How to Separate Jewishness from Zionism

Now that the firestorm has largely died down over Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism we may be primed for new thinking in the debate about Jewish identity in the Diaspora in the next generation.

Beinart’s Crisis is critical of present-day developments, but he writes from within Zionism, and is committed to the principles upon which the state of Israel was founded. Philosopher Judith Butler’s new book, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, on the other hand, is radical (in the etymological sense of the word) as she goes to the very root of the question of Jewishness in the early decades of this century and asks: why Zionism?

In the aftermath of the Six-Day War in the early 1970s, Norman Podhoretz wrote in Commentary magazine, “We are all Zionists now.” In a sense, Podhoretz’s proclamation makes Butler’s point. From its inception Zionism had been always one of a variety of Jewish narratives of identity. Anti- or non-Zionist narratives always existed, both in Europe and the U.S., from Bundists, Yiddishists, German nationalists, universalist and internationalists of various stripes, Marxists, American assimilationists (i.e. classical Reform Judaism), ultra-Traditionalists from Aguddat Yisrael, to Habad, to various communities of Hungarian Orthodoxy now largely coalesced around Satmar Hasidism.

These movements all contested the narrative of Jewish identity encapsulated in a Jewish nation-state. Even within Zionism, statist Zionism was hardly accepted uncritically. From Ahad Ha-Am’s cultural Zionism to Simon Rawidowicz’s vision of two spiritual centers in Israel and the Diaspora, Zionists were almost always at odds about what Zionism was supposed to accomplish.           

Perhaps the health of Zionism was precisely that it always had Jewish resistance; it never had the hegemony on Jewish identity, it always had to watch its back. Butler argues that this is no longer true and that the fusion, or confusion, of Jewishness (not Judaism) with Zionism has its consequences.

Zionism in the Diaspora is arguably no longer the rich, complex, and multifaceted ideology it once was but has been flattened to mean support of the State of Israel against all detractors (think of those critics who contest Beinart’s Zionism or call J-Street anti-Israel).

Butler writes,

“If Zionism continues to control the meaning of Jewishness, then there can be no Jewish critique of Israel and no acknowledgement of those of Jewish descent or formation who call into question the right of the State of Israel to speak for Jewish values or, indeed, the Jewish people.”

(Consider, for example, the recent Meet the Press interview with Benjamin Netanyahu when host David Gregory referred to the Prime Minister, the elected leader of the State of Israel, as “the leader of the Jewish people.”)

Butler argues that Jews who cannot find a way to “support” Israel and choose to criticize the Jewish State for its policies—or even its existence as an ethnic democracy—are accused of self-hatred or collusion with antisemites. Such critics are essentially forced to abandon their Jewishness because no alternative narrative exists. While Butler’s claim of “abandonment” may be somewhat hyperbolic, I think it is essentially correct—critics of Israel are often forced to question their allegiance to the Jewish people. (We saw this in some of the reviews of Beinart’s book, for example, as when Daniel Gordis asked the bizarre and unfounded question; “Why does [Beinart] detest Israel so?”)           

Parting Ways is Butler’s attempt to construct a Jewish narrative that coheres with her philosophical and political sensibilities as well as her allegiance to her Jewish heritage and lineage. As a Jew for whom religious practice and the Jewish textual tradition do not constitute her Jewish core, hers is a secular narrative of Jewishness outside the orbit of Zionism. Butler’s concern for Israel is that she believes its present construction is “Jewishly” indefensible (in the terms she develops in her book) and the muscularity with which Zionism is proffered squashes any alternative narrative of diasporic Jewish identity (Israel has its own alternative in post-Zionism).            

Butler’s alternative is a complex philosophical one, thinking with a disparate group of intellectuals who wrote as Jews but not directly about Jewishness at a time when Zionism still shared space with other forms of secular Jewish identity. Her figures are Emmanuel Levinas, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt and Primo Levi. She includes Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish as Palestinian voices that contribute to the concept of Diaspora and offer an alternative narrative of oppression that they share with the Jews—although ironically theirs is formed at the hands of Israel. Said and Darwish are present here for a reason—Butler’s whole point is to show the extent to which Jewish values are Jewish only to the extent that they extend beyond Jews or Judaism. And the persecution of the Jews was wrong only if it is also wrong for those who live under Jewish power.

One can surely take issue with her readings of these figures but I will leave that for more scholarly reviews. But the question—or perhaps meta-question—upon which this experiment rests is one worth debating in Jewish public space.

Arendt’s critique of the nation-state and state violence in On Totalitarianism stands at the center of Butler’s project, as does Arendt’s response to Gershom Scholem’s accusation that her Eichmann in Jerusalem lacked Ahavat Yisrael (love of Jews). (Arendt did consider herself a Zionist, but that was a time when non-statist Zionism was still possible.) Butler attempts to construct a new secular Jewish narrative that is non-Zionist and not founded on classical Jewish texts or Zionist theory. It is thus born from an engagement with these marginal Jews; Arendt, Benjamin, Levinas, and Levi, whose philosophical and literary work was not specifically about Judaism or even Jewishness yet reflected an anxiety about Jewishness that Butler uses as the building blocks of her argument.

