Butler on Jewishness as speaking ethically

by tobybee

A wonderful piece was published in Haaretz – an interview of Judith Butler, by Udi Aloni. It’s quite long, so I’ve taken an excerpt below (which is still rather long, I know). But you should read the whole thing, which can be found here.

Philosopher, professor and author Judith Butler arrived in Israel this month, en route to the West Bank, where she was to give a seminar at Bir Zeit University, visit the theater in Jenin, and meet privately with friends and students. A leading light in her field, Butler chose not to visit any academic institutions in Israel itself. In the conversation below, conducted in New York several months ago, Butler talks about gender, the dehumanization of Gazans, and how Jewish values drove her to criticize the actions of the State of Israel.

A beautiful Israeli poem asks, “How does one become Avot Yeshurun?” Avot Yeshurun was a poet who caused turmoil in Israeli poetry. I want to ask, how does one become Judith Butler -especially with the issue of Gender Trouble, the book that so troubled the discourse on gender?

You know, I’m not sure that I know how to give an account of it, and I think it troubles gender differently depending on how it is received and translated. For instance, one of the first receptions [of the book] was in Germany, and there, it seemed very clear that young people wanted a politics that emphasized agency, or something affirmative that they could create or produce. The idea of performativity – which involved bringing categories into being or bringing new social realities about – was very exciting, especially for younger people who were tired with old models of oppression – indeed, the very model men oppress women, or straights oppress gays.

It seemed that if you were subjugated, there were also forms of agency that were available to you, and you were not just a victim, or you were not only oppressed, but oppression could become the condition of your agency. Certain kinds of unexpected results can emerge from the situation of oppression if you have the resources and if you have collective support. It’s not an automatic response; it’s not a necessary response. But it’s possible. I think I also probably spoke to something that was already happening in the movement. I put into theoretical language what was already being impressed upon me from elsewhere. So I didn’t bring it into being single-handedly. I received it from several cultural resources and put it into another language.

Once you became “Judith Butler,” we began to hear more about Jews and Jewish texts. People came to hear you speak about gender and suddenly they were faced with Gaza, divine violence. It almost felt like you had some closure on the previous matter. Is there a connection, a continuum, or is this a new phase?

Let’s go back further. I’m sure I’ve told you that I began to be interested in philosophy when I was 14, and I was in trouble in the synagogue. The rabbi said, “You are too talkative in class. You talk back, you are not well behaved. You have to come and have a tutorial with me.” I said “OK, great!” I was thrilled.

He said: “What do you want to study in the tutorial? This is your punishment. Now you have to study something seriously.” I think he thought of me as unserious. I explained that I wanted to read existential theology focusing on Martin Buber. (I’ve never left Martin Buber.) I wanted look at the question of whether German idealism could be linked with National Socialism. Was the tradition of Kant and Hegel responsible in some way for the origins of National Socialism? My third question was why Spinoza was excommunicated from the synagogue. I wanted to know what happened and whether the synagogue was justified.

Now I must go Jewish: what was your parents’ relation to Judaism?

My parents were practicing Jews. My mother grew up in an orthodox synagogue and after my grandfather died, she went to a conservative synagogue and a little later ended up in a reform synagogue. My father was in reform synagogues from the beginning.

My mother’s uncles and aunts were all killed in Hungary [during the Holocaust]. My grandmother lost all of her relatives, except for the two nephews who came with them in the car when my grandmother went back in 1938 to see who she could rescue. It was important for me. I went to Hebrew school. But I also went after school to special classes on Jewish ethics because I was interested in the debates. So I didn’t do just the minimum. Through high school, I suppose, I continued Jewish studies alongside my public school education.

And you showed me the photos of the bar mitzvah of your son as a good proud Jewish Mother…

So it’s been there from the start, it’s not as if I arrived at some place that I haven’t always been in. I grew very skeptical of certain kind of Jewish separatism in my youth. I mean, I saw the Jewish community was always with each other; they didn’t trust anybody outside. You’d bring someone home and the first question was “Are they Jewish, are they not Jewish?” Then I entered into a lesbian community in college, late college, graduate school, and the first thing they asked was, “Are you a feminist, are you not a feminist?” “Are you a lesbian, are you not a lesbian?” and I thought “Enough with the separatism!”

