The Fog of “Evil”: The Political Use of World War II in the Ongoing War on Terror

[Ed. Note: Dagmar Barnouw died without being able to revise this article for publication. Her husband Jeffrey Barnouw kindly offered to undertake the revisions we requested, for which we are most grateful to him. He wrote the following prefatory note at our invitation.]

Dagmar Barnouw was born in Berlin in March 1936. She lived through the bombing of Dresden and, as a refugee with her mother and three younger siblings, resettled in a series of villages near Nuremberg. She first came to the United States in 1962 as a Fulbright Teaching Fellow at Stanford. She was married in 1964 to Jeffrey Barnouw and returned with him for graduate study at Yale (Ph.D. 1968). Their son Benjamin Barnouw was born in 1967. Because of years ‘lost’ in litigation with the University of California at San Diego, her first tenure-track teaching position was as Associate Professor at Purdue in 1977. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accused UCSD of gender bias, and her case, successfully settled out of court, contributed decisively to a measure passed by the California state legislature increasing UC employees’ access to their personnel files. She received tenure at Brown University in 1979 and subsequently taught at the University of Texas at Austin and, from 1985 until her death in 2008, at the University of Southern California.

This essay was the last Dagmar Barnouw wrote. In recent years the interrelation of World War II and the Holocaust with the incursions, wars and occupations engaged in by the United States and Israel in the Middle East became a major preoccupation for her. She saw that the “clean and just,” morally certified and victorious WWII was invoked again and again to make war all too acceptable as a recourse and to justify present actions that were in her eyes criminal.

The different elements of this essay come together and cohere because they were for her all part of her own historical perspective, rooted in her early experiences of war and displacement as a child in Germany. Her 1996 book, Germany 1945: Views of War and Violence (pb 2008), which won the Award for Best Critical Photographic Study given by the Maine Photographic Workshop, was written as much as possible from the vantage point of the historian and the American she had become. Her final book, The War in the Empty Air: Victims, Perpetrators, and Postwar Germans (2005, pb 2008) drew more overtly on her childhood experiences. In 2007 she wrote two short stories reflecting both her life as a refugee in a backward (“mediaeval”) Bavarian village and her understanding of how memory works (and doesn’t). The stories are being published in the German Quarterly. She dealt with the elements of the present essay in eight contributions written for the website HNN, History News Network, from late 2005 through 2006, and was hoping to develop them into a book. The book she said she most enjoyed writing was her 2003 Naipaul’s Strangers, which deals largely with Naipaul’s understanding of Islam and how it is developed and presented in his writings, so that it was tangentially rather than directly related to the complex of issues in the present essay. She wanted her work to get beyond this tangle, but it drew her back irresistibly.
Jeffrey Barnouw

A powerfully politicized memory of the absolute victory in World War II over the “Evil” of fascism has made it easier for the seemingly invincible United States to get involved in mindlessly destructive wars and war-like interventions around the world and to condone and support Israel’s oppressive politics in the Middle East. The date 9/11 seems determined to “live in infamy” and was immediately used by the unpopular Bush Administration seeking to expand the power of the presidency, as a religious-political reference to the victims of 9/11 as sacrificial victims of unspeakable terrorist “Evil.” Moreover, American vulnerability associated with “9/11” has connected it with the victims of the Holocaust, of unspeakable Nazi “Evil.” To the detriment of democratic legality and transparency in the US, presumed terrorists are seen as a priori guilty, unimaginably wicked “bad guys” in the parlance of the Bush administration: Arab “Evil” well beyond the reach of American democratic concepts of legal justice and human rights.1

Justifications of the preemptive invasion in Iraq and advocacy of extending the “global war on terror” into Iran have explicitly invoked the American victory over fascism in World War II. Urged on by Israel, the Bush Administration wants to achieve the final “unconditional surrender” of the “Islamo-fascist” “Axis of Evil” to the Good American and Israeli democracies in order to avoid the “imminent danger of a Third World War.” As in the case of its predecessor, it would be a global battle between Good and Evil; and this time, so go the dark warnings, there might not be an Allied victory unless America and Israel get their way.2

There is another way, prefigured in the ‘path not taken’ that was clearly envisaged by earlier critics of Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians. These critics already sensed the liabilities of a politics of linking “Arab Evil” and “Nazi Evil.” Beginning with an account of Hannah Arendt’s critique of the Eichmann trial which relates it to the trial of Saddam Hussein, and then drawing out parallels between the response to Arendt’s critique and reactions to the recent analyses of Israeli policies and lobbying by Jimmy Carter and by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, this essay will trace the course of these opposing approaches. But first we need to understand the historical context of the Eichmann trial and Arendt’s critical evaluation.

In the early Sixties, David Ben-Gurion conceived Eichmann’s abduction, trial and execution in Jerusalem as a powerful “spectacle” that would demonstrate to the world the Jewish state’s renewed unique claim to power by drawing on the re-energized memory of unique victimization by the Nazi Regime and of Israel’s unique need for absolute security in the Middle East.3 The success of Eichmann’s show-trial silenced earlier reservations about Jewish statehood at that time and in that area, among them notably the arguments of Judah L. Magnes and Hannah Arendt in the late Forties against the foundation of a state built on the memory of extreme persecution and the divine promise of a forever secure homeland in Palestine. Sixty years ago, and with uncanny precision, both had already foreseen many of the serious and enduring problems caused by an exclusively Jewish state demanding special accommodation of a uniquely traumatic Jewish history in this multi-ethnic, volatile, and politically vital region.

