“Murderers with the power to murder descended upon a defenseless people and murdered a large part of it. What else is there to say?”
So wrote Norman Podhoretz in his scathing 1963 essay on Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt, a German Jewish refugee and the world’s foremost theorist of totalitarianism, had travelled to Israel to witness the historic trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. But rather than writing a fair-minded report on the Jewish people’s first opportunity in millennia to try one of their oppressors, Arendt used the occasion to offer her own theory of Eichmann’s character, Jews’ complicity in their own slaughter, and what she called the “banality of evil.”
Arendt’s coverage of the trial sent shockwaves through the coterie of New York Jewish intellectuals of which she had been an admired member. Writing in Commentary magazine, Podhoretz showed himself to be among her harshest critics. His essay is a clarion call for moral clarity that seeks to expose how Arendt’s brilliance distorts her ability to see Nazis for what they were and evil for what it is.
In this podcast, Tikvah Distinguished Senior Fellow Ruth Wisse joins Eric Cohen to discuss Eichmann’s trial, Arendt’s theory of it, and Podhoretz’s piercing critique. They discuss what motivated Arendt to write as she did and analyze why this moment proved to be so momentous in the intellectual evolution of many American Jewish thinkers. Wisse and Cohen show that while the Eichmann trial may be behind us, the perversity of brilliance against which Podhoretz inveighed is still very much alive today.
Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble, as well as Ich Grolle Nicht, by Ron Meixsell and Wahneta Meixsell.
This podcast was recorded in front of a live audience at the Tikvah Center in New York City.