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“Moderating” Judith Butler at the Association of Jewish Studies (Zachary Braiterman)

Let’s say for heuristic reasons that there are two kinds of discourse, mainstream and radical. And then ask what happens when radical discourse enters or is brought into the mainstream. What would it mean to “moderate” that discourse that presents itself as radical?

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 first post comes from Zachary Braiterman, the panel’s moderator.

Let’s say for heuristic reasons that there are two kinds of discourse, mainstream and radical. And then ask what happens when radical discourse enters or is brought into the mainstream. What would it mean to “moderate” that discourse that presents itself as radical? Or in the particular case at hand, what are the dynamics by which one might hope to “moderate” in a Jewish cultural-political setting discourse about Israel that is self-presented and perceived as radical? As is well known, more or less, across the Jewish public sphere today rage debates about Israel and debates about debating Israel. At stake are narrow questions about policy and broader questions about the coherence or non-coherence of “a Jewish State” in relation to what Edward Said called “the question of Palestine.” As most readers of this page will surely know, the political philosopher-critical theorist Judith Butler and the politics represented by her regarding Israel and Zionism have become a person and objects of controversy within the Jewish community.  A proponent of BDS, the movement for boycotting, divesting, and sanctioning Israel, she herself has been the target of attempts to sanction free speech.

Last December (2013), Larisa Reznik organized a panel at the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies about Butler’s recent book Parting Ways. At the last minute, I was asked and I agreed to fill in for a friend who was supposed to act as as moderator.  My friend asked me to moderate even though he knew that I had already posted a series of critical, even polemical statements on my blog against positions staked out by Butler, as well as arguments against BDS in general.

As soon as I agreed to moderate the panel, I became more and more worried, having no idea what the panelists were going to say about “this controversial book” and no idea how the audience was going to respond. More to the point was that I had no clue as to how I was going to “moderate” my own harsh reactions and critical judgments about a book written by a leading scholar whose claims I find unpersuasive. I’ll explain, briefly, that my problem with Parting Ways is that I don’t think one can disentangle Judaism, Jewishness, and Zionism, no matter how problematic a moral and political knot that entanglement might actually be. An impatient and militant gesture, Butler’s attempt is to cut the Gordian knot in ways that have infuriated more conservative members of the Jewish community. I base my own argument on the presumption that the social and associational character of Jewish culture and Jewish thought make it practically impossible for American Jews and American Jewish institutions to violate the sense of contract with Israeli Jews and the State of Israel that represents them. I would further argue, however, that it is just as fundamental a mistake, on the part of Jewish community leaders and Jewish activists alike, to think that the associational patterns will be coherent or cohere in a neatly integrated way.

But for the purpose of “moderating” this discussion, it did not matter what I happen to think, or at least it didn’t matter at this particular forum. As moderator I understood that it was my own responsibility to set aside my own pre-formed views, and to modulate the polemics that drive them. This meant making space for the panelists, my colleagues, to whom I owed a special responsibility. More oddly, it meant making space for Parting Ways at the AJS. It was now my responsibility to be just. Some of the more negative comments about Parting Ways raised from the floor were indeed like my own—alike in terms of content, reactive and, undoubtedly, too quickly drawn. However, most of the comments from the floor addressed, as did the roundtable presentations themselves, the substance of Butler’s book in ways that were as constructive as they were critical. At the end of the day, not this or that argument or claim mattered as much as the open and civil form of a conversation at the AJS provoked by Judith Butler’s book about Israel, Zionism, Palestine, and BDS.

No sides were taken, no arguments were won, no scores were kept. The center of the discourse about Israel got pushed, while the edge of the critical discourse got taken off a bit. From two sides of the “same” collective coin, people came to speak and to listen and to contribute to a discussion that is roiling the Jewish community. They did so without rancor and animus. The world did not come to an end that Sunday afternoon in Boston just because radical ideas about Israel and Palestine were brought into the discussion. Nothing changed. The two sides in Israel=-Palestine remain locked apart in conflict. Each unable to recognize the other, the State of Israel is still “Jewish” and “democratic,” and Palestine remains stateless. Maybe I should have let things get out of hand, let chairs fly. I’m not sure. It depends upon what you want critical discourse to do and what you think it can acutally accomplish. It’s my own more liberal political conviction that social contracts and human contacts are not well served when people stop talking with each other. It’s why I oppose comprehensive programs of BDS, and why I look with such alarm upon the current closing of the American Jewish mind.

Zachary Braiterman is a Professor in the Department of Religion and Director of the Judaic Studies Program at Syracuse University He blogs at www.jewishphilosophyplace.wordpress.com.


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