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A Non-Zionist Jewishness? Judith Butler’s Parting Ways

Judith Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. Columbia UP, 2013

Having made her name in the early 90s with Gender Trouble, a densely-written look at the ways in which gender is culturally performed, the American cultural theorist Judith Butler has over the last decade turned her eye towards ethics and violence. 2004’s Precarious Life began her evolution with an in-depth meditation on the ethical resources of the Judaism in which she was raised, with her analysis of the Iraq war and the charge of anti-Semitism levelled at critics of the state of Israel.

This turn has not been without controversy. A speech Butler delivered at Brooklyn College in February on the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement was protested, becoming such a matter of interest that The Nation magazine ended up publishing the speech itself.

Butler’s new book Parting Ways continues her work on Israel and Palestine. In it, she explicitly tackles the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, considering Israel to be founded upon a violent ethno-religious hierarchy. As a result, Butler critiques strongly the Zionism that motivated the founding of Israel and continues to sustain the settler colonialism of today. For Butler, Zionism was always-already a colonial project, predicated on the purging of Arabs from Israel. She sees this as extending even to the second-class treatment of Mediterranean Sephardim and Mizrahim Arab Jews in Israel at the hands of Eastern-European descended Ashkenazim.

As a response to this, Butler marshals the work of number of Jewish writers (Primo Levi, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arrendt, Emmanuel Levinas) to form a kind of canon of diasporic Jewish thought as a critique of and alternative to Zionism.

The chapter on Primo Levi is especially compelling, with Butler talking about the Auschwitz survivor Levi’s relationship to the Israeli state’s usage of the Shoah/Holocaust. Levi “maintains that it will not do to call upon the Shoah as a way of legitimating arbitrary and lethal Israeli violence against civilian populations.” Keenly aware of the ways that critics of Israel are often described as anti-Semitic or self-hating Jews, Butler’s reading of Levi attempts to establish an alternative universalist Jewish relationship to the Shoah, one that says “never again” to all forms of state violence.

Similarly, Butler sees the Israeli state’s ethnocentric preference for Jews over Gentiles. Drawing on philosopher and Talmudist Emmanuel Levinas’s work on the Other, she instead argues for the unchosen nature of cohabitation. In her reading of Hannah Arrendt’s discussion of the Nazi Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, she argues that it was the delusion of being able to control who one cohabits the earth with that was the Nazis’ sin. Here perhaps Butler draws a little too close to trite analogies of Israeli violence with that of the Nazis – an analogy which most close readings of Levi (and Michel Foucault’s work on institutional discourse, for that matter) would find simplistic and trite. Regardless, her work on Arrendt as a specifically Jewish thinker is a fascinating and compelling one.

For Butler, it is not enough, however, to simply draw up an opposing form of Judaism to Zionism – that too would be ethnocentric segregation. Instead, she also draws on Palestinian writers like theorist Edward Said and the poet Mahmoud Darwish. Especially relevant with Passover approaching, Butler follows Edward Said’s lead in stating that the figure of Moses, both Egyptian and Jew, shows that Otherness has always been within the Jewish people. Given the continued presence of converts and the descendants of converts, this has remained true for Jews through-out the centuries. This Otherness, therefore, for Butler means a kind of convivial living-with that the State form should acknowledge in the form of a Jewish-Palestinian binationalism – no Israeli preference for Jews. This is the one truly concrete political proposal animating this book, and it is a provocative one given the dimming of hopes for a two-state solution.

As any description of its content might suggest, Parting Ways is an intricately argued book. Abstruseness is a trait which Butler, for good reasons and bad, is after all quite famous. But at its heart, Parting Ways is a passionate call for Jews to embrace a different path than that of Zionism, for Jewish reasons, and to live peacefully with Gentiles. She concludes with these powerful words:

Exile is the name of separation, but alliance is found precisely there, not yet in a place, in a place that was and is and in the impossible place of the not yet, happening now.

Whether or not one agrees with her diagnosis of the moral bankruptcy of Israeli state policy, this is a serious challenge to the still-dominant Zionism, with much to recommend it as an intellectual resource for non-Zionist diasporic Judaism and Jewishness.

2 thoughts on “A Non-Zionist Jewishness? Judith Butler’s Parting Ways

  1. The utter chutzpah of this writer giving credence to the idea that Jews have been the instigators of violence and should “live peacefully with Gentiles,” after centuries of Antisemitism culminating in the Holocaust is beyond preposterous.

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