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The Jew as pariah: Jewish identity and…

The Jew as pariah: Jewish identity and politics in the modern age (original 1944; edition 1978)

by Hannah Arendt (Author)

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The introduction by Feldman (p. 15-52), "The Jew as Pariah: The Case of Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)", discusses her life and writings, including her views regarding antisemitism in the 19th-20th centuries. Pp. 240-279 contain material on the controversy over Arendt's book "Eichmann in Jerusalem"--Exchanges between her and the scholars Gershom Scholem and Walter Laqueur stating their objections to her views, along with her responses.… (more)
Title:The Jew as pariah: Jewish identity and politics in the modern age
Authors:Hannah Arendt (Author)
Info:Grove Press, Inc (Distributed by Random House) (1978), Edition: 1st Evergreen ed, 288 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age by Hannah Arendt (1944)


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Arendt alludes to the tantalizing but probably ultimately blah and empty promise of a folk-taxonomy of Yiddish shitheads--the schmuck, the schmendrick, the schmeggege, the putz and the yutz and the gonif, the mamzer and meshuggener, the narr and the nebbish and the noodge and the nudnik, pishers groys and kleyn, schnooks and schnorrers, nach a mool nach a mool; but really what she's doing is leaving all those worthies in the folk-tales and street gossip where they belong and zeroing in on their shared essence: the absurd state of the scapegoat or radically excluded.

Imagine one dude tripping on the carpet and spilling his drink in another's lap, forever. In Yiddish the difference between these two guys is the difference between the "schlemiel" and the "schlimazel," and it's in the tension between them that we get away from the no doubt fascinating nuances of taxonomy and into what happens when this dynamic of perpetual stupid pointless undignified petty crisis comes shit-screaming into the anti-semitism of the broader society--whatever particular species of grotesque you were (forced into, no doubt, subjugated as, but not directly by the mainstream society with its threat of contempt and its threat of violence, instead by your own folk) down in the village or the ghetto, you get reduced to schlemiel/schlimazel in whatever admixture, in the familiar mutually dependent way, like the title says, to the Jewish pariah, and as such processed and forced into a dynamic with the Christian "community," that is, you undergo an evolution. And I mean, she chose to pick up the guy spilling his drink into the other guy's lap, in 1944, in the days of deepest horror. She is doing this on purpose; she is not screwing around. Your evolution, be you ghetto Jew or assimilated industrialist or weird mystic (see below), serves, she shows us, as a précis of how anti-semitism functions and self-perpetuates by adjusting its endless slippery self-justifications over time.

So the taxonomy we see instead is a highly charged one, expressed in four phases through four major figures. We have Heinrich Heine, the schlemiehl as mystic innocent, Lord of Dreams: "The bare fact that the sun shines on all alike affords him daily proof that all men are essentially equal. In the presence of such universal things as the sun, music, trees, and children--things which Rahel Varnhagen called "the true realities" just because they are cherished most by those who have no place in the political and social world--the petty dispensations of men which create and maintain inequality must needs appear ridiculous. Confronted with the natural order of things, in wlhichall is equally good, the fabricated order of society, with its manifold classes and ranks, must needs appear a comic, hopeless attempt of creation to throw down the gauntlet to its creator." This is lovely, but it is also the principled attitude only open to the (brave and optimistic) Jewish parvenu: by returning from the denatured "liberal humanity" open to him (as in liberal Germany in the nineteenth century) and insisting on the particularity of his Jewishness, he sets up a kind of feedback loop where his society insists on his universality and characterlessness all the harder, fades him into myth. We love him, but anti-semitism sublimates him.

The next challenge is made by Bernard Lazare, the "Conscious Pariah." The double oppression of the Christian and of the assimilationist Jew, who has absorbed and defeated the challenge of Heine from within, must now struggle with a first assertive Zionism that says that by forgoing the privilege of the Heinean schlemiehl and instead embracing the schlimazel, the matter-of-factly, mundanely oppressed, Jews may find the beginning of a political resistance. (Arendt uses the schnorrer, the beggar, here, as the cautionary alternative: rejecting the dreaming idiot, you become resolutely materialist, meaning you have to either beg from your oppressors or fight back against them. Don't be the schnorrer, even if that means you suffer the slings and arrows as the schlimazel.)

So what does resistance look like? Let us greet Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, here recast as the "little Yid" and enlisted in the Jewish cause although Chaplin himself was formally a gentile), the "Suspect." His "is a world from which neither nature nor art can provide escape and against whose slings and arrows the only armor is one's own wits or the kindness and humanity of casual acquaintances." Out hearts go out to him. He "has a friend everywhere," he is the "idol of the masses," he is "forever falling in love." He is David beating Goliath. Here again is Heine's innocence--Lazare, you were so focused on stockpiling weapons that you overlooked the greatest weapon of all. (Cf. the Übermensch, of course.)

