In her book of late 2012, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (Columbia UP), Judith Butler arguably plagiarizes Edward Said, whom she reveres as a heroic figure, while badly misquoting–tendentiously twisting their priceless legacies–both Primo Levi and Emmanuel Levinas in ways that are deeply offensive, contrary to the central meaning and value of their work. What’s it all about?
Although she denies being a spokesperson or leader of anything, few who have been following recent discussions concerning the BDS (Boycotts, Divestments, Sanctions) movement for restrictions aimed against Israeli academics on American college campuses would fail to recognize her name as one of its prime symbols. And it is in this case precisely the symbolic power of a name (since her books are unreadable for most non-specialists) that is at issue. Butler lends credibility to an otherwise quirky, retrograde, and at least sometimes anti-Semitic push to reject Israel’s very right to exist in any conceivable two-state solution whatsoever to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (BDSers would prefer to liberate all of Palestine, “from the river to the sea”), because of her intellectual cache as one of today’s leading, trend-setting cultural “theorists.” The tribe of theorists, by the way, are supposed to be, like the extinct race of philosophers before them, lovers of wisdom–souls so drawn to the truth that they’re willing to run risks for it. Such at least is their reputation among the impressionable; when they aren’t, by contrast, being dismissed by cynics (like the philosophers before them) for pretensions to mere radical chic. Or worse.
Investing in Symbolic Capital
And this–the problem of not insignificant symbolic capital accumulation, linked to serious accusations of moral/intellectual insolvency–is what makes so troubling the glaring factual and conceptual errors in Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, a book which promises what the subtitle implies. Not just another example of a Jew who chooses to be anti-Zionist (since there have always been plenty of those), but instead an intellectually respectable “critique” of Zionism (detachable from the individual author) will be provided. And not just that, either–but a secular critique, one provocatively rooted not merely in the ancient religion of Judaism, the way eating Matzohs on Passover or having doubts about Jesus being the messiah is. Instead, what will be made available–and from within a proper grasp of something called “Jewishness,” no less–is a set of reasons for rejecting Zionism and so giving up on Jewish national self-determination once and for all (or until the end of time at least). For, if not just a Jewish person (Butler herself, in this case); nor merely one more “interpretation” of Judaism as one of a number of non-secular contenders for “tolerance” in a basically secular age (with whatever weakened truth-value such relics are supposed to have for adults schooled at once in neurobiology and multiculturalism): but if something else–this Jewishness–could be seen to reject Zionism…well, then we might be confronting more than just another opinion/superstition! The whole idea of a Jewish (as opposed to Irish, Italian, or Japanese) state might really–and not only for the millennialist orthodox fundamentalist, sweating under the Mediterranean sun in his antique Polish fur hat and long black coat–start to look contradictory to the core.
And so, then: one wishes to know: what is this Jewishness that promises privileged access to “the critique” of Zionism?
Disappointingly (for Israel’s enemies) it all turns out to be more than a bit like comedian Steven Colbert’s “truthiness“: The kind of thing that sounds like what you might expect to be the case about something that concerns you, if it’s what you already wanted to hear anyway. But really isn’t so. Truthiness, in other words, inheres in any statement spoken with sufficient conviction, because it “sounds good” to your ears and the ears of those who agree with you and both you and they really want to believe it. Examples could include the assertion that bilingual Spanish-English education in the American southwest is unnecessary precisely because, “if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, then it’s good enough for our kids.” Or, “President Obama is simultaneously a Muslim, a Socialist, out to destroy America because he hates whites, is not really black himself, and is not really a U.S. citizen either.” It could even include adherence to the set of myths (so badly shattered of late) that class mobility, freedom and equality are all in fact as uniquely essential to Americanness as Walt Whitman once hoped they would turn out to be.
