Revising the Eichmann Trial…and Hannah Arendt’s Coverage of It.

ID_UB_CRISP_EICHM_AP_001 Jessa Crispin in The Smart Set:

From the moment Hannah Arendt’s reports on the Eichmann trial started to appear in The New Yorker, the response was deeply divisive. While thought Arendt’s work was the most intelligent writing to come out of the trial, others excoriated Arendt as a self-hating Jew, an anti-Semite, a dupe, an intellectual lightweight. Whatever your opinion of Arendt’s assessment, her reporting, collected together in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, set the tone for how the Eichmann trial would be perceived and discussed for decades. It is still the defining document of the event.

The controversy began because Arendt was deeply skeptical about the trial from the beginning, calling it in book’s first paragraphs “a bloody spectacle.” She saw a man not being put on trial, but being used as an excuse to air grievances against all of Nazi Germany. Witnesses who had absolutely no connection to Eichmann testified for hours about the horrors they had suffered and witnessed — Arendt was sympathetic, mostly, but insisted that such testimony had no place in the court of law. “This case was built around what the Jews had suffered, not on what Adolf Eichmann had done,” she wrote, and she found that deeply dissatisfying, if not unethical. That testimony is why that trial still lives on in our imagination, as it was the first international forum in which the survivors could tell their stories. But Arendt’s dismissal was read as callousness. And for good reason.

Arendt is obviously struggling with her own political beliefs as she sits there: a German Jew, she was formerly pro-Zionist but changed her mind after seeing Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens and neighbors and after listening to the rhetoric on which the nation was founded. As an aside, Arendt mentions a pamphlet published after the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court, a case in which two fathers kidnapped their children from other countries and brought them to Israel. The children were sent back to their mothers, “despite the fact that to send the children back to maternal custody and care would be committing them to waging an unequal struggle against the hostile elements in the Diaspora.” It was this kind of thinking, Arendt argued, that was perhaps understandably defensive given recent history, but also a dangerous foundation on which to build a nation. This disgruntled tone, as she is obviously still not sure what to make of the promise of Israel and her disappointment with the reality, pervades, and led many scholars and critics to accuse her of anti-Semitism — an accusation that is still tossed around today.