As a college student in the 1960s, Shalom Carmy first read Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, which had been recommended to him by his rabbinic mentor Aharon Lichtenstein. He found much in it to be admired. At the time, the controversies in intellectual Jewish circles over Arendt’s best-known—and deeply flawed—book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, meant little to him. Although Carmy never lost his appreciation for Arendt’s more sophisticated works, he describes how his attitude toward her changed:
I can put my finger on the moment when . . . I first reacted against Arendt’s attitudes about Judaism and Jews. During the Eichmann controversy, her mentor and friend, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, bucked her up by comparing her critics with the Jewish thinkers who rejected Spinoza’s philosophy. . . . If Jaspers could demonize Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig, the two leading German Jewish thinkers of the early 20th century, credentialed by the best German universities, merely because they objected to Spinoza’s pantheism and his rejection of his people, what about Jews who are not intellectual grandees?
Suddenly, Arendt’s snide disparagement of the Eichmann prosecutor Gideon Hausner as a “Galician Jew,” “one of those people who probably don’t know any language,” and her distaste for Oriental Jews who spoke Hebrew and looked like Arabs, became comprehensible to me. They manifested less a snobbish affectation than a pattern of thoughtlessness.
Hannah Arendt is said to have valued friendship enormously. When [her erstwhile friend, the scholar of Jewish mysticism] Gershom Scholem accused her of lacking love for the Jewish people, her response was that she felt love only for her friends. She was committed to helping her friends and fiercely loyal. It is sad, and it diminishes her, to know that her circle of human understanding was constricted by the conceit of cultural superiority and cleverness.
In this respect, Arendt illuminates a universal human condition. The enclosed fraternity of those who imagine themselves uniquely gifted is a perennial temptation for all of us, and particularly for intellectuals who attach exaggerated value to their parochial feelings of solidarity. Hannah Arendt may not have intended to offer this warning to philosophers of friendship, but we ignore it at our peril.