For it’s the illogical, quintessentially ideological appeal to the consequences of a fanciful metaphysical “essence,” contained so neatly and almost unobtrusively in the humble suffix, “-ness”; or golden promises, in other words, that can’t be backed-up quite so easily since the days of the Gold Standard have passed, and which thus defer all the heavy lifting that non-existent evidence and incoherent argument just won’t do to grammar in the service of fantasy; which is the key to truthiness, as a tactic of seduction and intimidation in the age of floating currency.
The Roland Barthes Report
Not the entertainer, Colbert, however, but one of the truly great, original and genuine French theorists, Roland Barthes, was the first to point out this flexible function–long ago, in 1957, during the Algerian War. In his classic text, Mythololgies, he notes, tellingly, that “Frenchness” can be conveyed by something as simple as a photograph of a young black soldier saluting the Tricolour on the cover of a popular magazine: liberté, égalité, and fraternité, are all neatly implied, regardless of race, much less racism, much less colonialism. This is who we are, this is what we stand for, no matter what else we might actually do or fail to do.
Another example, less distant in time but more distant in place for most Westerners: In Turkey, to this day, there is a law still on the books against “insulting Turkishness.” Not Turkey. Not Turks. Not the Turkish Republic. But Turkishness. The advantage of such a “Law of Truthiness” of course is that no one knows what it means, or at least nobody can ever be quite sure what it might be taken to mean–at the convenience of those in power.
In a nutshell, Jewishness turns out to here mean–I’m afraid–in a similarly lax manner. And for Butler, this way of meaning means that it is conveniently defined, for her, in a word, as diaspora. And not only that, but the best Jewish thinkers of the 20th century all knew it, stood for it, said so. Loved it. Was a blast.
Except it wasn’t, they didn’t, it’s not true.
Which means that…in the spirit of postmodern truthiness (let’s call it the “discursive construction of reality” for respectability’s sake), she fabricates it. It isn’t hard. (1) She misquotes Emmanuel Levinas (who neither rejected Israel’s right to exist, nor, inconveniently for its/his accusers, sanctioned the murder of Israel’s neighbors either). (2) She cites Primo Levi as saying something he never said, also (for neither did Levi deny the Jews the right to a homeland, nor declare Israelis the equivalents of Nazis vis-a-vis the Palestinians). And (3) for good measure, almost gratuitously, she apparently plagiarizes one of her heroes, Edward Said–presenting his words at any rate as her own, sad to say, without the scholar’s conventional attributing quotation marks. A move that would be sure to at least raise the eyebrow of any professor who received such an effort from an undergraduate, and could be bothered to google it.
Truthiness vs. the Truth
Why does she do it? Truthiness. It sounds so good to Butler and her fellow BDS supporters to “hear” genuine heavyweight icons of real ethical Judaism, such as Levi and Levinas, “saying” what they never said–and never could be imagined as saying, to anyone familiar with their body of work–that she labors to produce this “Jew-ish,” or quasi-Jew-like, pantheon of simulated periphrastic pharisees for the uninitiated. And as to Said–he long ago testified to Ari Shavit in a famous Haaretz interview that he himself (Edward Said, the Egyptian, like Moses according to Freud) was the true “Jewish intellectual” of his day. And why in his case? Because of his “exile.” His diasporicness. His essential displacement. In fact, given what is known about his actual biography–more truthiness.
As the distinguished Levinas scholar, Professor Bruno Chaouat, of the University of Minnesota Department of French and Italian conclusively demonstrated some months ago, writing for Le Monde in his native tongue–which meant that until now word of the scandal had circulated primarily in the French context alone–Butler badly distorts Levinas on the question of Zionism’s ethics. As Chaouat carefully explains,
The cornerstone of Butler’s equivalence between Zionism and colonialist racism is her quotation of Levinas saying something he never said, at least not in the interview she refers to in her book (p. 227, note 24, and p. 39). Levinas argued, she claims, that Palestinians were ‘faceless’ (a term around which she places quotation marks, suggesting that he uttered it). Indeed, such a pronouncement would constitute an unfathomably grave transgression against the ethical edifice Levinas patiently built in his works from the end of World War II until his death. But nowhere in the source Butler refers to—either in the French original (‘Israel: éthique et politique,’ Les Nouveaux Cahiers, 71 [1982-83]: 1-8) or in the English translation by the excellent Levinas specialist Seán Hand—does the word ‘faceless’ appear (see The Levinas Reader, A Critical Edition, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers 1989, 289).
