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Relevance of Hannah Arendt’s “A Report On The Banality Of Evil” To Gaza
“We want the nations of the world to know…….and they should be ashamed” Ben Gurion explaining rationale for Eichmann’s trial [i]
“The triumph of the S.S demands that the tortured victim allow himself to be led to the noose without protesting, that he renounce and abandon himself to the point of ceasing to affirm his identity. They know that the system which succeeds in destroying its victim before he mounts the scaffold…..is incomparably the better for keeping the whole people in slavery”[ii]
Hannah Arendt (henceforth HA), philosopher, writer, academic of Jewish heritage, who studied under such luminaries as Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger in pre-war Germany, went to Jerusalem in 1961 to cover the trial of Eichmann, one of the actors in the Final Solution, for the New Yorker magazine. Her account of the trial regularly published in the magazine at the time, later became a basis for the book, “Eichmann In Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil”.
It is obvious from reading the book that HA’s account of the trial in the book transcended the culpability of the single individual, and in fact implicated the whole of western society in the crimes committed.
HA’s penetrating analysis in the book furnishes insights both into the mind of the perpetrators, and the overall societal mindset they were embedded in, which made these horrendous acts possible without any weight on their conscience. It provides a template for studying all such acts of barbarity by the organized and brute force of the state, with full complicity of the overwhelming population, against people who are made stateless either in the sense of being deprived of the state they had hitherto lived in or are forced to live as stateless wards of occupying power.
It is precisely the later scenario that we are confronted with in Gaza, where an occupying power is conducting a pogrom and slaughter of the stateless, defenseless and caged population under its occupation. It is true that the scale of murder in Gaza is not comparable to the manufacturing of death on industrial scale and with industrial efficiency as happened during Holocaust, the period dealt in the book, nevertheless there are certain elements of the current situation and wider Palestinian suppression which make the comparisons, and hence the insights, not totally irrelevant. This is borne out by none other than the granddaughter of Holocaust survivor herself, when protesting against FIDF (Friends Of IDF), she remarked in a choked voice that the reason she was there was that her grandparents taught her that “this should never happen to any other people again, whether Jews or not”.
The elements of relevance are not only the unequal nature of the contest – with the most powerful army of the Middle East, backed to the hilt by the most sophisticated military might the world has ever seen (USA) arrayed against mainly defenseless population in congested urban setting, with all paths of exit and ingress shut , hence unsuitable for protracted guerilla warfare) – but also the apparent complicity and almost cheerleading attitude of the populace of the oppressor and the invader in the conflict and its powerful backers and abettors in the western media and government. The fact that all this is happening in this age of global information, and it is almost impossible to avoid images of innocent children and women being blown to smithereens, hospitals and even morgues and graveyards bombed and destroyed, makes the complicity of the population or their indifferent silence, both in Israel and its main supporter United States and to lesser extent Western Europe, all the more criminal and callous. For one who has read HA’s work, it is impossible not to see in this almost ubiquitous silence and complicity of the western seats of political and media power, echoes of what HA characterized as the “moral collapse of the respectable western society” in the face of irrefutable and hard to ignore evidence about mass murders happening close by. In Nazi Germany and its occupied and allied countries, the collapse manifested as “hear no evil, see no evil”, averting of the face from the horror if it all, if you will, and here in the US in the Israeli-Palestinian context it manifests as knowingly arming the murderer to its teeth, and then providing the fig leaf of diplomatic support and biased media coverage to hide and obfuscate the deed both from the domestic and international audience.
It is remarkable that in spite of the huge difference in scale, the psychological and societal factors underlying the brutal onslaught of these declared racist regimes against their captive and largely defenseless populations bears close resemblance. Not only that, USA, without whose total and unconditional support Israel cannot carry out any of its criminal acts, bears many marks of institutional mind control and propaganda so eloquently exposed by HA in her book.
So here are the those elements delineated clearly in HA’s expose of Nazi regime and its murderous acts that one finds reflected in the murderous acts of Israel and its main supporter, United States.
