Every literate person has a secret list of books that every literate person is assumed to have read but that he has not. And occasionally in a weak moment he reveals a little piece of the secret, a book or an author that he has somehow never got around to.

For me, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963, rev 1964) was one of these books. I was a student at Johns Hopkins during the time of the Eichmann trial, so cut off from the world that for years I was unaware of the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco. By the time I had become familiar with Arendt’s work, The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition in particular, I had heard so many bad things about the Eichmann book that I was not disposed to read it. Arendt had been particularly reviled for her unsympathetic attitude toward the members of the Jewish Councils (Judenräte) obliged to deal with the Nazis during the Holocaust, an attitude of superiority easy to assume from the security of the United States. And her insistence on the artificiality of the “show trial” and its propagandistic function in Israel was a slap in the face to the authority behind the kidnapping of Eichmann from Argentina, Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion.

Finally reading the book, still very much in circulation, in the context of the antisemitism project that Adam Katz and I have been working on produced something of a surprise. Although Arendt was a famously arrogant yekke, as the Jews of the Russian pale called the urbanized Jews of Germany (yekke being Yiddish for jacket), I did not find her irony particularly harsh, and above all felt that her critics were unfair in attributing to her a position above the fray, when she considered it her duty, precisely as one who had herself escaped the horror, to attempt to define the peculiar moral universe within which Eichmann operated, along with the other Nazis and “good Germans” as well as the Jews themselves insofar as they were forced to participate, however unwillingly, in the process.

Despite Arendt’s commitment to concrete historical analysis and her impatience with the notion of an “eternal” or transhistorical Jew-hatred, the Eichmann book willy-nilly puts into question the circumstantial analysis of antisemitism in her earlier The Origins of Totalitarianism (1848, rev 1976). Arendt reproaches Ben-Gurion and the prosecution with treating the Holocaust, and consequently Eichmann’s part in it, as the result of a “foreordained destiny” of Jewish persecution, and scornfully points out that the prosecution’s insistence on the eternity of antisemitism tempted Eichmann’s defender to suggest that the motives behind the Holocaust were “beyond understanding” and consequently could not establish his client’s guilt. Yet the very horror of the Holocaust at the same time puts this rejection of “eternal antisemitism”—although in no way the guilt of Eichmann and the other Nazis—into question. The genocidal nature of Nazi anti-Judaism revealed something new not just about “totalitarianism” but about the place of the Jews in the Western world. The question as to whether it is the genocide itself that was unique or the Jews’ special relationship with the West that made a “final solution” an eternal temptation is not posed specifically, but it remains in the wings throughout the Eichmann book, and even the apparently unrelated question of the “banality of evil” is all but inseparable from it.

Because the Holocaust puts a unique emphasis on the ancient idea that the Jews deserve special opprobrium for whatever they do on their own behalf, whether they attempt to earn money—by exploiting non-Jews is a “special” way—or to have their own country—by treating the previous inhabitants in a “special” way—it obliges us to seek a “special,” transhistorical category for the object of “the longest hatred.” This hatred is itself a self-reinforcing sign of “election” that generates resentment against the Jews. Perhaps we have learned from the renewal of antisemitism in recent decades that there must be something more to it than a series of hostile reactions to the given historical circumstances in which the Jews found themselves. The classic dialogue answering the question of who was to blame for WWI, “The Jews and the bicyclists!” “Why the bicyclists?” “Why the Jews?” can take us only so far.

In Science and Faith I interpreted Jesus’ apparition to Saul on the road to Damascus as a demonstration of his divinity from the fact of his persecution. Saul’s hostile obsession with Jesus’ followers is made to provide proof that he already shares their object of worship. But I might also have pointed out that the New Testament concentrates in a single individual what was already the paradoxical firstness of the Jewish people—the difference, heavy with consequences, being that the Jews as a people cannot like the crucified Jesus offer themselves for worship. They do offer their God, and both Christians and Muslims are willing to worship him, although neither could give full credit to the Jews for having discovered/invented him. But if persecution is tantamount to worship, then the Jews have been worshipped throughout history, culminating (but surely not ending) in Hitler’s attempt to make Christianity’s sacrificial conjunction literally true by doing to the Jews as a people what the Romans had done to one Jewish man.

