Reflections on Dissent -How Is Hannah Arendt Relevant for Contemporary Israel and India? Ira Chadha-Sridhar

This is a guest post by IRA CHADHA-SRIDHAR

In 2016, the age-old conflict between Israel and Palestine has become tougher and more violent at the ground level. The year has come with several disturbing developments in the region- the intensification of the Gaza blockade, the subsequent statement by the Hamas threatening to implement an explosion unless the blockade is lifted and Israel’s rejection of the French peace treaty for the region. Jean-Marc Ayrault, French Foreign Affairs Minister said, in April 2016 that, “The two sides are further apart than ever.” In other news, Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, has been criticized for his statements claiming Hitler himself was a Zionist before “he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”. The merits of Livingstone’s statements and the fallacious reasoning he employs has been rightly criticized by several international commentators. However, he has unknowingly raised larger, more important questions by his statements about how to criticize the Israeli state without being branded as “anti-Semitic” within international discourse- a problem that several commentators critical of the Israeli regime have faced. How can the international community legitimately advance its criticism of the Israeli state? Although critics of Israel are usually non-Jews, there has been a vibrant critique of the oppressive Israeli regime from the Jewish diaspora itself. For historical instruction, in this article, I draw upon the work of one of the earliest and most controversial voices of critique from the Israeli diaspora- the brutally honest voice of 20th century political philosopher, Hannah Arendt. Her book of unparalleled political influence, ‘Eichmann in Jersulelam: A Report on the Banality of Evil’, created what scholars often refer to as a “war” amongst intellectuals across the world that brought to question the validity of her theories and their political and global ramifications. (Elon 2006) Amongst the Jews, and, in particular, in Israel, Arendt’s work was met with anger and severe political backlash. She was labelled “Anti-Jew”, “Nazi” and a “Jew-hater”- labels that were intended to act as violent threats against her distinct, free intellectual voice. (Elon 2006).

In this respect, Arendt’s story finds relevance not only in Israel, but also, interestingly, within contemporary India- characterized by a political climate that is charged against a certain kind of Indian ‘intellectualism’. On September 4th, 2015 when Uday Prakash, an Indian author, returned his Sahitya Akademi Award as a protest against the murder of Kalburgi in Karnataka in August, 2015, a wave of protests began within the Indian academic community. The subsequent Dadri murder, the alleged acts of sedition in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the backlash against JNU students in 2016 and the suicide of Rohith Vermula in Hyderabad, intensified the intellectual voice against the present government with scholars submitting signature campaigns as a symbol of resistance against the regime.[i] In response, with media platforms and political groups labelling Indian academics as “anti-national” and “pseudo-intellectual”, we find ourselves in the midst of a heated debate in India- on identity, the idea of India and the intellectual freedom to dissent.

In these parallel contexts of Israel and India, it becomes globally important to re-visit Arendt- to face questions that made us uncomfortable in 1963 but speak directly to us in the disturbing contexts of 2016.

‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’: Why Arendt is Important for Contemporary Israel?

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) started her journey as a political philosopher in America after fleeing from Europe post the Second World War. In 1963, she published Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in the New Yorker, as a series of Articles and then finally, as a book. In the course of this piece, I argue and hope to demonstrate that her process of writing this report and her reflections on Eichmann, the controversial trial and on Zionism in a post-holocaust world are crucial to the present, global context.

After World War II, Nazi general and SS lieutenant Adolf Eichmann[ii] fled from Austria and made his way to Argentina. In May 1960, the Israeli Security Service, Mossad, controversially captured Eichmann in Argentina and transported him to Jerusalem for trial. The 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem became one of the most contentious international trials. Arendt’s report of the trial further provoked heated international debate.

In Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial she makes a host of observations on the trial as a ‘theatre’- with the courtroom constructed with the imagery of a stage in mind, with characters and dialogues and with good measure of comedy and tragedy interwoven into the ‘plot’ of the trial. Arendt highlights a tension in the courtroom between the intended impartiality of the processes of justice intended by the judges (in particular, Judge Landau who she states “tries his best to prevent the trial from becoming a show”) and the conscious efforts of the then Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion to manipulate the trial to create a dramatic show that placed on trial “not Eichmann’s deeds but the collective sufferings of the Jews”. In analyzing the trial as such, Arendt makes crucial observations on the policies she claims were followed by the Israeli state to further the state’s Zionist ideology. She points out that the Israeli state’s intended audience for the trial were the “younger generation of Israelis” and the “Oriental Jews”- both communities of people who were “not properly exposed to the sufferings of the Jews”- a religious community who throughout history, had faced “a hostile world”. In this analysis, she highlights the artificial efforts made by the Israeli state in 1961 to ensure that Israelis were adequately tied to their history of Jewishness.

