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The ethics of cohabitation


Judith Butler in Frankfurt, 2012, where she went to accept the Adorno prize for her outstanding contribution to philosophical thought. She is the Maxine Eliot Professor in Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California.

Willing the impossible: an interview with Judith Butler

In politics, sometimes the thing that will never happen actually starts to happen, preparing the ground for transformation. Judith Butler on the Israel/Palestine conflict and her recent book Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism.

By Ray Filar, Open Democracy
July 23, 2013

By now, Judith Butler is used to improbable accusations. Among other things, she has been called a “useful idiot” for anti-Semites, a supporter of terrorism and – that old classic – a self-hating Jew. These kinds of allegations are rarely levelled against post-structuralist philosophers. Yet the Maxine Eliot Professor in Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California holds a special kind of renown within the academy. Her work on conflict, gender and the nation-state has dramatically transformed the way we think about society. And unlike most other theorists, she also publically advocates for the delicate, deeply contentious standpoint of the anti-Zionist Jew. Because of this, Butler’s every public move is scrutinised and dogged by censure. Her talk in February 2013 at Brooklyn College on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement met a particularly vociferous backlash. The stress, Butler tells me, led her to cancel speaking for a season.

Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism is Butler’s response to those who would place anti-Zionism outside of the acceptable bounds of Jewish speech. With American secretary of state John Kerry’s attempt to revive the two-state solution in Israel/Palestine underway, Parting Ways questions what kinds of solutions are up for discussion. Challenging the prevailing poverty of vision, Butler instead offers an ethical system that holds relationships with the other at the heart of what it means to be Jewish.

Arguing for a form of binationalism, she suggests that a move from “segregation” to “cohabitation” – however ambivalent or fractious – is a better ethical approach to Israel/Palestine. The radical transformation she calls for works from society to self and back again: any genuine cohabitation necessitates a personal and societal shift in the treatment of marginalised populations.

This is no romanticised solution. “People who expect enmity to suddenly convert into love are probably using the wrong model,” Butler says, “living with one another can be unhappy, wretched, ambivalent, even full of antagonism, but all of that can play out in the political sphere without recourse to expulsion or genocide. And that is our obligation.”

When we meet, Butler seems tired. The position she holds is difficult and vulnerable to wilful misrepresentation. The professor who has described herself as a “self conscious intellectual standing on the sidelines” has nevertheless stepped into the political firing lines of one of the most critical conflicts of our time.

RF: In the introduction to Parting Ways you say, tantalisingly, that of course you have a personal story, a family history of loss under the Nazi regime, and maybe you’d explore that somewhere but it’s not relevant for here. Why not?

JB: Well it’s a problem. I don’t have a Jewish last name, but that’s because of whatever happened in immigration. My mother’s family were killed in Hungary in the early 1940s and I grew up with that knowledge and with a fair amount of traumatic overflow into my family of origin. On the one hand I say that and it gives me credibility, like, oh she’s a Jew, she actually grew up Jewish, she actually, you know, a second-generation Holocaust survivor, whatever.

But should I claim that? Does that give me more legitimacy? Then that also makes me really angry. Why do I have to do that? I don’t want to market myself that way. I want my arguments to be good arguments on the basis of what I actually have to say. I do situate myself in this problem of being a Jew who doesn’t want to be represented by the state of Israel, a state that claims to represent all Jewish people and make me into a potential citizen. Which I’m sure they wouldn’t let me do now anyway.

RF: Maybe if you repented?

Yes, a good conversion narrative would get me some, like, um… well we won’t go down that road. I wanted to mark it, but I don’t want to exploit it. If I haven’t marked it at all, that would also be kind of a problem. People need to know who I am and where I’m coming from.

Very often, if you just get the question: “Well, are you a Zionist?” if you say no, it’s assumed that you want the destruction of the state of Israel and that you’re involved in some actual or potential violent attack. But actually, you could say: “Not on this basis”.

I was born a Zionist, because I didn’t have a choice about that. It was the ether of my family life, but I certainly broke with it as I asked more questions about it. And that doesn’t mean I want to see the destruction of a people, it means I want to see a state structure that might embody more substantially the basic principles of democracy.

RF: Why is the theme of cohabitation such an important thread throughout the book?