Arendt, a German-Jewish political essayist and refugee from the Hitler regime, and Magnes, the first Chancellor of Hebrew University in Jerusalem who in his 1925 inaugural lecture had called for Arab-Jewish reconciliation, were deeply apprehensive about the future of a Jewish state in Palestine built on the certainty that the people without land had a divine right to the “land without people.” They also feared that the Holocaust as “foundation myth” might preclude that state’s willingness to share with other nations an open-ended, unpredictable future shaped by accidents and contingencies, by concessions, compromises, and responsibilities. The two pillars of Holocaust remembrance, “lest we forget” and “never again,” would ensure that this new political entity would remain “forever” the exclusively Jewish State of 1948 in a place and time of rapid social and political changes, and the threats and promises associated with them.

From 1946 to 1948 Magnes and Arendt collaborated on speeches and articles against an exclusively Jewish state and for a binational state in Palestine based on the proposal made by Brit Shalom in 1925 advocating equal rights for Jews and Arabs. The proposal was promptly discarded by Zionists in Palestine and in the US as lacking in national feeling, but Magnes’s Ihud (unity) Party founded in 1942 would resuscitate it. The 1946 “Testimony before the Anglo-American Inquiry Commission for the lhud Association” clarified its political goals and influenced Arendt’s critique of important aspects of political Zionism, notably its apolitical and ahistorical emphasis on Jewish uniqueness.4

In his booklet Like All the Nations? (1930), Magnes had emphasized the importance of Jewish-Arab participation “in the government of their common Homeland”: conflict resolution could only be found in political, not in military action. “Jewish conscience,” he wrote, must realize “that the inhabitants of this country, both Arabs and Jews, have not only the right but the duty to participate, in equitable and practical ways, in the government of their common Homeland.” In this context he singled out the political sphere as the focus for solutions: “The life of this unhappy country will be much saner and much less hysterical the sooner its population can exercise its political energies in legitimate and practical and constructive ways.5

Like Arendt, Magnes did not believe in Jewish uniqueness. There were historical reasons for the separateness of the Jewish people that made it imperative to now learn how to live in the comity of other peoples. Both were fully aware of the need to negotiate a compromise between unlimited fears and desires and limited resources and reassurances. Both understood that this process needed to be supported by the coming together of adult people as political agents who, as they came together in the political sphere, were seen and saw each other as equals. Magnes’ answer to the question, “Like all the nations?” was an emphatic “yes.” Eighty years later, his rational, thoughtful voice needs to be heard and heeded in Palestine and, for that matter, America. Magnes is practically unknown today and yet his timely and sensible arguments, strikingly different from Israel’s unilateral status quo politics in the Middle East, would be very helpful now, especially given the inability of the US to control its “best friend” and client state.6 In both cases, devaluation and demonization of perceived enemies – the fog of “Evil” – has proved highly detrimental to almost all attempts at honest negotiation between different interest groups in the Middle East.

Hussein and Eichmann: Devaluation and Demonization

One of the many problems of Saddam Hussein ‘s show trial and rushed execution on December 30, 2006 was the combined humiliation and demonization of the defendant that arguably contributed to the rise of sectarian violence in the Middle East.7 It should not have come as a surprise: The political rhetoric of the second Bush administration, trying to sell the American public a “war on terror” in oil-rich Iraq, had relied heavily on the “Evil of Saddam Hussein” as a potent extension of “Nazi Evil,” the enduring gold standard for existential wickedness. Over and over again, we were reminded that this “unspeakable Evil” threatened our very existence, evidence or no evidence of WMDs. During the first Gulf War, the older Bush had complained that Hussein was worse than Hitler and, fearing a hellish mess and minding his relatively sober advisers (now re-united in the Hamilton-Baker Iraq Study Group), refrained from invading Baghdad. The comparison irritated Jewish-American leaders for whom Hitler could not but be absolute “Evil” trumping Hussein. But in contrast to his “faith-based” son, the pragmatic father had referred to Hussein’s particular evil acts of aggression in a particular historical situation.

To go after something as abstract and (therefore) incendiary as “Evil” did not suit the older Bush’s in hindsight not so bad Realpolitik. It did suit his son’s millennial determination to create a new Middle East in the image of his administration’s fundamentalism – no matter that American democracy would greatly suffer in the process. The political rhetoric of the capture and trial of Saddam Hussein as incarnation of Arab “Evil” fudged the distinction between evil acts and “Evil,” as had the capture and trial of Eichmann as incarnation of “Nazi Evil” half a century earlier. Hannah Arendt’s term “banality of evil,” the provocative subtitle of her report on that trial for the New Yorker, had pointed precisely to this problem. She might have agreed with Hussein’s punishment – death by hanging – but would have had reservations about the trial’s success in documenting and defining the defendant’s guilt – as she had in the case of the Eichmann trial. Like Hussein’s trial, its emotionally powerful political rhetoric of “Evil” detracted from the much needed sober, rational analysis of the entangled political and moral questions posed by the evil acts, the crimes committed under National Socialist rule. Whether she was or was not aware at the time that Ben-Gurion’s concept of Eichmann’s show trial had drawn on explicit comparisons between Nazi and Arab “Evil,” the connection might not have seemed important to her then. But it has been “natural” to the Bush Administration’s desire to legitimize its religious-political agenda in the Middle East.

