The European Left, Jews, and “Resistance” (Zizeks, Badious, Butlers

What strikes me reading Colin Shindler’s opinion piece in the NYT about the European Left and Islamist anti-Semitism is how little Europe matters to contemporary  Jewish thought and culture, except when the problem of anti-Semitism hits the newspapers. Most of the time, I don’t think most of us over “here” care much about “old Europe” or its left. The piece  also suggests how little “the European Left” takes a real interest in “the Jews.” There are other rhetorical fish to fry.

Not for the faint of heart, the subject of anti-Semitism and the European left is subject to at least two points of slippage.

[1] About the familiar slippage between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, the way the one slides into the other, Shindler writes: “Instead, the swallowing up of both the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps by political polarization has accelerated the closing of the progressive mind. And static fatalism has allowed the assailant of synagogue congregants and the killer of young children to fill the vacuum.”

[2] The other slippage has more to do with theory and theorists. It is the slippage between rhetorics of resistance and reactionary identitarian politics.

To the question posed to Judith Butler whether Hamas and Hezbollah belong to “the global left,” she should have said no. You can see it here . The questions and the statement by Butler appear around minute 13:00 and 16:00. There was a lot of huff and puff about these remarks on the part of Butler’s rightwing critics. What strikes me is the awkward   hemming and hawing, the attempt to split the difference, too many modifiers and qualifiers. But it was in public. She should have said no. Perhaps she felt pushed into a corner, so she said this instead.

I was asked by a member of an academic audience a few years ago whether I thought Hamas and Hezbollah belonged to “the global left,” and I replied with two points. My first point was merely descriptive: Those political organizations define themselves as anti-imperialist, and anti-imperialism is one characteristic of the global left, so on that basis one could describe them as part of the global left. My second point was then critical: As with any group on the left, one has to decide whether one is for that group or against that group, and one needs to critically evaluate their stand. I do not accept or endorse all groups on the global left. … To say that those organizations belong to the left is not to say that they should belong, or that I endorse or support them in any way.

In a current theoretical climate that stinks of Carl Schmitt, the one marked out by folk like Badiou, Butler, Negri, Butler (?), the rhetoric is ruled by  decisionism, resistance, and the radical or militant gesture  and “excremental remainders” And since Hamas, Hezbollah, the Assad regime in Syria, the religious regime in Iran, al-Qaeda, and Islamist radicalism all fly under the banner-rubric of resistance, resistance to Israel, U.S., the West, Capitalism, Liberalism, well, it doesn’t then much matter what The Resistance actually looks like. And it doesn’t matter what The Resistance does to Jews, women, gays and lesbians, 14 year old children, liberals, other Arabs and Muslims, or anyone else.

These non-discursive things don’t get talked about. My guess is that once you actually start talking about these kinds of things, then very quickly you might stop talking about Jews, Israel, western colonialism, capitalism. That to me has been the glory of the Arab Spring, the fact that it has had very little to do with Jews, Israel, western colonialism, and capitalism, and more to do with Arab society, culture and Islam. And the fact that the Arab Spring is going to be an ugly haul, well, no one on the European or American left wants to talk about it, unless one can pin it back on Israel, western colonialism, and capitalism. “The Jews” are only bit players in this little loop, and anti-Semitism falls off the critical radar. There’s this idea out there among “progressives,” especially anti-liberal ones, that you can sever the connection between Zionism and Judaism, that you can inoculate the former from the latter, which brings us back to the first slippage  between anti-Zionism and the anti-Semitism one seeks to disavow. My guess is that most of my friends to the left of me have simply tired of the entire discussion and simply don’t want to engage it.

Despite all the blather about materialism, what strikes me is the almost complete disregard for and total ignorance about empirical things. Too much theory, not enough practice. Too much philosophy, not enough history. To go by some of its leading theorists, I don’t want to serve up the red herring and claim that the “European Left” is “anti-Semitic.” Just incredibly stupid. And if not stupid, then “obtuse,” as in “annoyingly insensitive or slow to understand.”

[For another perspective re: the Left, this one about Syria, see these bitter words at]

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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2 Responses to The European Left, Jews, and “Resistance” (Zizeks, Badious, Butlers

  1. efmooney says:

    Zak, I read Schindler’s opinion piece, too, and like the way you carry his insights forward, roughly, ‘against theory.’ A philosophical stance that gets down into history and particulars and specific social, political, and individual differences, all meshed in cultural forms of life, is Wittgenstein’s, whose motto was “I’ll teach you differences” (from King Lear), and would be happy with the moniker “anti-theorist.” Theory loves the big brush, and talks about its size rather than what it sweeps aside out of sight (to its shame).

  2. I’d say an additional problem is the culture of ‘public academia’ that has grown up in the last decade or so…remember the (in)famous radio interview where Levinas was questioned about Sabra and Shatila? Yes, it was public, and he should have called it an atrocity–but at the same time he was attempting to answer the question (which arose in the course of Levinas being asked whether Palestine was the ‘Other’ of Israel) in a way consistent with his philosophy.

    The intellectually rigorous answer and the public answer cannot always be the same thing, which makes any foray into public academia incredibly dangerous (purely my opinion).

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