Some Israeli politicians have proposed the transfer of Palestinians out of what is currently called Israel, either into the occupied territories, into Jordan or out into other Arab lands, with the idea that there would be no intermixing of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis or Palestinian and Jewish communities.

But the idea of an absolute segregation is one that I find lamentable. And similarly, if you look at some of the language in the basic writings of Hamas, there is that famous call to push the Israelis into the sea. Now, I would say that most Palestinian politicians on the ground say, of course that’s not what we want, and even within Hamas there is some published debate about that claim, but until the claim is removed, it’s still noxious.

So I’m trying to think of what happens if we take expulsion off the table for everyone, and instead think about the rights of those who have been expelled already, which would include the various rights of refugees who came to Israel in the aftermath of WWII, but also those from other countries, and what rights the Palestinians have who have been dispossessed of their lands and homes.

We need a legal and political understanding of the right of the refugee, whereby no solution for one group produces a new class of refugees – you can’t solve a refugee problem by producing a new, potentially greater refugee problem. As long as that is understood as a basic rule, which strikes me as logical and clear, then that would be a starting point for thinking about cohabitation.

It was Edward Said who thought that there was some hope for binationalism in the fact that, although the history of dispossession and exile for Jews is very different from the history of dispossession and exile for Palestinians, they both have recent and searing experiences which might allow them to come to a common understanding on the rights of refugees, or what it might mean to live together with resonant histories of that kind.

RF: In the middle of this discussion of cohabitation you say:
Surely binationalism is not love, but there is, we might say, a necessary and impossible attachment that makes a mockery of identity, an ambivalence that emerges from the decentering of the nationalist ethos and that forms the basis of a permanent ethical demand.”

So there is an ethical demand that we do not choose with whom we cohabit, and also that if that produces an ambivalence, it is simply something we have to accept

That’s right. People who expect enmity to suddenly convert into love are probably using the wrong model. I think what Hannah Arendt meant when she said that “we cannot choose with whom we cohabit the world” is that all of those who inhabit the world have a right to be here by virtue of their being here at all. To be here means you have a right to be here.

The point that she’s making, of course, is that genocide is not a legitimate option. It’s not ok to decide that an entire population has no right to live in the world. No matter whether these relationships are very proximate or very distant, there is no entitlement to expunge a population or to demean its basic humanity.

What does it mean then to live with one another? It can be unhappy, it can be wretched, it can be ambivalent, it can even be full of antagonism, but all of that can play out in the political sphere without recourse to expulsion or genocide. And that is our obligation, to stay in the sphere with whatever murderous rage we have, without acting on it.

RF: To extrapolate slightly, if the Israelis were to accept this ambivalence, it would be a transformative way of thinking for them?

Well I think some of them actually do. There are ordinary spaces where people do, more or less, share neighbourhoods. In Haifa, there are whole communities that are more or less integrated. But of course that is with Palestinian Israelis who have, for the most part, accepted certain kinds of cooperative models, and also accept second-class citizenship.

We have to have a very strong criticism of modes of cooperation that entrench inequality. We want modes of cohabitation or solidarity – some call it coexistence – that seek to transform every dimension, so that we have real political and economic equality, and we have the end of occupation, and we have some reasonable way to honour the right of return.

RF: So is Parting Ways a call for transformation?

JB: I think it is. There are three basic calls that I end up making that are coming from Palestinian activists or scholars who have been working on this issue for a long time. The first is to establish a firm constitutional basis for equality for all citizens, regardless of what their religion might be, or their ethnicity or race.

The second call is a call to end the occupation, which is illegal and an extension of a colonial project. I consider both the West Bank and Gaza to be colonised, even though Gaza is not occupied in the same way that the West Bank is. The Israeli government and military control all goods that pass in or out of that area, and they have restricted employment and building material that would allow Palestinians to rebuild homes and structures that were destroyed by bombardment.

The third call is probably the most controversial, but I do think that a lot of thought has to be given to how the right of return might be conceptualised, and how that right might be honoured, whether it’s via resettlement or compensation. Some plans involve a return to areas where people have lived, not necessarily to the exact homes they lived in.

But people who have been made stateless by military occupation are entitled to repatriation, and then the question is to which state, or to what polity or area? Those who have had their goods taken away are entitled to compensation of some kind. These are basic international laws.

RF: In your final chapter you cite a Mahmoud Darwish poem that says “a possible life is one that wills the impossible.” You describe this as a paradox – could you explain it? 