Like many European exiled intellectuals, Arendt admired what she saw as her new country’s political modernity, namely that different cultural and religious traditions did not have to mean different social values and political divisiveness. And yet, Eichmann in Jerusalem, the book Americans today associate most with her name, caused a storm of furious objections, distortions and defamation in the early Sixties – in their bitter, often irrational divisiveness very much like the attacks on Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace not Apartheid in the winter of 2006/07. Almost half a century later, like Carter and in certain important aspects for similar reasons, Arendt is still persona non grata for many American Jews and Israelis. In the eyes of their detractors, both have disrespected Israel’s foundational identity in the Holocaust and its memory, and thereby existentially threatened Jewish identity.8

The parallels here between the Hussein and Eichmann trials and between the attacks on Carter and on Arendt are as striking as they are troubling, because they point to the problematic moral-political power of Holocaust memory in postwar American culture beginning with the re-energized legitimation of a Jewish state in Palestine by the Eichmann trial – Israel’s Holocaust. Arendt’s term “banality of evil” has lived on in common discourse and over the decades lost much of its original power to provoke intense emotions. There were several reasons for her to use it and one of them, in her role as reporter, was its shock value in engaging her readers’ attention.9 More importantly, she also wanted to find a way to deal intellectually with the obscurities of the concept of Evil that for her were the central problem of Eichmann’s show trial. A decade earlier, the phenomenon of totalitarianism had appeared to her “radically evil.” Now her report on Eichmann’s trial analyzed a particular Nazi criminal’s guilt in political and psychological terms and found the “banality of evil.”10 Her earlier statement may or may not have meant to invoke the metaphysical dimension of “Evil,” but in another time and another context, she thought that the concept of Evil with its concomitant generalization and demonization of particular crimes and criminals should not have influenced the trial, much less dominated it.

No matter how horrible Hussein’s and Eichmann’s acts had been, the actors were mere mortals who, once stripped of their power, were easily disposable and eliminated by the new people in power. In contrast to the largely unifying and positively received Eichmann trial, Hussein’s trial was much criticized and divisive, since the reasons for the US invasion of Iraq had been so muddled and the legitimacy of the court that sentenced him so obviously questionable. It is true, Arendt and other contemporary observers thought the same of the court that sentenced Eichmann in Jerusalem, but they were clearly in a minority. In Hussein’s case, the US-controlled court was under pressure to honor the American president’s declared conviction that Hussein’s execution would stabilize the new Iraq since it could not but demonstrate the absolute victory of Good, American-style democracy, over Evil, Hussein’s Arab-style “totalitarian” rule.11 New regimes, especially after radical power change, have historically demonstrated their legitimacy by public humiliation and then execution of their old opponents. Hussein’s trial took that demonstration to another level by presenting him as a both utterly contemptible – something pulled out of a “spider hole” – and enduringly dangerous incarnation of “Arab Evil.”

Arendt found and criticized the same combination of devaluation and demonization in the concept and strategies of the Eichmann trial: the despicable, less-than-human defendant who was also an allegorical figure standing for super-human, trans-historical, incomprehensible “Nazi Evil.” Meant to re-affirm the legitimacy of Jewish statehood, Eichmann’s globally broadcast political show-trial was focused exclusively on absolutely unique Jewish suffering and the absolute “Evil” of anti-Semitism. As it was summed up in a 1966 B’ nai B’rith-sponsored study, “by recalling the barbaric mass murders engineered by Eichmann and his associates, the trial would recall to the world the demonic nature of Nazism in particular and anti-Semitism in general.”12 Invoking the power of “demonic” Nazi Evil in the stories of its victims enacted on the stage of the world, the trial showed Jewish suffering: Eichmann’s, the Nazi regime’s guilt was the persecution of the Jewish people. There was no need for Eichmann’s trial to develop a more inclusive and differentiating historical perspective on the Nazi regime and Eichmann’s role in it. “Nazi Evil” covered all of it, as would Hussein’s “Arab Evil” as an extension of “Nazi Evil” in his trial.

Arendt’s perspective on “Nazi Evil” was universalist: Jews were not the only group to have suffered persecution; among other groups, very large numbers of non-Jewish political opponents, communists and socialists, died in the camps. Her position was also secularist: the religious concept of Evil had no room, was actually harmful in modern political contexts. Yet, as Arendt learned from her readers’ violent objections to her arguments, many of them believed in a profound mystery of “Nazi Evil” where it concerned the mass murder of Jews. She thought that Eichmann, the “common man and uncommon murderer,” had to hang because of his “crimes against humanity,” not only against Jews. Though they died in disproportionately large numbers, Jews were one persecuted group among others and shared their history with others. However, the broad international interest in the Eichmann trial, its success as performance of Jewish suffering, was arguably due to its focus on a unique, supra-historical Jewish catastrophe that would expand the semi-religious power of the Holocaust in postwar political culture. It also would detract attention from the larger common horrors for civilians and soldiers of the catastrophe of W.W.II.

Invocations of W.W.II as the “good, just war we won” against absolute “Nazi Evil” have been used to justify unjustifiable US and Israeli wars and war-like interventions in the postwar era, most recently in Iraq and Lebanon. They have also encouraged Israel’s increasingly brutal occupation of large parts of Palestine and the active and passive US support of it over many decades. Often illegal in the terms of international law and then criminal territorial aggression, Israel’s conduct in this politically sensitive area has contributed greatly to the enormous problems of the Middle East.13 Israelis and pro-Israel American Jews have tended to deny this connection and for many of them invocations of a politicized and religionized Holocaust seem to have worked like a charm against rationally irrefutable evidence, the controversy over Carter’s book being a good case in point.14

Eichmann’s trial before an Israeli instead of an international court dramatically changed the self-perception of Jews in Israel. It also had a profound influence on American Jews whose brand of political Zionism Arendt had sharply criticized in her essays written in the Forties against the foundation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Concerned about his historical legacy, the old Ben-Gurion had pushed for Eichmann’s capture and conceived his trial in Jerusalem as a means to build a new national consciousness through a radically re-directed memory of Nazi persecution of Jews. In Ben-Gurion’s scenario, the Jewish state’s legitimate sovereignty and power affirmed by Eichmann’s capture, trial, and execution would transform Jewish weakness into Jewish strength, Jewish impotence into Jewish power, Jewish defeat into Jewish victory: “Only the Jewish state can now defend Jewish blood,” said an Israeli editorial right after Ben-Gurion’s announcement in the Knesset on May 23, 1960 that Eichmann had been captured and would be tried in Israel.15 This trial would redefine the meanings of an ongoing, millennia-old persecution of Jews of which Nazi mass killings were just the most recent event. Indeed, “the Holocaust, along with its victims, was not to be remembered for itself but rather as a metaphor, a terrible, sublime lesson to Israeli youth and the world that Jewish blood would never be abandoned or defenseless again.”16

