Judaism and Zionism in Butler’s Parting Ways (Sarah Hammerschlag)

Symposia

Judith Butler’s Parting Ways proposes a “Jewish” critique of state violence. But to my mind its real success is in arguing persuasively for a model of identity that places relationality and dispossession at the heart of human political experience. She forges her claim through readings of 20th century thinkers all touched by persecution and the experience of statelessness. These include Jews and non-Jews alike.

Editor’s Note: This past December, Larisa Reznik of the University of Chicago organized a panel discussion of Judith Butler’s controversial new book, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. Our editor Vincent W. Lloyd, one of the panelists, arranged to have the panelists contribute blog reflections arising out of this discussion. Our third post comes from Sarah Hammerschlag.

Judith Butler’s Parting Ways proposes a “Jewish” critique of state violence. But to my mind its real success is in arguing persuasively for a model of identity that places relationality and dispossession at the heart of human political experience. She forges her claim through readings of 20th century thinkers all touched by persecution and the experience of statelessness. These include Jews and non-Jews alike: Emmanuel Levinas, Edward Said, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi and Mahmoud Darwish. So what is gained by calling this model of subjectivity Jewish?

Butler explains the stakes of her claim very clearly.  She wants to prove that the two categories, Jewishness and Zionism, can in fact be separated, and that furthermore Judaism itself harbors resources for Zionism’s critique. These laudable goals should not be difficult to achieve given that between the 1880’s and 1967, many leading thinkers on both sides of the debate operated under the assumption that Judaism and Zionism were not only separable but also incongruent. Liberal Jewish organizations and thinkers defined Judaism in diasporic terms in an effort to preserve its compatibility with secular citizenship in modern Western states. In France and Germany some such as Zadoc Kahn, Chief Rabbi of Paris at the centenary of the French Revolution, and Hermann Cohen, the leading theorist of liberal Judaism in Germany before World War I, went as far as declaring their own nations the spiritual homeland of the Jews. In America the first Reform platforms expressed a distinctly anti-Zionist position. Some congregations shifted their allegiances as late as 1967. And among Zionists the ghettoized Jew was resurrected as the New Hebrew. As Berdichevsky put it, for the new Zionist generations the living man must take precedence over the Jewish forefathers. Going native involved destroying the Jew as a figure of exile.

From the standpoint of modern Jewish history, it is thus surprising that one would have to argue for the disentanglement of Judaism and Zionism, but more surprising still that one would do so with readings of figures who, with the exception of Emmanuel Levinas, did not see themselves as explicitly Jewish thinkers. What unites Butler’s other thinkers was their response to persecution: rather than hardening their commitment to group identity, they resisted the impulse toward communitarianism that often follows from the experience of discrimination and prejudice. To claim them as sources for a Jewish philosophy thus involves the work of repatriation. She is not the first to read Benjamin or Primo Levi as part of the Jewish tradition, but in her case this move would seem to be at odds with her aim of constructing a Jewish diasporic political philosophy with notions of dispossession and relationality at its core. Furthermore, by calling on thinkers who did not write as spokespersons of the tradition, she inadvertently suggests that such resources are so hard to come by that one has to create them.

In reading her book, and in being persuaded by its political ambitions, I wondered whether Butler’s point would have been more forcefully if the question of Jewishness were out of the equation and if she had focused instead on the historical circumstances of her figures as her common thread. If we put history back into the equation what we have here is a story of a new kind of universalism emerging after World War II, one that arises not by effacing particularity, but drawing on it as a source of solidarity. What Butler shows in speaking about a canon of thinkers who resisted transforming suffering into resentment is that the experience of persecution does not have to result in a defensive political posture, in the resolution to elevate group survival to the highest of values. It can instead give rise to empathy in suffering, one that allows us to see a brother or sister in the shared experience of persecution rather than in bloodlines. Perhaps her last act of dispossession ought to be casting aside this project’s Jewish moniker.

 

Sarah Hammerschlag teaches religion and literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is the author of The Figural Jew (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

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