Self-Deception, Lies And Stupidity
“The German society of eighty million people had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same means, the same self-deception, lies and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s mentality” [iii]
“He was incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché”..HA on Eichmann [iv]
It has almost become a cliché to say that in this age of mass communication and social media, winning the media battle is almost as important as winning the actual, physical one. Nazis were the first to realize the importance of mass propaganda in a modern state, and created one of the most effective propaganda machines the world had ever seen, which presided over a campaign of self-deception, lies, distortions, mind control of unprecedented effectiveness and magnitude. The underlying philosophy was to sway the people through grandiose lies and distortions, making them feel as part of something grand and big. Hence, they were told that it was a struggle for the “destiny of the German people”, such as would pave the way for a thousand years Reich. As Himmler said that they were fighting a battle, which the future generations did not have to fight for another thousand years. For Hitler it was a struggle for the very soul of European civilization against the eastern barbarism, exemplified by Bolshevism. One finds almost parallel distortions and propaganda in Israeli official mythology of the “Promised Land”, and they, Jews, being the rightful heirs of the land of Israel in spite of their almost two thousand years sojourn in the west. All this self-elevating and grandiose mythology goes hand in hand with demeaning Palestinian people as a historical fiction – for instance, when Netanyahu said that there had never been a Palestinian state, never been a Palestinian nation and they were just migrants from neighboring Arab countries. Both the mythology and distortion are critical to Zionist project, as one cannot be carried one without the other. And both require erecting a virtual, alternate reality, based on massive dismissal of actual history. But it must be admitted that there is crucial difference between totalitarian Nazi ideology and official Zionist one, at least in the way they operated in their respective bases. The Nazi totalitarianism obliterated all opposition to it and became the only acceptable narrative in the state, the Zionist narrative could never achieve that monopoly in Israel, and thanks to the courage and integrity of people like Uri Avenry and Levy Gideon, there is a counter narrative, not confined to some nooks or banished to concentration camps, but is expressed through very mainstream organs like Haaretz and other Jewish progressive groups.
But one of the greatest ironies of the whole conflict is that it is not in Israel, one of the main protagonists pf the conflict, but in USA, its distant and arch supporter, that this propaganda based on lies, distortions and self-deception has met its total and unchallenged triumph yet. The success of this campaign is such that no less a person than the former President of the United States is forced to admit publicly that, “it is easier to criticize Israel in Israel than in the United States”.
From Alan Dershowitz’s fabrication of alternate history of Palestine (debunked by all serious scholarship on the subject) as an apology and defense of Israel and its peddling on all respectable US channels to the latest abominable rant “Israel has a right to defend herself” on Fox Channel, it is hard to imagine where to start when one considers the total complicity of US media in Israeli crimes. Just a recent episode in ABC’s coverage of the Gaza bombing highlighted both distortion and stupidity. It was a clear distortion when a Palestinian home, with Palestinian woman clad in traditional Muslim head gear in front wailing, was shown as an Israeli woman whose home was destroyed by Hamas’s rockets. But it also relies on the egregious ignorance and stupidity of the audience to mistake an obviously Palestinian woman for an Israeli one!
As far as the self-deception goes, it ranges from the ludicrous, “they hate us because of our liberties”, to the insidious, as in the recent column in NY Times[v] where the writers have turned the logic on its head, making this preposterous claim that the reason US public supports Israel is because of the failure of Arab spring! Not because of what NY Times writes and CNN, FOX spews day in and day out, but because of the failure of Arab spring! In the annals of self- deception by the so called literati of any society, this has to have the pride of place!
It is not an understatement to say that all mainstream media channels in USA are reduced to a point where they have become mere conduits for the continuous regurgitating of official Israeli talking points, without taking Israeli apologists and official up on even the most obviously absurd ones. It seems that like Eichmann, they are incapable of thinking except in official clichés! Take for example, this oft repeated Israeli assertion, blurring the boundaries between sane and insane, that Hamas is using civilians as human shields or putting their rockets near the civilian places, as justification for the high civilian casualties. Forget the obvious fact of Gaza being one of the most densely populated areas in the world, forget even that the so called warning to crammed homes and shelters is given minutes before the real lethality if at all and there is neither place or time to run to, forget all that, and still should not a fair journalist challenge the Israeli position on the ground that the targeted population has no army , air force and navy to fight the mightiest army of the Middle East, and it is Israel which makes sure that not only they don’t get any comparable weapons , but even the basic weapons to fight so that Israel does not have to find itself in this, in their own words, unenviable position of fighting an enemy indistinguishable from the civilians? Does any journalist try to raise the question as to what desperation the people would be reduced to, if they could be killed with almost impunity from thousands of feet above the ground, and they had no means of hitting back? It is morally bankrupt to even raise the question of Hamas using civilians without first asking how come they can’t put tank against tank, a helicopter against helicopter and an aircraft against aircraft, and a uniformed soldier, armed to the hilt with modern gadgetry, against uniformed soldier. The reality and logic of the situation, obvious to any astute observer, is that it is not Hamas but on the contrary Israel which is using civilians, its own, for a human shield. It is so because with all the sophisticated weaponry that Israel possesses its soldiers can kill from a distance with almost no fear of being hit back except in very close combat situations that Israel religiously avoids, but the only way Palestinians in Gaza can retaliate is by firing inaccurate and primitive and almost toy like rockets indiscriminately into Israel, that has the probability of hitting only civilians, if at all, not soldiers. Hence the very nature of this asymmetric power equation dictates that when Hamas retaliates it can only do so by hitting the civilians, and Israel does everything in its power to maintain that asymmetry, depriving Hamas the capability of fighting on equal terms. It is like one party to a duel stealing the other party’s pistols and then complaining that instead of firing shots they are throwing stones that can hit the bystanders!
