January 18, 2007

The Allure of Eichmann

This week Haaretz published a brief review of a panel discussion held at the Massuah Institute, a Holocaust education center at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak. The subject was the clandestine capture of Adolf Eichmann, who was famously abducted in Argentina in the spring of 1960 and flown to Israel to stand trial. The title of the piece uses the words delivering the great news to David Ben-Gurion: "The monster is in handcuffs."

The incantation of Eichmann's monstrosity infused his trial and the climate of its necessity gave leverage to the dismissal or assault on Hannah Arendt's now canonical coverage of the proceedings, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. That subtitle, of course, comes from the book's closing passage. There, Arendt, seemingly worn out with Eichmann's relentless retreat into meaningless language and immoral imperatives, refers to the "fearsome, word-and-thought-defying" condition that he represented. The banality was not in the deeds but in the cheap philosophizing behind them.

In the Israeli atmosphere of charged rhetoric and national need, however, the description of Eichmann as a symbol--a monstrosity instead of a man--was so misread as to be effectively unread. Arendt thus became the voice of the enemy, accused of self-hatred and anti-Semitism. Even four years after the trial and two years after the appearance of her book, one Yiddish writer described her as doing the devil's bidding. For Aron Zeitlin, only the most extreme language of monstrous murderers and murdered saints (Zadikkim) was possible. Anything deviating from that script was an assault. As a consequence, Arendt was seen by too many as defending evil itself.

The refusal to read Arendt's judgment on Eichmann, or her analysis of the social systems within which even certain Jewish community leaders operated, certainly stems from a variety of impulses that follow the path suggested by Zeitlin. It was precisely such gestures that Arendt addressed through later works, whether in The Life of the Mind or her lectures on Kant's third critique. In a postscript to the former she writes, "Judgment deals with particulars, and when the thinking ego moving along generalities emerges from its withdrawal and returns to the world of particular appearances, it turns out that the mind needs a new 'gift' to deal with them." In other words, it is not so easy to deal with things historically: an inquiry in order to tell how things were (historein). One, at the very least, needs the gift.

The headline of the Haaretz article repeats the formula of Eichmann as the monster, but it nonetheless ends with another perversion of the Arendt thesis. The last words reported are the "electrifying and graphic"
testimony by former Mossad agent Yaakov Meidad, who says, "You would not believe what a wimp he was, how he signed, how he behaved. This man dealt in the murder of millions. I would hardly appoint him to manage a post office."

And so here the banality becomes an insult and a rejoicing comparison. Eichmann cannot be left alone even as he cannot be faced. Celebration of the Mossad's muscular daring eclipses what should give one pause, and for a brief moment at least, defy word and thought. The allure is too much to resist.