As Girard emphasizes in Des choses cachées…, the Jewish religion is the “highest” form of worldly religion. Whether Christianity’s addition of a new layer of transcendence to the simple Jewish covenant between God and Man is “necessary,” its overall success suggests that it was a so to speak inevitable experiment at “going beyond” Judaism and the Jewish nation. In this respect, the Holocaust suggested to many that the experiment had failed. Although the Nazis were anything but good Christians, they were deviant heirs of the Christian tradition in which their antisemitism had its roots. That Arendt tended to minimize this fact in her study of antisemitism in The Origins of Totalitarianism reflected her disinclination to liberate herself fully from the philosophical universe in which she was originally trained, where Jewish firstness has no legitimate place. Whatever distance his apologists (including Arendt herself) might want to place between Heidegger and Nazism, he clearly had a favorable reaction to National Socialism’s rejection of the Jews as the originary nation, that is, as one whose relationship with God was not (or better, minimally) rooted like that of the Germans in the “Apollonian” soil—to use Ivan Slezkine’s pregnant distinction between “rooted” Apollonians and “rootless” Mercurians in The Jewish Century (Princeton, 2004).

Thus one crux of the Eichmann book (the Christian core of this term is not accidental) is the degree to which Jew-hatred is universal or arbitrary. For a Girardian–and I increasingly think that the task of adherents of GA is not to “deviate” from Girard, but to be the best Girardians, those who understand his concepts most deeply, in particular his key concept of the scapegoat-emissary victim–the status of the Jews as the scapegoat people is central. Its personal incarnation in Jesus must not lead us to avoid the question of the originary status of the Jews into whose collective shoes Jesus was made to step. Thus another way of putting the above reflection on Girard is in terms of Judaism and Christianity: what is it that Christianity has taken over from Judaism? If Christian “monism” conflates the peripheral people with the central divinity, what is it in the Jewish experience that makes this comprehensible, not to say, necessary? And in the context of her Eichmann book, how does Arendt’s reflection on the Holocaust help us to answer this question?

In The Origins Arendt insists that the historical moment of antisemitism corresponds to the becoming-superfluous, if not of the Jews themselves, then of their specific function as an “international” nation, one exemplified by the Rothschild brothers, each of whom was located in a different European capital and whose bank(s) could consequently accomplish more than any localized one. This role was itself an extension of the Early Modern function of the “court Jew,” as typified by “Jew Süss” Oppenheimer in the duchy of Württemberg, whose tragic end was immortalized by Veit Harlan in the most notorious of all Nazi films. The Nazis, one might say, defined themselves against Jew Süss, the supposedly indispensable but in fact parasitic and corrupting “court Jew,” who retained the privileges of his caste, or at any rate its wealth, while no longer serving a “useful” social function.

Needless to say, historical realities need to be examined in detail; they cannot be blithely assimilated to “concepts” in the Hegelian dialectic leading to “the end of history” (although I wish Francis Fukuyama had worked a bit harder at adapting this term to historical reality instead of attempting to demonstrate its pertinence in its original Hegelian terms). But even if following Arendt we stipulate that obsolete Jewish privilege was a determining factor in the emergence of modern antisemitism, it is still possible to point out the “conceptual” interest of emphasizing the latter’s continuity with earlier forms of Judeophobia. To take the similar case of the old landed aristocracy, which in 18th-century France retained many privileges that in England had become converted into economic ones, provoking a violent revolution that the English avoided, this caste was wholly defined by its privileged role in European society. This was, like that of the Jews, an international role, and we know the powerful effect of the sans-culottes’ loathing of Marie Antoinette, l’Autrichienne. But the Jews, whatever privileges they may have been granted on occasion, were more than just a privileged/stigmatized class within the European nations in which they resided. They were a nation unto themselves—the oldest nation—and any functions they may have carried out as “court Jews” or international bankers derived from that status rather than the other way around.

No doubt the decline of the importance of Jewish banking after the start of the “imperialist” era in the last third of the 19th century made the Jews more vulnerable to antisemitic attacks. But that is only to say that they owed their (temporary, relative) lack of persecution to the indispensable nature of their services. When they were nothing but “dispensable” bankers and merchants, instead of blending in with the crowd, they were singled out for attack, and their diminished power fantasized as a conspiracy of world domination. It is hard to imagine that the Jewish contribution to the economy (say in lending money) was objectively “less useful” than that of Christians performing similar functions. If antisemites resented Jewish wealth, it was not because the Jews “deserved” it less than other wealthy participants in the economy; it was because they were perceived as belonging to an alien nation whose riches, however integrated economically, were felt to be separate from those of the national community.

