- Performative Zion:Butler’s Parting Ways
In March of 2014, Judith Butler was scheduled to deliver a talk on Franz Kafka at the New York Jewish Museum. But after a furor erupted among Jewish community members concerned about her “anti-Israel stance” (thus framed by her detractors), Butler elected to cancel. The forum in question had no relationship to Israel—at least, none thematized in the museum program. Rather, it drew on Butler’s resources as a philosopher and close reader. “While her political views were not a factor in her participation,” as a spokesmen for the museum would subsequently note, “the debates about her politics have become a distraction making it impossible to present the conversation about Kafka as intended.” The fictive isomorphism of “Jewish” and “Zionist” haunted the cancelation—more pointedly, the fear that her reading of the Jewish thinker might enable, or even become, a critical reading of Zionism (this was a ploy, in the words of one blogger, to “use Jewish ethics to prove that Zionism is illegitimate”). Among her critics, there was a pervasive sense that somehow, smuggled through the door of Jewish philosophy and critical hermeneutics, Israel’s image would be tarnished, again. And therein, the “existential threat” to the Jewish state loomed.
The relationship between the Jewish and the Zionist is at the heart of Butler’s engagements in Parting Ways. Given Butler’s prominence as an advocate for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement—and given the voluminous public deliberations, often heated ones, that followed the American Studies Association’s pro-BDS resolution in December 2014—the meaning of the book has changed. That is, although Butler’s latest work was written prior to these events, its impact and resonance have been conclusively overwritten [End Page 259] by the debates about Israel and Palestine that both preceded and followed its publication. These are debates that rarely work through the specificity of Butler’s close readings and arguments at the core of the volume; rather, they take aim at her more manifestly political commentaries about Israel, those moments when she speaks in a more popularized political idiom about Israel, Palestine, settler-colonial history, and possible political futures.
The Introduction to Parting Ways charts the book’s broadest themes and political ambitions. The chapter begins by outlining the challenge and potential contradiction that lies at the heart of this critical reading project: namely, the problem of electing to mobilize “Jewish resources for a criticism of [Israeli] state violence”—this being a tactical strategy for responding to and disarming her Jewish critics from within the terms of their own normative logics (thereby unseating the kind of criticisms on which detractors mounted their assault on her planned Kafka lecture). The potential contradiction lies in the logic of Jewish “exceptionalism” underpinning this strategy—its move to chart an ethical horizon through a predominantly Jewish framework. As such, Butler concedes that her critical framework has the potential to produce what she aptly terms “the Zionist effect”—by which “even the critique of Zionism, if exclusively Jewish, extends Jewish hegemony for thinking about the region.” Herein lies the tension that frames the book throughout: a tension between a strategy of unthinking normative Jewish logics from within, while seeking to avoid the reinstatement of Zionism’s central logic (e.g., Jewish exceptionalism).
What Butler terms “cohabitation” is of central concern in this volume—this paradigm providing the basis for Butler’s imagination of alternative political futures in Israel and Palestine. In chapter 2, she considers the concept through a reading of Edward Said’s Freud and the Non-European, chiefly his proposition that “the Jew cannot be defined without a relation to the non-Jew,” and proposes that Said’s notion of the mutual implication of Jew and Arab might “become the basis for a certain bi-nationalism” (Said’s reading is routed through the figure of Moses, at once an Egyptian and the “founder of the Jewish people”). This study is framed by a recognition of the near impossibility of the binational framework within normative Jewish American political imaginations—one in which support for the secular one-state platform is read as a call for...