Judith Butler comes to her critique of Jewishness and Zionism with impressive credentials. She is widely known as a philosopher in the fields of feminist, queer, and literary theory, of politics and ethics, and her books are translated into many languages. She is a professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature and the co-director of the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. She actively works against innumerable social injustices, is on the Advisory Board of Jewish Voice for Peace, and she publicly supports the BDS campaign.
The book is of interest to Canadians in at least three ways: (1) Canada’s longstanding involvement with political and religious Zionism, (2) Butler’s analysis of ethics particularly in relation to violence and the nation-state and the possibilities of cohabitation, (3) her implicit critique of liberal individualism in that she starts with the fact that people are inherently interconnected with each other. Regarding the first, Canada has a robust military trade and security pact with Israel, a bilateral free trade agreement, gives unquestioning support to Israel’s wars, and allows large money transfers through charitable donations (which are supposed to be non-political!) like the Jewish National Fund which is honouring Stephen Harper this year and which is right now dispossessing tens of thousands of Bedouin from their traditional villages.
At the outset, she states that “some aspects of Jewish ethics require us to depart from a concern only with the vulnerability and fate of the Jewish people. I am proposing that this departure from ourselves is the condition of a certain ethical relation, decidedly nonegological: it is a response to the claims of alterity and lays the groundwork for an ethics in dispersion.” From the standpoint too of Palestinians Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish, she examines this ethic in secular Jewish writers Emannuel Levinas, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Primo Levi: is plurality and cohabitation possible, is plurality undermined by law itself and by the nation-state?
A short review can hardly do justice to Butler’s detailed exploration. I will focus on one limitation that is inherent to a philosophical approach based primarily on deduction and introspection vs a more empirical approach. For example, there is her focus about whether Jewish and Palestinian people can find commonality and a basis of mutual empathy because they are both diaspora peoples. While acknowledging the differences in the two diasporas, she neglects the fact that Zionists caused the Palestinian diaspora. Israeli leaders are very far from experiencing shame and guilt. Butler writes, elusively, that “Remembrance may be nothing more than struggling against amnesia in order to find those forms of coexistence opened up by convergent and resonant histories. Perhaps for this we still do not have the precise name.” Does resonance imply amnesia about blame? There is a psychological capacity to feel guilt. What happens historically when there is no real grappling with responsibility?
Here is another statement that demands evidence. “Some writers cynically claim that Hezbollah ….used the populations of southern Lebanon as human shields. The same argument emerged in Gaza during and after Operation Cast Lead – the Palestinians were said to be using children in public squares as human shields.” Butler then goes on to re-define “human shield” to mean that all people in a war zone could be seen as human shields. “At which point there can be no outrage over the destruction of human life – and here I would say there is no outrage over the destruction of human life on either side of that border – since all human life has become instrumentalized as part of the war and has, as a result, ceased to signify as lives worthy of protection, precarious, in need, lives worth valuing and lives worth mourning.” (my italics). This is quite an accusation about being dehumanized. Is Butler saying that this is a possibility, or that this is what people really felt? (p. 97)
So what do individual people actually say about this situation that historically could have gone in an entirely different direction? Butler concludes the book with a discussion of Darwish’s poem written on the occasion of Said’s death. Darwish has Said say: “And scream that you may hear yourself, and scream that you may know you’re alive, and alive, and that life on this earth is possible.” Butler responds: “Does this voice say to scream? What it seems to say time and again is that a set of conjunctions is possible, and that these links do not follow logically and they do not follow causally….” (p. 219). But Said himself never seems ambiguous or illogical in his writings. He rails in particular against hypocrisy, such as Martin Buber (“I and Thou”) refusing to relinquish title to the expropriated Said family home in Jerusalem. He rails against a Palestinian spokesman for “failing totally to mention the occupation, the occupation, the occupation, the occupation.”
There are living examples of what I think Butler is getting at. Dr. El-Sarraj of the Gaza Community Health Program writes about a very moving human encounter: “Not long ago, I was stopped at a Gaza border crossing along with some colleagues. Inside the fortified post was an Israeli soldier, his face appearing every few minutes through a small opening in the concrete. To my surprise he called me over to ask, ‘Your friend says you are a psychiatrist. Can I ask you something?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied warily. The soldier said, ‘I have a problem, doctor. I live in a settlement in Hebron, and I want to leave.’ I hid my surprise and played the psychiatrist, listening calmly as this young man with his baby face and thin beard continued: ‘My parents want me to stay, but I know it will only lead to more killing. I don’t like it there, but I don’t want to anger my father and mother who have given their lives for me.’ After a moment, I said, ‘I think it is best if you talk about your feelings with your mother and your father. It will be best if you convince them of your decision. But I want to tell you something else, my friend.’ The soldier smiled in anticipation as I continued: ‘By choosing to talk to me about yourself, you made me feel proud of humanity and sure of its future.’ He stretched his arm through the hole to shake my hand, saying, ‘I trust you.’”