Deconstructing Israel

In her latest pamphlet, Judith Butler urges the end of the Jewish state.


Why should an author favoring US gender scientist Lila Abu-Lughod’s praise of burka be recognized as a mastermind of feminism? According to Judith Butler, Abu-Lughod cherishes the full veiling of female bodies for transporting “important cultural meanings”. In “Precarious Life”, (published in German in 2005 as “Gefährdetes Leben”), Butler makes use of Abu-Lughod’s verdict against the “decimation of Islamic culture” and the “extension of US cultural assumptions about how sexuality and agency ought to be organized and represented” to cry against pictures of non-veiled Afghan girls and women. Veiling should be understood as “an exercise of modesty and pride“ and serves as “a veil behind which, and through which, feminine agency can and does work.“ Butler blames any critical view on Islamist terror of virtues to be a “culturally imperialist exploitation of feminism”.

Those of Butler’s followers, who still take feminism for serious, had much bother to turn a blind eye on such statements that clearly cancel the universal idea of freedom. And suchlike took place, when the city of Frankfurt/Main conferred the Theodor W. Adorno award to an author whose essays express the exact opposite to Critical Theory. In spite of her critical attitude, the negation of any argument aiming to transcend contemporary society runs like a golden thread through her writings. During the course of debates raised by her anti-Israeli statements, the jury and many of her admirers tried to defend the gender queen by claiming that she only attacked continuous settlement building and specific governance of Israel leaders. Was that merely defensible then, considering the insights of the popular philosopher starlet, will this defense strategy now, after the publication of “Am Scheideweg”, never stand the gaff.

The book, published in English as “Parting Ways. Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism” 2012 and translated into German 2013, starts with the grand delusion of all anti-Zionists that keep dressing up as victims of merciless persecution, who cannot live without their idée fixe, that any critic of the Israel state policy will be stigmatized as anti-Semitic by the allegedly omnipotent International of Israel defenders. For Butler, the trivial fact that there have always been Jewish opponents of Zionism is a breakthrough discovery and a taboo that requires courage to be addressed. Jewish critic of Zionism by Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig or Hannah Arendt serves as a counterinsurance for Butler to give full scope to her hatred of an “ausbeuterischen Siedlerkolonialismus” (“exploitations of a project of settler colonialism”) that she perceives—far from the reality of Middle East—in Israel, and nobilitate it as a scheme of philosophy.

Quoting the Shoah survivor Primo Levi’s disappreciation of the Libanon war of 1982, she tries to stamp herself the kosher seal on her strict refusal of the Zionist project. Geared up with this, she wholeheartedly applies herself to her political objectives that aim, like those of her stooge Edward Said, at nothing less than the abolishment of Israel. Unsurprisingly, her Jewish accomplice witnesses are not radical enough for Butler: The bi-national proposals of Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber and Judah Magnes “did not go far enough”. She demands a final call-of for the “political Zionism” and contends for a clear cancellation of any form of “Jewish sovereignty”.

Butler pleads for the abolition of the Law of Return that guarantees all Jews the immigration to Israel, and the realization of the Right of Return for Palestinians, which would spell doom for Israel as a Jewish state. Considering Butler’s thesis, “the loss of demographic advantage for the Jewish population in Israel would surely improve prospects for democracy in that region” it would be a miniscule aggrandizement to speak of “Erlösungsantizionismus” (redemptive anti-Zionism). In her book, Butler tries to push forward her passionate defamation of Israel’s legitimacy by supporting the “Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions-Movement”, that she had proclaimed for many years now, belittled or qualified by her German friends—a movement, that meanwhile even Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein backed away from.

Butler clarifies that it deals not only with the boycott of products from West Bank settlements, but a wholesale boycott of the State of Shoah survivors and their offspring, everything else means resignation to the Palestinian “claims of 1948” and the “right to return”. Butlers objectives are unmistakable: Like Ali Khamenei’s, Sunnite Islamist’s and the PFLP’s, albeit with a different vision of future cohabitation in that region, Butler’s concern is the “liberation” of entire “Palestine”. Therefore, she takes issue even against leftist versions of Zionism.

Butler’s objections against Zionism provide Israel’s haters of any variety with ammunition, mostly the pseudo-critical liberals. They will relish the bombastic apparatus of notions and the pompous language of the post-structural mastermind. Her book is another milestone on the way to delegitimate Israel, an update to Tony Judt’s attacks on Zionism as an “anachronism”, that heralded the renaissance of intellectually dressed-up hatred towards Israel in German-speaking and other countries. In 2012, German professor Michael Brumlik advocated the founding of a bi-national state in “Süddeutsche Zeitung” with reference to Martin Buber. Lately, he published a reasoning in “Konkret” that implies the abdication from Israel’s Return Law, which Butler would like to see abolished.

