- Thinking in Butler
So much has been said about the BDS movement in general, the ASA’s boycott resolution in particular, and Judith Butler’s advocacy of BDS at large that it seems important to begin this review of Parting Ways by saying what it is not. Parting Ways is not a polemic for boycotts, or even against Israel. It is not a rousing critique of Israeli human rights abuses or international illegality. Parting Ways is not even a sustained investigation into a coherent counter-Zionist Jewish philosophy. And it’s not a great book. Which brings us to what it is: with a long introduction on what it would mean to locate Jewish resources to critique Zionism, followed by an idiosyncratic collection of chapters on Levinas, Benjamin, Arendt, Primo Levi, and Edward Said, Parting Ways is a book without a central argument, perhaps a series of studies on the question of a Jewish critique of Zionism, and an incomplete but potentially promising theoretical resource for invigorating how we think about diaspora. That the book ultimately fails, both on the terms Butler sets out in the introduction and on general terms—that is, in its deficient scaffolding, failure to carry the argument over from chapter to chapter, minimal connections between her historical subjects and her present concern, and surprisingly weak concluding chapter (with no conclusion)—may ultimately matter less than how it pries open familiar [End Page 229] texts by Levinas, Benjamin, and Arendt, and how it has engendered an urgently necessarily, vigorous debate among her peers. Indeed, if we can credit a thinker for the quality of the rebuke she earns, Butler has done something quite valuable.
Butler’s stated goal of seeking Jewish resources for the critique of Zionism seems easy enough. Daniel Boyarin’s Unheroic Conduct all but argues for an anti-nationalist, anti-imperialist tradition in the culture of rabbinical study, while Jonathan Boyarin has repeatedly saluted “the powers of diaspora.” But Butler throws in an odd twist, disavowing the identitarian project of seeking “Jewish sources” at the moment of its enunciation: “Indeed, even the critique of Zionism, if exclusively Jewish, extends Jewish hegemony for thinking about the region and becomes, in spite of itself, part of what we might call the Zionist effect. Surely any effort that extends Jewish hegemony in the region is part of the Zionist effect, whether or not it understands itself as Zionist or anti-Zionist” (3). For Butler, any Jew who argues against Zionism from a Jewish position is in fact complicit with Zionism insofar as she privileges Jewishness as both essentially and ethically superior to any other point of view. Butler’s path out of this tautology is to find Jewish sources whose Jewishness is constitutively and ethically engaged with the non-Jewish other, though I would simply say that the diversity of her sources and their philosophies, even as Europeans, is enough to indicate that there is no essential “Jew.”
Butler’s way out of her proposed quandary is to locate a Jewishness that comes into being as always already relational, where Jewishness is not a subject position regarding the other, but is constituted as a relation to the other. As she puts it, “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 a world of the non-Jew, bound to make one’s way ethically and politically precisely there within a world of irreversibly heterogeneity” (15). Readers looking for substantiation in a survey of Jewish history—“that is, over time”—will be disappointed. This is neither an anthropology of Jewish differentiation nor a genealogy of Jewish Philosophy, and it’s no history (unless you count the references to Moses in the first chapter). Rather, Butler’s claim of co-constitution is predicated on her decade-long engagement with Emmanuel Levinas, where being is constituted as an ethical relation to the other, and it anticipates the concluding chapter’s gesture toward Edward Said’s work, which frequently sought a...