The irony of Masha Gessen almost not being awarded the prize because of their writings on Gaza is almost too thick to cut
This past weekend the prominent Russian-American journalist and writer Masha Gessen was awarded the prestigious Hannah Arendt prize for political thought under police protection in Germany. But the event, which was to be a grand ceremony hosted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in the city hall of Bremen in north-west Germany, almost did not happen at all after Gessen published an essay in the New Yorker comparing Gaza before 7 October to the Jewish ghettoes of Nazi-occupied Europe.
The Foundation, which is affiliated with the German Green party, founded the prize not to honor Arendt but to “honor individuals who identify critical and unseen aspects of current political events and who are not afraid to enter the public realm by representing their opinion in controversial political discussions”, withdrew its support, causing the city of Bremen to withdraw its support, leading to an initial cancellation of the event altogether. The Foundation said Gessen’s comparison was “unacceptable”, but has since backtracked and has now said that they stand behind the award.
Here is the offending passage from Gessen’s New Yorker article, In the Shadow of the Holocaust:
“But as in the Jewish ghettoes of Occupied Europe, there are no prison guards –Gaza is policed not by the occupiers but by a local force. Presumably, the more fitting term ‘ghetto’ would have drawn fire for comparing the predicament of besieged Gazans to that of ghettoized Jews. It also would have given us the language to describe what is happening in Gaza now. The ghetto is being liquidated.”
The irony is almost too thick to cut.
Hannah Arendt would not qualify for the Hannah Arendt prize. She would be cancelled in Germany today for her political position on Israel and opinions about contemporary Zionism, which she remained critical of from 1942 until her death in 1975. As a Jewish German woman who was forced to flee Germany in 1933, after being arrested and detained by the Gestapo, Arendt’s writing on Germany would be more controversial than Gessen’s own. The comparison from Gessen’s essay, which caused such uproar, closely echoes a passage from Arendt’s correspondence written from Jerusalem in 1955 to her husband Heinrich Blücher, which is far more damning:
“The galut-and-ghetto mentality is in full bloom. And the idiocy is right in front of everyone’s eyes: Here in Jerusalem I can barely go for a walk, because I might turn the wrong corner and find myself ‘abroad’, ie, in Arab territory. Essentially it’s the same everywhere. On top of that, they treat the Arabs, those still here, in a way that in itself would be enough to rally the whole world against Israel.”
Gessen’s comparison was more light-footed than Arendt’s, whose reflection appears eerily prescient, but their rhetorical tact wasn’t enough to stop the censors at the gate in Germany who police what one can and cannot say about Israel, cowing the Foundation into compliance.
Following a de facto law put into effect by a non-binding resolution passed by the German parliament in 2019, which equates the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement with antisemitism, Gessen violated the German demand that one not compare the Holocaust to any other historical event. Within the culture of German memory politics the Holocaust is treated as singular; it is understood as a historical exception. And this exception-to-history mentality has the effect of placing the Holocaust outside of history altogether, which allows the German government to espouse unconditional support for the state of Israel without political accountability for what that support means. In other words, the German government uses the memory of the Holocaust as a justification to support Israel, regardless of what Israel does to the Palestinian people.
By making the comparison between a Nazi-occupied ghetto and Gaza before 7 October, Gessen is making a political argument meant to invoke historical memory and draw attention to concepts like genocide, crimes against humanity and “never again”, which emerged out of the second world war. The comparison is not a one-to-one argument, but rather a barometer for urging individuals – and countries – to think about their support for Israel as the world watches the mass slaughter of Palestinian people, people stripped of rights, resources, with nowhere to go, living under constant bombardment.
The question Arendt would have raised, I believe, is one of personal, political and moral responsibility. For her, it would not have been possible to talk about what is happening today without talking about the structure of the nation-state itself, which she argued was in part to blame for the Holocaust. For her, this meant, it was very much not an exception.
Politically, Arendt supported the idea that the Jewish people needed a homeland during the war, because the state, which was supposed to guarantee the rights of citizens had used citizenship as a political instrument during the war to strip the Jewish people of their rights, rendering them homeless and subject to horrific violence. In exile in Paris from 1933 until she was interned in 1940, she worked to help Jewish youth escape to Palestine and even went there in 1935 with Youth Aliyah.
In those years, she said she only wanted to do Jewish work to help the Jewish people, because her mother had taught her that when one is attacked as a Jew one must fight back as a Jew. But her position shifted after she escaped to America in 1941, after she attended the Biltmore Conference in 1942 in New York City where she condemned David Ben-Gurion’s call for a Jewish state in Palestine.
