Non-Sovereign Ethical Monotheism (More Judith Butler, Judaism After Zionism)

In a critical pushback to my previous post re: Judith Butler’s new book, my friend and colleague Shaul Magid is right that the book has less to do with Zionism per se and more about disconnecting Judaism from a certain kind of Zionism. Butler seeks to advance a kind of Judaism after or without Zionism, perhaps even a kind Zionism after Zionism, one that envisions a bi-national form of cultural identity in Palestine after political Zionism. Shaul is also right to insist that for Butler the stakes are philosophical.

Butler wants us to walk away from “the subject,” in this case political Zionism and sovereign Israel, towards I’m not sure what, in this case a form of cultural Zionism in what would, of course, turn out to be a sovereign Palestinian nation-state with, presumably a Jewish minority (even Norman Finkelstein acknowledges this, in his own recent critique of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions discourse, as did Edward Said in an interview with Israeli journalist Ari Shavit many years ago in Haaretz).

A position more more in the liberal middle would recognize that sovereignty, like the ego, like gender, and like Judaism, is corrigible in its constitution. These  “things” are not simply “illusions” to deconstruct from the ideological and philosophical left; nor do they reflect some core, static essentialism, as advanced by conservative theorists and thinkers. Butler grasps the wretched form of bi-nationalism now taking shape in Israel/Palestine on its road to apartheid. But I’m not the only one who thinks that a bi-nationalism is a recipe for disaster, for reasons that have been knocked around for so long that I don’t think it’s necessary to rehearse in this little post. The theoretical point, I think, is that “identity” is too slippery a “thing” for any master to be able ever to master.

To bring this back to the Judaism that Butler wants to deconstruct and reconstruct without Zionism and Israel. Identity is not a substance with a core but a packet of energy held together in its dispersion. And Israel generates too much energy on which any form of Jewish philosophy or philosophical politics can never really turn its back. It’s not going to work this attempt to boycott, divest, or sanction it, because it is impossible to build up a Judaism without the Jews, and there are too many Jews in Israel for Israel not to matter to Judaism. How it might matter is a different matter, a contest up for grabs about whose prospects these days, like Butler, I am not at all sanguine, not about the future of sovereign Israel or the bi-national idea.

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.
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