The impact of all this media blitz in favor of Israel is that you can never ask an average American, who probably has a hard time recognizing Gaza on the map, about the current conflict without getting an automatic, almost knee jerk clichés about terrorism, destruction of Israel and her right to defend herself. The proof is in the pudding, and even Dr. Goebbels would have been envious of this efficacy of US media propaganda for Israel! It is after all he who famously said that a lie should be repeated often and with confidence and from the higher pulpit for it to be accepted as the truth. He has found the most loyal disciples of his craft in mainstream US media.
Dostoevsky, as HA pointed out in her book, recalled from his experience in Siberia that he never met a criminal there who was repentant of his crimes. HA offered an explanation for this in the self-re-enforcing closed environment of the gang the criminals were embedded in, which shielded them from contact with the reality. The American media is playing the same role of shielding American public from its culpability in Israelis crimes by embedding them in this reality created out of lies, half-truths, fabrications, and distortions.
Blaming The Victim
“Fuhrer as promised the Jews a new homeland……..if you build there will be a roof over your heads. There is no water, the wells all around carry disease……If you bore and find water, you will have water”[vi]
HA in her book tells the story of a German literary critic, Heinz Beckmann, who blamed a certain Jewish intellectual for deserting them at “the outbreak of barbarism”, conveniently forgetting that he was expelled by the Nazis, and did not desert. From this minor example of self-serving and self-righteous attitude of Nazis to their more fictional characterizations of Jews as responsible for Germany’s defeat in the Great war to their delusional beliefs of actually helping the Jews with forced emigrations, at least the Zionists, in their project of “finding the ground under their feet”, as Eichamann puts it, it was always the victim who has brought it upon himself. In a similar vein, in the eyes of Israelis it is always the Palestinians who were responsible for their ghetto like existence in Gaza, and for the bombs killing their babies. Just a sample of it was presented the other day, when an Isareli Ambassador to US, Mr. Ron Dermer, was talking to a radio show host and claimed that the reason for shortages in Gaza was that Palestinians used all the resources – millions of dollars – for building tunnels! Given that Mr. Dermer’s government was involved in preventing through violence even a peaceful flotilla carrying food and medicines to Gazans let alone the brutal siege, it requires monumental audacity of shamelessness to make such an assertion. But he was assured that even if he had asserted that Palestinians were directly getting aid from Martians and Anti-Christ in league to destroy Israel, he would not be called upon by the interviewer! So, it is the victim, it is the Palestinians who are offering their children as sacrifices so that they could “enjoy” the sight of Israelis being humiliated in the court of world opinion in the comfort of their tunnels!
It is the psychological and logical compulsion of a society based on notions of racial exclusivity and superiority to regard the other, especially if the others are the inhabitants of the land they want to grab, as untermensch, as lesser humans. Nazis’s policy of lebensraum, the land in the east, had to regard Slavs as untermensch as the Zionist policy of land grab and theft from Palestinians has to regard them as not “people like us”!
