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Israel's Culture of Martyrdom | The Nation

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Israel's Culture of Martyrdom

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Eichmann in Jerusalem sparked "a civil war...among New York intellectuals," as Irving Howe recalled in his memoirs. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, the noted historian Barbara Tuchman accused Arendt of seeking to aid in Eichmann's defense, despite the fact that her book was published only after Eichmann's execution. According to Zertal, in the mid-1960s alone more than a thousand articles and books were published in response to Arendt--most of them in the spirit of Tuchman's attack. Arendt's descriptions of Eichmann's pettiness struck many American Jewish readers as a coded apologia for his behavior; her discussions of trial evidence regarding Jewish collaborators, as well as of non-Zionist Jews and their role in the resistance, were widely seen as attempts to blame the Jews for the Holocaust and to undermine the Zionist cause. A refugee from Hitler's Germany, Arendt found herself subjected to a vehement campaign of vilification by the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations, and denounced as a self-hating Jew, an anti-Semite and even a Nazi.

About the Author

Baruch Kimmerling
Baruch Kimmerling, George S. Wise Professor of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of two...

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In Israel, by contrast, the language barrier insulated most of the population from Arendt's heterodox ideas. Few Israelis were aware of intellectual controversies beyond the country's borders, unless they passed through the filters of the local intelligentsia. Although Eichmann in Jerusalem was translated into Hebrew by the Israeli thinker Boas Evron soon after its publication, it was not published in Israel for almost four decades, and even today none of Arendt's other work is available in Hebrew.

This state of affairs did not protect her from attacks in the Hebrew press. Shortly after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Gershom Scholem, the distinguished scholar of Jewish mysticism, wrote an open letter in the Hebrew daily Davar accusing Arendt of lacking ahavat Israel--"love for the Jewish people." In her reply, published in Encounter, she explained that the notion of allegiance to a group--particularly one to which she would be bound by birth--was highly suspicious to her, since it is rooted in self-interest. Her love, Arendt sharply remarked, was reserved for her friends. In her political commitments, she professed a "love of humanity" and not of a distinct people. Scholem and Arendt agreed to publish their exchange, and indeed both letters were printed in a book, but not in Hebrew. Thus, Hebrew-speaking readers only had the opportunity to read Scholem's criticism of a book that was not available to them and, unless they read English, they had no access to the author's response. In Death and the Nation, Zertal presents, for the first time in Hebrew, considerable portions of Arendt's letter to Scholem.

One striking effort of the attorney generalduring Eichmann's trial was to equate the Arabs with the Nazis. This was achieved by inflating the role of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the prominent Palestinian political and religious leader (chairman of the Supreme Muslim Council and the mufti of Jerusalem) in the extermination of the Jews. In 1937, a year after the outbreak of the Arab Revolt, the British tried to arrest Husseini, among other Arab rebels, in the hope of quelling the uprising. Husseini escaped to Fascist Italy and then to Germany, where he offered his services to Hitler. There is no doubt that he saw in Nazi Germany an important ally against Zionism and, in at least one case, he tried to intervene to prevent the rescue of 10,000 Jewish children to Palestine. Husseini probably knew and approved of the Nazi plan to annihilate the Jewish people and hoped to receive a proper position in "liberated Palestine." He helped the Nazis form a collaborationist Muslim brigade in Bosnia, and to broadcast propaganda to the Arab world. However, the argument that he was a chief adviser to the Nazis on the "solution of the Jewish problem"--an argument on prominent display at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Museum--is preposterous. The Germans did not need Husseini's advice and in fact scorned the non-Aryan religious cleric.

Since then, however, "the mufti" has become one of the major assets of pro-Israel propaganda. The argument was and is as follows: The Arabs do not accept the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, therefore they are anti-Semites who want to annihilate all the Jews and to accomplish the Nazi program--the best example being the mufti's alliance with Nazi Germany. This social construction of reality ignores not only the complexity and the fundamentally different basis of the Israeli-Arab conflict but also some inconvenient historical facts. One such fact is that while assisting the Nazis, the mufti lost almost all his influence over the Palestinian Arabs, which he never regained. Another is that during the 1930s and '40s Palestine was the only country in the region (and perhaps in the whole world) where no Nazi party or organization was established. During the 1930s, some Arab, as well as some Jewish, leaders expressed admiration for fascist regimes, but this was before the racist bases of these regimes became clear. It was only much later that Arabs borrowed anti-Semitic literature and motifs from the Europeans and used them in their propaganda.

It's true, of course, that the native Palestinian Arabs, as well as the Arabs of the region, did not like or welcome the European Jews who colonized Palestine. They perceived the Jewish claims of ownership over the land based on a distant and ambiguous past and on some holy scriptures as unjust and ridiculous. They opposed this colonization with all the means at their disposal, sometimes with indiscriminate violence and terror. The confrontation between Arab and Jew in Palestine was a conflict of mutually exclusive interests, much like any other ethno-national conflict. To be sure, there were some racist undertones and expressions on both sides. But it is dangerously misleading to regard the Arab resistance against the Jewish presence and the gradual conquest of the land as an expression of historical anti-Semitism. Ironically, the Zionist effort to "Nazify" the Arabs--a strategy that began in the 1940s--ends up diminishing the extraordinary genocidal crimes committed by Nazi Germany.

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