The Reception of Judith Butler’s *Parting Ways* (Larisa Reznik)


The reception of Parting Ways has been an instructive gauge of the political temperature of U.S. conversations about Zionism. Putting the phrase “critique of Zionism” in the title is bound, for better or for worse, to garner an audience. It seems that everyone has an opinion, even those who’ve never read the book.

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 second post comes from Larisa Reznik.

The reception of Parting Ways has been an instructive gauge of the political temperature of U.S. conversations about Zionism. Putting the phrase “critique of Zionism” in the title is bound, for better or for worse, to garner an audience.  It seems that everyone has an opinion, even those who’ve never read the book.  In this text, Judith Butler does not appeal for the abolition of private property or the dissolution of the military.  She does not refer to Israel/Palestine as “occupied Palestine,” as some so-called “radical” activists do. She invokes decidedly centrist, liberal political hopes: universal citizenship, democratic electoral processes, and protection against human rights abuses.  This political grammar would have been ideologically suspect to the Butler of Gender Trouble (1990).  Nevertheless, her critics on the right have accused her of everything from anti-Semitism to self-loathing to complicity with Hamas and Hezbollah.

Butler’s critics on the left have been no less vocal.  Some demand a focus on “real” people instead of merely academic posturing about apparently “unreal” language and structures.  We should be analyzing specific policies and tracking who did what to whom where and whether each instance of retaliation was justified or not. Or, we need a more heroic, muscular (and masculine) plan of action because activism is about doing, not sitting in a room and thinking!  Butler’s vaguely therapeutic call for ethical subjectivity seems embarrassingly effete to these critics. By contrast, Butler’s book assumes that without asking larger questions, about how language sets limits on the very parameters of our actions or how a political culture born of psychic disavowals engenders systematic inequalities, analyzing the “blow-by-blow” is a bit like rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.

In academic circles, readers criticize the book’s technical and disciplinary shortcomings.  For historians, Butler’s proposal of detaching Zionism, Judaism, and Jewishness is neither particularly new nor particularly radical; instead of reading Butler, they say, why not read 19th and early 20th century debates amid Jews (Zionists, Anti-Zionists, Bundists, the Agude, and so on) for critical leverage?  Political theorists fault Butler for conflating existential-philosophical homelessness with politically unjust displacement. In her analysis, “Jews” and “Palestinians” become figures for the general struggles of our psychic structures to acknowledge rather than deny finitude, contingency, and lack of mastery.  These critics aren’t wrong.  Butler is not a historian of Zionism.  Nor is she a political theorist. Seyla Benhabib’s recent review stages quite clearly, and fairly, some of Butler’s misreadings.  To be sure, Butler’s book would not be the go-to text for secondary literature on Arendt or Levinas. Yet to focus on Butler’s misreading of Arendt’s notion of co-habitation, for example, is to miss what the invocation of that notion is meant to accomplish and, in a way, to perform a different kind of misreading, a misreading of genre.

The book is an experiment in representation of Jewishness and experiments fail more frequently than they succeed.  Butler claims a Jewish genealogy for a style of critical thinking that public conversation about Jewish identity has rendered unspeakable. Butler makes a distinction between galut and diasporaGalut imagines the condition of living in a heterogeneous population as a defect of life in a fractured, unredeemed world, to be remedied by an eventual homecoming to Zion. Diaspora, by contrast, takes as a basic conceit that we never get to choose with whom we co-inhabit the earth and the very longing for cohabitational engineering implies a distorted picture of what the world is like. The longing for a Jewish homecoming is understandable, but the pursuit of such a world—beyond human plurality, beyond politics—perpetuates injustice.  From Butler’s perspective, even those Jews who largely agree with her politics can’t imagine Judaism without a homecoming.  Whether such Jewish self-understanding lives in the pre-history of Zionism or in the philosophical tradition that Butler reconstructs or both (or neither), it is excluded from public conversations about Israel/Palestine.  That such a self-understanding would be politically productive is undeniable.  That such a self-understanding needs Jewish, as opposed to democratic or ethical credentials is a live question.


Larisa Reznik is a PhD candidate at The University of Chicago, focusing on modern Jewish and Christian thought. She is interested in religion and critical theory, gender and sexuality studies in religion, and the continuities and discontinuities between religious thought and political theory.  Her dissertation looks at the relationship between theology and the political in the work of Franz Rosenzweig and Theodor W. Adorno.

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