Book Review: The Portable Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt, one of the more important Jewish thinkers of recent years.

Hannah Arendt, one of the more important Jewish thinkers of recent years.

Hannah Arendt (AD 1906-1975)

I was introduced to this woman some time ago and was impressed by some of her writings. Then recently, I was blinded again by her portable anthology, not being able to purchase all of her writings at the time.

Her most hard hitting texts struck with such power as to represent a lightning bolt. Some of the most powerful exchanges that I have ever read were between herself and a detractor, politely dismissing her as a “philosopher.”

I took my time reading this selected collection of her writings and if any of this is anything to go by, at my next opportunity I will attempt to collect all of her writings. There are a number of reasons why I believe this author has such an appeal to someone such as myself:

  1. she is an immigrant and the child of immigrants.
  2. she suffered racism in school and on the street.
  3. challenges that she faced forced her to re-evalutate herself.
  4. she attempted to join the wider society and integrate, an idea thrust upon her by her family.
  5. upon receiving even more severe racism in spite of trying to integrate, she realised that she had to be who she was and revert to the original model.

These things appeal to me greatly as an immigrant, a child of immigrants and an outsider in every culture that I have lived in so far. The ability of Miss Arendt to articulate her ideas and then argue them cogently, sometimes anticipating opposing arguments and demolishing them as well, is one of the most endearing qualities in a thinker and writer.

Introduction and Unit 1

Despite severe disputes that I have with some of her points, I thoroughly enjoyed reading her selected writings. Let me give a layout of some of them. Her brazen daring in this following statement gains my respect:

“I continue to use my old name. That’s quite common here in America when a woman works, and I have gladly adopted this custom out of conservatism (and also because I wanted my name to identify me as a Jew).” [1]

That is just plain guts. Remember she continued to use her maiden name before entrance into America, at the time she was in Germany.[2] She witnessed Hitler’s coming to power, [3] fought against it politically[4] as well as the fact that she was able to get herself smuggled out of Germany on the run. [5]

That is bravery in the extreme.

Unit 2

In the chapter, The Perplexities of the Rights of Man, [6] she expertly and with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, begins her thesis by stating that human rights are insufficient for a people that have no national identity. [7]

Immediately following this point, she then asserts that the first thing that was done to prepare the Jewish people for extermination was to deprive them of national rights, meaning recognition as a people. There would then be no need to discuss human rights because by depriving them of a national identity and recognition as a people, excluding them from the human family then becomes a perfunctory exercise. [8]

This immediately brought into my mind the Night of the Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) and all the other statutes that were brought to bear against Jews when they were deprived of “peoplehood” in Germany. The same thing happened when Kurdistan was erased from maps and banned in schools in Iraq and Turkey.

The Turkish government this day continue to oppress the hell out of the Kurds as well as Iraq’s government. This would explain why for Kurds, the fight against Saddam and ISIS was and is not just a fight for victory. This is a fight for national survival.

Then you come to notice that they are fighting for a separate homeland. Remember also the Berber uprisings and add to that the Palestinian situation. Then examine the Negro, black and coloured statues in the United States that were incorporated in the 13th-16th Amendments that spelled out a coloration of law and a whiteness in law and then eliminated the people called “blacks” from having a national identify.

Then when you look at the Dred Scott case you understand why the Judge ruled on the documentation, “Plaintiff in Error.” This had nothing to do with racism but the fact that he came into the court room using the name of his master and not any other name that he could have chosen for himself or a national identity.

Seeing that he had the name Scott, which was gifted to him by his mater in the same way that one gifts a surname to their pet when they go to the veterinarian, the case could go no further as property in law has no rights and property cannot own property. Dred was legally invisible in the court, just as in the same way that the chair or bench would be invisible.

(in fact, surnames were brought in to destroy national identities in Europe when people were identified with their tribes. So all the bakers were called Baker. Ask yourself why every baker you meet is not related. Most likely for the same reason that every Smith you meet is unrelated; due to the fact that they were all blacksmiths.

Every one bearing tribal affiliation to the Ala Rasheed and Ala Khalifa is definitely related to me. It’s not a surname, it’s a tribe and family designation. In reality, Arabs have no last names, just tribal designations. This has both positive and negative impact, but just consider the implications of what Miss Arendt has brought to bear in the chapter).

In the Jewish Army – the Beginning of a Jewish Politics? [9] Arendt has to deal with her reservations about a creeping Jewish extremism but at the same time balancing this with the fact that human rights are impossible when you have no national identity.

