It is day twenty-four of Israel’s latest military assault on Gaza. At the time of this writing, the Palestinian death toll exceeds 1,300 with casualties mounting by the hour. As per the most recent statistics from the United Nations, more than 250,000 residents have been internally displaced, many made refugees again, and much of Gaza’s urban and civilian infrastructure lies in ruins. To date, Israel has expropriated forty-four percent of this densely populated territory for a ‘buffer zone’ (OCHA), decimating neighborhoods within the demarcated area and forbidding Palestinians to return. As Israel’s ground invasion and aerial bombardments continue, the blockade imposed on this territory in 2006 remains in place (Rabbani, 2014). Palestinians in Gaza are thus not only targeted by military violence, but they are further victimized by a regime of enforced immobility that has produced and maintained a humanitarian crisis for the 1.8 million inhabitants of this territory (Feldman 2014). Israel’s policy of forced enclosure (upheld by Egypt along the southern border) makes a mockery of Israel’s “humanitarian warnings” of impending attack. As even Jon Stewart observed, “Evacuate to where? Have you seen Gaza?”
The scale and scope of destruction wrought on Gaza in the last twenty-four days, while devastating, is not exceptional. Rather it is, as Nimer Sultany (2014) notes, “once again.” It is “once again” in multiple senses—first, and perhaps most commonly, the phrase is evoked in reference to the repetition of Palestinian death and destruction, as currently on display in Gaza, as well as during previous Israeli incursions (2008-9, 2012). It is also used rhetorically to refer to an unceasing “cycle of violence” between Israelis and Palestinians wherein wanton violence, it is argued, is inflicted on both sides (Shupak, 2014). In this sense, “once again” posits a false symmetry between Israel and the Palestinians while rendering outsiders passive, even if despaired, onlookers. However ‘once again’ is, as Sultany (2014) notes, not a “mere rhetorical gesture nor symptomatic of tragic despair.” Rather it signals a “recursive power dynamic and a structural relationship between an occupier and an occupied.”
It is this context that is so often omitted from view in dominant coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As evidenced in mainstream coverage of Israel’s latest military assault of Gaza, the narrative most often begins with an unprovoked act of violence carried out on the part of the Palestinian “side” to which Israel responds—and the cycle repeats. We hear of rockets launched into Israel; we hear of Israeli soldiers captured and killed. The narrative is about Israel’s victimhood, restraint or triumphalism in the face of imminent threat. Meanwhile mass Palestinian displacement and death is lamented as the unfortunate result of the dismantlement of “terrorist infrastructure,” or equally troubling, attributed to a “culture of martyrdom.” Palestinians are themselves to blame for their own death and suffering. We hear nothing of the fact that in the absence of rocket fire into Israel, the siege on Gaza remains, settlement expansion across the West Bank continues and Palestinians remain subjects under Israeli military rule. During times of “calm,” strategies of containment and dispossession continue unabated.
Rarely foregrounded in analyses of this “conflict” is the reality that Palestinians continue to live in a political and ideological context in which they are deemed a demographic problem to be contained and controlled, in which their lives are taken with impunity, and in which they are disenfranchised, divided and placed under siege. We are instead given sensational and easily digestible tropes of violence on “both sides,” “war,” and unrelenting “age-old religious conflict.” In the absence of context, a false symmetry emerges—Israel and Hamas, it is commonly said are “at war” (and if not Hamas, then any other number of Islamic and/or Palestinian “threats” and “spoilers” to peace). Such a framing erases the multiple qualitative and quantitative differences at play between Israel and the Palestinians—and even more crucially, it masks a political project predicated on the privileging of Jewish life, and correspondingly, devaluation of the life of the non-Jewish other. It is this context that has inspired Judith Butler’s most recent book, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism.
Those familiar with Butler’s scholarship will see a continuation of themes developed in her earlier work on gender and sexuality (Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993)) and her more recent ruminations on war and violence (Precarious Life (2004) and Frames of War (2010)). Across these earlier works, Butler has maintained a critical eye to the ways in which categories are constructed and identities policed—a project she extends to Jewish identity in this latest work on Jewishness, Zionism, and Palestine/Israel.
Parting Ways originally began as a Jewish critique of state violence. However, it soon evolved into something much more: a political vision for the future of Israel/Palestine. Butler’s vision draws inspiration from Edward Said’s reflections on diaspora and exile in Freud and the Non-European and Reflections on Exile, in which he asks what kind of ethos and politics might be forged through a consideration of the diasporic character of both Jewish and Palestinian history. Drawing on Said’s insights, Butler argues that both Jewish and Palestinian identities are constituted by their relation to alterity, “a condition of having been scattered, having lived among those to whom one does not clearly belong” (Butler, 2012: 214). Butler is careful, as was Said, not to render these histories as synonymous or equal; rather she asks what kind of ethics and political community might emerge from a consideration of their overlap?
