Judith Butler Liberal Zionist (Parting Ways at the AAR)


“Judith Butler is a liberal Zionist.” Only a little tongue in cheek, I’ll make this claim on the basis of her remarks at a panel at the American Academy of Religion conference (2013). Organized by Ellen Armour and sponsored by the section for the study of Judaism to discuss Parting Ways, the panel was mostly dominated by perspectives drawn from Jewish philosophy and thought. These were advanced by Rebecca Adler, Sam Brody, Yaniv Feller, Claire Katz, and Martin Kavka. A recording of the panel is now up at the AAR website. It was a remarkable and thoughtful event, remarkable for its deliberative, as opposed to declarative tone. They brought out dimensions to Butler’s thinking about Israel and Palestine that I don’t think were much in evidence in Parting Ways.Butler responded to the panelists and to the general controversy that her book has generated in some circles.

The first thing that bears saying is how her talk here at the AAR in a Jewish philosophical circle was very different than talks she gave at Brooklyn College to support BDS, at Columbia University with Cornell West to honor the memory of Edward Said, or her participation at a teach-in at Berkeley. Instead of being grandstanded as “settler-colonialism,” Zionism was discussed by the panelists and by Butler herself, in far more nuanced terms, as a variegated political phenomenon with deep philosophical stakes that are both particular and “universal.” Instead of separating Jewishness and Zionism, which I thought was a central line of argument in Parting Ways, the discussion and Butler’s contribution to it forced their imbrication even deeper.

Perhaps most surprising, considering the hullabaloo, Parting Ways is driven by philosophical theses regarding [1 subjectivity and subject formation, as well as regarding [2] Jewishness and Judaism, and [3] Israel that do not stand out in any particular way as radical, at least not in relation to the Jewish philosophical tradition.

[1] Most of these are readily recognizable to any reader of the Jewish philosophical tradition starting with Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweing, including Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, and up to Yeshiyahu Leibowitz and Emmanuel Levinas.  The philosophical points developed by Butler regarding cohabitation, precarity, and responsibility integrate easily into that philosophical tradition, whose proponents have long understood the relational, non-substantivist character of human subjectivity.

[2] Consider too the idea that Jewish philosophy or Jewish identity is not exclusively or even explicitly Jewish per se, the notion that Jewish identity is not static, that Jewish social and religious identities are defined in relation to their broader historical contexts and geographical environments. These are already staples of 19th century historicism and the science of Judaism (Wissenschaft des Judenthums). As for anti-essentialism in Judaism, that topos has been honed to profound effect by Buber, Rosenzweig, and Gershom Scholem in the 20th century.

[3] Lastly, given the recent, reactive, and reactionary fear and fury in the Jewish community surrounding BDS, it’s hard to remember that there are very few people in the community, at least statistically, who would actually recognize the notion that Zionism “controls” Judaism and Jewishness or that any and all criticism of Israel equals anti-Semitism. There would be a broad consensus in across the Jewish community that what Butler has called “the wretched bi-nationalism” on the ground in Israel/Palestine is morally and politically unsustainable.

You can follow a recording of the entire event here at the AAR website. Her comments start at around 1:13 in the recording. What strikes me as genuinely noteworthy about the comments made by Butler herself in her remarks at the AAR is how they place her in the liberal Zionist mainstream. Federated, shared concepts of sovereignty and citizenship are now recognized by her not as anti-Zionism, but as a form of historical Zionism. Buber is now considered to be worth a second look. More to the point is the closeness of Butler’s remarks to a liberal kind of political Zionism. Even the critique of sovereignty loses some of its absolute force. Butler now ascribes value to the idea of Jewish political self-determination, which she situates alongside the rights of others, namely the Palestinian right to self-determination. The assumption is that the rights of others and the creation of a just polity necessarily condition any people’s right to self-determination. Butler no longer wants to talk about being pro- or anti-Israel or pro- or anti-Palestine. While I am sure she must have used the term “settler colonialism,” there is this other understanding, paraphrasing Arendt, that regarding Zionism and the establishment of the State (?), historically Jews need or needed sanctuary when they are or were refugees.

Such statements lend themselves to the possibility of discursive mischief. Butler’s thinking here reflect a perfectly parve form of liberal Zionism that might come as a surprise to many of the people who read her as situated on the more radical side of these kinds of debates. Her remarks at the AAR do not reflect the rhetoric and the arguments in Parting Ways, suggesting why it’s important to open the Jewish community to dialogue about alternative points of view. They suggest something too about the effective and moderating power of genuine civil discourse to shade or blunt sharply held points of views. Maybe it should have been no surprise at all that these remarks by Butler responding to remarks at the study of Judaism section, responding to perspectives that reflect Jewish philosophical and political interests, are the kinds that one might find at J-Street, not at Electronic Intifadah. The depth of the discussion suggests that in these kinds of circles, it may not be so easy to divest Jewishness and Judaism from Zionism and Israel.

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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