Moral Collapse Of The Respectable Society
“Dr. Servatius, I assume you made a slip of the tongue when you said that killing by gas was a medical matter”[vii]
“The net effect of this language system was not to keep these people ignorant of what they were doing, but to prevent them from equating it with their old, normal knowledge of murder and lies”[viii]
“Yes, he had a conscience, and his conscience functioned in the expected way for about four weeks, whereupon it began to function the other way around”[ix]
“From the accumulated evidence one can only conclude that conscience as such has apparently got lost in Germany”[x]
For me the most telling image of the current Gaza massacre is not one of death and destruction, of carnage, and torn limbs, and mutilated bodies of children. It is one of the regular Israeli onslaughts in last few years, and we have become numbed to these sights and they are telling us the same tragic story with only faces changed. For me the most telling image is a peaceful, quiet image, almost serene, but containing within it the bottomless depths of the “heart of darkness”. It is an image of Israelis, men, children and even toddlers, in an almost picnic like atmosphere with drinks and barbecue watching the carnage unfolding before their eyes from the safety of their perch on the mountaintop. One Israeli critic of Zionism in a remarkable address called the last invasion of Gaza by Israel at the peak time of children’s getting out of their schools in the streets as the darkest day in the history of Judaism. No sir, I respectfully disagree. The darkest day in the history of Judaism was the day when a few people, no matter the numbers, flaunted their inhumanity in broad daylight, and were accepted by the majority either tacitly by staying quiet about it, or out rightly condoning it. This is the dangerous moral collapse which HA was alluding to, which Nazism, because of its creed of racism and naked power, brought about in the “respectable European society”. And God knows what monstrosities it led to. In HA’s incisive analysis, Eichmann was not a monster, neither was he legally insane, nor he was oblivious of the consequences of his actions. He was quite ordinary and commonplace, and hence the banality of it all. But he was caught in an ideology and the system that made him accept and commit those unspeakable horrors with relative equanimity. The respectable opinion, according to his testimony, never questioned or challenged his conscience. It was normally human to be inhuman in that atmosphere. He was embedded in a system which made such humanity almost seemed normal; in fact, alleviated it to the level of duty. That is what HA meant by the moral collapse of the “respectable western society”. It is a version of this moral collapse that was on display on that mountain top the other day: the moral collapse of “respectable Israeli “society.
Equally telling and matching the moral collapse of the ones doing the killings and their immediate cheerleaders was the moral collapse of the distant ones giving them the weapons and all the support of “soft power” they required. The moral bankruptcy on the top of hill in Israel was matched by moral bankruptcy on top of another hill, Capitol hill, namely, the shameless unanimous passing of resolution 480 by Senate, giving unconditional and full support to Israel’s Gaza offensive and yes, believe it or not, calling upon Hamas to separate itself from the unity government! Those who always blamed Hamas for its violence and non-acceptance of Israel, were baying for its blood when it officially , albeit in an indirect way, it did renounce violence by joining and accepting PA’s leadership which has recognized Israel’s right to exist! All those senators, without exception, with all their pretensions and protestations of peace were at that moment of endorsement of naked aggression were standing there themselves naked, without clothes, in their obeisance to the amoral God of power. Those champions of fairness and fair play and justice, Elizabeth Warrens, Al Frankens, Bernie Sanders of the world, totally exposed, with the whole world knowing, if they cared to look, that the only difference between them and John Boehners , Lindsy Grahams, Sarah Palins of the world is only in the choice of which Gods they prostrate themselves to. It is a difference of calculation not of principles. So much for the moral left in the US political system!
Influential media and government, there is nowhere one can turn to for any justice or even fair hearing in the case. Is this the moral collapse of the society we are witnessing here? Yes, there is , God bless her, Amy Goodman, there is this towering figure of Noam Chomsky, almost like an old Testament prophet, there is Chris Hedges and so on. Yes, there is a growing BDS movement and increasing awareness of Palestinian cause in Europe, and there is a strong anti-Zionist strand within Israel, and these are signs that prevent one from total despair or do they? Probably no society ever in history has totally collapsed morally, since even in the depths of it there is a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, there is a Lichentberg (a Catholic priest who joined the Jews in their journey east and perished with them). Perhaps, the moral collapse of the greatest supporter and abettor of the crimes of Israel is not that deep or total. Perhaps!
Moral Collapse of the Victim
“Jewish Council Of Elders were informed by Eichman or his men of how many Jews were need to fill each train, and they made out the list of dportees” [xi]
“There can be no doubt that without the cooperation of the victims, it would hardly have been possible for a few thousand people ..to liquidate many hundreds of thousands of people”[xii]
“And the acceptance of privileged categories…..had been the beginning of the moral collapse of respectable Jewish society”[xiii]
“It was a general practice to allow certain exceptions in order to be able to main general rule all the more easily” [xiv]
“Theresienstadt, from the beginning , we designed by Heydrich to serve as a special ghetto for certain privileged categories of Jews”[xv]
One of the lesser talked and known aspect of Eichmann’s trial is how it reveals quiet poignantly the victims of the Holcaust turning, by the force of circumstances, into the willing instruments of their own mass execution. Nazis cleverly and quite cynically orchestrated what HA calls the “moral collapse of respectable Jewish” society, by holding out some avenues of escape in an otherwise hopeless situation. In the early phases before the unleashing of Final Solution, it was a policy of favoring one Jewish group over the other. For example, Nazis support for Zionism chimed, at this early, with their method of seeking the solution to Jewish problem through forced emigration. They isolated and look down on the assimilationists and praised Zionists, as Eichmann puts it, as idealists. They also created a special camp at Theresienstadt for the “privileged” category of Jews as a showcase to the world where Red Cross inspections could take place. In the later stages of mass executions, when the situation has become desperate, it is the pure animal instinct for survival and hope of saving some at the cost of many that led Jewish elders and councils to co-operate with the Nazis. For Nazis, it was much economical and convenient for the victims to handle the dirty police work themselves. Also, by creating categories for respectable Jews – those who fought in the previous war, for example – they soothed the conscience of folks at home who knew at least one “decent Jew”.
