Hannah Arendt: The Movie and the Myth-Part I

Part I: The Movie

The movie, Hannah Arendt, focuses on the scholar’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem and the public reaction to the articles she wrote about it in The New Yorker and in a subsequent book, Eichmann in JerusalemA Report on the Banality of Evil.  Arendt emerges as a fascinating woman who is completely taken aback by the antagonism her articles and book have aroused in the Jewish community and the subsequent confusion of her non-Jewish colleagues. Even her dear friends in Israel and in the United States react with consternation.

Arendt described Eichmann as representing “the banality of evil,” a phrase that many claimed minimized the horrific instrumentality of Eichmann in the murder of 6,000,000 Jews, men, women and children.  In reply to this accusation, Eichmann claimed at his trial that he was only following orders. This defense, said Arendt, is typical of a faceless bureaucrat and administrator. In her articles and in her book, Arendt blamed the Jewish communal leadership in Europe for facilitating the Nazi transport of Jews to their death.  Without the Jewish leaders’ cooperation, there would have been terrible chaos but more would have escaped and lived. Moreover, she argued there was not sufficient armed resistance on the part of the Jews.

The movie closes with Arendt’s passionate defense of her articles delivered before an audience of students, colleagues and Jewish community leaders in the auditorium of the New School for Social Research in New York where she was teaching. She argued that she was in no way minimizing Eichmann’s crimes.  She too, would have been one of his victims had she not escaped from a French transit camp holding Jews to be sent to death camps in Eastern Europe.  All she was saying was that a new type of passionless evil had emerged in our time typified by Eichmann and discussed in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Part II: The Mystery

Why is this brilliant scholar clueless as to the wider political, social, emotional and spiritual ramifications of her articles and books?  The fact that she hasn’t a clue that what she has written will unleash a tornado of human response is clear in the language she uses.  She describes the Eichmann phenomenon with the term “banality of evil.”  But arranging for the transport and murder of 6,000,000 people is far from banal.  If she had used the term “bureaucratization of evil,” which is a central thesis of The Origins of Totalitarianism, she would have been right on target and possibly avoided a storm of controversy. 

Much has been written about Arendt’s dislike of modern political Zionism and the movie alludes to it.  In a blistering article in Commentary, “The Lies of Hannah Arendt,” Sol Stern elaborates on Arendt’s antipathy to an independent Jewish state.  In describing the Eichmann trial proceedings in the movie, she is critical of Gideon Hausner’s dramatic prosecution of Eichmann, and she is cynical about David Ben Gurion’s motives in staging the show trial.  After the publication of her articles and book, her dear friend in Jerusalem asks her: “Hannah don’t you have any love for your people?” To which she replies: “I do not love people. I love dear friends and family.” And she does, as movingly dramatized in the movie.

Part II …

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About Rabbi Joseph Schultz, PhD

Dr. Joseph Schultz served as Rabbi for congregations in Brookline, MA, Norwich, CT and Cambridge, MA. Dr. Schultz founded the Jewish Studies Program at Boston University where he was Assistant Professor of Religion and at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where he was Oppenstein Brothers Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies. He helped establish the Center for Religious Studies in 1996, a consortium of six colleges, theological schools and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, offering an interdisciplinary graduate program for the PhD in Religious Studies. Dr. Schultz was its first director.

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