Ironically, the Jews were at the same time making great efforts to become integrated into those communities, notably in Germany and Austria, where their presence was being systematically resented. In this regard, Slezkine’s Mercurian-Apollonian analysis, although it does not quite grasp the uniqueness of the Jews, captures the essence of the situation better than Arendt’s. As Marx had already put it, in modern bourgeois society, the Christians had become Jews, in the sense of participating in the bourgeois market. The Jewish proficiency in Mercurian pursuits reflected their separation from the Apollonian Blut und Boden, but its ultimate foundation was the Jews’ originary covenant with “their” God. The difference, in a word, can be summed up as that between an originary, hence maximally abstract relationship to the sacred, mediated by the sacred words of the Torah, and every other, necessarily more territory-based relationship. Much could be said about the “dialectical” emphasis of Christian and post-Christian antisemites such as Voltaire on the “materialism” of Jewish ethics in contrast with the conceptual purity of Christian morality. The separation of “pure” morality and real territorial polity was the secret of the success of the Western Christian nations, but its roots lay in the ethical unity of the Jewish nation. GA permits us to trace this separation, the original sin of metaphysics, back to its originary roots.

In Eichmann, Arendt no longer needs to repeat her earlier analysis; the Nazis’ expulsion and extermination of the Jews is so extreme as to render nugatory any conceivable evidence of Jewish “parasitism.” If the Holocaust had one positive outcome, it was in making clear theabsolute nature of antisemitism as reflecting the originary role of the Jewish nation as the discoverer/inventor of monotheism. To exterminate the Jews is to universalize the non-originary relationship of the nations (goyim) to the sacred; it is, in effect, to abolish the anthropological discovery principle that the Jews embody, to destroy the path they offer back to the scene of human origin. The Germans-Aryans could be “first” only by annihilating those who were historically first. Indeed, this destruction fetishizes Jewish firstness as demonic, as being itself a blasphemous intrusion on the sacred—whence antisemitism’s obsession with black-mass images, most notably in the “blood libel.” But for the Jews, their firstness is nothing but a sign of God’s confidence in establishing their human status as first among equals.

No doubt the most celebrated detail of the Eichmann book, one that has relevance both beyond the Holocaust and for our understanding of the Holocaust, is the catch-phrase that ends the main part of the book and that Arendt used as her subtitle, although she nowhere explicitly discusses it in the text: the banality of evil. Linked to this, although not in an obvious way, are the harsh words for the Judenräte that many found so offensive.

Arendt accuses these Jewish Councils set up by the German occupiers, generally by coopting the local Jewish leadership, of having involuntarily facilitated the extermination process by providing lists of individual Jews and their properties, even collecting their keys, and encouraging them to obey assembly orders for “evacuation.” No doubt only an extremely arrogant person, as Arendt no doubt was, could turn so cold an eye on those who were, as she was not, forced to make what they thought were the best choices under the most hellish circumstances. Even in cases where one might accuse these Jewish officials of (no doubt unconsciously) setting their own self-interest over those of the general Jewish population, one must always admit that under such extreme duress none of us know how strong we would be in resisting not only brute force but the hopeful delusion that cooperating “will make things better.” This is particularly true when fig leaves were available to make cowardice appear as reasonable prudence. As Arendt herself illustrates in the case of Dutch Jews who attempted resistance and who were slowly tortured to death, non-cooperation with Nazi officials could well have had dire consequences, and not necessarily for the Jewish counselors alone. Indeed, although we find it repugnant to think of such things, Nazi extermination methods (gas or a bullet in the back of the neck) provided their victims with a relatively “easy death,” one that, as Arendt points out in a wickedly ironic passage, Germans contemplating mass suicide at the end of the war thought of as something to envy. (She has an imaginary German personage complain in the last line of Chapter 6, “And now all that good, expensive gas has been wasted on the Jews!”)

“The banality of evil” is an expression of the limits of human goodness, of humanity’s capacity to be responsible even in the worst of times for the deferral of violence. Some collectivities, such as the Danes, showed themselves to be far nobler than others, and Arendt gives several examples where Nazi fanaticism gave way when deporting Jews from a given locality ran into determined resistance. But the success of the Danes could hardly be used as an argument against the members of Jewish councils in Czechoslovakia or Poland. Circumstance is the main determining factor, and the latitude for action of the King of Denmark cannot be compared with that of even the most “dictatorial” of Jewish leaders, such as Leo Baeck (who survived the war), whose scornful description as “the Jewish Führer” of Theresienstadt Arendt removed when her New Yorker articles were converted into a book.

