“Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism” (Judith Butler)

(Kandinsky, “Square with Concentric Circles,” 1913) (from the cover).

What still strikes me most of all as I continue to think about and re-edit this blogpost about Parting Ways, Judith Butler’s book about Jewishness and Zionism, are [1] the static notions of Jewishness that Butler ends up advancing against her own best presumptions about Jewishness and the relation between Jewishness and non-Jews, [2] a curious inattention to Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, and [3] the absence of anything resembling Zionism in its classical formulation that might have functioned as a complicating “other” to the certainties that characterize her own critical voice. Butler’s caricature of a Zionism without Zionism, which like religion without religion, is a strange hybrid that may not have all that much to recommend itself.

Butler wants to oppose static notions of Jewishness, and claims to have done so (p.7). The irony about all this is that the interpenetration of Jewishness and humanism are already bedrock principles of classical Zionist theories by writers as diverse as Herzl, Nordau, Brenner, Berdichevsky, Buber, Jabotinsky. They all rejected the static notion of Jewishness that would have pegged Jewish culture as “religion” based on belief and practice of mitzvoth. Theirs was the more fluid, corporeal notion of Jewishness than any of the other competing ideologies, religious or secular, at the time. But Butler’s concept tends to be far more static and moralizing, like a retread of old classical Reform Judaism, what with its one-sided reduction of Jewishness to diasporic ethics.

For me, the problem with Butler’s critique of Zionism and state violence has nothing to do with the critique of Zionism and state violence. Those arguments stand as well as they stand, sometimes better than at other times. But the bi-nationalism championed by her comes across as doctrinaire as the foundationalism she would otherwise reject. As a student of the master-slave dialectic, she should have been more cautious in her agon with Zionism in the public arena. There’s something reactive about this form of late anti-Zionism, as opposed to the original anti-Zionism of the communists and Bundists and of the ultra orthodox in East Europe and of the liberal cosmopolitans and Reform Jews in western Europe. Discourse about Zionism has since become sclerotic. This Butler sees, while failing to grasp that the condition then repeats itself in her own attempts to come against these forms of Zionism. The attempt to save Judaism by severing  it from Zionism stands in mirror image to the form of political Zionism who sought to save the Jews by severing them from Exile-Judaism.

I’m reading the main Zionist theorists with my undergraduates and two graduate students now at Syracuse University, and will confess that, yes, I love all these old guys. As for their contemporary successors, well, a pox on all of them, contemporary Zionists and contemporary anti-Zionists alike. The historical Zionists and anti-Zionists are easier to stomach at a distance, easier to digest. From her own perch atop a philosophical and ideological high-horse, Butler never really hits her mark, and actually can’t do so, if only because they move around too fast under the theory. The book is a book about Zionism without mentioning a single Zionist theorist of note except Buber, which is to make a point but also to miss a point. I’m sure there are interesting things to be said about Benjamin, Levinas, Arendt, Balibar, and Said in relation to Zionism. But I fear the theoretical vantage points are too high from which to say anything particular or concrete about either “Zionism,” “Jewishness,” or “Judaism.”

It’s not that I don’t respect the moral impetus driving Butler’s critique. I just think that rightwing contemporary religious Zionism will do a better job securing bi-nationalism in Israel/Palestine than will the kind of theory presented by Butler. I’m more cynical than Butler, who really is a genuine believer in the impossible. It’s comes down to prophetic vision and moral imperative. But I don’t have any vision and cannot see how any good is going to come out of any of it, not this way and not that. The one thing I believe with any certainty is that I’m pretty sure this type of theory is not going to get us out of this box, what Butler correctly identifies as the wretched form of  de-facto bi-nationalism taking shape right now in Israel/Palestine (p.210). A Palestinian “right of return” to Green-line Israel and a “single secular democratic [Palestinian] state” are easier to “proclaim” than to actually “imagine.” If I don’t see how it works, it is because I believe less about things than does Butler, a conviction that will always be to her advantage, the advantage that goes to a strong, muscular voice. And also, because we only been give a rough theoretical schema, not a detailed picture of what such a condition would look like.

I remember reading Butler’s first forays against Zionism sometime around the Second Intifadah, and I remember that there was not a little dissatisfaction with the early first attempts on the part of reader-scholar-colleague-friends who should have been more sympathetic. Sadly, I don’t think the arguments have improved all that much with age. They’ve taken on more conceptual tissue, but that’s about it. In  large part, the inner circle of theorists is too narrow and too fixed.