In the present context of the 21st century, this observation is particularly significant. Israel’s identity as a Jewish, “democratic” state has been under question by several international agents. In 2011, Adalah released a list of discriminatory laws in Israel that explicitly treat Jewish citizens favorably as compared to their Arab counterparts. (The Report stated that Israeli governments regularly enact legislation which excludes, ignores, and discriminates against the Palestinian Arab minority. One of the most cited legislations in the context is the 1950 Law of Return that allows every Jewish person to immigrate to Israel. [iii] On the other hand, the rights of Palestinians and others to enter the state and become citizens, even if they were born in the area that is now the State of Israel, are extremely restrictive. Further, the Knesset passed a law that empowers hundreds of local Jewish communities to exclude applicants based on ethnicity or religion. The Supreme Court of Israel upheld this law in September 2014.[iv] However, Israeli state authorities persist in their claim that they are non-discriminatory in their treatment of non-Jewish citizens.

If we turn to Arendt, back in 1961, she rejects the claim made by the Israeli state officials that the laws in Israel were neutral and “make no ethnic distinctions” between Jews and non-Jews- because she argued that the basis of the state was based on the specific identity of Jewishness. She explained prophetically that Israel would continue through the years to try to save this Jewish identity from merging in with other identities- and would root the identity of Jewishness in the memories of sufferings of the Holocaust that Ben-Gurion in 1961 considered to be “lessons” for every Israeli citizen. The efforts that Arendt faults the Gurion administration for in Israel are faults we see throughout the history of the country- as the country grapples with the tension of being uncompromisingly Jewish in its identity while still claiming that it is truly democratic in its character.

Arendt’s critics have argued that the Holocaust “plays a central role” in the politically motivated “defamation of Israel which aims, on the one hand, to deny legitimacy to the Jewish state in principle and, on the other, to indict the state, across the board, on moral grounds.” However, such arguments that assert that the linking of the holocaust with Israel’s present day actions are inherently anti-Semitic and lead to a pattern of ‘Israelophobia’ ignore the nuance of Arendt’s argument. Arendt’s work assists us in locating contemporary Israeli state action in a historical and political context. In contemporary times, it has become even more important to understand the effect of the Holocaust narrative in creating an Israeli identity rooted in Jewishness and the ramifications of this identity on a global scale. If referring to the Holocaust in understanding the present day politics of Israel is instinctively received with backlash and accusations of anti-Semitism, it acts as a reminder of Arendt’s life itself and the backlash that her work was met with.

‘The Politics of Betrayal: Why Arendt is Relevant for Contemporary India?

After the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt became the target of the most brutal kind of backlash. Not only did she alienate several of her friends by her criticism of the leaders of the Judenräte (Jewish councils) but also was subject to what has been termed as an “ex-communication” of Arendt by the Jewish community. Arendt was characterized by the president of the World Zionist Organization as a person without any “reverence for the unparalleled suffering and tragedy of the 6,000,000 who perished.” The Council of Israeli Jews from Germany wrote to her demanding that she withdraw the book from publication or face a “declaration of war.” The anger felt by the Jewish community translated into a hijack of her philosophical work into a political, divisive tool for the international community. In the midst of this battle, several scholars have noted, that Arendt, like she claimed, had been misunderstood and misquoted and spent years defending her Jewishness to her own people. Karl Jaspers, wrote to her at the height of the scandal saying that a time will come that she will not see when the Jews will erect a monument to her in Israel as they were just doing then for Spinoza. Like Spinoza, Arendt seems to prevail over the forces that tried hard to silence her voice.

In the year 2016, Arendt’s story is just as relevant to India as it is to Israel. In light of the public wave of anger against Indian intellectuals and university spaces, it is increasingly clear that the critique of intellectuals is a critique of an intellectual and political position that they inhabit- that of dissent. It has been noted in 2016 India the university and the army are being constructed at “opposite ends of the state apparatus”, one representing the culture of free thought explorations and the other representing the overarching might of the state. Beginning with the large scale backlash against historian Romila Thapar for expressing her concerns on the re-writing of Indian history to protect the idea of a Hindu India to the recent media attacks and malicious police complaints against JNU professor Nivedita Menon there seems to be a clear campaign against “intellectual” voices in university spaces.

