Although Hannah Arendt is not primarily known as a Jewish thinker, she probably wrote more about Jewish issues than any other topic. As a young adult in Germany, she wrote about German Jewish history. After moving to France in 1933, she helped Jewish youth immigrate to Palestine. During her years in Paris, her principle concern was the transformation of antinomianism from prejudice to policy, which would culminate in the Nazi "final solution." After France fell, Arendt escaped from an internment camp and made her way to America. There she wrote articles calling for a Jewish army to fight the Nazis. After the war, she supported the creation of a Jewish homeland in a binational (Arab-Jewish) state of Israel.
Arendt's original conception of political freedom cannot be fully grasped apart from her experience as a Jew. In 1961 she attended Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem. Her report, Eichmann in Jerusalem, provoked an immense controversy, which culminated in her virtual excommunication from the worldwide Jewish community. Today that controversy is the subject of serious re-evaluation, especially among younger people in the United States, Europe, and Israel.
The publication of The Jewish Writings-much of which has never appeared before-traces Arendt's life and thought as a Jew. It will put an end to any doubts about the centrality, from beginning to end, of Arendt's Jewish experience.
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February 25, 2008
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Excerpt from The Jewish Writings by Hannah Arendt
The Enlightenment and the Jewish Question The modern Jewish question dates from the Enlightenment; it was the Enlightenment—that is, the non-Jewish world—that posed it. Its formulations and its answers have defined the behavior and the assimilation of Jews. Ever since Moses Mendelssohn's genuine assimilation and Christian Wilhelm Dohm's essay "On the Civic Improvement of Jews" (1781), the same arguments that found their chief representative in Lessing appear over and over in every discussion of Jewish emancipation. It is to Lessing that such discussions owe their propagation of tolerance and humanness, as well as the distinction between the truths of reason and those of history. This distinction is of such great importance because it can legitimate each accidental instance of assimilation that occurs within history and thus needs to appear merely as an ongoing insight into the truth and not as the adaptation and reception of a particular culture at a particular, and thus accidental, stage of its history. For Lessing, reason, which all humans share in common, is the foundation of humanity. It is the most human connection that binds Saladin with Nathan and the Templar.* It alone is the genuine connection linking one person with another. The emphasis of humanness based on what is reasonable gives rise to the ideal of tolerance and to its promulgation. His notion that deep inside every human being—despite differences of dogmatic convictions, morals, and conduct—is the same human being, his reverence for all that bears a human countenance, can never be derived solely from the general validity of reason as a purely formal quality; rather, the idea of tolerance is intimately connected with Lessing's concept of truth, which for its part can be understood only within the context of his theological thought and his philosophy of history. Truth gets lost in the Enlightenment—indeed, no one wants it anymore. More important than truth is man in his search for it. "Not the truth that someone has in his possession, but rather the honest effort he has made to get behind the truth is what defines human worth." Man becomes more important than the truth, which is relativized for the benefit of "human worth." This human worth is discovered in tolerance. The universal rule of reason is the universal rule of what is human and humane. Because this humanness is more important than any "possession of the truth," the father in Lessing's fable gives each of his three sons a ring, but does not tell them which is the genuine ring, with the result that the genuine one is in fact lost. The German Enlightenment as represented by Lessing did not simply lose truth as religious revelation, but rather the loss is seen as something positive: the discovery of the purely human. In striving for what is genuine, man and his history—which is a history of searching—gain a meaning of their own. Man is no longer simply in charge of what is good, with his own meaning dependent on its possession; instead, by searching he can confirm this possession, which is neither objective nor salvatory. If the search for truth, the "expansion of one's energies," is regarded as the only substantial issue, then for the tolerant man—that is, for the truly human man—all religious faiths are in the end merely different names for the same man. History has no power to prove anything to reason. The truths of history are accidental, the truths of reason are necessary, and accident is separated from necessity by a "nasty wide ditch," which to leap across would require a "metabasi ei' a'llo geno." The truths of history are simply not true, no matter how good the evidence, because both their factuality and their attestation are always accidental—the latter being likewise historical. The truths