She was attacked at the conference for calling for a rejection of Ben-Gurion’s vision. And in 1948, she joined Albert Einstein and Sidney Hook among others in signing a letter published in the New York Times to protest against Menachem Begin’s visit to America, comparing his “Freedom” party “to the organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist Parties”.
Arendt was critical of the nation-state of Israel from its founding, in part because she was worried that the state would exhibit the worst tendencies of the European nation-state. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), she had argued against the grain at the time that Nazism emerged not at the apex of the German nation-state, but at its decline. And while antisemitism as an ideology was central to the organization of the masses, it was not the only political factor at play in her account.
For Arendt, the political emancipation of the bourgeoisie was the cornerstone of the modern nation-state, in which political laws were governed by the private interests of businessmen who had found it necessary to take over the apparatus of the state in order to deploy the military in their colonial ventures. It was this co-option of the nation, and transformation of the nation into a nation-state by private economic interests that lay at the heart of her understanding. And what she emphasized – and was criticized for – was the argument that antisemitism was being used politically by the nation-state in order to further its political and economic interests.
Arendt never abandoned this argument. Indeed, she turned back to it in her most controversial work, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), in which she accused Ben-Gurion of hosting a “show-trial” in order to exploit the suffering of the Jewish people, as opposed to holding the real criminal, Hitler’s chief logistician Adolf Eichmann, accountable for his crimes. Of course Eichmann had been antisemitic, she argued, but his hatred of the Jewish people was not his primary motivation. Instead, she argued it was his commonplace hubris that made him want to ascend the ranks of the Third Reich. She argued that this was the banality of evil, and defined the banality of evil as the inability to imagine the world from the perspective of another. In an interview from 1972, she offered a story from Ernst Jünger to illustrate her point.
During the war, Jünger comes upon some farmers in the country. One of them had taken in Russian prisoners from the camps who had been starved almost to death. The farmer tells Jünger that these Russian prisoners are “sub-human … they eat the pigs’ food”. Arendt then says: “There’s something outrageously stupid about this story. I mean the story itself is stupid … The man doesn’t see that this is what starving people do …”
All of which is to say, it is necessary that we as human beings be able to imagine the world from the perspective of another to prevent evil from happening, and to stand up to evil when we are confronted with it. And right now Germany’s resolution forbids it. Antisemitism and the Holocaust are not exceptions to history. This moral obligation to compare means two things: that Germany is not allowed to continue to treat the Jewish people or Jewish history as an exception to the rule in order to justify their political support of Israel; and that all people have a right to exist freely everywhere, regardless of where they appeared in the world by chance of birth; a crime against humanity is a crime that denies a people a right to exist.
In 1950, Hannah Arendt penned an essay titled Report from Germany on the German failure to reckon with what had happened. “In less than six years,” she wrote, “Germany laid waste the moral structure of Western society, committing crimes that nobody would have believed possible …” The question she wrote in her notebook as she thought about how Germany should remember the war was this: “Is there a way of thinking that is not tyrannical?”
Moral complexity is necessary in the face of evil. What Arendt meant by banality, arguing that it was the inability to imagine the world from the perspective of another, was that people had gone along with the radical shift in moral norms overnight that transformed “Thou shalt not kill” into “Thou shalt kill”, without questioning. And the cost of this lack of judgment was human life.
Perhaps the greatest irony of reality today is that the rhetoric of Germany’s “antiantisemitism” is being used to justify the mass slaughter of Palestinian people, while having the effect of actually increasing antisemitism and making Jewish people less safe everywhere.
Germany must revoke its non-binding resolution. Lest it continue to censor what people can and cannot say about the state of Israel. Lest it compel moral complicity with crimes against humanity. It should not have to be said, but perhaps must be said continuously, that it is not antisemitic to critique the state of Israel. The Foundation, which has failed to show moral courage and take a stand against the resolution should turn back to Arendt – the namesake of its prestigious prize – and find the courage of its own convictions. Because at what point will the humanitarian crises stop? One hundred and thirty Israeli hostages still in Gaza. Almost 20,000 Palestinian dead. Six thousand six hundred of whom are children. More than 50,000 wounded. Two-point-three million starving people. Nine out of 10 Palestinians not eating every day. The people are starving.
Courage is the political virtue par excellence, Arendt wrote, because it demands one risk their reputation and life to express a political opinion.
Where is the courage today?
Courage – Heinrich Böll Foundation; courage, Germans.
- Samantha Hill is the author of Hannah Arendt, a biography, and Hannah Arendt’s Poems.