Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism

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Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism

The cultural theorist Judith Butler has written what she intends as a critique of Zionism derived from Jewish sources. Her argument: the diasporic experience was Good and Jewish, while sovereignty in Palestine has been Bad and Non-Jewish. Her political conclusion: Jews! Back to the diasporic! In practical terms, put an end to Jewish sovereignty by abolishing the Law of Return for the Jews, acknowledging the right of return for the Palestinians, and agreeing a ‘one state solution.’ The name of her desire? ‘A diasporic set of norms as the basis of a bi-national state in Israel.’


In the diaspora, she argues, Jews lived lives of ‘irreversible heterogeneity’ ascohabitees (the Ghetto and the Pale figuring little in this narrative) and as such they developed a rich ethical tradition based on ‘the relation to the non-Jew and the non-Jewish’ that foregrounded justice and respect for the Other; values that were experienced as ‘an ethical obligation and demand for Jewishness.’

Butler then excavates a tradition of diasporic Jewish voices – the cultural critic and messianic Marxist Walter Benjamin, the political theorist Hannah Arendt, the moral philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and the writer Primo Levi. By her lights, each is of value today to those Jews such as herself who are searching for a specifically Jewish basis to effect a radical separation (the ‘parting of the ways’ of the book’s title) between Jewishness and Zionism. Each thinker, she proposes, can help Jews ‘to think about cohabitation, binationalism and a critique of [Israeli] state violence.’ Dispersion, for Butler, must be thought ‘not only as a geographical situation but also as an ethical modality.’ By returning to the diasporic experience we find a ‘Jewish route to the insight that equality must be secured for a population regardless of religious affiliation’ and a means to effect ‘a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.’ And that displacement will make possible ‘a collective struggle to find forms of political governance that intimate principles of equality and justice for the full demographic of the region.’


The shadowy villain of Butler’s book is, of course, Zionism. In her terms, when ‘cultural Zionism’ (Israel understood as a nation) was overtaken by ‘political Zionism’ (Eretz Israel understood as a land) Jews lost touch with the justice-based ethics of the diaspora and fell into ‘a violent project of settler colonialism.’ The drive for Jewish sovereignty in Palestine dictated a refusal to recognise the needs of the non-Jewish Other (i.e. the Palestinians and in time, the Israeli Arabs). All forms of Zionism were complicit: Socialist Zionism was ‘an integral part of the settler-colonial project’ and its inevitable results – forcible dispossession, colonial subjugation and expansion. (A similar argument has been made recently by long-time Matzpen activist Tikva Honig-Parnass in her False Prophets of Peace: Liberal Zionism and the Struggle for Palestine, and by the Israeli poet, novelist and editor of Mitaam, Yitzhak Lahor in The Myths of Liberal Zionism.)

Rewinding history

For Butler, the only way back for the Jews is to put ‘an end to political Zionism’ and to Jewish sovereignty in Israel. (18). Accepting the existence of what the political philosopher Michael Walzer calls ‘Little Israel,’ secure inside something close to its 1967 borders, would be a disaster; ratifying illegality and colonialism, betraying the Palestinian refugees (something that Butler, writing from Berkeley, accuses Abu Mazen of doing) and keeping Jewishness imprisoned within the racist-colonialist-Zionist project. No, the film of history must be rewound to 1948, not just 1967.

For that journey back to the future, Butler suggests an ethical principle: ‘any right of refugees would have to be exercised in such a way that the rights of [other] refugees are not denied.’ It sounds promising, but it isn’t; she immediately rejects the only final status agreement that could roughly accommodate that principle – two states for two peoples. Instead, Butler supports the so-called ‘one-state solution’ telling us rather optimistically that it would ‘eradicate all forms of discrimination based on ethnicity, race and religion.’ ‘I am trying to imagine,’ she writes, ‘what might happen if the two “traditions” of displacement [she means Jews and Palestinians] were to converge to produce a post-national polity.’ Admitting that this is ‘an impossible task,’ she adds that it is ‘for that reason no less necessary’.

The anti-Zionist ideology

In the mid-19th century Karl Marx began to talk about ‘the German Ideology’ as a way to reassert the earthy claims of materialism against the airy idealism of German philosophy. I propose we start to talk of the Anti-Zionist Ideology (AZI) to remind people of the primacy of the massive material weight of history in the story of Zionism and Israel from the pre-exilic roots to the post-Enlightenment catastrophe. The AZI stands in the way of a decent materialist account of either the longing or the boot.

This book review is not the place to set out a comprehensive critique of the AZI but, as a down payment, a couple of points can be made.