JB: Well, there are people who believe in realpolitik and who say: “There’s never going to be one state, there’s never going to be equality, there’s never going to be peace…don’t fool yourself. If you want to be political, get concrete and see what adjustments you can make in the current regime”.

Then I just think, ok, what would it mean if we lived in a world in which no one held out for the possibility of substantial political equality, or for a full cessation of colonial practices – if no one held out for those things because they were impossible? People do scoff when you say right of return. I was at a meeting with Palestinians and Israelis where people said: “That will never happen.” So I said, “well it will not be taken off the table.”

In fact in politics, sometimes the thing that will never happen actually starts to happen. And there have to be people who hold out for that, and who accept that they are idealists and that they are operating on principle as opposed to realpolitik. If there were no such ideals then our entire political sensibility would be corrupted by this process.

And maybe one of the jobs of theory or philosophy is to elevate principles that seem impossible, or that have the status of the impossible, to stand by them and will them, even when it looks highly unlikely that they’ll ever be realised. But that’s ok, it’s a service.

What would happen if we lived in a world where there were no people who did that? It would be an impoverished world.



Primo Levi, the odd one out in Butler’s examination of four Jewish thinkers, also including Emmanuel Levinas, Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin. Photo by Mencarini Marcello /AFP/Getty Images

Parting Ways

Review of Judith Butler’s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism.

By Joseph Finlay, Jewish Quarterly
January 2013

Events always intervene. In ideal circumstances this reflective, philosophical book could be considered entirely on its own merits, as a meditation on Judaism, Zionism and the nation state. This has become difficult, however, following the furious reception from some Jewish groups when (deliciously, on September 11) Judith Butler, international superstar of critical theory, was awarded the Adorno Prize. A range of self-defined spokespeople who had clearly read none of her work, still less the writings of Adorno, queued up to protest against the awarding of a prize named after a Jewish philosopher to “a known hater of Israel” and one who “contributes to the legitimisation of forces pursuing the extinction of the state of the Shoah survivors”. But perhaps such rhetoric provides the ideal context for examining this conceptual and analytical work.

Parting Ways is evidently motivated by events — Butler’s experiences as an “engaged scholar” writing on Israel/ Palestine. The fire beneath the writing is the ludicrous claim that “any and all criticism of the State of Israel is effectively antisemitic”. Lest this seem like a straw man, Butler clarifies that she is further positing that disbelief in a Jewish state altogether and a call for binationalism is neither antisemitic nor counter to Judaism, against a widespread Jewish view that “if one argues that the current grounds for its [Israel’s] existence… may not be legitimate, that is taken to be a genocidal position”. Butler clearly bears the scars of previous battles with “supporters of Israel”, and Parting Ways is designed as a book length response, though not the kind of answer that many of them would have expected, or indeed would be able to understand.

The use of ‘Jewishness’ rather than ‘Judaism’ in the book’s title is not accidental. When Butler states her aim as “showing that there are Jewish resources for the critique of state violence, the colonial subjugation of populations, expulsion and dispossession”, she is not referring to classical Jewish texts. Biblical and Rabbinic quotations are almost entirely absent — those seeking traditional proof texts for a socially just Judaism need to look elsewhere. Instead, Butler draws upon the work of a selection of modern Jewish thinkers: Emmanuel Levinas, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt and Primo Levi. This is a bold but potentially justifiable step, though not one that Butler ever really justifies; the only implied reference to a wider corpus of Jewishness is through a brief autobiographical allusion to her childhood Jewish education. While Levinas’s Talmudic Readings constitute a meaningful engagement with Jewish textual tradition(s), the Jewishness of Benjamin, Arendt and Levi is experiential rather than grounded in text. If they are representatives of Jewish tradition, then we are in the Kaplanesque realm of Judaism as civilisation, in which its practitioners constantly define and redefine the boundaries and scope of Jewishness. Such an (implied) anti-essentialist approach exonerates Butler from having to prove that Judaism “is” a radical ethical tradition, merely requiring her to demonstrate that there are some modern Jewish thinkers who ground themselves in diasporic ethics and cosmopolitanism, in order to undermine what she views as the hegemonically nationalist and ethnocentric nature of contemporary Jewish thought.

