Arguing With Judith Butler II

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In a recent piece published by SPME, I commented on Judith Butler’s letter to the Berkeley Student Senate April 14 calling on students to press the university to divest from companies making military weapons which Israel employs to sustain the occupation and commit war crimes.

I thought Butler’s letter was disingenuous in describing the motion as not about Israel or about divestment in companies doing business with Israel, and that the letter presumed what should be proved, that Israel or the companies were guilty of war crimes.

Nonetheless, I was taken with Butler’s effort to persuade students that Jews are diverse in opinion and that Jewish social values might lead some to support the Jewish state but others to question “Israeli military aggression” and even the future of Zionism in the region.  Peter Beinart’s piece “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” in the New York Review of Books has recently explored the tensions between liberalism and support for Israel.[1] I was also taken with the clear signs Butler was studying Jewish social thought to work out her view on Middle Eastern realities.

Modern Jewish politics since the Holocaust and the rise of Israel, especially on the left, no longer revolves around the Jewish question in its earlier form – that is, the issue of how Jews will live amidst the nations of the post-emancipation West.  Today, modern Jewish politics revolves around the new Jewish question, the question of the Jewish state.  What is or shall be your relationship to the Zionist project?  What is or will be your relation to its expansiveness and to the occupation?  What is or should be the Jewish future in the Middle East?

Judith Butler and I believe in a just peace to the conflict and an end to the occupation.  We even agree about Israeli inequality and discrimination and Israeli callousness toward the Palestinian “others.” But we could not be further apart in thinking about what the future can and should be in Israel-Palestine.

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In a talk originally given in 2004 at a conference on “An End To Occupation: A Just Peace in Israel-Palestine,” published as “Jews and the Bi-NationalState,”[2] Ms. Butler identified the subject position from which she views the world and fashions her politics.  She is an American citizen and a diasporic Jew from Ashkenazi origins, she says, and she lost family members in the Nazi genocide in Hungary. She is also a radical democrat and cosmopolitan concerned about the rights of all, and hence she rues the “founding of the Israeli state, the forcible displacement of 700,000 Palestinians, the present occupation of 3.2 million, and the military aggression against Palestinians that has been part of the founding and continuation of the Israeli state.”

She identifies explicitly therefore as a non-Zionist and, although raised amidst Zionist influences in the American Midwest, she chose a path “toward the relinquishing of [her] Zionism” over the past 25 years.  She does not believe in sovereignty and citizenship on the basis of religious status, she avows, and she emphatically opposes the racist hierarchies that mark Israeli citizenship.  One can surely believe such things and still be critically supportive of Israel. But Butler also opposes Jewish colonialism, she asserts, Israeli military aggression, and Israeli expansiveness.   So it is that at some point she discovered in Martin Buber’s writings a source of criticism of Israel and support for an alternative vision of a federated state maintaining Jewish and Palestinian cultural autonomy within a single sovereignty.  She also found in Primo Levi’s critique and break from Zionism during Israel’s incursion into Lebanon in 1982 validation for her own disassociation from Israel and embrace of an anti-Zionist position.

To say this again, Butler found in Martin Buber and Primo Levi, authentic sources from within Jewish life – from within the early Zionist project itself, if at its margins, and also within a moral framework she asserts is derived from the Holocaust – for radically opposing the existence of the State of Israel.    A Jewish idea of social justice, she later told a reporter from Haaretz,[3] emerged from her serious consideration of the Nazi genocide – the obligation precisely because one is a Jew to criticize excessive state violence and racism. And Judaism’s value placed on human life, she says, and her growing sense of Israel as an ethnocentric place where people are uncaring about the lives of the stateless others led her to think there should have been bi-nationalism from the beginning.

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But where does the radical democrat go in Butler’s formulation?  Neither Arabs nor Jews were supportive constituencies historically for the bi-national idea she highlights.  The idea foundered on the opposition of both Arabs and Jews in the years before Israel’s war of independence and the nakbah. Moreover, the idea is today simply a non-starter: a majority of Israeli Jews regard a bi-national solution as a strategic threat, and most Palestinians desire their own secular state alongside or in place of Israel or seek an Islamic state – although recent polls indicate that support among Palestinians for a bi-national state has been rising.[4]

Uri Avnery, Israeli peace activist, writes “In desperate times, messianic ideas flourish.  They permit an escape from the dark present to a better, brighter world….”[5]  So now Butler and others – among them the historian Tony Judt, whose article “Israel: The Alternative,” in the New York Review of Books[6] placed “a single, integrated bi-national state” on the agenda again — revive an old idea that has not merely failed locally in the past, but failed elsewhere too more recently – in the Balkans, in Africa, in South Asia, in Lebanon. Would Arabs and Jews accept it? Would a bi-national state function? Would it end the conflict?  The answers are in all cases clearly no – but this appears not to be an obstacle to Judith Butler (or to Tony Judt).

Also, where is the Jew in this formulation? Is a Jew someone who cares only about other people’s self-determination, not also in self-determination for Jews?  Is being Jewish, deriving from the Jews, merely a sensibility, something selectively chosen and defined, or some sort of ethical tendency teased out individually through study?  Are Jews a mere category of analysis? One is reminded reading Butler’s writings of the celebrated remark to the French Assembly made in 1789 by Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre, “To the Jew as a citizen, everything; to the Jews as a people, nothing.” Butler’s position is that a Jewish state enshrining Jewish national autonomy should never have existed and simply should not exist now. In a Buberish flourish, she says, the creation of the Jewish state actually meant the death of the Zionist project, meaning a Zionism she can approve of that is appropriately solicitous of and caring about others.   To Butler, the Jew is really the universal human or near universal human – that was Primo Levi’s take, as well – and the Palestinians are “the Jews of the Israelis.”