First point: the AZI is teleological and idealist. In other words, the complex history of a people (the Jewish people) and the nature of a state (Israel) are reduced to the simple expression of an idea (‘Zionism’) and the men and women who pursued it (‘the Zionists’). The material history as such, complex and contradictory, involving actors other than all-powerful ‘Zionists,’ and decisively shaped by factors other than the Zionist idea is a mystery to the AZI. The result is what Marx would have called an ‘ahistorical, eternal, fixed and abstract conception’ of the history of Zionism and Israel from which is missing actual experience and real emergence, from which has been erased all concrete differences (between periods of Israeli history, between different wings of Zionism, between political parties within Israel, between different Israeli social classes) and within which everything is reduced to the inevitable expression of a Bad Idea.

The complex history of a people (the Jewish people) and the nature of a state (Israel) are reduced to the simple expression of an idea (‘Zionism’) and the men and women who pursued it (‘the Zionists’).

In the face of these simplifications, the antiracist writer David Hirsh urges on us a necessary task: ‘taking a one-dimensional, ideological, conspiratorial “history” and bringing back in all its complexity, contradiction, development and, above all, materiality.’ It is Butler’s failure to do so that makes her book so politically crude. Carlo Strenger states the problem bluntly in Haaretz,

Judging from Parting Ways, you might think that Zionism was a unitary ideology run by some politburo. At no point would you recognize how complex the history of Zionism is, and how different its various shades can be. You would not guess that there are committed liberal Zionists who argue for a secular constitution for Israel that would give full equality to Arabs and lead to a complete separation of religion and state. Quite remarkably, Butler, whose life’s work is about nuances, unquestioningly accepts simplistic premises about Zionism dictated, on the one hand, by Arab rejectionists who define Zionism as racism, and, on the other, by Israel’s right-wing ideologues.

Second point. Each wave of the AZI – Jewish, Arab, Soviet, New Left, Islamist and, today, a mélange of all that has gone before – has served as an intellectual antechamber to antisemitism. Why? Well, the French philosopher Louis Althusser claimed that every ‘problematic,’ or systematic structure of thought, contains ‘potential thoughts’ as well as actual thoughts, silences as well as presences, questions that can not be posed as well as those that can. Applying this insight to the AZI is fruitful. We can see that the AZI’s ‘potential thoughts’ are able to deck out classic anti-Semitic tropes in new, and apparently ‘progressive’ language. We also find silences, most obviously regarding the long tradition of Arab and Islamic antisemitism that opposed any form of Jewish sovereignty (but which has always understood the political utility of presenting this as a matter of ‘anti-imperialism’). And we find there are a host of questions that the AZI can’t pose, as Zeev Sternhell highlighted in his critical response in New Left Review to a central text of the AZI, Gabriel Piterburg’s The Returns of ZionismMyths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel.

Judith Butler is an anti-racist, of course. Her grandmother’s family was killed in a small village south of Budapest in the Holocaust, and I believe charges that she is personally anti-Semitic are quite wrong. Nonetheless, as every anti-racist knows, statements and actions can have effects without intentions. The erasure of that distinction these days when it comes to one form of racism (antisemitism) is something of a scandal (see the essays by David Hirsh in Fathom 1 and Norman Geras in Fathom 2).

Notoriously, Judith Butler said the following about those violent Jew-haters of Hamas and Hezbollah.

I think: Yes, understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important. That does not stop us from being critical of certain dimensions of both movements. (…) So again, a critical, important engagement. I mean, I certainly think it should be entered into the conversation on the Left. I similarly think boycotts and divestment procedures are, again, an essential component of any resistance movement.

Surprised by the outraged reaction to her comments, Butler ‘redescribed’ what she had said in a public statement.

My remarks on Hamas and Hezbollah have been taken out of context… I was asked by a member of an academic audience… 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 organisations 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.

But this just won’t do. As Jay Adler has pointed out, ‘Little of what Butler now claims is true. Her remarks were not “merely descriptive.” The two organisations she described not just as left, but as, actually, “progressive,” and Butler called it “important” to so understand them.’ Adler rightly adds: ‘She did not offer the choice of support for the groups – and why endorse even the choice? – but called understanding Hamas and Hezbollah as progressive, left social movements to be a “critical, important engagement.”’

It is not a matter of playing ‘gotcha’ with Judith Butler, but of reading her so as to understand something profoundly important: the AZI is a danger not just to the homeland of the Jewish people but also – and what an irony this is, given the thrust of Butler’s book – to Jews in the diaspora.

Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism

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