Graduation Year


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Open Access Senior Thesis

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Bachelor of Science



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Pey-Yi Chu

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This thesis examines the controversy surrounding the publication of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). More specifically, this study focuses on the American Jewish response to the text, examining how the controversy itself provoked a watershed of change in conceptions and understandings of the Holocaust, and by extension, notions of Jewish identity and discourse in the modern world. This study will consider the importance of viewing the controversy as a conversation rather than simply a rigid dichotomy. In failing to see how each side communicated with the other, scholars sometimes themselves reinforce the rigidity of this division, either by emphasizing only the difference between each side or by defending one position over another. Viewing this controversy as a conversation will also allow this study to examine not only how pre-existing perspectives clashed in the debate, but also how these perspectives were in turn changed by this encounter. The controversy did not simply present opposing views, but built up new views on history and identity as a result. This thesis will end on an investigation of Arendt’s own reaction to the controversy: though she herself provoked the debate, she considered it to have failed in generating a ‘real’ controversy. Arendt believed the Eichmann controversy failed not because her critics misinterpreted her book, but because the debate produced a monolithic response, inhibiting the possibility and endless plurality of opinion Arendt considered hallmarks of effective public discourse.This thesis concludes that the controversy was indeed a ‘real’ one, for both sides openly articulated the necessity of openness, plurality and disagreement in public debates. In the end, this thesis hopes to rewrite the story of the controversy in order to revive its lessons about public discourse rather than repeating historiographical approaches that, in focusing on the ways in which the controversy failed to break down a dichotomy of interpretation, only serving to maintain the static and unproductive logic of the debate. In a word, this thesis defends a new telling of the history of this controversy, one that identifies and learns from the manner in which each side of the debate engaged the other: both ultimately defended the virtue of political contestation and provoked a flood of new questions in scholarship. In short, this study will examine the social reality of an idea.

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