But remember how it was 1944? The ghetto rebellion will fail. The partisan in the woods will fall. And we will move on to our fourth type, Franz Kafka's "Man of Goodwill." This is no super-sensitive hero of Euro-culture: the "Jew appreciating the cathedral" that Heine's type degenerates to is explicitly rejected by Kafka in "Description of a Fight." And he's no man of action or brother in arms, like Lazare or Chaplin: "goodwill" here is the goodwill of the well-wisher, the supporting lead. He is, in fact, K. from The Castle, the one who rarefies the dream of assimilation (impossible, preposterous) into the dream of simple humanity (work, house, children, dangerous because absolutely modest and justified). K. exists in a world where no one has the basic status of human, existing instead on sufferance and under caprices from the Castle. As outcast, he can associate with the Castle if he wishes, and remain a dangerous monster under special protection, a kind of inverse Homo sacer. But he will not choose the hood of the slavering industrialist: he will, he insists, be both normal and free, himself and a threat to no one. Lemme quote at length:

K.'s aspiration, far from being commonplace and obvious, is, in fact, exceptional and magnificent. So long as the village remains under the control of the castle, its inhabitants can be nothing but the passive victims of their respective "fates"; there is no place in it for any man of goodwill who wishes to determine his own existence. The simplest inquiry into right and wrong is regarded as querulous disputations; the character of the regime, the power of the castle,are things whiich may not be questioned. So, when K., thoroughly indignant and outraged, bursts out with the words, "So that's what the officials are like," the whole village trembles as if some vital secret, if not indeed the whole pattern of its life, had-been suddenly betrayed.
Even when he loses the innocence of the pariah, K. does not give up the fight. But unlike the hero of Kafka's last novel, America, he does not start dreaming of a new world and he does not end in a great "Nature Theatre" where "everyone is welcome," where "there is a place for everyone" in accordance with his talents, his bent and his will. On the contrary, K.'s idea seems to be that much could be accomplished, if only one simple man could achieve to live his own life like a normal human being. Accordingly, he remains in the village and tries, in spite of everything, to establish himself under existent conditions. Only for a single brief moment does the old Jewish ideal stir his heart, and he dreams of the lofty freedom of the pariah--the "lord of dreams." But "nothing more senseless," he observes, "nothing more hopeless than this freedom, this waiting, this inviolability." All these things have no purpose and take no account of men's desire to achieve something in the here below, if it be only the sensible direction of their lives. Hence, in the end, he reconciles hiimself readily to the "tyranny of the teacher," takes on "the wretched post" of a school janitor and "does his utmost to get an interview with Klamm"--in a word, he takes his share in the misery and distress of the villagers.

Arendt also quotes Max Brod quoting Kafka after visiting a simple, happy family with many children: ils sont dans le vrai. No parvenu, no pariah, Lord of nothing; all those paths were soon to fail, had failed by the time Arendt was writing. "Social isolation is no longer possible. You cannot stand aloof from society, whether as a schlemihl or as a lord of dreams. The old escape-mechanisms have broken down, and a man can no longer come to terms with a world in which the Jew cannot be a human being either as a parvenu using his elbows or as a pariah voluntarily spurning its gifts. Both the realism of the one and the idealism of the other are today utopian." And that was what made Kafka a Zionist (Arendt, of course, was something considerably more complex, but Kafka's type of Zionism, she makes clear, had been the correct and necessary next step): Israel would be a place where a Jew could be simple and good and right. And if the persecuted Jews could do it, so could all peoples.

It's this progression, this historical dynamism, that makes this essay amazing and fruitful for the praxis (and pedagogy) of resistance. I wouldn't presume to say, resistance on the whole, outside the context of the Jewish experience, but we can all admire it and take inspiration. See how good it is? Isn't it good? ( )
6 vote MeditationesMartini | Oct 14, 2015 |
Essays by noted thinker 1942-66. Subjects: society, the pariah as rebel; zionism and Judaism; Eichman
  Folkshul | Jan 15, 2011 |
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The introduction by Feldman (p. 15-52), "The Jew as Pariah: The Case of Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)", discusses her life and writings, including her views regarding antisemitism in the 19th-20th centuries. Pp. 240-279 contain material on the controversy over Arendt's book "Eichmann in Jerusalem"--Exchanges between her and the scholars Gershom Scholem and Walter Laqueur stating their objections to her views, along with her responses.

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