butler, parting ways: jewishness and the critique of zionism

This is another in a series of notes on things I read this summer. Toward the end of the summer I read Judith Butler‘s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (Columbia UP, 2012). Then, as I was preparing to write these thoughts about it, I ran across the Jerusalem Post’s attack on Butler’s receipt of the Adorno Prize and Butler’s response to that attack. So my post will start with my thoughts on the book, then circle around to discuss the controversy over the Prize.

The book falls squarely in the genre of political theory, which is to say: reading texts of normative theory as ways of approaching a matter of moral or political concern. In this case, the goal is to develop a Jewish ethics of “cohabitation” (speaking ethnically, not in terms of households) that allows for a critique of Israel: to “‘apprehend’ a Jewish left, non-Zionist, and  so a Jewish/non-Jewish left that might qualify as a ‘partner for peace'” (p. 20). This critique has been foreclosed by the  practice–common among defenders of Israeli policies–of defining critique of Israel and Zionism as prima facie anti-Semitism.

…It has become necessary to reiterate this argument over and against a public discourse that assumes any criticism of the Israeli occupation, of internal inequalities within Israel, of land confiscations, and of violent bombardments of trapped populations…is anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish, not in the service of the Jewish people, or in no way in line with what we might generally call Jewish values. (1)

It should not be necessary even to enter into this debate. The idea that criticism of Israeli policy, and even of the wisdom of forming, maintaining, and defending a nation-state on ethno-religious grounds, is in itself anti-Semitic and therefore out of bounds ought to be simply and obviously wrong. Ironically — and I’ll return to this point later — it’s not just wrong but it’s wrong in an authoritarian way: a way that insists upon a set of a priori symbolic commitments as the tickets for admission to the conversation. Unfortunately, though, the foreclosure isn’t commonly dismissed as self-evidently illegitimate, so the book’s first task is to establish an authentically Jewish grounds for resisting that foreclosure.

The arguments Butler pursues for this first step are two-fold, and foreshadow the moves she makes later on. The first move is historical in character: throughout the 20th century and before, there have been Jewish thinkers opposed to the very founding of Israel. “Jewish opposition to Zionism accompanied the founding proposals made by Herzl at the International Zionist Congress in 1897 in Basel, and it has never ceased since that time. It is not anti-Semitic or, indeed, self-hating to criticize the state violence exemplified by Zionism” (116). Now, I am not comfortable with singling out Zionism as ‘exemplifying’ state violence, for reasons I’ll outline below; but Butler is certainly correct on the historical point that Judaism and Zionism are by no means coterminous.

The second, and more interesting, argument is that an important strain of Jewish thought and culture requires “cohabitation”, derived from the point that Jews are quintessentially diasporic. To underscore this point and move toward the more ambitious goals of the book, Butler reads Arendt and Levinas (the latter “against himself” [47]). One of Arendt’s charges against Eichmann was

that Eichmann thought he could choose with whom to cohabit the earth. In her [Arendt’s] view, cohabitation is not a choice, but a condition of our political life. We are bound to one another prior to contract and prior to any volitional act. (23)

Leveraging this point–the obligation to cohabitation–provides Butler with two resources. First, Arendt’s ethics does not apply only to Jews; the obligation to cohabit emerges out of Jewishness but is incumbent on all people. Second, it is precisely the right to choose with whom to cohabit that constitutes Zionism. So, if we buy Butler’s expansive reading of Arendt–and that’s a big “if”–we are left with an ethical starting point, rooted in Jewish thought (not just Jewish history), from which to build a thoroughgoing critique of Zionism.