Ben-Gurion’s conceptual design of Eichmann’s show-trial confirmed the messianic dimension of his political self-image reflected in the Jewish state. To stage the trial, the Chief Prosecutor Gideon Hausner had chosen a large number of witnesses on the basis of their written testimonies and his subsequent interviews with them. His goal was to derive the dramatic structure of Eichmann’s trial exclusively from their stories rather than the extensive collection of Nazi documents gathered by the Israeli police. In his view, the extreme experience of “the Holocaust” could only become real for the millions of readers, listeners and viewers of the trial, if a large number of carefully coached survivors testified in person and thereby individualized the uniqueness of unimaginably, unspeakably cruel persecution.

In the cumulative acts of individual recitation, however, these stories would not draw on collective memories “refreshed,” as Hausner had hoped, by the witnesses’ recorded testimonies. Rather, the emotions released by the recitations overpowered the witnesses to the point where they literally became their stories of extreme suffering – an identification that exploded the elaborate choreography of the trial. Screaming with the recalled pain, fainting from the remembered terror, the performance of their past persecution collapsed all temporal and spatial distance between the narrator and the narrated. It in fact erased the historicity of their experiences of persecution, namely the complex relational historical reality underlying the Nazi crimes.17

Israel’s Holocaust – Israel’s Security

Ben-Gurion and Hausner were not so much interested in the historical reality of Nazi persecutions as in harnessing the politicized emotional power of their public memory discourses. Hausner might have been dismayed at first that his elaborate strategy for handling the witnesses’ testimonies had not worked as planned. He might not have wanted his audiences to witness this seemingly uncontrollable emotional engulfing in selective individual reenactments of past persecutions that in historical reality had been shared with many others, Jews and non-Jews. However, Hausner’s strategy had never been intended to represent the suffering of the Nazis’ victims by showing and thereby relating different witnesses’ different past experiences. That would have required the sober, rational interrogation protocols that Arendt and other critical observers of the trial had found sorely missing. Yet, their well founded critique did not sufficiently address the fact that the point of the trial was precisely the seemingly spontaneous erasure of such rational contextual historical inquiry that communicated to “the whole world” the supra-historical reality of indescribable, unspeakable, incredible Jewish suffering and “Nazi Evil.” What the world saw, heard, visualized and visceralized watching this trial could not but mean the uniqueness, and then unique significance, of the Jewish experience through the ages. It called for a supra-historical status of the survivor-as-witness and a near-religious postwar hierarchy of victimization and innocence: the Jewish Holocaust as a Manichean divide between Good and Evil.

A few days before the trial began, Ben-Gurion stated that he was not interested in the person of Eichmann but in the “spectacle” of his trial.18 Demonstrating Jewish victory, it would not only redeem the Jewish history of unique victimization but also establish the political power of an, as it were, consecrated Holocaust memory that would prove highly useful in the Israeli-Arab conflict. After the proclamation on April 17, 1963 of an Arab Federation signed by Egypt, Syria and Iraq demanding the “liberation of Palestine,” Ben-Gurion warned the American president that such liberation was “impossible without the total destruction of the people in Israel.” He reminded Kennedy that the Holocaust was “unequalled in human history…. Six million Jews in all the countries under Nazi occupation, men and women, old and young, infants and babies, were burned, strangled, buried alive.”19 And “Nazi Evil” was alive and well. In a 1960 interview, Ben-Gurion had mentioned “Egypt, where many Nazis are hiding. When I listen to the speeches of the Egyptian president on world Jewry controlling America and the West, it seems to me that Hitler is talking.”20

Israel needed and therefore deserved the Bomb; its very vulnerability was also its strength. As Ben-Gurion told Kennedy: “the people of Israel are not in the hapless situation of the six million defenseless Jews who were wiped out by Nazi Germany.” Threatened by Nazi and Arab “Evil,” Israel would take care of its own, no matter how high the “collateral damage” to others. Almost half a century later, Israel’s Prime Minister would be asked by a German journalist why he had involved his people in a bloody war when he had just promised them peace and prosperity. Ehud Olmert said Hezbollah terrorism had “forced a war on Israel.” His intentions when he took office, he said, had been “to further the peace process and not to prosecute war”: “Everybody knows that the war started with a border violation by Hezbollah, their kidnapping of two soldiers and bombarding Israel with rockets.”21

Already then, the beginning of Israel’s 2006 “summer war,” the “disproportionate reaction” to common minor border disputes with highly destructive air raids on Lebanon, appeared shrouded in the mists of politicized historical memory: Who had provoked whom? Who had or would have had the power to determine the provocation? How urgent was the issue of Israel’s security after a month of bombing Lebanon granted by the indulgent US in several installments of “one more week or so”? Why has there been so little discussion of the international legal aspects of Israel’s preemptive strike? During the air raids? In the aftermath of Lebanon’s destruction? And why would the richly documented destruction wrought by that “summer war” have so little influence on the reactions of Jewish and Christian American Zionists to Carter’s critique of Israel’s conduct in the Middle East? And, more puzzling, the reactions of non-Jewish Democratic politicians?22

