Deconstructing Zionism Liquidating Heidegger (Vattimo, Butler, Ellis, et.al)

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On a lark I picked up Deconstructing Zionism: A Critique of Political Metaphysics. It looks pretty much like you would think such a thing would look like. Perhaps the least interesting point about the book is the most obvious one, which bears repeating even if it’s obvious. The book’s entire theoretical framing around metaphysics (of presence) does little to explicate the subject it wants to deconstruct as a human phenomenon.  This may bear upon larger confusions that beset the project of political theology, or the analysis of things like Zionism as political theology. The focus on metaphysics and the critique of metaphysics only works to obscure the object itself.

About these kinds of critiques, to quote Judith Butler, “there will be those who suspect that really something else is being said” (p.26). (The contribution by Butler in this volume is a reprint of her chapter on Arendt from Parting Ways.) Indeed, the book’s contents seem to be less about Zionism and Israel and more about Europe. Examples would include Butler writing about Arendt’s Europeanness, Zizek trying to trace “Zionist anti-Semitism” in relation to the rise of new forms of the old anti-Semitism in Europe, Walter Mignolo opining that the root ill of Zionism was the European nation-state, Christopher Wise’s complaint against Derrida’s eurocentrism, and Artemy Magun’s discussion  of Marx and “the Jewish problem” in Europe.

Vattimo’s contribution to Deconstructing Zionism only bolsters the suspicion suggested by Butler that something else is indeed going on here in the book. Tracing the love affair of the European left with Zionism in its struggle against fascism prior to 1967, Vattimo then goes on to describe the place of Zionism on the European left after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the USSR, and the struggle against U.S. imperialism. What’s at stake for Vattimo has less to do with placeless sense of justice that marks the surface rhetoric in much of the book. For Vattimo, what matters about Zionism is is instead the unbearable burden “imposed” upon Europe by Israel and Judaism “like a penalty…for which we have yet to atone” (p.19).

Driving the book as a whole, I suspect, wanting nothing more to do with Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism, the battle lines for Europe get drawn hard and ugly as Vattimo continues: “When I confront the question of Israel today, particularly with the bad conscience of the Christian world for the persecution the Jews have suffered over the centuries, more and more I have the impression that this history has nothing to do with me.” Usually, in these kinds of books, and this book is no exception, a free form of diaspora Jewishness is recommended for the Jewish people. But there’s no sympathy here. What matters more is Europe. Carping about the Bible and the psalms, Vattimo sees in them “perhaps none other than the feeling of a nomadic people with whom, in the end, I have nothing in common” (p.20). Named as such, “Jewish tradition” is “only so much putrid, hot air form which one must free oneself in order to stop spilling [more] blood on account of…the sacred rights of the Jews to the Promised Land” (p.21).

Perhaps surprisingly in a book about Zionism, Heidegger’s name pops up a lot. In the index he appears in as many items as “Herzl” and “Hitler.” At the most bizarre moment in Deconstructing Zionism, it is Vattimo who assures his readers that he will not do to the emblematic jews whom he claims to hold dear such as Kafka, Benjamin, Block, and Rosenzweig what “the Zionist Nazi hunters have done to Heidegger, when they think of liquidating him because he sided with Hitler” (pp.20-1).  Something else is going on here in Vattimo’s remarks, reflecting the rank anti-Semitism about which Butler warns in her chapter on Arendt, the very real “question of whether the criticism can be registered publicly as something other than an attack on Jews or on Jewishness,” “the suspicion that the person who articulates [these criticisms] has something against the Jews or, if Jewish herself, has something against herself” (p.27).