He did his homework. He proved his point. Butler’s pathetic response was that the quotation marks in this case were not marks of quotation at all, but the opposite–”scare quotes” meant to warn the reader that of course Levinas never actually said what she makes it appear that he meant to have said. A shabby denial if ever there was one.
And Primo Levi? It’s even worse. Butler quotes him as saying something “said” by one of his characters in a novel, set in Europe after WWII, called in English, If Not Now, When? It goes like this: “Everybody is somebody’s Jew,” the fictional being utters despondently. To which Butler’s text adds, “And today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis” (Parting Ways 202-203). However, it is simply a fact that neither Levi himself nor any of his fictional characters ever said such an offensive, inflammatory thing. And Butler should have known this–if only intuitively, as even I did, just from reading his books and collected interviews with some interest. But intuitions aside, she could have checked–as even you would be able to do, quite easily, even before being made aware by me of Chaouat’s parallel research with regards to Butler’s abuse of Levinas. Again, lamely, shamefully even, for a leading scholar playing at such high-stakes games, her excuse is that the misattribution derives from a biography of Levi, which she cites as her source. However, even this doesn’t quite wash, when you realize that the International Center for the Study of Primo Levi had already gone to lengths in order to squelch this canard (a popular item on the internet, as one can imagine) before Butler’s book went to press. All a person needed to do was be a little suspicious in order to want to track down the correction.
Here, for example, is how The New Yorker (also caught up in the confusion) decided to report on its own failure to catch the obviously not unmotivated “slip,” albeit after it was too late, in a sense, since Butler’s book was already out, bearing/spreading even more widely the offensive falsehood that should have been checked and eliminated from a responsible academic volume put out by a reputable university press:
‘Everybody is somebody’s Jew,’ [Levi] told a reporter, Filippo Gentiloni, from the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, and he cited the abuse of Poland by the Russians and the Germans. At that point in the interview, printed on June 29, 1982, Gentiloni closed the Levi quote and added a sentence of his own: ‘And today Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis.’ Carole Angier [the biographer cited by Butler], in quoting this, either made a mistake or repeated someone else’s mistake. In any case, the quotation marks got moved, and Levi was represented as having said not just ‘Everybody is somebody’s Jew’ but also ‘And today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis.’
Yet it is never too late to set the record straight (that too is a part of Jewishness, at least as I understand it). So, quite respectably, Joan Acocella, The New Yorker‘s reviewer of the biography from which Butler likewise misquoted second-hand the decades-old interview (after the Primo Levi Center had published its helpful correction) adds in conclusion to her own story, as she straightforwardly tells it, a mea culpa that is surely to the main and overriding point at issue,
I record this story in order to clear my name and to make a small contribution to the history of journalistic ethics…. What [those who continue to quote the notorious misquote] have done—that is, use insinuations of anti-Semitism to advance what is essentially a political argument—is exactly the kind of thing Levi would have deplored.
Nor would any sensitive reader of Levi disagree, or fail to pause at the incongruity long enough to google around a bit. But for the allure of truthiness, I suppose…if not the the particularly pungent truthiness of anti-Semitism.
Bye, Nationalism! Hello, Diaspora Once Again!
