(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  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,  a curious inattention to Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, and  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.