Butler’s central task in this book is to develop a Jewish ethics of ‘cohabitation’ that might help pave the way for what she calls a radical democratic politics of binationalism. The political vision she puts forward diverges sharply from the “wretched forms of binationalism” that currently exist in Palestine/Israel, whereby Jewish privilege is maintained through ongoing Palestinian dispossession. Taking Said as a point of departure, Butler calls for a binationalism that transcends exclusive Jewish claims to citizenship and territory and embraces the invariable heterogeneity of what is now Palestine/Israel, including those expelled from it. On this score, Butler’s argument is, as she observes, largely descriptive. Binationalism, she contends, is not something that we might hope to arrive in the future, but exists today as a “wretched fact” that is “being lived out as a specific historical form of settler colonialism” (2012: 30). This book is but one effort to transform this wretched binationalism into a new polity inherently more just, one in which history would be confronted and all citizens, irrespective of ethnic or religious belonging, would be afforded rights and protections against illegitimate forms of legal and military violence.
The first half of this book is dedicated to deriving a Jewish ethics of cohabitation from within a Jewish philosophical tradition. To this end, Butler draws on the writing of key Jewish thinkers, including Hannah Arendt and her reflections on binationalism and critique of the nation-state, Emmanuel Levinas’ ethics of encounter with the face of the other, Walter Benjamin’s ruminations on violence, Martin Buber’s reflections on federalism, and Primo Levi’s writing on memory and trauma in order to derive a Jewish ethics that takes as its point of departure the demand for an ethical relation to the non-Jew. Butler’s central proposition is that there are important currents within Jewish thought that require “cohabitation,” derived from the fact that Jews have historically been diasporic. It is from this basis that Butler makes her larger argument that cohabitation is not only a historical fact but also an ethical obligation. “To be a Jew,” Butler argues, “is to be departing from oneself, cast out into a world of the non-Jew, bound to make one’s way ethically and politically precisely there within a world of irreversible heterogeneity” (2012: 15)—a conception of Jewishness which, of course, runs counter to the Zionist claim that Jews should hold exclusive rights and privileges to the land of Israel.
Butler’s indebtedness to Hannah Arendt and her critique of ethnicity as a mode of state organization is made evident throughout this book. For Arendt, as for Butler, we do not, nor should we, choose with whom to cohabit the earth: cohabitation is “not a choice, but a condition of our political life” (Butler, 2012: 23). To deny this heterogeneity, Butler argues, is to decide with whom to cohabit the earth—a policy that she suggests (a la Arendt) is the logic of fascism. While Arendt’s analysis of cohabitation was influenced in large part by the trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, a similar line of thinking underscored her critique of nationalism and the nation-state more broadly. As Arendt argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), the nation-state necessarily produces mass numbers of refugees to “maintain the homogeneity of the nation it seeks to represent” (Butler, 2012: 121). It was this realization that led Arendt to “oppose any state formation that sought to reduce or refuse the heterogeneity of its population, including the founding of Israel on principles of Jewish sovereignty” (ibid).
This leads to Butler’s second task, which comes perhaps closest to the articulation of a specific political project. It is here that Butler translates the ethics of cohabitation developed throughout the first half of the book into a political vision for Palestine/Israel. The project she imagines follows along the lines of the federated plurality envisioned by Arendt (and to a lesser extent Martin Buber) in which, “no one religion or nationality may claim sovereignty over another, where, in fact, sovereignty itself will be dispersed” (Butler, 2012: 6). Crucially for Butler, this new polity would itself be based on the condition of diaspora, and would thus foreground the rights of refugees. What might happen, Butler (2012: 16) asks if “two traditions of displacement were to converge to produce a postnational polity based on the common rights of the refugee and the right to be protected against illegitimate forms of legal and military violence?” This binational polity Butler envisions would lead not to a two-state solution, but rather to a single state in which the rights of the refugee would be paramount and no ethnic or religious group would exercise greater privileges or protections over any other. On this score, Butler’s vision is, as she notes, normative.
However she includes an important caveat to this vision: “there can be no workable ‘living together’ under conditions of colonial subjugation that does not ratify such a political condition” (2012: 7). Thus, for Butler, cohabitation is not simply about a “coming together” of Jews and Palestinians—any “coming together” must first be predicated on a transformation of the colonial relation between them. Indeed, this was her very critique of Martin Buber’s notion of a federation: Buber thought coexistence could be pursued in a context where the rights of Jews to claim more land would be protected (Butler, 2012: 50). His view, Butler points out, continues to haunt many coexistence projects today. Projects that seek to cultivate “goodwill” on both sides install an artificial equality between two highly unequal parties. Moreover, they fail to confront and transform the structures through which foundational and reoccurring practices of dispossession take place (Butler, 2012: 216). It is on this basis that Butler demands the dismantling of the political and ideological structures that maintain exclusive Jewish privilege, rights, and protection at the expense of the non-Jewish population as a prerequisite to the binational polity she envisions. There can be no living together, she contends, in the absence of political equality, a demand she derives from Jewish philosophical positions.