Admittedly, with more candor Butler spells out the anti-Zionist consequences of her blackmarking of Israel, and Brumlik, who praised some of her ethico-philosophical arguments in his review of the book in “Die Zeit”, cannot refrain from charging her “blindness to reality”. From her moralist’s view, she “enjoys the purity of her convictions and thus, herself”. Unless I am mistaken, Butler’s admirers, who claimed during the Adorno award debate that her polemics were confined to Israel’s presence in West Bank, should have little scope left. The professor of rhetoric and comparative literature points out: “It is important to note that for Said and for my own argument here, binationalism leads not to a two-state solution, but to a single state.“

Even the allegedly sophisticated anti-Zionists in German-speaking countries, who after two decades of debate and critique have at least taken the point that, to be taken seriously, one should not place Israel’s policy on the same level with the crimes of National Socialism, will not easily feel blessed with Butler’s new book. Unless they consider it as some kind of a complete relief, that a prominent Jewess now articulates what a German is not just permitted to say loud. With each chapter, Butler insists repeatedly that she never wanted to tie Zionists with Nazi crimes. But then, she does exactly this, for example with a reference to the “German Konzentrationslager” that introduces a sentence which mentions an “‘succes’ of concentrative colonialism in the West Bank and, most emphatically, in Gaza, where living conditions are cramped and impoverished in accord with the concentrative model.”

Not only Butler ignores the current anti-Semitism, but the whole background of the founding of the state of Israel. For her, displacements of Palestinians of 1948 are not the result of a decade-long conflict essentially fuelled by Arabian anti-Semitism, and not the outcome of a war triggered by the Arab-Palestinian party, but inherent to the substance of Zionism. Butler does not say a thing about the displacements of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arabian countries. The history of Arabian anti-Semitism and Israel’s constant threat by the Iranian regime are never mentioned on the 280 pages of her book, not to speak about the anti-Jewish furor of Hamas or Hezbollah, which Butler takes, as commonly known, for “progressive” and “part of a global left”. Undisturbed by facts, she drowns hundred years of Middle East conflict with her flaunted ethics of conviction, whereas gangs of Jihadist killers find an unquestioned place as allies in her combat against Israel.

Not only in her defense of the burka, but in the radical verdict of Zionism as well, Butler refers to Lila Abu-Lughod and her struggle against something she calls “Jewish exceptionalism”. Butler’s main argument is the mobilization of an abstract and ahistorical universalism against the Zionist particularism. Her universalistic pseudo-morality may be replaced by crude cultural relativism without further adoe, for example in the quoted apology of veiling dictates. It is upholstered by references to Walter Benjamin’s messianism and the ethics of Emmanuel Lévinas. Thus, she fails to recognize not only the relationship of tension between particularism and universalism that always was present among various manifestations of Judaism. She also ignores the debate that went on for decades in various Zionist movements about separatism and cosmopolitism, universalistic aspiration and the requirements of particular practice.

Butler and her entourage want none of that, but Zionist particularism is imposed and not voluntarily chosen. Whoever dislikes it, should get down to the root of the trouble: the anti-Semitism, that Butler fuels herself with her own variety of “Jewish exceptionalism”, when she singles out, of all, the Jewish state for her critique. Whatever she disapproves for Israel, sovereignty, nationalism, safeguarding of territories, Butler, in spite of her post-nationalistic conception, grants freely to the Palestinian brothers and sisters. The substance of their political intentions and their nationalism are unmentioned, as if these were like uncharted waters and without reproach. With her alignment for the cause of “Palestine”, the post-sovereign thinker of anti-nationalism reveals her own political theory as chumminess with barbarianism.

Judith Butler: Parting Ways. Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. Columbia University Press, New York 2012, 250 pages (German edition: Am Scheideweg. Judentum und die Kritik am Zionismus. Aus dem Englischen von Reiner Ansén. Campus-Verlag, Frankfurt/Main 2013, 280 pages).

* Stephan Grigat received his PhD from the Free University of Berlin and currently lectures at the Institutes for Political Science, Philosophy and Jewish Studies at the University of Vienna. He is
the Co-founder and Scientific Director of the NGO STOP THE BOMB—Coalition for a nuclear-free and democratic Iran and writes for the German monthly Konkret and the weekly Jungle World. His op-eds were published in Die ZEIT, Der Tagesspiegel, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Basler Zeitung, Der Standard and Die Presse. He is the author of Fetish & Freedom. The perception of Marx’ critique of fetishism and its relevance for a critical theory of anti-Semitism (in German, 2007) and edited several anthologies on anti-Semitism in Austria and Germany as well as on the Iranian regime (e.g. Iran in the World-System. Alliances of the Regime & Perspectives of the Freedom Movement [in German, 2010]). Currently he published an article about “Anti-Semitism and the failure of the Left on Iran” in Platypus review.

This article was published in German left-wing weekly Jungle World, January 16th, 2014. Translation by Nikolaus Gatter.

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