Judith Butler: Is Judaism Zionism?

In her essay from The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, Judith Butler examines the situation in Israel and Palestine and how religion is both the source and possible solution to the problems there. (To read an excerpt from essays by Jurgen Habermas, Charles Taylor and Craig Calhoun.)

I want to enter this fray with another problem, namely, the tension that emerges between religion and public life when public criticism of Israeli state violence is taken to be anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish….

My aim is not to repeat the claim that Jews differ among themselves on the value of Zionism, on the injustice of the occupation, or on the military destructiveness of the Israeli state. These are complex matters, and there are vast disagreements on all of them. And my point is not to say simply that Jews are obligated to criticize Israel, although in fact I think they are—we are—given that Israel acts in the name of the Jewish people, casts itself as the legitimate representative of the Jewish people, there is a question as to what is done in the name of the Jewish people and so all the more reason to reclaim that tradition and ethics in favor of another politics. The effort to establish the presence of progressive Jews runs the risk of remaining within certain identitarian presumptions; one opposes any and all expressions of anti-Jewish anti-Semitism and one reclaims Jewishness for a project that seeks to dismantle Israeli state violence. This particular form of the solution is challenged, however, if we consider that, within several ethical frameworks, Jewishness is itself an anti-identitarian project insofar as we might even say that being a Jew implies taking up an ethical relation to the non-Jew. Indeed, if a relevant Jewish tradition for waging public criticism of Israeli state violence is one that draws upon cohabitation as a norm of sociality, then what follows is the need not only to establish an alternative Jewish public presence (distinct from AIPAC, for instance) or an alternative Jewish movement (such as Jewish Voice for Peace, for instance), but to affirm the displacement of identity that Jewishness is, as paradoxical as that may first sound. Only then can we come to understand the mode of ethical relationality that informs some key historical and religious understandings of what it is to “be” a Jew. In the end, it is not about specifying the ontology of the Jew over and against some other cultural or religious group—we have every reason to be suspect of any effort to do such a thing. It is rather a question of understanding the very relation to the non-Jew as the way of configuring religion in public life within Judaism. And it is on the basis of this conception of cohabitation that the critique of illegitimate nation-state violence can and must be waged.

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