Fathom Highlight: Russell Berman on Judith Butler on Hannah Arendt

Representing the Trial: Judith Butler Reads Hannah Arendt Reading Adolf Eichmann (from Fathom 12)

Russell A. Berman

Judith Butler is one of the world’s most influential academics and public intellectuals and a leading supporter of the BDS movement. In this Fathom essay, Russell Berman of Stanford University critiques Butler’s (ab)use of Hannah Arendt’s controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem to support her own emphatically anti-Zionist conclusions. Russell shows how Arendt’s reservations about a single judicial act is illegitimately inflated by Butler into a fundamental rejection of the state. He traces the changing representation of justice from Arendt’s reading of Eichmann to Butler’s reading of Arendt, from the critique of the trial to the rejection of the state.


In 1961 Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Shoah, was apprehended in Argentina by Israeli agents and brought to Jerusalem where he was put on trial, convicted and executed. The trial was a turning point in the history of Holocaust jurisprudence and the judicial treatment of human rights crimes more generally. Hannah Arendt reported on the trial for The New Yorker, and her accounts, published as the book Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963, provoked an enormous controversy, not the least because its subtitle, A Report on the Banality of Evil, was understood (or misunderstood) to trivialise the crimes. Yet there were many other dimensions to the criticism of the book, driven in part by the fact that Arendt had taken the occasion of the trial to express her own antagonism toward David Ben-Gurion and her reservations about the shape the Zionist project had assumed. Was it Eichmann who was on trial or did Arendt treat the State of Israel as the ultimate defendant?

Much of this debate is well known, and is in any case too extensive to treat exhaustively here. However, posing the question today is appropriate because the contemporary American scholar, Judith Butler, draws specifically on Arendt’s account in Eichmann in Jerusalem to support her own emphatically anti-Zionist conclusions in her 2014 volume Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. While Arendt raised doubts about the character of the Eichmann trial, especially the prosecutor, Butler magnifies Arendt’s position into a fundamental rejection of the state, not merely the single judicial act. For both however the problem of reaching and representing justice is central to their respective and very different arguments.

I will trace aspects of the transformed representation of justice from Arendt’s reading of Eichmann to Butler’s reading of Arendt, from the critique of the trial to the rejection of the state. The story spans half a century and therefore can be thought of as a kind of reception history of the trial. It is also an object lesson in the indeterminacy of the political values of ideas, insofar as Arendt, an ultimately conservative political theoretician, curiously turns into a source for Butler who understands herself unambiguously as a thinker of the left.

This conceptual journey from right to left is intertwined with another trajectory, from Arendt’s early Zionism to a more distanced relationship to Israel. The significance of the anti-Zionist overtones in Eichmann in Jerusalem become all the more pronounced against the backdrop of Arendt’s enthusiastic embrace of Zionism during the 1940s. This is not the place to trace the complexities of the competing Zionist political programs that were debated during the darkest days of war and genocide. Suffice it to say that Arendt, during her first years in the United States, appeared to live up to a primary tenet of her philosophy, an advocacy for politics as public action. She participated in and identified with the Zionist movement, thus, for example insisting at one point on the need to raise a Jewish army to fight the Germans, and she celebrated the Warsaw uprising by placing it in the context of a long Jewish national history: ‘Honor and glory are new words in the political vocabulary of our people. We should perhaps have to go back to the days of the Maccabees to hear such language.’ Referring to the novelty of the terminology, Arendt implies the emergence of a new Jew, akin to the ‘new man’ of modernism and socialism, now casting off the subaltern degradation of the past and achieving a genuine political nationality: ‘To the extent that the Jew is disappearing, Jews have come to life: organising, fighting, proud of their flag and deeds, suffering and hoping for a better future—a nationality like the other nationalities who sprang from the fostering soil of Western history.’ READ MORE