In early August 2006, Israel felt victimized by its enemies and misunderstood, forsaken by the world; in Olmert’s words, it “needed the help of its few remaining friends, notably Germany, to defend itself.” It would make him “happy” to see Germany “protect Israel’s security” by sending peace keepers (at that point a particularly rare commodity) to Lebanon; and it would be a “particularly meaningful” task for the Germans – a firm reminder that the Germans, still trying to live down “Nazi Evil,” had better step up to the plate.23 Olmert also ridiculed Hezbollah’s recent offer of a cease-fire for humanitarian reasons, rejecting it as just a reflection of their “desperate situation”: “Hezbollah is no longer a threat for us. We have never begged for compassion or a cease-fire but said: To hell with you! We will take the hardest measures against you.” In the winter of 2006/2007, beset by investigations into the prosecution of the “summer war” and sordid political scandals, Olmert acknowledged: “This is a sad day for the State of Israel.” He was speaking at a security conference dedicated to Israel’s need to fight Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But blaming the UN, world leaders and an international public for not having made this threat to Israel’s security their primary concern, Olmert also asserted Israel’s superior strength: “No force in the world can destroy us – and there will never be…. We refuse to be dragged into an atmosphere of collective self-induced fear.”24

It was the argument of the power of impotence that Ben-Gurion had made so successfully 45 years ago: unique Jewish victimization and therefore Israel’s special security needs would have to trump all other concerns the world might have at any given time. Built on the foundation of Holocaust memory discourses and the threat of Arab Evil, Israel could not but get the Bomb; and “no force in the world” could get Israel to talk to and deal honestly with the Palestinians. After Hamas’s unexpected victory in a democratic election on January 25, 2006, the New York Times reported that “an urgent debate” “erupted over whether Hamas will be able to modify its positions once in power, disavow violence and terrorism and come to recognize the existence of the state of Israel.” Instructively, there was no discussion of whether Hamas, having kept its promise to refrain from violence and acts of terrorism, could politically and morally afford to “recognize” the existence of an Israel they knew only by its oppressive occupation. Instead, as the report continued, “Israel, Europe and the United States say they will not have dealings with Hamas until it does so.”25

Israel’s aggressive unilateralism over many decades in its US-supported treatment of the Palestinians should have been the strongest argument for European engagement in mutual “dealings” with Hamas. This would have been the perfect time for negotiations which would reflect both the history of Israel’s enduring occupational presence in Palestine and Hamas’s new large, and more moderate constituencies; and there were indications that Hamas would have welcomed it. Instead, the official Israeli message was that even statements by Hamas about a “willingness to disarm or to stop attacks on Israel and Israelis, or to make a distinction between Israeli soldiers and civilians, especially settlers living on occupied land, however defined… would not be enough, and that Israel would not deal with an Authority dominated by Hamas…. The international community should help ensure that Hamas is isolated (my italics), not try to compromise with Hamas, but try to ensure that Palestinian support for it declines” (ibid.).

Israel’s isolation strategy would work brilliantly. Interrupting European aid and withholding moneys owed to Palestine, Israel simply bankrupted the new government thereby creating a serious humanitarian crisis. As expected, unable to pay for many months Hamas was unable to go on providing for its needy constituencies the housing, schools, hospitals that ensured a modicum of civilized order – the substance of its authority. Weakening Hamas to such a degree and intensifying the chaos in Palestine would result in Palestinians killing each other. The Israeli government would have viewed that as “good for the Jews,” continuing an old minority habit of focusing exclusively on what is good for one’s own group which, in this case, also meant “never trust the Arabs.”

Judah L. Magnes had argued against this politically disastrous position already in his 1925 inaugural lecture as the first Chancellor of Hebrew University; but Sharon would make the wisdom of not trusting the Arabs an overriding military policy.26 The coincidence of Sharon’s exit from and Hamas’s arrival in the political arena of the Middle East was a new challenge for the international community. Palestinian support for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah will remain strong despite their isolation and demonization, as long as the lives of ordinary people in this area are not improved. In the current situation that would require a greater openness rather than exclusiveness in Israel’s – America’s, Europe’s – dealings with them.

As long as they lasted, Israel’s irrationally “disproportionate” air raids on Lebanon provoked criticism and disbelief in America and Europe. Even the German reactions, usually muted because of Germany’s extra-“special” relationship with Israel, were uncharacteristically direct. The title of Spiegel’s interview with Dan Diner, “Deshalb spielt Israel verruckt” (July 17, 2006) is a quote from his argument that Israel “acts as if it had gone crazy.” A historian of anti-Semitism, Diner explains Israel’s seemingly verrückt but calculated strategy in terms of its anxiety over withdrawing from occupied territory to the old borders before the 1967 war and keeping them absolutely secure, no matter the cost to other countries and other people.

Diner translated the message of Israel’s verruckte air raids on Lebanon to the rational, hostile gentile world: “Don’t mess with us!” His comment was that Israel does what it wants to do, no matter what, since what it wants to do is what it has to do – in his scenario a perfectly plausible conduct. He could rely on the fact that “the Germans” are known for their tolerance of this kind of argumentation if it concerns Jews or the Jewish state. Fear of war and bombs is deeply imbedded in the German “collective psyche” but not as deeply as the fear of accusations of anti-Semitism, no matter how irrational. For many decades now, life in Germany has been controlled by a host of increasingly peculiar rules guarding the purity of German anti-anti-Semitism.27 Arguably, it might have been better for Israel and the rest of the world if there had been a more inclusive and coherent European resistance to Israel’s often unreasonable and therefore dangerous security demands and decisions.28

In the absence of such resistance, it was not surprising that after Israel’s air raids ended and the media turned to other topics, there was practically no public criticism of Israel’s “crazy” conduct. One of the reasons for this troubling acquiescence has been the long history of Israel’s violations of international law made possible by its US-supported special status in the UN – an organization that reflects a more than six-decades-old political status quo, the unconditional Allied victory in 1945. In this situation, Israel has had no incentives to learn to trust “the Arabs” to the extent of dealing with them as political equals. The US acceptance over many decades of Israel’s politics of unenlightened self-interest in the highly volatile Middle East is the best proof of the Eichmann trial’s most important and problematic political achievement: to make the Holocaust a powerful political tool in the Israeli-Arab conflict by “demonizing” the Arabs and their leaders. Ben-Gurion’s useful “insight” that Nazi criminality was synonymous with Arab criminality made it possible to simultaneously mobilize the politics of “Nazi Evil” (Jewish victimization) and of “Arab Evil” (Israel’s fight for existence) in the defense of Israel’s politics of domination in Palestine and, desirably, the whole Middle East.

