Jews, State Authority, & Society (Hannah Arendt Antisemitism)


It’s been argued by critics of Zionism that Zionism represents a new alignment of Judaism and Jewishness vis-à-vis state power. This represents a half truth. What’s new about Zionism is its alignment of Judaism and Jewishness with Jewish sovereign power. What’s not new is that the Jews in the modern period have seemed to have always sought to remain close to sovereign power. This was in part Arendt’s critique of modern western Jewry, its cooperation with the autocratic, enlightened despots going back to the 18th century, as well as the fealty of mainstream German Jewry to the Second Reich established under Bismarck, or the example of Disraeli. But one could add as well the fealty of many Russian Jews to the Bolshevik Party and to Communist regime, and the liberal leaning patriotic loyalties of mainstream American Jews to the New Deal and to the opportunities and freedoms made possible for Jews by big strong centralized government. Zionism would manifest a variant to this larger political pattern.

The key conceptual opposition determining Arendt’s analysis in Antisemitism is the one between “state” and “society.” For Arendt, anti-Semitism is a purely modern phenomenon (there is no “eternal anti-Semitism), and it has to be understood exclusively as a political phenomenon, not a social or an economic one, and it has nothing to do with nationalism per se. The origin of anti-Semitism was caused in part by the political decisions of “the Jews” to isolate themselves from society and to align themselves with state authority. When society came into conflict with the state, they came into conflict with the Jews as their target of first opportunity.

Indeed, the neutrality or the semi-neutrality of the state would have promised a reliable support for the civic rights of a minority community such as the Jews, a much more reliable support than “society.” But as a part I of her thesis on the Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt claims that twentieth century totalitarianism and modern anti-Semitism were both anti-nationalist, were in fact ideologically international, or at least pan-European, and that they both reflected and contributed to the decline of the nation-state and the destruction of the old elites and the old political order in Europe (see esp. p.28)

Arendt argues that the Jews were in some part responsible for the rise of anti-Semitism. First, she claims that the Jews, and by this I assume she means primarily western Jews, were politically incompetent, mostly because they were unaware of the tension between state and society (p.23). Attaching themselves to government as such, to authority as such, they isolated themselves from society, cutting themselves off from reality and rendering themselves weak (pp.14, 15). It is the putative aloofness, the closeness of familial ties, the tie to the private sphere of the oikos and what Arendt thought was the resulting lack of a larger and more capacious social connection, (between Jews and Jews, and between Jews and gentile society) that is at the center of Arendt’s critique of both political Zionism and German Jewish assimilation.

The tension between state and society is an interesting one, but as a theory of anti-Semitism, Arendt’s analysis is probably too bound to the case of western Jewry (Germany, France, England). I’m not sure it does much to explain anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, where there was no connection between the Jews and state authority for the very reason that Jews were never granted civic rights by state czarist authority. And I’m not sure how here the distinction between state and society works in relation to the United States. In western Europe, she writes, “The situation would have been entirely different if, as in the United States, equality of condition had been taken for granted; if every member of society –from whatever stratum –had been firmly convinced that by ability and luck he [sic] might have become the hero of a success story” (p.55)

The useful distinction between state and society begins to fall apart once it gets pushed too hard. Arendt claims that social discrimination against western Jews was, in fact, politically “sterile,” even if it did much to “poison” “the social atmosphere” and “perverting all social intercourse between Jews and Gentiles and had a definite effect on Jewish behavior” (p.55). By this effect, I suppose Arendt to have meant an isolating, self-segregating asocial impulse, for which, at the same time, she holds western Jewry responsible. But the assumption is that the Jews were not already marginal in society and that it was only in alignment with state power that turned society against the Jews.

What’s strange about the entire structure of the argument is the presumption that “social” discrimination is politically “sterile.” On its own I don’t entirely understand it, and I think the claim falls completely apart when Arendt turns her attention briefly to the United States and to race relations in America. Arendt writes, “It is one of the most promising and dangerous paradoxes of the American Republic that it dared to realize equality on the basis of the most unequal population in the world, physically and historically” (p.55). I don’t know how quite to unpack this statement. Was the term “American Republic” meant to compare the U.S. with the Weimar Republic? In what way are different racial “peoples” in American physically unequal? Did Arendt really mean unequal, or just “different” in appearance? In a footnote, she notes that in America, “the Negroes” have been the most unequal, “by nature and by history” (emphasis added), believing  that the Jews even in the United States are at risk, more politically endangered , precisely because they are less given to a “well known principle of separation” than are “Negroes or Chinese” (p.55n.1).

I think Arendt was right to identify the linkage between western Jews and state authority, and it makes a lot of sense of the hostility directed against Israel and Zionism on the part of the global left and by critical theorists with deep skepticism regarding political forms of state-sovereignty, as well as the way that hostility will often morph into classical anti-Semitism. But about Arendt I’m not sure what better option she saw for the Jews historically. Was it or was it not the case that anti-Semitism in “society” was a deeply engrained thing? This is, in part David Nirenberg’s case against Arendt in the first pages of the conclusion to his recent Anti-Judaism.

I would put the argument with Arendt this way. Perhaps it’s the case that her bobbling of race and the bobbling of anti-Semitism go hand in hand here. It’s at this point in the discussion when U.S. race relations (i.e. race in the “American Republic”) are raised that I begin to suspect that Arendt in her analysis of anti-Semitism did not take seriously enough the full “political” force of “social” discrimination that was prior to and determined the limited place for Jews as minority people in the public sphere of society prior to their political emancipation.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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6 Responses to Jews, State Authority, & Society (Hannah Arendt Antisemitism)

  1. David Sucher says:

    “What’s not new is that the Jews in the modern period have seemed to have always sought to remain close to sovereign power.”

    Who or what group is not attracted to sovereign power? All those 17th century French aristos hanging around Versailles? All courts — Odysseus home for example — attracted people. Such a statement is, it seems to me, worse than nothing because it says the obvious — all people are attracted to those who are in charge of a particular society — but here suggests something unique about Jews. Who doesn’t want power? American blacks? Palestinians? Chinese? Vietnamese? Algerians? Etc etc

    If your paraphrase is accurate then perhaps Arendt has less to meet the eye than merited.

    • zjb says:

      Thanks for the critical pushback, David. Arendt’s point is that there is conflict between state authority and “society,” and that the Jews as a minority despised in society turned to the state because it was the state that gave them rights. Those rights should have eased their entry into society, whereas, in fact, the collusion with state authority (as per Arendt) brought the Jews into conflict with society. I think there is a lot more to the argument than meets the eye.

  2. DMS says:

    No I think will Arendt alone.
    I’ve started to read her (years ago) and just couldn’t relate to her use of language i.e. I though she was boring.

  3. Zak, I think the last paragraph is right on and very suggestive. To that end, there’s an article by Jill Locke about Arendt’s response to Little Rock that, I think, will be of interest. It speaks to Arendt’s failure to acknowledge not only the political force of social discrimination but also the political force of social privilege. Anyway, may be of interest. I am posting the link. If you can’t access it for some reason, let me know and I can send the PDF, if interested.

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