It is often the case with books which are of such philosophical magnitude, which tackle some of the most intractable political issues of our day, that their very timeliness makes them somehow beyond the bounds of immediate public debate.
Books such as these are either summarily dismissed on the grounds of being too trenchant, too wise, too maverick, or else they are simply deemed too impractical in the pragmatic world of international politics. Many years later when the work has somehow bedded down, it finds another highly appreciative readership.
Such was the case with much of the writing of Hannah Arendt stretching from the 1930s when she engaged first with Zionism, to her highly controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem published in 1962, but also a few years later when she authored The Origins of Totalitarianism. Judith Butler pursues a similar pathway in her recent Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. Deeply influenced by Arendt’s argument for pluralism and federalism as a counter to the nation state in regard to the dangers of statelessness and dispossession, Butler does not hesitate however to recognise the limits of some of Arendt’s unpalatable and unapologetic preferences for traditions of thought emanating from European philosophy and for what we might call European cultural norms.
Nevertheless immersing herself within the writing of Arendt allows Butler to put into intellectual circulation a series of revised and extended contributions to the debate on Israeli state violence and settler colonialism. If her recommendations are seemingly improbable, so also are they, like those of Arendt before her, brave, in that they render the author subject to vitriolic attacks including the same ones hurled against Arendt of being a ‘self-hating Jew’ or, in the case of Butler, of taking the side of Hamas.
There is another strand of thinking which informs Butler’s Jewish critique of Zionism which comes from Edward Said. Drawing on Said’s political re-reading of Freud in order to develop a possible pathway for Jewish and Arab co-habitation and living alongside each other in proximity, and focussing on his discussion about the Arab in the Jew (as in the figure of Moses) and with this a sense of the impurity of origins, and the historical inter-mingling of peoples and religions - Butler attempts to replenish diaspora and dissemination as the basis for co-existence. Instead of there being an ultimate homeland as a place of return and of nationalist longing, Butler engages Said in order to re-imagine Israel as a place where an ethics of diaspora and dispersion could prevail and give rise to a new binational and federal polity.
In the first instance there is the question of Butler espousing a specifically Jewish stance against Zionism, as a starting point for her endeavours. In effect she acts upon what she advocates, seeing Jewishness as non-identitarian, impure, and dispersed. It is not a secular position from which she writes, in that it emanates for many years of synagogue attendance, of studying the Talmud and of being introduced to philosophy through this childhood and adolescent experience. Of course it is as a philosopher that she now has won international acclaim. She asks however how such a Jewish position can be maintained without seeming to unwittingly bolster the idea of the ‘exceptionalism’ of the situation in Israel as a matter for Jewish people only, in the light of the terrible history of the Holocaust?
It is her aim to write as a Jew in a way which is inclusive of non Jews, in particular of Palestinians, which in turn confirms the Arendtian thesis of us all being formed as humans on the basis of those others with whom we share the planet. Given the unchosen nature of this human condition, we must seek peaceful co-habitation, or risk cycles of violence and destruction. In effect conquest is never just that, it condemns us all to years of conflict and antagonism.
Butler also knows that her bid to counter Zionism with a Jewish ethics has to be recognisable, indeed able to be verified within a tradition, and here she turns repeatedly to Walter Benjamin and to his idea of translation, which allows her to see the tradition upon which she draws, which takes the form of an ethical demand from the past, as necessarily undergoing change and alteration. The result is that through her reflections, that which is diasporic in Jewish theology re-emerges to mean a departure, a co-mingling with non Jews and an ethics of co-habitation. This idea of tradition which following Butler’s thinking is left in a state of both ‘ruin’ and ‘vibrancy’, is however able to deliver a new meaning of a diaspora-for-all in a Palestine which can be returned to, so that there is no more this ‘pernicious colonialism that calls itself democracy’.
The scale of the difficulties faced by Butler in Parting Ways are based on her post-Holocaust understanding of trauma and suffering and statelessness, coupled with her attempt to advance a Jewish post-colonial critique of Zionism, which means inevitably envisaging not the ‘destruction’ of Israel (which is how her critics typecast her thinking) but the replacement of political Zionism with a federal binationalism where equal rights are granted to all, with an end to the colonial settlements.
But let me digress for a moment or two. Through the years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland where there were cycles of such uninterrupted violence and murder and such levels of hatred expressed on both sides of the divide, it seemed there could never be peace, and a kind of resignation set in. Yet a will was found in the mid 1990s to seek peace, and this chimed with some psychic desire lodged in and alongside the anger and the hatred. The Blair government was at this time hard at work in Northern Ireland: the dismantling of the RUC and its replacement with the PFNI under the guidance of Peter Mandelson one of the most significant and unimaginable of changes. Something could be seen beyond the violence, this something in Butler’s terms having a messianic quality in that it is able to interrupt and suspend the histories and the memories, allowing a flash of light to shine through. A power-sharing executive, the de-commissioning of weapons, ideas of co-habitation and of proximity giving rise to the hitherto unthinkable sight of Martin McGuiness and the Rev Iain Paisley shaking hands and sharing a joke, these all tell us something about the possibility for everyday life and polity beyond and after conflict. In the subsequent years, the idea of a united Ireland is shorn of its angry nationalisms and replaced with practical ideas of cross-border cooperation.
Of course simplistic comparisons are not to be drawn, and the aggressive settler colonialism which remains a feature of everyday government in Israel makes a reversal all the more difficult to envisage. Something much deeper has to happen in the psyche of Israelis of both left and right for change to come. With doggedness Butler considers bringing an end to the endlessly promulgated rhetoric of self defence, and what this might entail in terns of de-militarisation. In the final chapter she ponders the idea of an international conference on the right to return, and she wonders what the right to return offered to dispersed Palestinians could look like, in terms of resettlement or compensation and land redistribution. The right of return made available to dispossessed Palestinians would also mean a revision or suspension of the Law of Return, which until now functions on the basis of no law of return for the colonially subjugated population. Within the landscape of this ‘political eternity’ there is the everyday reality of ‘wretched binationalism’ and the struggle to survive.
Butler’s contribution can be seen as one which sows the seeds for the end of Israel’s colonial project. To name Israel as a colonial power, breaks with the world of post-WW 2 political etiquette. At the same time to embrace an ethics of relationality means defining a Jewishness as something which exists in one’s encounter with others, with non Jews, with whom one might have equal rights, and this takes us some way towards a non-catastrophic future.
In these current times we are so constrained by the pervasiveness of the security state, that it seems counter–intuitive to bring Butler’s arguments for radical equality to the political table. But to postpone them for some better times is also to invite a further loss and so here I revoke my opening remarks.
Butler’s account is painful to read for all the reasons we know about how hopes for the defeat of fascism after the end of WW2 and for the future safety and sanctuary for Jews, came to be mired in a polity which saw racism and the displacement of populations as strangely compatible with the ideas of modern democracy. However that same polity has not always been so consensual, or as homogenous as it appears in the present, and this also gives some grounds for a re-imagining of Israel along the lines of equality, co-habitation and the peaceful sharing of land.