Turning to Levinas:

If “persecution” now characterizes the “fate” of the Jews, and so a recurrent and ahistorical dimension of existence, then any historical argument suggesting that Jews are not always in the situation of being persecuted could be refuted on definitional grounds alone: Jews cannot be persecutory since, by definition, Jews are the persecuted….we are asked to consider this historical political state as timelessly suffering persecution–not as a state with a specific history (which includes the persecution of Palestinians), a present (which includes producing nearly a million displaced peoples in Lebanon), and a set of possible futures (which might include an effort to move beyond the politics of revenge and the infinitely self-legitimating claims of being persecuted toward a new notion of relationality that does not presume and reenforce persecution as its condition). (45-46)

In other words: if contemporary, or even transhistorical, Jewishness is rooted in being persecuted, and that in turn justifies the generic and the specific of Israeli policy, no critique is possible. But if we require that Levinas’s concept of “face” be expanded beyond the specific persecution of the Jews, face would require an ethical commitment to coexistence for the very reasons that Levinas rejects it.

There are other interlocutors as well–principally, Edward Said, Walter Benjamin, and Mahmoud Darwish–but the key points are the same. The specific critique is of Israeli policy toward the occupation and expulsion, which she refers to as “state violence” repeatedly, as in the quote above about Levinas. It is certainly true that Israel engages in state-sponsored violence, though this behavior is hardly restricted to Israel. Indeed, this is the most dissatisfying piece of the book. Particularly for as sophisticated an intellectual as Butler, the idea of “state violence” ought to have been unpacked far better than she does. I, following Weber, would claim that violence is at the very heart of the concept of the state. But Butler refers to Israeli state violence as if it were singular, as if the specific forms of violence Israel has engaged in are so constitutive of the state, and so different from violence undertaken by other states, that the violence and the critique of Zionism itself are fused into one. What’s missing here is big: why ought Israel come in for special critique given the extent to which the state is always-already organized around violence? I can think of several reasons:

  1. Israel is constituted on ethnic grounds, and ethnicity is inherently suspect as a mode of organizing violence, whether in state or other form;
  2. As Jews (Butler is one, as am I), we have a special obligation to hold our co-ethnics to a higher level of morality than we expect of everyone else. (Butler specifically rejects this line of reasoning by appealing to Arendt’s all-people standard)
  3. As Americans, we provide an enormous amount of aid to Israel and, in particular, its military, and so share complicity;
  4. Israeli violence is sufficiently worse than that committed by other states.

I don’t see where Butler distinguishes among these reasons for concentrating on Israel, but I think the first is really the most apt. The fourth would have to be demonstrated, and Butler certainly never tries to demonstrate it. Reasons 2 and 3 are more tactical than substantive.

I think the Arendtian critique she pursues is far more trenchant as (1) a critique of ethnicity as a mode of state organization, and (2) a source of legitimacy for licensing criticism of Israeli policy than as a critique of Zionism-as-violence. On the second point, again, I think there’s no legitimate grounds for prohibiting criticism of Israeli policies, so I will not pursue this point any further. On the first point–the critique of ethnicity as grounds for founding the state–there’s plenty more to say.

Almost certainly the two most notoriously evil regimes of the 20th century–Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa–figure heavily, and differently, in the debate over Israeli policies and in this book as well. The tragic irony of Jewish nationalism is that the memory of Nazism becomes the indebatable, wholly-other cause: the trump card to legitimize virtually any Israeli behavior because it is carried out in the name of Jews:

There was a symptomatic moment in 1982 when [Menachem] Begin, after encircling Beirut with armed forces, announced, “I feel as though I have sent an army to Berlin to wipe out Hitler in the bunker.” Can we read in that transposition something like the work of trauma to reabsorb every present circumstance into the recurrent and ravenous pain of the past? What would it mean to awake to a present that would learn from the Holocaust the necessity of opposing fascism, racism, state violence, and forcible detention? It would mean that we have to understand that those kinds of actions can and do recur, in different historical circumstances, that they are not always the same, but that they are to be opposed, vocally and insistently, wherever and whenever they do recur. It would also mean that no one is exempt, by historical fiat from occupying the position of the oppressor or the perpetrator…. There is no innocence that pertains to Jews or Palestinians as such…. There is a difference between a politics that is animated by trauma and seeks, tactically, to reanimate trauma for its own uses and a politics that reflects on what political conditions would be necessary to foreclose crimes against humanity such as these. (200-01)

The case of South Africa emerges differently, because of the successful use of isolation and sanctions against an ethnically-constituted state engaged in internal violence.  Indeed, the tactic of cultural and academic boycotts–alongside consumer-level financial boycotts more generally–is most associated with the worldwide campaign against Apartheid, a comparison that clearly makes defenders of Israel uncomfortable. Butler supports the “Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions” movement (BDS), modeled after the Apartheid protests. (I do not support this movement.) The specter, then, of South Africa’s successful democratization in the face of international pressure looms in the background of these debates.

