Friday, February 8, 2019

Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism Judith Butler, Reviewed by Chaim Gans, Tel Aviv University

In her book Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, Judith Butler argues for three main theses. Her first thesis amounts to a complete rejection of Zionism because of how it has affected the Palestinians. According to Butler, Zionism aspires to appropriate the Palestinians' land and disinherit them from it. In her second argument, Butler claims that Zionist ideology must also be rejected because of how it views the Jews. She maintains that Zionist ideology aspires to appropriate Jewish identity and to impose a nationalist interpretation of Judaism on all Jews. However, the major part of the book is devoted to a third thesis that combines the first two. It is in the name of Judaism itself, so Butler argues, that the Zionist movement should be totally rejected.
Butler argues that Jewish history and experience have driven many Jews in the past to construct a Jewish identity for themselves that incorporates the non-Jew. She believes that this experience and history should prompt Jews to do the same today, not only outside Israel and historic Palestine, but also within these geographic and political spaces. She therefore proposes to construct these spaces as binational. By binationalism she does not mean a legal arrangement that allows two nations to live together side by side in one polity under equal conditions, but rather a society and a polity whose citizens are binational at the level of their personality-identity. That is, they are either Jews who have in some sense made Palestinianism a part of their identity, or Palestinians who have in some sense incorporated a diasporic identity, which, according to Butler, is the major characteristic of Jewish identity. It is this specific type of binationalism that makes her book philosophically interesting and novel. She wants Israel/Palestine to be a political entity that is inhabited by Jews and Palestinians who first have deconstructed their particular mono-national identities and then reconstructed themselves with binational identities. The political entity that would emerge as a consequence of this individual deconstruction and reconstruction would therefore be post-national.
Butler's proposal is radical on two levels. Firstly, she turns the elementary moral requirement that we be considerate of the other while preserving our own identity into a requirement to make the other a part of our identities while, at least to some degree, annulling our previous selves. Secondly, she takes the basic requirement imposed by political morality on countries whose populations are binational to reflect this binationality in their institutional structure one step further, requiring individuals living in such countries to acquire binational identities.

Judith Butler comes to her critique of Jewishness and Zionism with impressive credentials. She is widely known as a philosopher in the fields of feminist, queer, and literary theory, of politics and ethics, and her books are translated into many languages. She is a professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature and the co-director of the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. She actively works against innumerable social injustices, is on the Advisory Board of Jewish Voice for Peace, and she publicly supports the BDS campaign.
At the outset, she states that “some aspects of Jewish ethics require us to depart from a concern only with the vulnerability and fate of the Jewish people. I am proposing that this departure from ourselves is the condition of a certain ethical relation, decidedly nonegological: it is a response to the claims of alterity and lays the groundwork for an ethics in dispersion.” From the standpoint too of Palestinians Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish, she examines this ethic in secular Jewish writers Emannuel Levinas, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Primo Levi: is plurality and cohabitation possible, is plurality undermined by law itself and by the nation-state?
A short review can hardly do justice to Butler’s detailed exploration. I will focus on one limitation that is inherent to a philosophical approach based primarily on deduction and introspection vs a more empirical approach. For example, there is her focus about whether Jewish and Palestinian people can find commonality and a basis of mutual empathy because they are both diaspora peoples. While acknowledging the differences in the two diasporas, she neglects the fact that Zionists caused the Palestinian diaspora. Israeli leaders are very far from experiencing shame and guilt. Butler writes, elusively, that “Remembrance may be nothing more than struggling against amnesia in order to find those forms of coexistence opened up by convergent and resonant histories. Perhaps for this we still do not have the precise name.” Does resonance imply amnesia about blame? There is a psychological capacity to feel guilt. What happens historically when there is no real grappling with responsibility


  1. Queer - says it all

  2. Some academics and political activists maintain that Butler's radical
    departure from the sex/gender dichotomy and her non-essentialist
    conception of gender—along with her insistence that power helps form the
    subject—revolutionized feminist and queer praxis, thought, and studies.[53] Darin Barney of McGill University writes that:

    Butler's work on gender, sex,
    sexuality, queerness, feminism, bodies, political speech and ethics has
    changed the way scholars all over the world think, talk and write about
    identity, subjectivity, power and politics. It has also changed the
    lives of countless people whose bodies, genders, sexualities and desires
    have made them subject to violence, exclusion and oppression.[54]


    So it is no surprise that she is in the same "camp" as Yaakov De Haan!


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