The Politics of “Good and Evil”

The events of September 11, 2001 convinced the American President that his divinely approved mission was to stamp out the unspeakable “Evil” of Saddam Hussein and retroactively Hitler by preaching the Evangelium of his administration’s democracy. He simply believed that Hussein’s WMDs existed because they represented “Evil” and he knew all about “Evil.” Consequently, and against their constituencies’ better instincts, the Democrats let him bomb Iraq. On the first day of his first trip abroad, after the premature “fall” of Baghdad in May 2003, Bush visited Auschwitz where he found Nazi gas chambers a “sobering reminder of Evil and the need for people to resist Evil.” On the last day of this trip, he praised the jubilant soldiers in Quatar for their successful invasion of Iraq: “Because of you a great Evil has been ended.”29 References to the hallowed invasion/liberation mission of their grandfathers fighting their way into Germany to stamp out “Nazi Evil” have become a staple of official pronouncements on the war in Iraq. But the young men and women, high on victory and low on history, would end up paying with their limbs and lives for the explosive ideological division between the pure Good of the American mission and the pure “Evil” of Saddam Hussein and all other “bad guys”: somehow they all fit the rhetorically revived threat of “totalitarianism” alias “Islamo-fascism.”

Accelerating technocratic globalization has made the world much more complicated than it was at the time of the Eichmann trial and, if anything, it increased the desire to believe in the simplicities of “Good and Evil.” Arendt’s Report on the Banality of Evil is still relevant today, almost half a century later, because her arguments and the reactions to them demonstrate so clearly the importance and the difficulties of combating religious-political uses of “Evil.” As she told her friend Mary McCarthy, she had not set out to analyze and define “Evil” but rather to describe the “phenomenon” of the mass-murderer Eichmann’s ordinariness from which she drew the general conclusion of the banality of evil. The violent attacks on her critique of the trial, she explained, had “absolutely nothing to do with criticisms or polemics in the normal sense of the word. It is a political campaign…. The criticism is directed at an “image” and this image has been substituted for the book I wrote.”30

The same can be said about many of the harsh accusations made in 2006 by American Zionists, Jewish and Christian, against Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid; and in 2007 against John Mearsheimer’s and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. But both Jewish and non-Jewish readers have found their growing dissatisfaction with US unconditional support of Israel’s destructive politics in the Middle East rationally discussed and elucidated in these two books. The public divide of their reception was more along the line between the Zionist Jewish establishment and a multi-ethnic audience of general educated readers – even more clearly in the case of The Israel Lobby for which this audience had been, as it were, prepared by Carter’s Palestine.31

Arendt’s critics demanded that she show loving solidarity with her people in embracing the truth and mystery of fated Jewish suffering, that is, they a priori rejected any rational, relatively objective analysis of the trial. More politically ambitious, current critics of Carter’s, and Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s arguments demand an enduring, unquestioned American moral obligation to Israel. They also reject all critical analysis of Israel’s politics and the activities of the Israel Lobby as “anti-Semitic canard,” often synonymous with summary accusations of Holocaust denial. Responding to the overwhelmingly hostile reviews to Arendt’s critique of the Eichmann trial, Mary McCarthy’s review “The Hue and Cry” pointed out the sharp Jewish and Gentile divide among Arendt’s readers. Arendt’s intellectual achievement in her analysis of Eichmann’s sensationalist political show-trial was for her friend “morally exhilarating”: “The reader ‘rose above’ the terrible material of the trial or was borne aloft to survey it with his intelligence.”32 However, the goal of the trial had been the opposite, namely to engulf readers or viewers in these “terrible materials” so that they would completely identify with the witnesses who had become their stories of unspeakable horror. The defendant’s death sentence would be clear from the beginning because an overwhelmingly powerful “Nazi Evil” was there for all to see and hear in the witnesses’ true stories: it would leave no room for critical questions.

Arendt shared McCarthy’s belief in the power of intelligence – the writer’s and the readers’ – and she was clearly excited about solving what seemed to her the intellectual “puzzle of Eichmann.”33 “Built on what the Jews had suffered, not what Eichmann had done,” the trial had been in her view a complete failure, because Jews did not see the historical catastrophe of Nazi persecution as a recent “unprecedented crime of genocide” but as “the oldest crime they knew and remembered.”34 They never “understood” the “actual horror of Auschwitz” which she saw as different from “all the atrocities of the past,” and which left her with the crucial question: “what kind of a man was the accused and to what extent can our legal system take care of these new criminals who are not ordinary criminals?”35 An international court might have recognized this conundrum. But Ben-Gurion’s desire to indict Eichmann exclusively for crimes against the Jewish people (the motivation for his abduction) and unconditional rejection of an international court had made this issue moot.

In preparation for the Nuremberg trials, Telford Taylor had introduced the terms “atrocities” and “crimes against humanity” for the “unprecedented crime of genocide.” The distinction between “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” was not clearly drawn at the Nuremberg trials because of the nature of that particular war, of the way it was fought on the Eastern front, and of the regime that had fought it. In addition, the extraordinary nature of the “war crimes” and of the “crimes against humanity” had been politically pre-established rather than legally established during the trials. The Nuremberg trials have served for six decades as the international gold standard for the trial of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” and as such they have also been invoked by critics of Hussein’s trial. Yet they themselves have had their fair share of criticism regarding political independence, impartiality and legal procedures. In general, use of the rather unclear but powerfully evocative terms “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” has contributed to a reintroduction, at least metaphorically, of the religious concept of Evil into modern secular legal procedures where they concern truly bad, evil deeds like Eichmann’s or Hussein’s. Looming larger than life, these terms could suggest some unspeakably, mysteriously different wickedness that tends to obscure the historical context in which a specific crime was committed by a specific perpetrator, individual or group.