Detailed chapters on Levinas, Benjamin, Arendt and Levi take up the lion’s share of the book — but all are subject to some kind of critique or transformation, as none of them does quite what Butler wants them to do. Coming first is Levinas, and his notion of the Other whose face commands upon us an ethical responsibility which we can never escape nor ever fully satisfy. The “problem” for Butler, is that Levinas explicitly denied that Jews should see Palestinians as a commanding other, and “to make use of Levinas for a left politics is precisely to read him against his own Zionism”. This is most evident in his infamous comment, on French Radio in 1982 following the Sabra and Shatila massacre: when asked directly if the other for Israelis was the Palestinians, Levinas replied:

My definition of the Other is completely different. The other is the neighbour, who is not necessarily kin, but who can be…. But if your neighbour attacks another neighbour or treats him unjustly, what can you do? Then alterity takes on another character, in alterity we can find an enemy, or at least then we are faced with the problem of knowing who is right and who is wrong, who is just and who is unjust. There are people who are wrong.

In an instant Levinas seems to have erased his entire philosophy — if we are able to suspend our hospitality to the other when we deem them an enemy, or wash our hands of responsibility when a third party (who is our ally) engages in murderous action, what is the point of his ethics? What does it mean to say that “the face is what one cannot kill” if some groups can be declared to be faceless? Also problematic for Butler, is Levinas’ willingness to suspend his notion of the messianic as “a waiting for justice…..a kind of waiting that cannot be fulfilled in historical time” when it comes to the foundation of the state of Israel. Levinas seems to think that the Jew is both simultaneously outside and within history — that anti-Jewish persecution is “a recurrent and ahistorical dimension of existence” — but that Jews have re-entered history through the Jewish state. This, for Butler, is ultimately dangerous:

We are asked to consider this historical political state as timelessly suffering persecution — not as a state with a specific history (which includes the persecution of Palestinians)… and a set of possible futures (which might include an effort to move beyond the politics of revenge and the infinitely self-legitimating claims of being persecuted towards a new notion of relationality…

Levinas, for all his current popularity in the world of critical theory, was in many ways a political conservative, so perhaps it is unsurprising that Butler can only utilise his work by reading him against himself (and perhaps also reading him through Derrida). Walter Benjamin, a revolutionary thinker, is more promising, although this too runs into trouble, perhaps because Butler is using utopian communist theory in the service of binationalism, which is ultimately a liberal project.

Butler begins by choosing not to concentrate on Benjamin’s specific views on Zionism; instead she focuses on his notions of messianism, law and violence, stating that for Benjamin “the messianic is a counterdoctrinal effort to break with temporal regimes that produce guilt, obedience, extend legal violence and cover over the history of the oppressed”. Against the legal violence of oppressive states, Benjamin offers a “divine violence” that, for Butler, “takes aim at the very framework that establishes legal accountability”. Benjamin’s violence is paradoxically ‘non violent’ — it is a destruction of legal violence, but is in itself ‘bloodless’, though this is consistently ambiguous. Benjamin is writing here about a general strike, but Butler is interested in the possibilities of generalisation, specifically in applying Benjamin’s thought to Israel/ Palestine. Butler’s attempts to do this are brief and rather unconvincing — her implicit (but unstated) agenda seems to be a call for a non- violent struggle against Zionism that is total and thus revolutionary — not focusing on any one oppressive policy, or focusing on the rights of any one section of Palestinian society — but a total overthrow of the Israeli state in favour of a wholly new, binational reality.

Hannah Arendt wrote specifically about binationalism, and was, for much of her life, a strong Jewish critic of Zionism. Most powerful is Arendt’s focus on the rootless rather than the rooted individual as the starting point for political philosophy, noting how “denationalisation became a powerful weapon of totalitarian politics”. Arendt took as her starting point the position of Jews in 1930s Europe, leading to her association with the Zionist movement and forceful criticism of the British government’s quotas on Jewish immigration to Palestine. But by the early 1950s Arendt had become a critic of Zionism noting that “the solution of the Jewish question merely produced a new category of refugees, the Arabs, thereby increasing the number of stateless and rightless by another 700,000-800,000 people. And what happened in Palestine… was then repeated in India on a large scale involving millions of people”.