So again, Jewishness and truthiness share this odd affinity in Butler’s hodgepodge of a mishmash of a wish-fulfillment of a book–advocating from start to finish “bi-nationalism” ex post facto as the “solution” to the Israeli/Palestinian dispute. And, not wishing to go it alone, declaring that Jewishness itself demands no less. Appropriating both the moral weight properly attached to Levinas, master of ethical thinking in the 20th century, and Levi, survivor of Auschwitz and preeminent chronicler of the Holocaust, Butler seeks to marshal all the symbolic resonance she can in order to try to turn icons of authentically moral Judaism into usable symbols for a preposterously political anti-Zionist ideology.
But why stop there? If Levinas and Levi can be made into anti-Semitic paragons of diaspora as the “essence” (or “-ness”) of what it means to be a Jew, then why not claim…Edward Said (!) as yet another authority on being Jewish/diasporic, transporting the massively influential Columbia University professor as well to that “place” of the “non-place” (homelessness) of identification from which to advance Jewish-ness itself in/as the name of a critique of Zionism? Indeed, toward such an end, in Parting Ways, Butler finally goes beyond selective quoting and deceptive misquoting to actually citing without quoting or proper attribution–when she wants to drive home her point that Palestinians/Egyptians, such as Said himself, are the “real” Jews now. “She” therefore writes that “Freud boldly exemplifies” for his readers
the insight that even for the most definable, the most identifiable, the most stubborn communal identity–and for Freud this was Jewish Identity–there are inherent limits that prevent it from being fully incorporated into a monolithic and unified identity, singular and exclusive. Said maintains that identity cannot be thought or worked through alone…. (Parting Ways 31).
And, well, it’s true–all too true, in fact! For Said does in fact literally maintain precisely this. Alas (for Butler’s reputation) he himself writes, word for word, in Freud and The Non-European, as follows (and/or precedes):
More bold is Freud’s profound exemplification of the insight that even for the most definable, the most identifiable, the most stubborn communal identity–and for him this was Jewish Identity–there are inherent limits that prevent it from being fully incorporated into one and only one Identity…. In other words, identity cannot be thought or worked through itself alone…. (53-4)
Is it plagiarism? Have another look. At a minimum, what Butler’s “collaborative” method of writing about mythological Jewish-ness reveals is that it takes a variety of strategies of misattribution in order to misconstrue her own untenable position as the inevitable one. As she candidly reveals, it’s all because she has good reason to feel desperate:
It may be that binationalism is an impossibility, but that mere fact [emphasis added] does not suffice as a reason to be against it. (Parting Ways 30)
Perhaps. But is it a license to override fact altogether? While it’s true that the old saw “ought implies can” (if you can’t do something then no one should really be able to say that you must) can seem measly, callous, unimaginative at times (who knows, really, what one can and can’t do, or what we owe each other in any event?); the exorbitant demand of the soixante-huitard who never grew up and can only ever “demand the impossible” can also seem a bit perplexingly irresponsible in its own way, if not downright dull and stupid after a while too. Demand the impossible! At least that way you know you’ll never be responsible for anything real or have to deal with any actual consequences.
Demand the Possible!
Yet, be that as it may, what if any “reason” can “suffice” for claiming illegitimately (counterfactually) that others are/were, one way or another, in the service of this “impossibility” of yours, when they manifestly refused it (Levinas/Levi)? And, as for ventriloquizing Said syllable for syllable–somebody else who manifestly was, yes, indeed, “for it,” if one can logically be for an impossibility, acknowledged as such–why bother? Except to heighten the symbolic power of a theorist’s text/name to lend the appearance of legitimacy to an illegitimate, desperate “movement,” bound to be more successful at elevating the profiles of a few Western intellectuals than doing anything constructive to help either Palestinian or Israeli.
In sum, Judith Butler’s Parting Ways is a typical example of the incoherence and–no other word will do–mendacity of the BDS movement’s campaign to stigmatize Israel. Every state commits injustices, while only one today is routinely said (by some) to be illegitimate for that reason, rather than in need of reform. Jewishness is not a suicide pact.