reading Arendt on the 1915 centenary, right before a trip to Israel

I’ve been meaning to read Hannah Arendt for some time; I came across her Eichmann in Jerusalem as I was looking for a Jerusalem guidebook on the internet before my trip to Israel at the end of this month, but I decided to start with Responsibility and Judgement, a collection that includes the texts she wrote in the final decade of her life.

I initially had doubts about whether I should be going to Israel or not, but then decided to go, partly because I know that my personal boycott is not going to help any causes, and I’m from Turkey, after all, and I’m not boycotting my own country (see the last quote below). I’m going there to see Jewish history and culture – which are obviously not to blame – and the lifestyles of ordinary Israelis – many of whom don’t have much to do with their country’s foreign policy. I hope to be able to catch a glimpse of Israeli-Arab culture as well, I want to go to East Jerusalem. Perhaps, in an effort to settle any remaining doubts, I am reading a collection on moral philosophy by a Jewish philosopher, because by doing so, I can use this travel opportunity also to gain some understanding of the Israeli psyche and untangle moral questions about the occupation of Palestine. You don’t need any justifications to read Arendt of course but as I am explaining below, the book appeals to my mindset as a reader these days.


monument at Tsitsernakaberd

The essays, discussing issues like moral judgement, conscience, vice, virtue, and collective guilt, tie in very well with what’s going on as the 100th anniversary of 24 April 1915, marking the tragedy that befell Ottoman Armenians, draws near. The book is giving me pointers as to how I should address my personal feelings of guilt, frustration and anger on this matter. Obviously you cannot put your mind at ease simply by reading a book but I see it as my duty as a citizen to engage in critical reflection on the history of my country. Watching events unfold in the media, especially those reactions motivated by nationalist sentiments (for example, this), is disturbing enough, so I am doing this in the hope that it will give me moral clarity.

I’m going to write here the sentences I have underlined until now (I’m at page 208). I know they lose much of their relevance when they are reproduced out of context like this, and I’m even worried some may sound misleading, so I urge anyone confused by these to go and read the book:

The moral issue arose only with the phenomenon of “coordination,” that is, not with fear-inspired hypocrisy, but with this very early eagerness not to miss the train of History […]. In brief, what disturbed us was the behavior not of our enemies but our friends, who had done nothing to bring this situation about. They were not responsible for the Nazis, they were simply impressed by the Nazi success and unable to pit their own judgement against the verdict of History, as they read it (24).

Morally speaking, it is as wrong to feel guilty without having done anything specific as it is to feel free of all guilt if one actually is guilty of something. I have always regarded it as the quintessence of moral confusion that during the postwar period in Germany those who personally were completely innocent assured each other and the world at large how guilty they felt, while very few of the criminals were prepared to admit even the slightest remorse. The result of this spontaneous admission of collective guilt was of course a very effective, though unintended, whitewash of those who had done something: as we have already seen, where all are guilty, no one is (28).

Politically, the weakness of the argument has always been that those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil. Since the evil of the Third Reich finally was so monstrous that by no stretch of the imagination could it be called a “lesser evil” […]. Acceptance of lesser evils is consciously used in conditioning the government officials as well as the population at large to the acceptance of evil as such (36-37).

For the moral point of the matter is never reached by calling what happened by the name of “genocide” or by counting the many millions of victims: extermination of whole peoples had happened before in antiquity, as well as in modern colonization. It is reached only when we realize that this happened within the frame of a legal order and that the cornerstone of this “new law” consisted of the command “Thou shall not kill,” not thy enemy but innocent people who were not even potentially dangerous, and not for any reason of necessity but, on the contrary, even against all military and other utilitarian considerations (42).

“[A]ll governments”, in the words of Madison, even the most autocratic ones, even tyrannies, “rest on consent,” and the fallacy lies in the equation of consent with obedience. An adult consents where a child obeys; if an adult is said to obey, he actually supports the organization of the authority or the law that claims “obedience” (46).

It is only in a metaphorical sense that we can say we feel guilty for the sins of our fathers and our people or mankind, in short, for deeds we have not done, although the course of events may well make us pay for them. And since sentiments of guilt, mens rea or bad conscience, the awareness of wrong doing, play such an important role in our legal and moral judgement, it may be wise to refrain from such metaphorical statements which, when taken literally, can only lead into a phony sentimentality in which all real issues are obscured. We call compassion what I feel when somebody else suffers; and this feeling is authentic only so long as I realize that it is, after all, not I but somebody else who suffers. But it is true, I think, that “solidarity is a necessary condition” for such emotions; which, in our case of collective guilt feelings would mean that the cry “We are all guilty” is actually a declaration of solidarity with the wrongdoers (147-148).

I particularly find her comments regarding political (collective) responsibility and legal (personal) guilt insightful. I remember reading a review of Fatma Müge Göçek’s new book Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present and Collective Violence Against the Armenians 1789-2009 with the title “Not Guilty but Responsible”, maybe she does draw from Arendt.

In this sense, we are always held responsible for the sins of our fathers as we reap the rewards of their merits; but we are of course not guilty of their misdeeds, either morally or legally, nor can we ascribe their deeds to our own merits. We can escape this political and strictly collective responsibility only by leaving the community, and since no man can live without belonging to some community, this would simply mean to exchange one community for another and hence one kind of responsibility for another (150).

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