The reference to the partition of India is revealing, as it alludes to Arendt’s wide-ranging critique of the nation state. One would presume that Butler’s anti-Zionism would extend to a similarly broad anti-nationalist stance, but this is never spelled out, and she is certainly reluctant to offer any criticism of Palestinian nationalism. Arendt is a complex and elusive theorist; her views on federated states resist offering an unambiguous paradigm for Israel/Palestine, and her status as constant critic make it difficult to mobilise her work for positive proposals. Butler does, however, make a good case for how Arendt’s understanding of modern Jewish experience may underpin her work:

If she is a Jewish thinker… then this is a different kind of Jewish pursuit of justice… a position that does not universalise the Jew, but makes use of the historical conditions of displacement to oppose the sufferings of statelessness in every circumstance.

Primo Levi is the odd one out in Butler’s gallery of modern Jewish intellectuals, a novelist and poet rather than a philosopher, and not usually viewed as a political figure. Butler comments that Levi “tried to tell the stories of Auschwitz again and again, not only to keep the historical record straight… but also to make sure that such a phenomenon could not recur in history”. Levi expressed his sense of ethical responsibility in 1982 by making forceful criticisms of Israel in the wake of the first Lebanon war. Speaking of the anguished letters he received from Israelis, he makes the moral stakes abundantly clear:

“I am tormented by them because I know that Israel was founded by people like me…. escaping the horrors of the Second World War…. who found in Israel a home and a homeland. I know all this. But I also know that this is Begin’s favourite defence. And I deny any validity to this defence”.

Following his 1982 comments Levi fell silent on the issue, agreeing interviews only on the basis that the subject would be avoided. In those years he fell into a depression, one that Butler suggests may have been caused by his impossible dual position — horrified by equations of Jews and Nazis he had to “both counter the antisemites as well as those who would mobilise that history for the purposes of legitimating brutal state power”. Silence became his response, but Butler, ever the activist-scholar, does not consider this model should be followed: “We know muteness is no answer”. Can she be so sure? In the barrage of arguments around every element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, can silence and reflection not sometimes be a virtue?

There is much to appreciate in Parting Ways: brilliant analysis, a wealth of scholarship and a strong call for a Jewishness that is in constant relation with the Other. It reads, however, as less than the sum of its parts. This is partly due to format — most of the chapters began as separate texts and talks, leading to some duplication and a lack of overarching arguments that might build up throughout the book. But the larger problem is Butler’s politics — an unflinchingly purist stance that demands a total break from Zionism even while demonstrating the vastly divergent views that have historically cohabited within the Zionist movement. The writings of Levinas, Arendt, Benjamin and Levi are complex and nuanced, and cannot be aligned with the global Palestine solidarity movement as easily as Butler might wish. The political approach of Parting Ways is especially disappointing considering the author’s previous calls for play, parody and subversion in her pioneering work on gender. Such an approach in relation to Israel/Palestine might involve a deliberate blurring of the binary Jew/Arab on which the Israeli state and the Occupation depends. It might entail building on the widespread evidence that many Palestinians have Jewish roots in order to redefine the meaning of Jewish, so that a “Jewish and democratic state” is no longer a contradiction in terms. It could involve diaspora synagogues using their privileged position to convert Palestinian refugees to Judaism, thus enabling them to fulfil their right of return. It might suggest working harder to build coalitions between Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians against the Ashkenazi elite, or lead to a wider class-based politics that emphasises the economic component of the conflict over the ethnic one.

Ironically enough, a recent Butler essay demonstrates precisely the benefits of a more playful and suggestive approach. In “Who Owns Kafka”, Butler satirises the battles over Franz Kafka’s estate, skewering literary capitalism, modern Germany and linguistic nationalism in the process. Kafka’s life and work come to represent the endlessly deferred and the impossibility of arrival. Kafka’s writings are “meditations on the impossibility of arrival and the unrealisability of a goal…. many of the parables seem to allegorise a way of checking the desire to emigrate to Palestine, opening instead an infinite distance between the one place and the other”. “Who Owns Kafka” constitutes an compelling articulation of a non-Zionist Judaism, all the more persuasive for its wielding of wit and suggestion rather than a political (if highly refined) sledgehammer. However much a constant stream of events may aggravate, and however strong the temptation to fight imbecilic propaganda with purist ideology, this kind of refined response is, in the long run, likely to be the more effective one.

Joseph Finlay is the Deputy Editor of the Jewish Quarterly

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