In the seventh chapter of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt marks the beginning of the “moral collapse of respectable Jewish society” at the point where privileged categories were accepted from the Nazis without objection; that is, where Jews accepted exceptional status to avoid suffering or death instead of standing in solidarity with other Jews (p. 131). She describes this collapse as a forfeiture of “dignity” (p. 131-132). She writes:
From Propst Grüber’s own testimony, it appeared that he sought not so much “alleviation of suffering” as exemptions from it, in accordance with well-established categories recognized earlier by the Nazis. The categories had been accepted without protest by German Jewry from the very beginning. And the acceptance of privileged categories– German Jews against Polish Jews, war veterans and decorated Jews as against ordinary Jews, families whose ancestors were German-born as against recently naturalized citizens, etc. had been the beginning of the moral collapse of respectable Jewish society. (In view of the fact that today such matters are often treated as though there existed a law of human nature compelling everybody to lose his dignity in the face of disaster, we may recall the attitude of the French war veterans who were offered the same privileges by their government and replied: “We solemnly declare that we renounce any exceptional benefits we may derive from our status as ex-serviceman.” (p. 131-132)
There are two important insights about Arendt’s conception of human dignity in this passage. First, human dignity can be lost, it can be forfeited. This claim rests on Arendt’s view that the old metaphysical “banisters” of God, immortality of the soul, human nature, and others, have come to an end, and can no longer be relied upon for value claims. The claim is a negative formulation of the a more positive claim made by Jaspers, namely, that human dignity is a derivative of the exercise of human freedom, or the elucidation of Existenz. Human dignity must be realized, but as Arendt points out, it is fragile, and can be lost or forfeited.
The second important insight is that human dignity is tied to human solidarity. Human dignity is constituted politically by participating with others in a shared world. To accept an exemption from the human community is to seek to disrupt a fundamental condition of being human: plurality. Human beings are unique human beings who are united as a species and distinguished as individuals. More importantly, each human being contributes to and makes the share a world we all live in. When a section of the human community is being targeted for extermination a blow is being struck against human dignity. To accept an exemption from this suffering of humanity is tantamount to extracting oneself from the plurality of the human community, a forfeiture of dignity. This is precisely why Arendt was able to advocate and support the death penalty for Adolph Eichmann. As she imagined the final judgment being read:
And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations–as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world–we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This the reason, and the only reason, you must hang. (p. 279)
Just as those who accepted exceptional status from the Nazis forfeited their human dignity by refusing to stand in solidarity with the victims of Third Reich, so also, according to Arendt, Eichmann forfeited his dignity. It is worth asking where we are seeking exceptions today, and it is worth considering whether we have the courage to say with the French war veterans, “We solemnly declare that we renounce any exceptional benefits we may derive from our status as ex-serviceman” (p. 132).