941, skewing the history of Judaism by marginalising the Sephardim and Mizrachim (mentioned as ‘Oriental Jews’ in Eichmann). A presumption about the cultural superiority of Europe pervades much of her later writings too, and is clearest in her intemperate criticisms of Fanon, her debunking of the teaching of Swahili at Berkeley, and her dismissal of the black power movement in the 1960s. She clearly does not have racial minorities in mind when she thinks about those who suffer statelessness and dispossession. She appears to have separated the nation from the nation-state, but to the degree that the conception of ‘minorities’ is restricted to national minorities, ‘nation’ not only eclipses ‘race’ as a category, but renders race unthinkable. By the same token, if the Jews are a ‘nation’ without a nation-state, does that allow for a racially and geographically dispersed conception of Jewish heritage that would include the Sephardim and the Mizrachim?

In the 1930s, national belonging is an important value for Arendt, but nationalism is noxious. Her views then vacillate during the next ten years. In 1935, she praised Martin Buber and the socialist project of the kibbutzim. In the early 1940s, she supported the Jewish emigration from Europe to Palestine, but only on the condition that Jews also fought for recognition as a ‘nation’ within Europe; at the same time, she published several editorials in which she asked that the idea of nation be separated from that of territory. She defended the proposal for a Jewish army on that basis, and strongly criticised the British government’s ‘equivocal’ relation to the Jews, as evidenced by the famous White Paper of 1939 that limited the number of Jewish refugees permitted to enter Palestine. In the late 1930s, though, she also wrote that ‘the bankruptcy of the Zionist movement caused by the reality of Palestine is at the same time the bankruptcy of the illusion of autonomous, isolated Jewish politics.’ In 1943, she worried that the proposal for a binational state in Palestine could be maintained only by enhancing the reliance of Palestine on Britain and other major powers, including the United States. Sometimes, she worried that binationalism could work only to the advantage of the Arab population and to the disadvantage of the Jews. In ‘Zionism Reconsidered’ (1944), however, she argued forcefully that the risks of founding a state on principles of Jewish sovereignty could only aggravate the problem of statelessness that had become increasingly acute in the wake of the First and Second World Wars. By the early 1950s, Arendt was arguing that Israel was founded through colonial occupation with the assistance of superpowers and on the basis of citizenship requirements that were anti-democratic. In the 1930s she had worried that the Jews were becoming increasingly stateless; in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the displacement of Palestinians made it imperative that she develop a more comprehensive account of statelessness.

In ‘Zionism Reconsidered’, she calls ‘absurd’ the idea of setting up a Jewish state in a ‘sphere of interest’ of the superpowers. Such a state would suffer under the ‘delusion of nationhood’: ‘Only folly could dictate a policy which trusts a distant imperial power for protection, while alienating the goodwill of neighbours.’ On the one hand, she is clearly anxious to find ways for Israel/Palestine to survive; on the other, she predicts that the foundations proposed for the polity will result in ruin. ‘If the Jewish commonwealth is obtained in the near future … it will be due to the political assistance of American Jews,’ she writes. ‘But if the Jewish commonwealth is proclaimed against the will of the Arabs and without the support of the Mediterranean peoples, not only financial help but political support will be necessary for a long time to come. And that may turn out to be very troublesome indeed for Jews in this country, who after all have no power to direct the political destinies of the Near East.’

In 1948, after the UN had sanctioned the state of Israel, Arendt predicted that ‘even if the Jews were to win the war [of independence], its end would find the … achievements of Zionism in Palestine destroyed … The “victorious” Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defence to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities.’ She stated once again that partition could not work, and that the best solution would be a ‘federated state’. Such a federation, in her view, ‘would have the advantage of preventing the establishment of sovereignty whose only sovereign right would be to commit suicide.’