The moral of all this is to show that the people living under conditions of hopelessness and despair and made to fight for their survival and identity could be easily manipulated by the controlling authority holding power of life and death over them, into a seemingly self-destructive behavior and betraying their own people. It is exactly the same calculus that is at work in cynical Israeli policy of bringing about the moral bankruptcy of occupied Palestinian society by reducing sections of it to be willing policemen of their own captivity. The role of Palestinian authority and the corruption of its leadership must be seen in the light of this Israeli policy of finding venal partners for its illegal enterprise. The example of Jewish Council of Elders, and the co-operative police work in rounding up of Jews and policing the ghettos provides a template for this kind of control.
By reducing Palestinian authority to a glorified police force in the west Bank tasked with ensuring control and peace as Israel never ceased building illegal settlements on their land, and reducing Gaza to an open air prison a la Warsaw ghetto , Israel wanted to divide and conquer the Palestinian opposition to it. Not only that, by arranging things so that only the most rabid, and extreme opposition remains as the only viable opposition to Israel, which can then be castigated as fanatic and bundled with other radical muslim jihadi outfits, it wanted to control the narrative and tone of opposition to its oppression. Hence the rage of Israeli Prime Minister, when Hamas joined the Palestinian authority and began to take steps to undercut this narrative! How dare Hamas relinquished the armed struggle and vows to destroy Israel for the peaceful struggle and co-existence! That is not what is in the script, and hence Hamas must be punished for it. This is and only this explains the latest flare up in Gaza!
There is one more aspect to this moral collapse of the victim as it relates to the surrounding Arab states. It is not an accident that I am using the word victim for the surrounding Arab states, and not what comes obviously to mind, especially as regards Saudi Arabia and Egypt, accomplices in the crime. They are victims in so far as their situation is analogous to the Nazi occupied countries of Europe such as Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and so on. Here the occupation is not a direct one by Israel, but indirect one by its biggest supporter United States, and not through direct occupation, but by supporting and installing the puppet, corrupt and tyrannical regimes. It is through these regimes that massive resources and policies of these regimes are controlled, and their populations kept educationally, culturally, and technologically backward. The moral collapse is reflected in the decadence of the ruling class and their conspicuous consumption and apathy of the masses to this situation. Even when attempts are made to rectify, they run up against the stone wall of US supported entrenched opposition. To this monarchical and tyrannical petro dollar driven regimes and consumption, is now deliberately added the lethal dimension of sectarian hatred in order to always keep the pot boiling and to provide channels for frittering away radical tendencies into self-destructive and divisive endeavors. All this is heaven sent for Israel, which not only sees in it an almost endless gold mine of propaganda to taint the opposition in the most unflattering and now the almost universal bogey of political or radical Islam, but also an enemy self- immolating in the fires of old, atavistic, sectarian hatreds. The upshot of all this is that both the sectarian battles, the fears of sundry caliphates and petro-dollar driven tyrannies are going to stay there for a while, since they suite both Israel and its arch supporter United States, in the wider scheme of things. But for the middle eastern Muslim society, they are the most potent expression of their “moral collapse”.
Hammad Said is an IT consultant and lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at hammad_said@hotmail.
[i] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 10, penguin addition
[ii] David Russet, a former inmate of Buchenwald quoted by Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 11, penguin addition
[iii] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 52, penguin addition
[iv] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil
[vi] Eric Rajakowitsch, in charge of deportation of Dutch Jews: Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 75, penguin addition
[vii] ”Judge Halevi, asking the defense counsel of Eichmann to clarify his shocking statement about gasing: Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: penguin addition
[viii] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 86, penguin addition
[ix] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 95, penguin addition
[x] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 103, penguin addition
[xi] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 115, penguin addition
[xii] R. Pendorf, quoted by Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 117, penguin addition
[xiii] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 131, penguin addition
[xiv] Louis De Jong , quoted by Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 132, penguin addition
[xv] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 80, penguin addition