Correspondence between Leni Yahil and Hannah Arendt

The letters between the Holocaust historian Leni Yahil and Hannah Arendt were just translated into English. They reveal yet another friend that Arendt lost in her coverage of the Eichmann trial. There are a numbers of gems in the letters- here is one.

Arendt saw the State of Israel and Golda Meir as having what Heine called an idolatrous version of monotheism in which the state represents God, rather than recognizing that every person is in the image of God. (Chief Rabbi Sacks quotes this line of Heine in several places.)

What terrifies me is simply that this people, which when all is said and done has after all believed for several thousand years in the God of justice, is starting now to cling to what in its religion Heine rightly called the unhealthy faith of ancient Egypt, because it helps them “believe in the Jewish People,² in other words, in itself. And this, if I may say so, is real idol worship. However pleasant the idol worshipers may be, as your friend[Golda Meir] is and was.

Yahil responds to the charge, yet still acknowledges the problems of justice in the new state.

1) It is the nature of idol worship – if I am not mistaken in my view – for man to project externally certain spiritual-mental realities [gegebene geistig-seelische Realitäten] which exist in him and in doing so make them absolute, in order in this way, as you also say, to achieve the desired self-affirmation. In this fashion the idol worshipper increases his self-confidence to the extent that he feels necessary in order to ensure that his actions will succeed (the “blessing of the gods”). It is precisely this undertaking that is taken ad absurdum in the famous scene between Elijah and the priests of Baal (I Kings 18). Just as the next chapter portrays the real relationship between the one that you call the “God of Justice” and man.

2) The danger of such idol worship exists on every level of human ideas. In our modern world, it is no less present in any “belief in the Jewish People” than, say, the postulate of abstract, intellectual or material values. This in no way detracts from the reality-based content and legitimacy of each of them, as long as they are not “idolized.” In other words, the decisive thing is not the “what,” but the “how” (see also the example of Elijah: the two bullocks which are sacrificed are exactly the same; in one case we have idolatry [Götzendienst], in the other case divine worship [Gottesdienst]).

3) If there is a single person (among those whom I know in this category) who does not cross this boundary, it is this very woman [Golda Meir] to whom you referred as my friend, a term I would not presume to use. In my opinion it is precisely this fact – the ability not to exceed the area of the powers laid down for an individual in his actions and thoughts – that explains this woman’s special and unvarying effect on people, irrespective of their skin color, culture or intellectuality… The attitude that she defended that evening when she was with us is a direct upshot of her desire not to coin new rules arbitrarily.

4) The problem, that the role that has been played by the “God of Justice” (or the merciful [God]) in the Western world has been shattered, is not a specifically Jewish problem, although – due to the special religious and historical circumstances – it does admittedly have a specifically Jewish expression. Everywhere the strange question is asked, about man no longer being created in God’s image, but God in the image of man. I don’t really think that I need to explain to you that in this situation, there is little that we can do other than to delve into man’s situation – The Human Condition[6] – as faithfully and dispassionately as possible, without anyone today probably being able to give a satisfactory intellectual, let alone a religious answer. I cannot think of a single example where in any other religion consequently part of its rules or institutions were given up – without anybody taking this amissŠ I admit, that with us [the Jews], things are more complicated. But the fact that for thousands of years religion was a substitute for a State and as such created institutions which are now coming into conflict with the modern institutions of restored State-level life – this fact alone does not yet entitle us to introduce new rules by force. One cannot leap over one’s past, or alternatively doing so is normally punished very harshly. In addition, it seems to me that Heine of all people is a questionable authority in this area. (Don’t misunderstand me: I agree with you that there are things in this area that make one’s hair stand on end, and we have recently had several examples of this. But force won’t work. As has been said – there is also idol worship of principle.)

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