Whether or not you are a fan of Butler’s theoretical work, or of this book, it’s hard to dispute that her overall corpus, the sophistication of her work, and the sheer impact she’s had on several theoretical fields make her a legitimate recipient of the Adorno Prize. Her critics epitomize the very worst of ethnic justifications, perfectly illustrating the ideological critiques she demonstrates in the book. Rabbi Abraham Cooper is quoted in the Post article, without a hint of irony: “Theodor Adorno was a pillar of intellectual brilliance and integrity in pre-WWII Germany, who was forced out of German life because he wasn’t an Aryan and then helped rehabilitate a nation. Does anyone believe for a second that such a man would countenance the boycott of cultural and academic life in the Jewish state of Israel? Bestowing the Adorno Prize to someone who prides herself in supporting the BDS campaign, the Frankfurt committee besmirches the heroic legacy of Adorno.”

This is precisely the kind of justification that Adorno would have hated, and indeed the kind of defensiveness (Abwehr) he discusses in postwar German guilt. He would certainly not have countenanced being remembered as championing Jews qua Jews, given his insistence that authoritarianism was the product of the wholly-socialized society (vergesellschaftete Gesellschaft), not of a specific culture. Indeed, the authoritarian attempt by the critics to scuttle the prize just for reasons of ethnic privilege–avoiding any pretense, even, of engaging in an exchange and critique of ideas–is likely just what Adorno meant when he wrote “I consider the survival of National Socialism within democracy to be potentially more menacing than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy” (Adorno 214).

To sum up: the book is interesting, complicated, but ultimately I thought unsatisfying because it doesn’t disentangle the relationships among ethnicity, Jewishness, Israel, and violence in a theoretically robust way. The problem becomes greater as Butler writes in her blog retort that she “affirm[s] a Judaism that is not associated with state violence,” without recognizing the always-already violent character of states. But these shortcomings aside, it’s worth grappling with, and the critics claiming that she should be barred from the Adorno Prize on these grounds only serve to illustrate the urgency of her project.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

10 thoughts on “butler, parting ways: jewishness and the critique of zionism”

  1. Andy —

    I think you grant Butler more seriousness and sincerity than deserved. Two substantive points:
    (1) Sad to say, but as you point out, state violence is endemic; so is state violence on behalf of ethnic interests. As we debate this, the Alawite regime in Syria is using indiscriminate violence against its ethnic enemies; and the Han regime in China is systematically displacing and culturally devastating Tibetans — just to take two of many contemporary examples. Butler and company do not seem to think such actions delegitimate those states.
    (2) On the ethnic nature of states: Although foreign to the US experience, that is, sad to say, the common nature of even modern states. (Take a look at the crescents and crosses on flags.) Whether demonstrated by the Czechs’ ethnic purification of their country, driving out Germans after World War II, or by the application of Sharia law across much of the world, ethno-religous definition of the nation is the default.
    The E.U. has defined antisemitism as including the selective, discriminatory application of delegimating criticisms to Israel that spare other nations. By that standard, Butler …. well, I won’t go there.


  2. Claude,
    Your #1 puzzles me. What would be the point of comparing Israel to Syria or China? The comparison would reveal that Israel’s policies toward its ethnic minorities are not as bad as those of some of the worst regimes of the present. But how would that be relevant unless one somehow thought that that’s the standard to which one should hold a modern state? Also, note that the world is on the brink of war with Syria, which makes the Israel-Syria comparison all the more inappropriate.


  3. Claude, do you have evidence to suggest that Butler or her work is unserious or insincere? Or are these simply implied by the fact that you disagree with her?