Although several intellectuals have been targeted for years by governments in varied contexts, Arendt is specifically relevant to the Indian context for a host of reasons. First, the backlash faced today by Indian intellectuals is similar to the backlash against Arendt in a post-holocaust world in 1961- where she was targeted for “betraying her own people”- a charge levelled against several Indians today. This attack originates from the fact that Arendt, a Jew herself, was critical of her own identity, like Indian intellectuals have been heard criticizing the Indian government- a criticism that labelled them as “anti-India” and “anti-Hindu”. Arendt’s experience as a Jew dealing with one of the most sensitive issues of world history- the holocaust- and criticizing the oppressive Israeli regime acts was seen as an act of “betrayal” and against the loyalty that was expected from her towards her community. A similar politics of loyalty and betrayal seemingly characterizes the backlash against Indian intellectuals. Second, there are certain similarities between the Israel of Gurion that Arendt dissented against and the paradigm of the current governmental regime in India. Both regimes are committed an aggressive identity-based nationalism- from the pamphlets on Jewish identity and the promotional journalism in favor of Jewish Israel at Eichmann’s trial to the desperate efforts by the present Indian government to delete parts of Indian history that do not suit their narrative of a Hindu India. Third, both regimes are quick to label dissenters not just as wrong or misguided in their beliefs but specifically and tactically target their particular identity as “public intellectuals”- who have vested interests in furthering certain theories and allegedly represent an elitism that stands in contrast with the voice of the common people. Therefore, regimes that curb dissent in this manner are not merely standing against a Hannah Arendt or a Nivedita Menon; they are standing against their particular intellectual voices. Finally, these intellectual voices, therefore, find themselves in the distressing process of continually having to prove their loyalty towards their community while still attempting to advance critiques of oppressive regimes. Arendt stressed repeatedly on the fact that she was a proud Jew and condemned the Nazis and that her criticism was particularly of the Israeli regime- a similar process that Indian intellectuals find themselves entangled in as they advance critiques of an oppressive regime that is conveniently conflated as a critique of India or Hinduism in itself. [v] Therefore, Arendt’s story acts as a historical and political symbol against governments that fear and hence, restrict disagreeing and dissenting intellectual voices.


Resisting Cultures of “Thoughtlessness”

A fact that has often been ignored is that Arendt speaks of Eichmann as an “enemy of humanity”. However, her reasons for this are unconventional. Arendt sees Eichmann as “inhuman” because of his sheer state of “thoughtlessness.” His actions were rooted in absolute banality as opposed to the active process of thought- that Arendt’s philosophy locates as the root of the human spirit. The targeting of Arendt as a woman who dared to exercise her capacity of thought and the backlash against intellectuals and the spaces they occupy today is an attack on thought in itself- one that Arendt would argue legitimizes a culture of thoughtlessness. Regimes that discourage thought, empty public institutions and processes of their spirit of honest questioning.

Re-visiting Arendt poses tough questions onto contemporary Israel- about Jewish identity, the Holocaust and on violence against non-Jews by a “democratic”, yet aggressively Jewish regime. For India, reading Arendt builds a strong case for creating societies based on thought and action, on critical review and reflexive dissent and on the free exploration of thought- an aspect of human condition that we see regimes across the world today aiming to restrict. In a sense then, Arendt’s historical instruction against ‘thoughtlessness” is important not only for the general envisioning of global peace but also more specifically for good global governance.




Cocrelle, Gichele (2016) “Hamas Threatens Explosion in Israel”, Liberty Voice, April 28- See more at:

Beaumont, Peter (2016) “Israeli Prime Minister Rejects French Peace Conference Initiative”, The Guardian, April 28- See more at:


Simons, Ned (2016), “Ken Livingstone Suspended From Labour, Jeremy Corbyn Denies Party Is In ‘Crisis” Huffington Post, April 28- See more at:


Elon, Amos, (2006) “The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt,” World Policy Journal, Vol 23, No 4, pp 93–102.


Arendt, Hannah (1963): Eichmann in Jersulelam: A Report on the Banality of Evil, New York: Penguin.


Adalah (2011), The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, The Inequality Report: The Palestinian Arab Minority in Israel- March, See more at:


Yakira, Elhanan (2009), Post-Zionism, PostHolocaust: Three Essays on Denial, Forgetting, and the Delegitimation of Israel, Cambridge University Press.


Stern, Sol (2012), “Hannah Arendt and the Origins of Israelophobia”- See more at:


John, Mary and Satish Desphande, (2016) “Emptying the Idea of India”, The Hindu- See more at:


[i] Petitions were signed by historians, sociologists, authors, artists and other sections of a larger “intellectual community” as symbols of resistance against the present Indian governmental regime.

[ii] Otto Adolf Eichmann was particularly in charge of planning programs for the deportation of Jews out of Europe and eventually, the transportation of Jews to concentration camps.

[iii] The privilege given to Jews in the 1950 Law of Return extends to the children and grandchildren of Jews, as well as their spouses, and the spouses of their children and grandchildren.

[iv] The Israeli Court upheld the “Admissions Committees Law,” which allows rural towns in the Negev and Galilee to reject Palestinian citizens of Israel and other marginalized groups from residing in them on the basis that they are “unsuitable” for Jewish communities. It is a ruling that Israeli civil and human rights organizations have condemned as legalizing the practice of segregation. See: Silver, Charlotte (2014), “Israeli High Court Upholds Racist “Admission Committees” Law”, The Electronic Intifada, September 18: See more at-

[v] Although, Arendt found herself having to defend a religious identity of Jewishness and Indian intellectuals are often having to defend their national loyalty or patriotism, the parallel still holds relevance as the idea of India being constructed is an idea of a Hindu idea. Hence, religion and nationality are seen merging as identities causing a dilemma for individuals who try to severe these identities from each other.

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