This had not been Taylor’s intention: his formulations were meant to point to the unfamiliar, new kind and scope of Nazi criminality and the difficulties of analyzing it. Arendt might have had this in mind when she set against the exclusively Jewish focus of the Eichmann trial, and the “demonic nature” of Nazi criminality and anti-Semitism, her definition of a “crime against mankind committed on the body of the Jewish people.”36 Eichmann, the uncommon mass murderer, was a common man; though his deeds were in important ways incomprehensibly wicked, the person who had committed them was banal. In later lectures, Arendt would go back to the enduring “puzzle” of the new criminal: “Eichmann said he recognized that he had participated in what was perhaps one of the greatest crimes in history, but, he insisted, if he had not done so, his conscience would have bothered him at the time. His conscience and morality were working exactly in reverse. This reverse is precisely the moral collapse that took place in Europe.”37 But we still do not know how it happened and what, apart from “Nazi Evil,” it really meant. All we know is that religious concepts of Evil have been harmful here rather than helpful, especially where they were used politically.

The enduring importance of Eichmann in Jerusalem is Arendt’s insistence on a rational, particular understanding of even the worst human deeds instead of generalizing and demonizing them. Presenting the uncommon murderer Eichmann as an example of the “banality of evil,” of “sheer thoughtlessness,” she meant to emphasize this aspect of her inquiry, the process of thinking about the meanings of his new criminality rather than the summary conclusion that it embodied “absolute Evil.”38 It is in the nature of such understanding that it remains incomplete, open to discussion, revision and multiple meanings. Whether her choice of the word “banality” was, in retrospect, useful or not, her analysis of Eichmann’s paradoxical uncommon commonness did illuminate some aspects of the puzzle of this new kind of criminality and guilt which she did not think diminished by the perpetrators’ banality. She also feared that the Manichean divide between collective absolute German guilt and collective absolute Jewish innocence would pose serious political problems in the postwar era: “in human-political terms, the concept of a guilt beyond the crime and an innocence beyond kindness and virtue is meaningless.”39 It was a burden on the new Jewish state to have to cope with unique Jewish suffering and absolute Jewish innocence. By the time of Ben-Gurion’s Eichmann trial, Israel had learned to do so by politicizing “Evil.” As Magnes and Arendt had feared in the Forties, this was not a good omen for a more peaceful Middle East.


1. See Jack L. Goldsmith, The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration (New York: Norton, 2007).

2. See Seymour M. Hersh, “Shifting Targets: The White House Redefines the Iran Threat,” New Yorker, October 8, 2007, 40-47. See also the analysis of the reactions in the Arab press to Bush’s apocalyptic predictions about the threat of Iran on his January 2008 visit to the Middle East: National Public Radio, “On the Media,” January 20, 2008.

3. See below, note 19.

4. Hannah Arendt, “Zionism Reconsidered,” Ron H. Feldman, ed., The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age (New York: Grove, 1978), 131-177.

5. Judah L. Magnes, Like All the Nations? (Jerusalem: Herod’s Gate, 1930), 14, 16. ). Magnes would have advised real negotiations with Hamas after its democratically won election, that is, without preconditions.

6. For biographical details see Norman Bentwich, Judah L. Magnes (London: East & West Library, 1955).

7. See the lengthy critique of the trial in the Human Rights Watch publication of November 20, 2006. Based on many months of courtroom observations and interviews with judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers, it also pointed out the lack of impartiality in the US-supported and -funded trial that had put the Iraqi High Tribunal under political pressure from the Iraqi government to find against the defendants.

8. See my Visible Spaces: Hannah Arendt and the German-Jewish Experience (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 235-38.

9. See the informative correspondence about her experience and opinions of the trial with her husband Heinrich Bluecher April 9 – June 14, 1961, Hannah Arendt/Heinrich Bluecher Briefe 1936-1968, ed. Lotte Koehler (Muenchen: Piper, 1996), 516-552.

10. See here Richard Bernstein, “From Radical Evil to the Banality of Evil: From Superfluousness to Thoughtlessness,” Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question (Oxford: Polity, 1996),137-153, especially 147-153; and his Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002). See also Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 1- 57.

11. See Washington Post, November 6, 2006 quoting US officials close to the trial that “Sunday’s outcome vindicated the policy of having courts in individual nations try cases involving war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Bush administration has been a leading opponent of international tribunals, fearing that US soldiers could be tried before them for political reasons.” Accusations of “totalitarianism” and ”Islamo-fascism” have been used by the Bush Administration to point to the combined Nazi and Arab “Evil” of perceived Islamic enemies=terrorists.

12. Charles Y. Glock, Gertrude J. Selznick, and Joe L.Spaeth, The Apathetic Majority: A Study Based on Public Responses to the Eichmann Trial (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 1.

13. See the press release of a news report on the International Development Committee Report (January 31, 2007; pointing out the dramatically worsening humanitarian situation in Palestine. Acknowledging Israel’s “genuine security concerns,” the report questions the “proportionality of its actions and their likely effect on long-term peace in the region.” It criticizes Blair’s unconditional support of Israel and echoes the demands made by a new coalition, “Enough!,” of major British trade unions, charities, and faith groups from the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities “in a joint call for justice for the Palestinian people. Only through such justice can Israelis and Palestinians hope to build a lasting peace for the region as a whole.” See also the commentary on and excerpts from the report in John Hilary, “Time to get serious about Israel,” Guardian.Online, January 31, 2007.

