- Butler Trouble:Zionism, Excommunication, and the Reception of Judith Butler’s Work on Israel/Palestine
Who is an Anti-Semite? Someone who hates Jews too much.—Jewish-Hungarian proverb
But Zionism was a calculated risk in that it brought about the destruction of the reality of exile. The foes of Zionism certainly saw the risk more clearly than the Zionists.—Gershom Scholem, interview with Muki Tsur
Everybody is somebody’s Jew. And today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis.—Primo Levi, Il Manifesto
The debate surrounding Judith Butler’s work on Israel and Zionism has arguably reached a new level of vitriol from various camps in the American Jewish establishment. Critics of her 2012 book Parting Ways have taken off the gloves in terms of their willingness to demonize, vilify, and excoriate Butler and her work.1 Many who never read her work but simply view her as a turncoat because of her support of BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) are even less subtle in their remarks. Those who review her work favorably offer more sober assessments and criticisms of the ways in which she is serving as the intellectual and philosophical foundation of the contemporary anti-Zionist left, both Jewish and non-Jewish. What follows is neither a critique nor a celebration of her work on Israel and Zionism but a contextualization and analysis with specific attention to the ways her detractors have conflated a critique of Zionism with anti-Semitism, making themselves the victims, when in fact, their response which I liken to a new form of excommunication only exhibits the extent to which they are the one who hold the power.
For the sake of full disclosure, I did review Parting Ways when it first appeared, and my review was generally positive.2 I think her work engages a very complex issue through careful argumentation and analysis. One needn’t agree with her premises of diaspora as the “core value” of Jewishness or her reading of all the figures in Parting Ways, complex figures in their own right, to appreciate her attempt at deeply thinking through what it would mean to conceptualize a non- or even anti-Zionist diaspora Jewishness in the twenty first century. Nor must one agree with her view of the Israeli nation-state or her support of BDS in order to appreciate the book as a serious meditation on contemporary diasporic Jewishness worthy of close scrutiny. What follows is an attempt to examine the ways in which Butler and her work have exposed a raw nerve in the American Jewish psyche when it comes to Zionism and what that may mean as we move [End Page 237] deeper into the twenty-first century. I begin by contextualizing Butler and her reception in the long history of Zionism in America, turn to her basic argument as I understand it, and then explore why it has aroused such negative attention among Jews in the pews as well as many Jewish academicians, many of whom hold liberal Zionist views. I use the example of her ill-fated invitation to speak on Franz Kafka at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan in February 2014 that she eventually cancelled due to strong opposition from the Jewish establishment as an illustration that Jewish opposition has moved from censorship to a kind of excommunication of Butler, not only as a scholar who holds contested views on Zionism, but as a Jew. I conclude by asking why this so and what might it mean for American Judaism and the American Jewish community.
1. CONTEXTUALIZING AMERICAN JEWS AND ISRAEL
The history of Zionism in America is a far more complicated story than many of today’s American Jewish Zionists think.3 In the early years, from the 1880s through the 1930s, much of American Jewry was openly and sometimes passionately anti-Zionist. Figures such as Kaufmann Kohler, rector of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and the American Council for Judaism were particularly vocal in their anti-Zionists sentiments.4 Advocates for Zionism such as rabbis Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen Wise were in the minority. Much of prewar anti-Zionism focused on the question of dual-allegiance and the...