I don’t like the idea of separating Jewishness and Judaism from Israel and Zionism, and have doubts that this can be done, that Jewishness and Judaism would survive the operation. The idea of separating cuts too sharply against the deeply engrained idea of peoplehood and solidarity, and the very fact that Butler’s own theoretical foray into Jewishness depends upon (a negation of) Israel and Zionism would be a case in point. Butler is right when she insists that you cannot choose with whom you cohabit, but that includes the cohabitation of Judaism and Zionism as an emergent historical phenomenon. As for Diaspora, I suspect that without Israel it turns quickly into ghetto. The classical Zionists understood all too well that a ghetto is a bad place, which is precisely the problem with contemporary discourse about Zionism, both pro and contra, it’s narrow confined character.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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7 Responses to “Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism” (Judith Butler)

  1. Shaul Magid says:

    I disagree with your reading of the book (surprised?). As academics we too easily get caught up in the “old guys” and sometimes miss the forest for the trees. I am writing something now about Butler so I wont say too much here. But Zak, Butler’s book is not ‘*about* Zionism per se, its about Jewishness and the way Zionism has come to efface all other propositions or, perhaps, the way Zionism (in any form) once was one narrative among many and now has made all other narratives invalid. The book is, as I read it, an experiment in constructing another diasporic narrative from a series of Jewish thinkers who are, by their own definition, marginal to the core of Judaism (Arendt and Benjamin the most central). It is not anti-Zionism or,perhaps, it is only anti-Zionist to the extent that Zionism maintains a hegemony on all other narratives of Jewish identity.

    • zjb says:

      Thanks, Shaul. And yes, I saw that part of the book, the attempt to build a new kind of Judaism and to disconnect it from Israel and Zionism. And actually, I wish her the best of luck with it, although personally I don’t see how you do it, building a Judaism while disconnecting it from half “the Jewish people,” or whatever you want to call that hybrid thing. But once you want to build up a Judaism in agon to another, you’ve entered the master-slave dialectic, which you can’t get out. As for my own thinking here, Zionism acts more like a rhetorical figure. This makes sense, right. Because as I see it, Zionism has a lost a lot of its old hegemony from the 1970s. Arnie Eisen and Steve Cohen make this point in their “THe Jew Within,” as do you in your own work on post-ethnic American Jewish identity (which is coming out when??). I think it’s even true in Israel, that “Zionism” as an everyday mode of collective conscious thought no longer dominates a culture that has grown more bourgeois and individualist, and also racist, since the late 1980s. Let me know if this makes sense. I’m not trying to dominate the conversation by shutting it down. Please feel free to write back and I’ll give you the last word.

      • Shaul Magid says:

        I personally think that is precisely the crux of the book! And Zionism went along even though it was against the large majority of The Jewish people in its early days until it convinced the Outjuden to sign on. It may very well be that Jews have not sought out another alternative because there simply isn’t one. So, as Butler says, they just deny or ignore their “Jewishness” because statist (hasbaba) Zionism gives them no other alternative. Instead of creating a “big tent” Zionism may be actually forcing Jews to make a choice: be a Zionist (which essentially means supporting the statist Zionist project) or renounce your Jewishness. In some way this is the choice Gordis suggests in a recent essay when he writes that there is no future for Judaism without Zionism. Butler is making a very high-brow philosophical case which is where I think we have to start from. But that is beside the point.

  2. efmooney says:

    Hear hear !
    I think I’ve heard of you! You teach at Syracuse, right? I bet you guys talk about this in the hall way all the time! Lucky you !
    Where I am, in the middle of Kansas, “Butler” is a character from a movie from the ’50’s — or a British Moralist also a Bishop.
    Funny, nobody in the Arab-Israeli enclaves I inhabited last summer had ever heard of Butler or Schmitt. I got my hair cut in Yafo by an Arab who preferred being Israeli to being Palestinian and had a wonderfully ‘trash-talking’ exchange with a Jewish real estate guy waiting for a haircut across the room. The shop was Arab owned and the real-estate guy didn’t mind the prospect of the barber holding a blade to his throat. Neither had heard of Schmitt. The Jewish guy had heard of Buber.

    • zjb says:

      And yet, to be fair to Butler, that very rough and easy concourse between people might be the very essence of the binationalism she wants to see in Palestine.

  3. evanstonjew says:

    Hasn’t there always been a volkish alternative where what counts is the physical and social well being of Jews everywhere? Those who are not Zionists see Israel as a place where there are many Jews whose safety and prosperity is of no greater but also of no less importance than the safety and prosperity of Jews in the Diaspora. The state is deserving of support to the extent it enhances the welfare of Jews. This view doesn’t particularly concern itself with justice for the Palestinians, but it also isn’t statist or in favor of a colonial project on the West Bank. . The medinah is not an end but one possible way of helping Jews. What is wrong with a pragmatism that gives primacy to the care and concern we each should have for our own people?

  4. Evanston Jew is right to mention pragmatism. There’s a need for more pragmatism or practical wisdom in our theorizing about Zionism.

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