14. Deborah Lipstadt, “Jimmy Carter’s Jewish Problem,” Washington Post Online, January 20, 2007, says accusingly of Carter that he “ignores” the Holocaust and its “impact on Jewish identity and the history of the Middle East conflict,” “relies on anti-Semitic stereotypes,” and “trivializes the murder of Israelis.” Lipstadt’s stereotypical accusations were echoed in many American-Jewish reactions (reviews, articles) to Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006). The more diverse blogging scene reflected a younger generation’s more critical positions regarding Israel’s conduct and the issue of anti-Semitism. See the large number of answers from American, Canadian, European and South American Jews to Shmuel Rosner’s blog “On anti-Semitism, anti-anti-Semitism and anti-anti-anti-Semitism,” Haaretz Online, February 16, 2007.

15. Quoted in Idith Zertal, Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 96.

16. Zertal, Israel’s Holocaust, 96. This foreshadows the beginning of Israel’s “summer war”: the capture of a young soldier became an allegory for Israel’s empowering impotence; the longer Israel failed to get him back, the more powerful and destructive its air aids on Lebanon, carried out with US political and technological support.

17. See my “Evil or Evil Acts? On the Reception of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Shofar (Spring 2003), 187-90.

18. Quoted Zertal, Israel’s Holocaust, 107, note 48.

19. Ben-Gurion to John F. Kennedy, 1963, quoted in Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 120. Zertal, Israel’s Holocaust, 99, quotes extensively from this letter, commenting that its content which was “not known at the time even to Ben-Gurion’s closest colleagues can indeed tell us more about the psychology of the old leader… than about the actual state of affairs and power between Israel and the Arab world.”

20. Quoted in Zertal, Israel’s Holocaust, 98, note 25; see also his interview with the New York Times Magazine, December 18, 1960: “I have no doubt that the Egyptian dictatorship is being instructed by the large number of Nazis who are there.”

21. Suddeutsche Zeitung, August 3, 2006.

22. Carter’s book was preemptively attacked by the Democratic leadership, not unexpected since 60% of the party’s financial support comes from Jewish Americans, ca 3% of the population, which assures the great political influence of the Israel Lobby. Invoking all Democrats’ “great friendship with Israel,” Nancy Pelosi, the new Speaker of the House, announced that “Carter does not speak for the Democratic Party… It is wrong to suggest that the Jewish people would support a government in Israel or anywhere else that institutionalizes ethnically based oppression, and Democrats reject that allegation vigorously.” Has she looked at the “realities on the ground”? See the selection from print and electronic media of critical comments on Carter’s book made by Democratic politicians in News Compass, December 8, 2006. See also Bob Thompson, “Peace Provocateur,” Washington Post, December 10, 2006: “Before the book was even published, angry supporters of Israel denounced his use of the word “apartheid” and Democratic politicians, among them soon-to-be House speaker Nancy Pelosi, scrambled to distance themselves from Carter’s views.” Like Carter’s Palestine, and for similar reasons, the recent study by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007) immediately became a bestseller and also hotly attacked by the Jewish-American establishment. The greatest provocation for many Jewish-American readers was the authors’ argument that Israel had outlived its usefulness for the US and no longer deserved its special status (Part I, chapters 2, 3). See the irrational assertions of the authors’ anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in Abraham F. Foxman, The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control (2007).

23. “Niemand kann uns stoppen,” Suddeutsche Zeitung, August 3, 2006. See my “Israel’s War in Lebanon and the German Press,” HNN.US, August 2006.

24. “Series of Sordid Corruption Charges Nears its Nadir in Israel,” New York Times, January 25, 2007.

25. “Hamas Leader Vows to Pursue Stance on Israel,” New York Times, January 28/29, 2006. See the sensible analysis of this issue in George Soros, “On Israel, America and AIPAC,” New York Review of Books, vol. 54, no. 6, April 12, 2007. Soros argues that the active US support for Israel’s refusal to recognize a “unity government” with Hamas will be detrimental to the progress of Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations and therefore to the stability of the larger Middle East. He also points out the different political positions within Hamas. See also Henry Siegman, “The Great Middle East Peace Process Scam,” London Review of Books vol. 29, no.16, August 16, 2007.

26. Avi Sahvit, “The General,” The New Yorker, January 23/30, 2006, 52-63, 60.

27. See my The War in the Empty Air: Victims, Perpetrators, and Postwar Germans (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), chapter 3.

28. See Tim Franks, “UN envoy attacks Mid-East Quartet,” BBC News, Jerusalem, October 15, 2007: “A top UN expert has said he will urge the world body to withdraw from the Quartet of Middle East mediators unless it addresses Palestinian human rights.”

29. Quoted The New Yorker, June 16/23, 2003, 69-70.

30. Letter to Mary McCarthy, October 3, 1963.

31. See the large number of Amazon customer reviews in the case of both books for a good overview of the opinions of an intelligent, articulate general readership: an important newly accessible vocal public sphere.

32. Partisan Review 31, no.1, Winter 1964.

33. To Mary McCarthy, June 23, 1964; see also her letter to Karl Jaspers (July/August 1962): “Obwohl ich nicht leugnen kann, dass die Eichmanngeschichte mir Spass macht” (though I cannot deny that I am having fun with the Eichmann story).

34. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking, 1963), 233.

35. Ibid., my italics; Ben-Gurion did emphasize, if for political and exclusively Jewish (Israeli) reasons, the unique “horror of Auschwitz.” See Arendt to Mary McCarthy, October 3, 1963.

36. Eichmann in Jerusalem, 5.

37. Lecture notes quoted in Michael Denneny, “The Privilege of Ourselves,” in: Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, ed. Melvyn A. Hill (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979), 255.

38. See Bernstein, Hannah Arendt, 150-152.

39. To Karl Jaspers, August 17, 1946.

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