Exercising Judgment in Ethics, Politics, and the Law: Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Fifty Years Later

September 26-28, 2013

Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil continues to be one of the most famous and controversial works of political theory ever written. Arendt completed writing her work on the Eichmann trial while she was a Fellow at Wesleyan’s Center for Advanced Studies (now the Center for the Humanities), and first published it as a series of articles in The New Yorker in 1963. It immediately caused a controversy that has not fully subsided to this day; it also opened up a new chapter in the public awareness and understanding of genocide and played a crucial role in the emergence of the academic field of Holocaust Studies.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication and to reexamine Arendt’s claims and the heated debates they provoked, this interdisciplinary conference will feature speakers from the U.S., Israel, and Germany representing the fields of political theory, moral philosophy, intellectual history, law, Holocaust studies, feminist and gender studies, and literary theory. In reviewing Arendt’s attempt to theorize problems of judgment and responsibility and to understand evil, the speakers—all of whom are renowned experts in Arendt’s political philosophy—will situate Eichmann in Jerusalem with regard to other aspects of Arendt’s moral and political thought and will reflect on the impact it has had on their own work.

Hannah Arendt was adamant that citizenship in pluralistic, democratic societies required the conscious exercise of one’s powers of judgment and that an abdication from one’s responsibility to judge could have disastrous consequences. Lecturing at Wesleyan in January 1962, she insisted, “If you say to yourself in such matters [of exercising judgment]: Who am I to judge—you have already lost.” Particular attention will be paid to how Arendt judged Eichmann’s behavior and the staging of his trial, how she was judged by her critics, and how her later musings on a Kantian theory of judgment that would supply the foundation for a new moral philosophy can help us understand the larger ethical, political, and juridical issues at stake in Eichmann in Jerusalem.

The conference also includes two screenings of Margarethe von Trotta’s new film, Hannah Arendt, a Q&A with the co-screenwriter Pam Katz, a discussion about representing Eichmann in Jerusalem on the screen, and a conversation with former students about Hannah Arendt’s teaching at Wesleyan and the legacy of her biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, who taught at Wesleyan for two decades.

The conference is made possible by the generous support of David Rhodes, COL ’68. It is hosted by the Center for the Humanities and co-sponsored by the College of Letters; Jewish and Israel Studies; German Studies; Government; Social, Cultural, and Critical Theory; and the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service).