(Type) Assimilation (Hannah Arendt)

Moses-Mendelssohn (1)

About Hannah Arendt’s thesis re: anti-Semitism I’m caught. On the one hand, I think she is right to note among modern Jews the turn to and the trust placed in state authority, not “society.” On the other hand, I’m not sure that I share Arendt’s critical judgment, and I’m not sure this alignment was the cause so much as the consequence of anti-Semitism in society. Against Arendt, I think the “neutrality” of the nation-state proved a more secure guarantor of rights in modern Jewish political life than “society.” I think it’s probably true to say that this is true until this very day.

What I think Arendt gets much better in Antisemitism is the analysis of German Jewish assimilation at the cusp point between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. The Jews, Arendt reminds us, were welcomed as Jews into German Enlightenment society. Indeed, the new humanism represented by the likes Lessing and Nicolai, and also Herder, who “expressly wanted new specimens of humanity” (p.57). Assimilation at the end of the eighteenth century required that a Jew simultaneously be not like and to be a like a Jew, i.e. to be not like an “ordinary Jew,” but to be like an “exceptional one” (p.56).

This dynamical model of assimilation demanded the creation of a unique Jewish “type” that was “recognizable everywhere,” bearing the mark of “psychological attributes  and reactions, the sum total of which was to constitute ‘Jewishness.’” Exotic and foreign, half ashamed and half proud, attractive and entertaining, this “artificially complicated inner life” was to be “stange and exciting” in its “immediacy of self-expression and presentation” (p.67).  “The Enlightenment’s genuine tolerance and curiosity” as matched by and “replaced by a morbid lust for the exotic, abnormal, and different as such” (p.68).

I think Arendt’s analysis makes a lot of sense as to the specific case of Moses Mendelssohn, who she includes here in her discussion, as well as the more general way “difference” gets worked out and deployed in liberal society. With this or that variation, I think this dynamic is as true today as it was then. Exceptional Jews are always given to stand out over against the run of the mill ordinary Jews. But they have to retain that mark of a different Jewish “type” in order to be at all recognizable or interesting in any sort of meaningful way. Without the mark or type, they would not be exceptional.

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. http://religion.syr.edu
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2 Responses to (Type) Assimilation (Hannah Arendt)

  1. dmfant says:

    part of why I think it is vital to keep distinguishing between the actions of particular peoples (in this case some Jews) and the various uses of rhetorical figures of speech like “The Jews”.

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