Should one listen to this? That is Butler’s question posed about certain types of critique about Israel and Zionism (p.27). For the most part, what’s up for offer in Deconstructing Zionism is national self-divestment and hyperbolic non-identities, a hyperbolic sense of justice based on a vague utopian sense for the whole, language that belongs to no one, etc. But is it coherent? Ironically, the kind of non-identitarianism proposed for the Jews on the basis of Europe, or on the basis of justice, on the basis of relating to non-Jews ethically can only make sense when Jews occupy positions of power like they do in Israel, and to a lesser extent in the United States. That capacious ethical relation recommended by Butler and Ellis can happen only when Jewishness and Judaism are placed, not dis-placed (as per Butler, p.26) because it’s only in Israel, and parts of the United States, that Jewish culture has a place in the public sphere.

Ellis’s own contribution to this project of Deconstructing Zionism is distinguished because it’s actually concerned with the actual objects of criticism, namely Israel and Zionism. Extending a distinction made by Lyotard in Heidegger and the jews, Ellis compares [1] “the real Israel” and “the real Zionism,” and “the real Jews” in all their “complex, difficult and interesting configurations” versus “conceptual Israel” over against [2] “conceptual zionism” that are “endlessly held up as [archetypes] of goodness by some and the epitome of evil by others” (p.100). Aware of complexity, Ellis understands how the practical upshot in deconstructing Zionism will depend upon the transition to a non-state form of Jewish identity in a one state solution in Israel. Most of the thinking reflected in this book presumes a smooth transition, assuming the “continuing acceptance of millions of Jews in the Middle East following the demise of the Jewish character of the State of Israel.” Ellis seems to be less sure. Overall, there’s a willingness to admit here that “the historical situation of Israel’s existence” may be “too complex and immediate…to probe” by “Jews of conscience” and other critics of Zionism. “It may be that the sheer existence of Israel makes the theoretical work less compelling” at what is understood to be a “historical impasse.”

Perhaps because the book intends to be a philosophical critique, the “jews,” “zionism,” and “israrel” on hand in Deconstructing Zionism are of the conceptual sort. What goes missing as a whole is just how hopeless and misbegotten it is, this attempt to deconstruct Zionism from outside. The concepts and their application to historical situations are too clunky to do the critical work they are intended to perform. This is especially so from the vantage point of Europe, whose starting points into the discussion are either irrelevant or thoroughly corrupted by historical guilt and resentment. This kind of philosophical performance, it’s either not worth listening to or almost not worth listening to at all, except as agitprop

More to the point, was deconstruction ever a transitive verb, and in that sense political? Was it something that a subject does to an object? Probably not. Deconstruction is something that a subject follows in an object. It’s that object itself that deconstructs; in one case, Zionism and Israel; it unwinds on its own, or at points and positions of historical impasse and compression at which it finds itself and in which it has placed itself. But it’s apparent that anti-Zionism can also deconstruct, built upon its own metaphysics of presence and rigid designators. With Vattimo clearly agitated about Zionist Nazi hunters out to liquidate Heidegger and Zizek opining about Zionist anti-Semitism, the whole production ends up looking clownish.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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6 Responses to Deconstructing Zionism Liquidating Heidegger (Vattimo, Butler, Ellis, et.al)

  1. Andrew Benjamin says:

    Thanks you for a clear review. Vattimo has become a rather sad and pompous figure. As for Zizek once a clown always a clown.

  2. emmambrodeur says:

    I like your attention to the dialectic of place, or the idea that placelessness (or diasporic Judaism) can only become a desired proposition when place, or placedness, becomes viewed as a problem, when “Jewish culture has a place in the public sphere.” What is needed, then, is maybe a more nuanced appreciation and understanding of place, or the relation between culture and the public sphere, and the particular history that attends to these constructions of place.

  3. dmf says:

    I think it’s unfortunate that anyone not doing theology should still treat “Zionism” (or any other ism type term) as an actual/existing subject to be studied as opposed to looking at how such terms are employed and experienced by particular people.

    • zjb says:

      i’m probably pretty guilty of this myself. i think the best option is to balance out the actual versus virtual components of such phenomena, and to do so with historical nuance. metaphysics and its critique seem not to get that nuance.

      • dmf says:

        hard habit(s) to kick but I think we really need to attend to the performative (writ large) aspects of such human-doings.

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