Ideas make the world go round

by tobybee

I must confess: I’m a nerd. Ideas excite me. Particularly well-written, critical ideas.

Over the course of the last few years I’ve been working on a PhD which examines some examples of diasporic Jewish identities, and so I’ve been able to spend time with lots of new ideas and ways of thinking. It’s great. Two my current favourite Jewish theorists are Judith Butler and Albert Memmi, both of whom are widely used in academia, but neither of whom are particularly thought of as Jewish (this might have changed for Butler in the last few years, as she writes more and more on Zionism and Jewishness). But certainly when I was taught their work in my undergrad classes they were never identified as Jewish.

Here are a couple of thoughts from them which, for me, so perfectly encapsulate the anxieties, ambivalences and complexities which circulate in the diaspora communities (in Melbourne and New York) which I have been researching, even if Memmi and Butler aren’t writing of these communities specifically:

“The situation of the Jewish population [in Tunisia is as] eternally hesitant candidates refusing assimilation…. Their constant and very justifiable ambition is to escape from their colonized condition, an additional burden in an already oppressive status. To that end, they endeavour to resemble the colonizer in the frank hope that he may cease to consider them different from him. Hence their efforts to forget the past, to change collective habits, and their enthusiastic adoption of Western language, culture and customs. But if the colonizer does not always openly discourage these candidates to develop that resemblance, he never permits them to attain it either. Thus they live in painful and constant ambiguity. Rejected by the colonizer, they share in part the physical conditions of the colonized and have a communion of interests with him; on the other hand, they reject the values of the colonized as belonging to a decayed world from which they eventually hope to escape.” – Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and The Colonized, 1990, p. 81-82.

“The ‘Jew’ is no more defined by Israel than by anti-Semitic diatribe. The ‘Jew’ exceeds both determinations, and is to be found, substantively, as this diasporic excess, a historically and culturally changing identity that takes no single form and has no single telos.” – Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, 2004, p. 126.

For me these brief thoughts point to the endless possibilities for Jewishnesses.

Your thoughts?