The next chapter, Jewish and Shlemihl (1771-1791), [10]  is a fictional account prepared by Arendt that summarises her experiences as Jew and also the Jewish experience in the European ghetto. After this came a reply to a critique on the draft on the book that she read from Karl Jaspers. [11]

Units 3 and 4: The Vita Activa and Totalitarianism (respectively)

This entire unit and its chapters[12]  the Jews and Society, Expansion, Total Domination, Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility, A Reply to Eric Voegelin, Labor, Work, Action, The Public and the Private Realm, Reflections on Little Rock, the Social Question, and the Concept of History: Ancient and Modern all underline the following points:

  1. The Jews were a recent and flagship group to see if one could remove a national identity from a people and destroy them publically with little or no interference and do so under the guise of law
  2. Totalitarianism goes through a number of phases.
  3. One of the most well argued essays against integration that I have ever read under the section on Reflections on Little Rock.

She gave an academic feel and strong historical and administrative thrust to an argument that my maternal grandfather made years ago that now has me going back and re-examining his arguments

(I previously had been strongly in favour of an integrated society and gently disputed with my grandfather, but now after reading this and also reconsidering his points, may be inclined to retract this position).

  1. Examination of history is crucial in order to grasp what has occurred, what is occurring and what shall occur.
  2. History leaves tracks and impacts on current trends and sets the stage for the future.

Unit 5: Banality and Conscience: The Eichmann Trial and Its’ Implications  

In this text, Arendt now applies a very controversial tone to the Eichmann trial by Israel. This war criminal from the Nazi era was taken to Israel and tried in court.

In her incredible bravery, she discusses and puts forward her supposition about how Eichmann was not the seething, savage Nazi war beast (people made similar arguments for Albert Speer),

but rather a worker within the system that was not necessarily completely  fervent in his desire of the Final Solution but rather following orders.

Immediately following this is her reservations about casting Eichmann and the Nazis as necessarily “pure evil.”

This again brought home reflections on how Americans cast the 9/11 hijackers after the event. There could be no discussion about mental illness or Salafi missionaries using them.

They had to be completely evil and despicable without question or reflection. She was roundly condemned but as is her method of operation, she just kept right on moving anyway.

This attitude in particular is what gains my respect.

Units 6 and 7: Revolution and Preservation and Of Truth and Traps  

My advice is to grab onto this text any of her other writings and given them a read. Whether or not you agree with it is not the important part.

Rather, the brilliance in the writing should make you think of your position in a different way and either re-inforce it or force you to re-evaluate at the very least if not change it. Always be ready for examination.

There is a reason why I recommend this text. Someone coming outside of Europe and narrowly escaping the Holocaust (Heb. HaShoah) and then emigrating to the United States would justifiably be expected to strongly advocate integration, assimilation and also greater involvement in secular human legal philosophy and the like;

But instead, this woman advocated for national identity, confederacy and national sovereignty and personal autonomy. This is what was done rather than the expected response.

Knowing that this woman was sane should then lead to the question of why would she swung on a pendulum to the other side of the clock rather than going the direction expected of an émigré from one of the great genocides of recent years?

This question cannot satisfactorily be answered by the writer of these words in a book review but can be mulled over and examined by a thorough and sober reading. I invite you to be one of those with the works of Hannah Arendt. Stay focused and always learning.

Al-Hajj Abu Ja`far Al-Hanbali


***NOTE***: I was asked to clarify what I meant regarding the statement that I made with reference to integration and segregation and may shifting opinion on the matter. What I was referring to was my shifting position regarding integration in the United States, rather than discussing the issue of integration among people the world over. The discussions between myself and my maternal grandfather centred solely around the issue of the United States. 

[1] The Portable Hannah Arendt: That “Infinitely Complex Red-tape Existence”: From a Letter to Karl Jaspers, pp. 25-26.

[2] Ibid., pp.vii-xlv; pp.3-24

[3] Ibid., pp.vii-xlv; pp.3-24

[4] Ibid., pp.vii-xlv; pp.3-24

[5] Ibid., pp.vii-xlv; pp.3-24

[6] Ibid., pp.31-45

[7] Ibid., pp.31-36

[8] Ibid., pp.37-42

[9] Ibid., pp.46-48

[10] Ibid., pp.49-67

[11] Ibid., pp.68-72

[12] Ibid., pp.75-278

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