She notes, “Part of my intention is to show how Jewishness has been, and must remain, separate from Zionism.” Why? Because if there is a fusion of Jewishness and Zionism, there can never be a Jewish critique of Zionism and if that is the case, Zionism has no one to answer to and can easily fall prey to the unfettered nationalism that Arendt criticizes in her work on totalitarianism—this can create a monster.

In fact, Butler implies that the hypernationalistic tenor of present-day Zionism and its severance from its humanistic foundations may be partly the result of having effaced all other alternatives of Jewish identity, disqualifying critics of Zionism or Israel as self-hating and most gentile 

critics of Israel as antisemitic. And wiping out all legitimate resistance from the Jewish camp makes Zionism, and the nation-state that embodies it, very dangerous. In addition, this hegemony effaces the complex nature of Zionism itself, it non-territorial claims, its binational aspirations (binationalism, now considered anti-Zionism if not anti-Semitic, was the creation of devout Zionists), its humanistic core.           

Butler founds her new Jewish secularism on the notion of “cohabitation.”

“I’m trying to understand how the exilic—or more emphatically, the diasporic—is built into the idea of the Jewish (not analytically, but historically, that is, over time): in this sense, to be a ‘Jew’ is to be departing from oneself, cast out into the world of the non-Jew, bound to make one’s way ethically and politically precisely there within a world of irreversible heterogeneity.”          

In a sense, Butler is trying to reverse the entire trajectory upon which Zionism was founded. Zionism presents us with more than a nation-state; it presents us with a compelling case that autonomy and sovereignty are the core and health of collective identity, what Herzl called “normalization.” (Of course this is an outgrowth of European nationalism from Herder through Hegel combined with spiritualistic and futuristic notions of collectivity and redemptive politics throughout the Jewish tradition.)

It is a compelling argument. But it is not the only one. Butler, as I read her, begins with the opposite assumption. Normative Judaism is diasporic in nature, constructed by the rabbinic sages in Babylonia during the first five centuries of the Common Era. Part of its diasporism is that it struggled mightily to understand the notion of cohabitation; how to live and survive amongst the non-Jew (one can find fascinating debates and discussion about these matters in Talmud tractate Avodah Zara).

Unlike the rabbis, for Butler cohabitation extends far beyond mere accommodation to a historical (exilic) reality; she views this struggle as the very core of “Jewishness.” This was not true for many whose Jewishness was centered on religion, but it was for the marginal figures that serve as her ideational template.           

On this reading, Zionism and not Diasporism is really the “revolution,” even as present-day statist Zionism largely does view cohabitation largely as accommodation—either of choosing to continue to live in the Diaspora when there is a Jewish State, or alternatively the struggle about giving non-Jews full and equal rights in a Jewish polity even if it weakens the “Jewishness” of the state. Instead of bringing Jewish nationalism to the Diaspora (the great accomplishment of Zionism) Butler hopes to bring the Diaspora to the Jewish nation-state.

“I hope to show why bringing the idea of diasopra back to Palestine—which means, seeing the multiple ways it already functions there—might be useful for finding a way to think about cohabitation, and a critique of state violence.”

Peter Beinart argues from the inside about what Zionism has become. Butler asks, why Zionism at all?

Butler favors a return to binationaism not because it is the most humanistic solution but because to her it is the most “Jewish,” not in any self-enclosed way but “Jewish” the extent to which it extends beyond Jewishness. She puts it this way:

“One point, however, already seems clear: equality, justice, cohabitation, and the critique of state violence can only remain Jewish values if they are not exclusively Jewish values. This means that the articulation of such values must negate the primary and exclusivity of the Jewish framework, must undergo its own dispersion….The point is not to stabilize the ontology of the Jew or Jewishness, but rather to understand the ethical and political implications of a relation to alterity that is irreversible and defining and without which we cannot make sense of such fundamental terms as equality or justice.” 

This may be why Butler does not engage Jewish texts or Zionist thinkers. For her, Jewishness must begin from the values they espouse and then must extend beyond them to the humanistic values she sees in marginal Jews such as Arendt, Benjamin and Levi. That is, Jews whose “Jewishness” was not founded on Jewish texts but on the philosophical tradition they read as Jews.          

Levinas is a strange case here as he seems to exhibit both an exterior and interior construction of Jewishness that, as Butler argues in her book, often conflict with each other. On this reading it makes perfect sense that of all the figures in Parting Ways Levinas is the one who has become popular for progressive Jews today, for whom the issue of “Jewishness” and Israel is so vexed. Like many of his progressive Jewish readers, Levinas himself seemingly could not decide.             

From these figures Butler offers the framework of a new secular Jewish identity, diasporic in nature, focused on cohabitation with the “other” as the center and not margin of her “Jewishness.”

Parting Ways is obviously not for those who are devout Zionists. It is for others who, for reasons similar to hers, cannot sign onto the “I Stand With Israel” Zionism and feel that Zionism has stolen their Jewishness through its hegemonious erasure of all other alternatives.

Admittedly, historical alternatives are now largely irrelevant—new alternatives are in order. Here is one that should be taken seriously. 

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