Both strands of Butler’s argument are important, especially in light of the mass suffering, death, and destruction in Gaza over the last twenty-four days—”once again.” Surely these acts of grave violence carried out by a state that purports to represent Jews must be condemned and confronted by Jews. This is indeed a significant part of the impetus behind Butler’s project. She is moreover joined by a growing chorus of Jewish academics, artists and public figures who similarly refuse to allow gross injustices to be carried out in their name (Pappe, 2014; Robbins, 2013). These are no doubt important moments in which the hegemonic control that Zionism exercises over Jewishness is punctuated, even if ever so slightly.
Yet we should also ask what limitations and/or dangers might inhere in deriving a critique of political Zionism from a place of Jewish ethics? If one makes the argument, as Butler does, that the obligation to cohabit emerges out of Jewishness but is, as Arendt argued, incumbent on all people, does this not run the risk of exceptionalizing Jewishness and asserting, even if indirectly, a superior ethics? Even as Butler contends that others are diasporic (i.e., Palestinians), the obligation to cohabit remains still a Jewish value. Thus Butler’s critique of Zionism, one could argue, risks exceptionalizing Jewishness even while asserting an ethical relationality between Jew and other. In what ways, we should ask, might such a privileging reinforce Jewish exceptionalism, precisely the project that Butler seeks to disrupt?
At the same time we must also consider the ways in which a specifically Jewish critique of Zionism might extend “Jewish hegemony for thinking about the region” (what Butler calls the Zionist effect, 2012: 3). How might such a framing position Jewish voices as more legitimate than their non-Jewish counterparts (and Palestinians in particular)? In what ways might such a framing serve to reinforce a hierarchy of power where Jewish privilege is maintained even in dissent? When one begins with the refrain, “As a Jew” how do we respond? What kind of value do we attach to the words that follow and to the identity from which one articulates her/his position? Conversely, if one cannot speak as a Jew, does that make the critique any less legitimate, any less compelling? Can one speak against dispossession, displacement or human destruction on nonidentitarian grounds? Is such a critique even desirable or possible? How might we find a language that does not render more valuable or legitimate the voices of those structurally in positions of power?
Butler is well aware of the dangers inherent in making “resistance to Zionism into a ‘Jewish’ value,” a trap she seeks to avoid (but never fully does) (2012: 2). She argues that if one undertakes a critique of Zionism because “one objects to the principles of Jewish sovereignty that govern [Israel/Palestine],” and argues in favor of a “polity that would apply equally and fairly to all the inhabitants of that land,” it would then make “no sense to say that Jewish frameworks can provide the basis for political cohabitation or, indeed, binationalism” (2012: 4). Yet Butler here confuses ends and means. Simply adopting an anti-Zionist position does not necessarily mean one has decentered Jewishness; while such a critique may disrupt exclusive Jewish claims to the region, it does not necessarily de-privilege Jewishness. Parting Ways is a case in point. Butler puts forth a compelling political vision for Palestine/Israel predicated on an acknowledgment of historical injustice and the instatement of new polity that would presuppose an end to settler colonialism—yet at the same time, this vision is derived, in large part, from a Jewish philosophical tradition. Justice still remains a Jewish value.
Despite the dilemma within which Butler is entangled—perhaps productively so—the value of Parting Ways cannot be understated. The urgency of remedying a political condition in which lives are rendered disposable is written in the ashes of bombed out neighborhoods in Gaza and in the faces of the bereaved. This book is a testament, a commitment to disrupt and transform the political and ideological context from which violence of this kind can be unleashed on the body of the “other”—”once again,” and again.
Arendt H (1968) The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York and London: Hartcourt.
Butler J (2012) Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. New York: Columbia University Press.
Feldman I (2014) Isolating Gaza. Standford University Press Blog.
Pappe I (2014) To the family of the one thousandth victim of Israel’s genocidal slaughter in Gaza. The Electronic Intifada.
Rabbani M (2014) Israel Mows the Lawn. London Review of Books 36(15): 8.
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Shupak G (2014) A Plague on One House. Jacobin.
Sultany N (2014) Repetition and Death in the Colony: On the Israeli Attacks on Gaza. Critical Legal Thinking.
United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) (2014) Occupied Palestinian Territory: Gaza Emergency Situation Report. 31 July.