But this is not the case.  Are Palestinians merely victims, victimized by some other people’s contaminated idea of the Palestinians? Or have Palestinians also had agency in the conflict and, by their own decisions and actions, by their national struggle, helped to shape its trajectory, duration, and content?  Was the Palestinian refugee exodus solely a product of Israeli aggression?  Have Palestinians played no role in prolonging the conflict?  Do Palestinian suicide bombings and rockets fired against defenseless civilians have no importance? Butler’s stance actually leads to incomplete visions and pretty confused outcomes. She is for a bi-national state but specifies nothing about its democratic mechanisms or functioning.  She says nothing about how we might get from here to there.  Her writing is silent about who can be mobilized to support it. Also, Butler is adamantly for the Palestinian other but clearly Hamas, speaking for some Palestinians, rejects any bi-national solution and wants an Islamic state.  Yet Butler told a teach-in at the University of California-Berkeley during 2006, Hamas is part of the global left, a part with whose vision, granted, she disagrees and commitment to violence she criticizes – but it is part of the global Left nonetheless.[7]

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It is clear that Butler is no great thinker about Jewish history or the Jewish fate.  As David Hirsh has noted, she and others who embrace this anti-Zionist stance think not at all about how the Holocaust changed the material condition of Jews in the world and transformed practical Zionism and the idea of a Jewish state from a minority Jewish view into a majority one.  Nor do they think or reflect about how, amidst the specific conjuncture of British imperial decline and growing American-Soviet cold war rivalry, Israel actually became a nation state under international sanction.[8]  The Nazi Holocaust is not absent from Butler’s writings but it serves mainly to provide an alternative moral framework to assess contemporary Middle Eastern ethnic and racial realities – not a frame for understanding modern Jewish history, the history of a people.  Most importantly, Butler finds in Hannah Arendt’s “Jewish Writings” further support for her own deep suspicion of nationalism and embrace of the idea of a federated state but this commitment is  untroubled by practicalities.  Basically, Butler elaborates what she discovers re-reading Arendt — a diasporic (modern Jewish) politics centered not on a Jewish homeland or on national belonging but on consideration of the rights of stateless “others.”  This is a politics without a historical frame or with a faulty frame, that of post-colonialism.  It is also a politics of opposition to dispossession and territorial violence that casts blame on one side only.  Finally, it is a politics empty of identification with those who made Israel or fled to it for haven or of the function Israel plays in Jewish life.[9]

In the past century, Jews have experienced a radical transformation in the foundations of Jewish life.  What was once central, Europe, has become peripheral; what were once peripheral, North America and Israel, have become the two centers of Jewish life.  Israel has also centralized in itself the former dispersed non-European Jews. Butler is simply less concerned with the breathtaking transformation in Jewish global location and sovereignty or with the arc of the Jewish future than with the costs of Israel for the Palestinians. Facing these costs is indeed important and appropriate and must not be minimized.  Butler’s emphatic desire that all peoples should grieve for the “other” is, frankly, compelling and attractive.  Lives worth grieving, as she argues in her book, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, will be lives that are worth caring about and preserving, even in conflict.  But Butler seems mainly concerned about the stateless “others” and is simply embarrassed by an Israel that speaks for Jews when, as a Jew, she considers herself apart from and opposed to Israel and wishing for its non-existence.

It is a constructive enterprise to explore alternative futures for Israel/Palestine and to criticize Israel’s ongoing occupation.  Israeli actions call forth such criticism, as we have seen recently in the response of many European Jewish intellectuals in forming JCall. But it is hardly constructive for Butler to highlight a solution that is no solution at all and employ the conflict as a mean to theorize but not actively to seek to end it. Here one is reminded of Hannah Arendt, who Butler embraces as a guide in her own thinking.  Arendt went to Israel to report on the Eichmann trial and as an observer turned out to be wrong about almost everything – about Eichmann, about what his actions suggested about true evil in totalitarian states, about European Jewish leaders — and she missed the central feature of the trial, the parade of Jewish witnesses narrating their experiences as Jews.[10] It is not hard to see the parallel with Arendt in Judith Butler’s current one-sided stance and writings on Israel.

[2] Logos 3:1 (Winter, 2004) at

[3] Judith Butler, “As  a Jew, I was taught it was ethically imperative to speak up….”  Udi Aloni, in  Haaretz  Feb. 20, 2010.

[4] Rachelle Kliger, “Palestinian Two-State Support Waning,” Jerusalem Post, April 22, 2010.

[5] Uri Avnery, “The Bi-national State: The Wolf Shall Dwell With the Lamb,” See also Av’ad Ghanem, “The Bi-National State Solution,” Israel Studies 14:2 (2010), 120-133, for discussion of contemporary support or opposition to the idea.

[6] Tony Judt, “Israel, The Alternative,” New York Review of Books (Sept. 23, 2003) For a rejoinder, see Benny Morris, One State, Two States: Resolving the Israeli Palestinian Conflict (New Haven: Yale U. Press, 2009).

[7] “Judith Butler on Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Israeli Lobby,” video of Berkeley teach-in September 7, 2006, at

[8] David Hirsh, “Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections,” Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism Working Paper (2007), p. 45.

[9] Judith Butler, “I merely belong to them,” London Review of Books, 20:9 (May 20, 2007).

[10] See Elhanan Yakira, “Hannah Arendt, The Holocaust, and Zionism: A Story of Failure,” Israel Studies 11:3 (2006) 31-61; see also Elhanan Yakira,  Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust: Three Essays on Denying, Forgetting, and The Deligitimation of Israel (2009).

Arguing With Judith Butler II

  • Source: Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME)b
  • Originally published on 05/24/2010
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