    The EU “definition” is absurd. A claim is antisemitic if, and only if, it rests on anti-Semitic ideas or assumptions. One can’t determine whether an argument is anti-Semitic by fiat, only by analysis and comprehension.

    Arguably, given the Talmudic obligation to tikkun olam, one could construct an argument that it is anti-Semitic not to hold Israel to a higher standard than, say, Syria or China. But that’s a digression. I offered four potential reasons for holding Israel up for special scrutiny, the first three of which I think are actually legitimate reasons for doing so.

    None of this implies that “deligitmating” the state of Israel is good or correct; in fact, I would argue against deligitimation on various grounds. But overzealous defenders of Israel, as Butler demonstrates, routinely claim that simply having the argument constitutes a violation. That argument is indefensible and particularly ironic given its essentially authoritarian structure.


    1. Andy: I’ll respond in this public venue to the EU (and U.S. DOJ) understanding of certain anti-Israel activities. An act (including a political campaign) is discriminatory if it is — whatever the surface language — designed and applied in a fashion that clearly discriminates against one group. We on the Left consider Voter ID laws as discriminatory, English-only job rules as discriminatory, ID-checks in Phoenix, AZ as discriminatory,… etc. because they patently if disingenuously target blacks or Latinos. The BDS and similar campaigns are grounded on “principles” that are selectively applied to the one state in the world that happens to be Jewish. That is the logic of the EU position and, while details can be argued, that is the way the campaigns by Butler et al work.
      Your arguments #1 and #4 for singling out Israel patently fail by any historical or cross-national analysis. Argument #3 does not work, either. We have provided all sorts of favors (e.g., most-favored trade agreements; arms sales) and have special ties to all sorts of regimes around the world with bloody hands and histories of dispossessing people (you can start with English in Ireland). It’s hard to see how some specific dollar figure makes a difference in principle. Argument #2 is an in-house claim and I agree that American Jews have greater personal responsibility for speaking out about Israel (as Chinese Americans may have re China). Insiders “discriminate” by paying special attention to their own groups. I worry a lot more about, say, theocratic influences or threats to free speech in Israel than in, say, Turkey. But it does not follow that public policies — by colleges, local governments, corporations — should therefore be discriminatory. The BDS campaigns are.


    2. Just to be correct about the EU working definition of antisemitism:
      “Applying double standards to the state of Israel” is described as a manifestation of antisemitism, not as antisemitism per se (see http://fra.europa.eu/fraWebsite/material/pub/AS/AS-WorkingDefinition-draft.pdf). That makes totally sense if you consider the fact that open, blatant antisemitism are not tolerated in the public debate in Europe which leads to strategies of avoidance attacking Israel instead.


  4. Claude: the problem is that there’s one “group” and one state. There are lots of differences among states that make it illegitimate to simply declare criticism of one state ethnically or religiously based instead of based on some other grounds. Hence the requirement to actually have the argument instead of resorting to name-calling.

    Readers can decide for themselves among arguments 1-4. I agree that 4 is simply false; the other three I think are all reasonable grounds on which to form critiques. American aid to Israel, it’s important to note, goes well beyond arms sales and “most favored nation” (which is essentially a procedural designation).

    As for BDS: I agree, and that’s why I wrote that I do not support those campaigns. Butler’s book, though, is not about BDS; it’s about interpreting a Jewish ethics in a way that supports a critique of Israel and Israeli policies. The fact that Butler supports a movement with which I disagree is not sufficient grounds for dismissing the book’s arguments, nor for blacklisting her from receiving a prize for which her work was duly selected.


    1. Andy — I’ll make this my last comment. Perhaps our takes are on this are different because you are reacting to a book and I am, in great measure, reacting to activities on this campus for which Butler is a “Jewish” screen, activities that have been hurtful to many Jewish students.


      1. That makes perfect sense – I have not been to your campus since graduating in 2001 so am certainly distant from the practical realities related to the book. My comments are certainly restricted to the content of the book and the discussions around the Adorno Prize.


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