Arendt’s investment in the idea of federation was based on the hope that it would undercut nationalism and address the problem of statelessness. If the polity that would guarantee rights is not the nation-state, then it would be either a federation, in which sovereignty is undone through a distribution of its power, or a human rights framework that would be binding on those who collectively produced it. Rights do not belong to individuals, in Arendt’s view, but are produced in concert through their exercise. This post-metaphysical view was appropriate to the post-national federation she imagined for the Jews of Europe in the late 1930s, which is why a Jewish army could represent the ‘nation’ of Jews without any presumption of state or territory. It was also what she came to imagine in 1948 for Jews and for Palestinians, in spite of the founding of the state of Israel on nationalist premises and with claims of Jewish sovereignty. She can be faulted for naivety, but not for her prescience in predicting the recurrence of statelessness and the persistence of territorial violence.

Arendt could be said to have embraced a diasporic politics, centred not on a Jewish homeland but on the rights of the stateless. To read her now is to be reminded of the passages in Edward Said’s book Freud and the Non-European where he suggests that Jews and Palestinians might find commonality in their shared history of exile and dispossession, and that diaspora could become the basis of a common polity in the Middle East. Said sees the basis of solidarity, in part, as the ‘irremediably diasporic, unhoused character of Jewish life’, which aligns it ‘in our age of vast population transfers’ with ‘refugees, exiles, expatriates and immigrants’. If Arendt sometimes argues for home and for belonging (though she does this less frequently over time), it is not to call for a polity built on those established ties of fealty. A polity requires the capacity to live with others precisely when there is no obvious mode of belonging. This is the vanquishing of self-love – the movement away from narcissism and nationalism – which forms the basis for a just politics that would oppose both nationalism and those forms of state violence that reproduce statelessness and its sufferings.

Arendt’s opposition to the dispossessions that afflict any and every minority represents a departure for Jewish thinking about justice. Her position does not universalise the Jew, but opposes the sufferings of statelessness regardless of national status. That the ‘nation’ continues to restrict her conception of the dispossessed minority is clear, and she leaves unanswered a set of important questions: is there an ‘outside’ to every federated polity? Must a federation assume ‘sovereignty’ in the context of international relations? Can international relations be organised on the basis of federative politics and, if so, can international federations enforce their laws without recourse to sovereignty?

We have become accustomed over recent years to the argument that modern constitutions retain a sovereign function and that a tacit totalitarianism functions as a limiting principle within constitutional democracies. Giorgio Agamben’s reading of Carl Schmitt pays particular attention to the exercise of sovereign power to create a state of exception that suspends constitutional protections and rights of inclusion for designated populations within established democratic polities. Arendt’s Jewish Writings offer a valuable counter-perspective. Although Agamben is clearly indebted to Arendt’s The Human Condition in his elaboration of ‘bare life’ (the life which, jettisoned from the polis, is exposed to raw power), it is the nation-state rather than sovereignty that is Arendt’s focus in her work on totalitarianism. By insisting that statelessness is the recurrent political disaster of the 20th century (it now takes on new forms in the 21st), Arendt refuses to give a metaphysical cast to ‘bare life’. Indeed, she makes it quite clear in The Origins of Totalitarianism that the ostensible ‘state of nature’ to which displaced and stateless people are reduced is not natural or metaphysical at all, but the name for a specifically political form of destitution.

Adalah, ‘the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel’, recently proposed a ‘democratic constitution’ that starts out not with the question, ‘Who is a Jew?’, but with the question, ‘Who is a citizen?’ Although it does not seek to adjudicate on what establishes the legitimate territory of this state, it does propose a systematic separation of nation and state, and so resonates with an Arendtian politics. Arendt’s idea of a federated polity is not the same as prevailing pluralist modes of multiculturalism, but it does posit a political way of life that is not merely a fractious collection of sovereign cultural identities, but disperses sovereignty, nationalism and individualism alike into new forms of social and political co-existence. Hopeful, perhaps naive, but not for that reason something we can permanently do without – at least not without the ceaseless territorial violence that Arendt warned against.