Exile, Law and Human Attachment. Seyla Benhabib on Hannah Arendt and Judith Shklar

By Steffen Andrae

Some of the most important 20th century intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt, Judith Shklar, Theodor W. Adorno and Isaiah Berlin have two things in common: They come from Jewish families and they fled from anti-Semitic persecution and discrimination. To examine possible cerebral affinities between these thinkers relating to their historical experience as exiled Jewish intellectuals is an endeavor that Seyla Benhabib has worked on extensively. At the annual Martin Buber Lecture on Jewish Intellectual History and Philosophy, the Eugene Mayer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University presented some sections from her new book called Exile, Statelessness and Migration. The event was co-organized by the Cluster of Excellence “The Formation of Normative Orders” and took place on June 11th 2018 at Goethe-University Frankfurt.
Benhabib introduced her new book as a composition of selected philosophical-political profiles. Exile, Statelessness and Migration tracks the intertwinement of the lives and thoughts of exiled Jewish intellectuals as they confronted flight, homelessness and the devastating consequences of the First and Second World War. Although, as she pointed out, a discussion of Arendt and Shklar might seem far from Buber’s thought, it actually is not. Both Arendt’s and Shklar’s conditions as well as their thinking was closely linked with their Jewish origins, regardless of their identification, belief or practice. “The Jewish question”, said Benhabib, “is never absent from their writings.” 1939, at the age of eleven, Shklar’s family fled Latvia from World War II to Canada via Sweden, the Soviet Union, Japan and the United States. Shklar eventually studied in Montreal and later went to Harvard to do a PhD. There she would meet Hannah Arendt at one of the symposia organized by Carl Joachim Friedrich, a German-American professor and political theorist. Arendt herself had left Germany after a brief imprisonment by the Gestapo in 1933. Following stays in Czechoslovakia and Switzerland she managed to get to Paris, from where she fled after the German invasion of France.
In 1963, two years after the Eichmann trial, Arendt published her widely received report Eichmann in Jerusalem which sparked off an intense public controversy. Only one year later and over the course of the ongoing discussion, Shklar’s writing Legalism, an essay on Law, Morals, and Political Trials came out. Although the book was meant to “stir up controversy”, it was largely ignored at the time. In it, Shklar distinguishes between Legalism as ideology, as creative policy, and as an ethos of the law, promoting a conception of law that does not insulate it from politics as well as from morals. According to Legalism, as Benhabib pointed out, neither the functioning nor the potential of law can be grasped through the lenses of a legal formalism that deduces law’s capacity to coerce and to regulate social life from the facticity of the law itself. Following Arendt in going beyond a purely legalistic position, Shklar is trying to understand and promote law as part of a political and social continuum. The Nuremberg Trials, according to her reading, are an example of a rather progressive understanding of the potentials of legalism, applying it as a creative policy. “What makes the Nuremberg Trial so remarkable”, Shklar writes, “is that it was a great legalistic act, the most legalistic of all possible policies, and, as such, a powerful inspiration to legalistic ethos.” This effectiveness was possible only because the crimes against humanity were the moral center of the case. On the other hand, the fact that the will of the Führer was more or less equivalent with the law in Nazi Germany shows legalism in its most problematic form: as blind obedience to orders and the law of the land, no matter how perverse and criminal they are.
Benhabib highlighted that in her later writings Shklar’s tone toward Arendt changed from recognition and respect to impatience and even dismissiveness. In an essay published in The New Republic in 1975 shortly after Arendt’s death, Shklar still conceives of Arendt as one of the very last and finest voices of a shattered culture, “one of the last survivors of a spiritual republic whose social history was as terrible and brief as it was intellectually radiant and enduring”. However, Shklar dismisses Arendt’s alleged position as speaker for the experiences of German Jewry in her 1983 essay Hannah Arendt as Pariah. Shklar develops a twofold criticism: Firstly, she problematizes Arendt’s distinction between Pariah and Parvenu made in her book on Rahel Vernhagen, arguing it is a sign of ultimate snobbery. For Shklar, Arendt’s attempt to formulate general statements regarding the structural problems of Jewish integration in Europe is fed by an extraordinary ignorance towards the infinitely complex and diverse communities of Eastern Europe. Secondly, Shklar accuses Arendt of a general lack of love for the Jewish people which was seemingly manifest in Eichmann in Jerusalem. She perceives the Jewish self-implication that Arendt’s book evidenced solely as a problematic absence of belonging and respect that inflicts cruelty and pain on the Jewish community. What caused this outburst 20 years after the publication of Arendt’s report? One suspicion that Benhabib expressed was that the Arendt-Heidegger affair, which was firstly revealed 1982, was deeply disappointing and troubling for Shklar. Arendt, according to Shklar, not only understood Heidegger, unlike most of his admirers, she also “was and remained under his philosophical spell.”
In one of her last essays, Obligation, Loyalty and Exile, Shklar returned once more to questions of human attachment, especially in connection with exile and migration. And once more, Arendt was a huge influence. The most characteristic conflict of the age of National Socialism, Shklar argues according to Benhabib, is the conflict between obligation and loyalty. The former she conceives of as rule-governed conduct referring to laws and law-like demands made by public authorities, the latter she characterizes as attachment to a social group in which membership may or may not be chosen. In the age of the modern nation state, where state and nationality do not necessarily coincide, such conflicts of attachment are bound to increase. By examining the fate of exiles, Shklar was hoping to gain some understanding of the conflicts inherent in such multiple loyalties. In her understanding, the exile, unlike the refugee, is not obliged to leave but leaves out of conflict of obligation and allegiances. This somewhat questionable distinction, Benhabib explained, is due to the fact that Shklar’s analysis of exile is principally modelled after the political dissident, the prisoner of conscience and the resistance fighter. Irrespective of these nuances, Shklar’s laconic cultural and political diagnosis of the early 90’s seems almost prophetical nowadays: “The dreadful reality of our world is that no one wants to accept this huge exiled population. What they need is a place to go, and these are increasingly hard to find.” Regarding the question of accommodation, Shklar agrees with Arendt that refusing human beings membership in a polity because they speak a different language, practice a different religion and belong to a different race or ethnicity is wrong. However, their understandings of politics were clearly distinct. Whereas for Arendt, politics at its best makes us come closer to the better angels of our nature and enables us to build new worlds, relationships and narratives, Shklar was a sceptic but not a cynic. Although she shared with Arendt the idea of a just liberal society, she also gave more weight to the unmasking critique of political hypocrisy, ambiguity and cowardice. In Shklar, the liberal claim for social diversity and plurality goes hand in hand with a profound sense of the fragility of liberal institutions. Nowadays, these institutions seem to be at stake. Whether a mainly normative self-criticism of Liberalism is enough to meet the challenges of new mass migration, increasing social divisions and the rise of authoritarianism is up for discussion.


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