The terrifying aspect of “the banality of evil” is that once social norms, however monstrous, are established, the path of least resistance for all concerned is to follow them. One of the most unfortunate calumnies to which Arendt was subjected was that with the “banality” idea she had exonerated Eichmann for his crimes. On the contrary, she sought to make us vigilant lest we assume that we will find the evil of such as Eichmann overtly repellent in its Satanic nature. She wants us to be aware that Satan does not merely tempt us with power and pleasure; he tempts us most successfully with the comfortable feeling of banality.

Thus the great lesson of Eichmann’s “banality of evil” for our own time and place is not to be sure to protest when we see our neighbors leaving for the gas chambers, but to be vigilant lest the appearance of a well-ordered democratic society permit bureaucratic rules to mask the fundamental values of human decency. The same tendencies that allowed a conscientious bureaucrat such as Eichmann to become, if not the mastermind the prosecution claimed, in any case an active, willing instrument of an inhumanly murderous policy are present in a lesser form in our own society.

Before we think we have been cured of any such temptation, we should remember that the Nazis’ bullying, like that of the Bolsheviks, was founded on the resentful conviction that they were the victims. Nazism was successful because, under the difficult circumstances in which Hitler came to power, the Germans were all too happy to see themselves as victims of the treachery (der Dolchstoss, the stab in the back) of rapacious, power-hungry Jews. Ironically, the conscience-free ease with which today we defend and espouse the resentments of officially recognized groups of “victims” derives a supplement of self-righteousness from the Holocaust; yet it is in its essence as old as humanity.

We might like to imagine that the great killers of old, the Attilas and Genghis Khans, killed for the mere pleasure of self-assertion. Perhaps a conqueror needs no supplement of resentful rage to realize that a pile of skulls is a powerful publicity device. But whatever Nietzsche willed himself to think of the matter, the monstrous exercisers of the will to power in the modern world, whether in Cambodia or Rwanda or wearing suicide vests, act quite transparently out of resentment. Which is to say that, far from indulging like the Marquis de Sade in the Satanic dream of seeing themselves as evil incarnate, they consider themselves not as oppressing, but as avenging themselves on their oppressor. The Nazis, in this regard, were merely responding to Edouard Drumont’s despairing call in La France juive (1886) for the “Aryans” to awaken to and from their despoliation by the Jews. No doubt it is easier to act out one’s resentment toward a helpless minority than to one capable of adding your skull to his pile. Jewish powerlessness, in conjunction with the Jews’ millennial survival on the sheer strength of their firstness, make up the fundamental configuration of antisemitism through the ages. It is not simply sympathy for the Palestinian Arabs that makes the existence of powerful Israel a scandal.

But just as the Jews are no longer the sheep of old going to the slaughter, the victimary position they once occupied out of necessity has become consciously, if not quite honestly, coveted, not simply for the unique glory of the scapegoat (think of Camus’ L’étranger, whose resentful pose Girard exposed in a seminal PMLA article), but as a means of self-advancement. One explanation for America’s extraordinary litigiousness is that it permits the victim to seek revenge on the “oppressor,” or tortfeasor in judicial terminology.

Once the victimary paradigm has established itself, evil’s sheer banality far outstrips anything known in Eichmann’s day. The “objective observer” had little trouble after or even during the fact in grasping the moral monstrosity of the Nazis massacring the “parasitical” Jews, the Hutus slaughtering the “haughty” Tutsis, the Khmer Rouge exterminating their French-speaking or glasses-wearing betters. But in the realm of postmodern victimocracy, who is the victim and who is the victimizer is not so easily determined.

As always, the victim claims the right to be compensated for her victimhood. As did the Nazis, the Hutus, the Khmer Rouge, and La Fontaine’s wolf taking revenge on the lamb (Si ce n’est toi, c’est donc ton frère) for his persecution by the latter’s human friends. Ah, say the victimocrats, but now, things are different. Now those who seek revenge against their oppressors are truly victims. After all, they belong to officially recognized victim categories. How could their cause possibly have anything in common with that of the great monsters of history?

We will never know how Arendt would have answered this question. But I hope that her probing analysis of the Eichmann trial, rightly understood, will help us to avoid answering it too quickly.