Jew of the Week: Hannah Arendt

Greatest Political Philosopher of the 20th Century

Hannah Arendt in 1924

Johanna Cohn Arendt (1906-1975) was born in Germany to a wealthy family of secular Russian-German Jews. The family was anti-Zionist and assimilationist, desperately seeking acceptance into broader German society. Arendt was well-educated, and was already tackling heavy philosophical works as a teenager. At 15, after getting expelled from her school for organizing a boycott of an anti-Semitic teacher, she decided to go straight to the University of Berlin. Arendt then studied language, literature, and theology at the University of Marburg, where one of her teachers was the famed philosopher Heidegger (the two would go on to have a secret romantic relationship for many years). Arendt later became a towering figure in philosophy herself, writing on politics and sociology, Judaism and feminism (which she opposed, once writing, perhaps presciently: “what will we lose if we win?” Ironically, today Arendt is something of a feminist icon!) When Hitler came to power in 1933, Arendt operated an underground railroad for refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Realizing the flaws of her old assimilationist ways, she wrote that “Jewish assimilation must declare its bankruptcy.” Arendt immersed herself in Jewish study, while also vocally denouncing the Nazis, leading to her arrest by the Gestapo. After eight days in prison, the Gestapo let her go because they could not decipher her encoded diary. Arendt fled to Geneva, where she worked for the Jewish Agency to secure visas for Jewish refugees. From there, she settled in Paris and soon became the personal assistant of Germaine de Rothschild, taking care of distributing her generous charitable funds. In 1935, Arendt joined Youth Aliyah, eventually becoming its secretary-general. In 1938, she was put in charge of rescuing Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia. When the Nazis occupied France, Arendt and her family managed to escape yet again, eventually finding their way to New York. In 1944, she was hired as executive director of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, cataloging and preserving Jewish assets in Europe, and reviving post-war Jewish life there. From 1951 onwards, she devoted herself to teaching and writing. Her most acclaimed books followed, including The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. Arendt taught at a number of American universities, including Yale and Stanford, and was the first female professor at Princeton. In 1961, she spent six weeks in Jerusalem covering the Eichmann trial for the The New Yorker. (During this time, she coined the phrase “banality of evil”, and her conclusions were immensely controversial.) All in all, Arendt wrote hundreds of penetrating essays, articles, and poems, and has been described as the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, as well as one its most enigmatic women. The Library of Congress estimates that at least 50 books have been written about her, along with over 1000 scholarly papers. There is a “Hannah Arendt Day” in Germany, as well as an international peer-reviewed journal called Arendt Studies, along with countless things named after her, including the prestigious Hannah Arendt Prize.

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Words of the Week

“If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.”
– Hannah Arendt

Jew of the Week: Raphael Mechoulam

“Godfather of THC”

Raphael Mechoulam

Raphael Mechoulam (b. 1930) was born in Bulgaria to a wealthy Sephardic-Jewish family. The family was forced to flee the country due to rampant anti-Semitism, ultimately surviving the Holocaust and settling in Israel in 1949. During his IDF service, Mechoulam worked as a chemical engineer and helped to develop insecticides. Falling in love with scientific research, he continued to study chemistry after his military service, earned his Master’s from the Hebrew University, then his PhD from the Weizmann Institute. After studies at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, Mechoulam returned to Israel to teach at both of his former universities. His primary field of research is cannabis. In fact, it was Mechoulam who first discovered, isolated, and synthesized THC, the primary active ingredient in cannabis. He would later discover and synthesize other important cannabinoids (a term he coined). Mechoulam was one of the pioneers of medicinal cannabis, and has said that medicinal cannabis could probably replace “ten to twenty percent of all pharmaceuticals”. More recently, he discovered endocannabinoids—molecules similar to THC that are naturally produced by the body, playing a key role in immunity and in regulating human emotions. All in all, Mechoulam published over 350 scientific papers. In 2016, he received a lifetime achievement award at Harvard’s School of Medicine. He was also the subject of an eye-opening documentary called The Scientist. Now a nonagenarian, Mechoulam continues to do research at his Jerusalem lab.

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Words of the Week

Jewish time sees us as travellers on the road to a destination not yet reached; wayfarers on a journey begun by our ancestors, to be continued by our children.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l

Jew of the Week: Annamie Paul

Canada’s First Black and Jewish Party Leader

Annamie Paul, leader of the Green Party of Canada

Annamie Paul (b. 1972) was born in Toronto to parents from the Caribbean islands of Nevis and Dominica. She was interested in politics from childhood, and at the age of 12, started working as an assistant in Ontario’s provincial parliament. From there, she became an assistant in Canada’s Senate. She went to law school at the University of Ottawa, passed the bar in 1998, and also got a Master’s in Public Affairs from Princeton. It was while studying at Princeton that Paul took a greater interest in Judaism, and started learning with the head of the university’s Center for Jewish Life. Soon, she decided to convert, and although she studied primarily with a Conservative Jewish rabbi, went on to do a full Orthodox conversion. Paul married international human rights lawyer Mark Freeman, and the two made sure to put their kids through Jewish schools, and continue to keep a kosher home today. Meanwhile, in 2001, Paul founded the Canadian Centre for Political Leadership, an organization focused on getting more minorities and more women into government. She was also part of Canada’s Mission to the European Union, and worked at the International Criminal Court. She has won a number of awards for her human rights work and social activism. In 2019, Paul became a member of the Green Party of Canada and, earlier this month, was elected its leader. That makes her the first Jewish and first black woman to lead a political party in Canada.

Words of the Week

Just call to mind all those terrible episodes of the slave trade, of human beings who, merely because they were black, were stolen like cattle, taken prisoner, captured and sold. Their children grew up in strange lands, the objects of contempt and hostility because their complexions were different. I am not ashamed to say, though I may expose myself to ridicule for saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.
Theodor Herzl