It felt like the same kind of policing of the community. You only trust those who are absolutely like yourself, those who have signed a pledge of allegiance to this particular identity. Is that person really Jewish, maybe they’re not so Jewish. I don?t know if they’re really Jewish. Maybe they’re self-hating. Is that person lesbian? I think maybe they had a relationship with a man. What does that say about how true their identity was? I thought I can’t live in a world in which identity is being policed in this way.

But if I go back to your other question… In Gender Trouble, there is a whole discussion of melancholy. What is the condition under which we fail to grieve others? I presumed, throughout my childhood, that this was a question the Jewish community was asking itself. It was also a question that I was interested in when I went to study in Germany. The famous Mitscherlich book on the incapacity to mourn, which was a criticism of German post-war culture, was very, very interesting to me.


I then [in recent years] moved towards a different kind of theory, asking under what conditions certain lives are grievable and certain lives not grievable or ungrievable. It’s clear to me that in Israel-Palestine and in the violent conflicts that have taken place over the years, there is differential grieving. Certain lives become grievable within the Israeli press, for instance – highly grievable and highly valuable – and others are understood as ungrievable because they are understood as instruments of war, or they are understood as outside the nation, outside religion, or outside that sense of belonging which makes for a grievable life. The question of grievability has linked my work on queer politics, especially the AIDS crisis, with my more contemporary work on war and violence, including the work on Israel-Palestine.

It’s interesting because when the war on Gaza started, I couldn’t stay in Tel Aviv anymore. I visited the Galilee a lot. And suddenly I realized that many of the Palestinians who died in Gaza have families there, relatives who are citizens of Israel. What people didn’t know is that there was a massed grief in Israel. Grief for families who died in Gaza, a grief within Israel, of citizens of Israel. And nobody in the country spoke about it, about the grief within Israel. It was shocking.

The Israeli government and the media started to say that everyone who was killed or injured in Gaza was a member of Hamas; or that they were all being used as part of the war effort; that even the children were instruments of the war effort; that the Palestinians put them out there, in the targets, to show that Israelis would kill children, and this was actually part of a war effort. At this point, every single living being who is Palestinian becomes a war instrument. They are all, in their being, or by virtue of being Palestinian, declaring war on Israel or seeking the destruction of the Israel.

So any and all Palestinian lives that are killed or injured are understood no longer to be lives, no longer understood to be living, no longer understood even to be human in a recognizable sense, but they are artillery. The bodies themselves are artillery. And of course, the extreme instance of that is the suicide bomber, who has become unpopular in recent years. That is the instance in which a body becomes artillery, or becomes part of a violent act. If that figure gets extended to the entire Palestinian population, then there is no living human population anymore, and no one who is killed there can be grieved. Because everyone who is a living Palestinian is, in their being, a declaration of war, or a threat to the existence of Israel, or pure military artillery, materiel. They have been transformed, in the Israeli war imaginary, into pure war instruments.

So when a people who believes that another people is out to destroy them sees all the means of destruction killed, or some extraordinary number of the means of destruction destroyed, they are thrilled, because they think their safety and well-being and happiness are being purchased, are being achieved through this destruction.


Why Israel-Palestine? Is this directly connected to your Jewishness?

As a Jew, I was taught that it was ethically imperative to speak up and to speak out against arbitrary state violence. That was part of what I learned when I learned about the Second World War and the concentration camps. There were those who would and could speak out against state racism and state violence, and it was imperative that we be able to speak out. Not just for Jews, but for any number of people. There was an entire idea of social justice that emerged for me from the consideration of the Nazi genocide.

I would also say that what became really hard for me is that if one wanted to criticize Israeli state violence – precisely because that as a Jew one is under obligation to criticize excessive state violence and state racism – then one is in a bind, because one is told that one is either self-hating as a Jew or engaging anti-Semitism. And yet for me, it comes out of a certain Jewish value of social justice. So how can I fulfill my obligation as a Jew to speak out against an injustice when, in speaking out against Israeli state and military injustice, I am accused of not being a good enough Jew or of being a self-hating Jew? This is the bind of my current situation.

Let me say one other thing about Jewish values. There are two things I took from Jewish philosophy and my Jewish formation that were really important for me… well there are many. There are many. Sitting shiva, for instance, explicit grieving. I thought it was the one of the most beautiful rituals of my youth. There were several people who died in my youth, and there were several moments when whole communities gathered in order to make sure that those who had suffered terrible losses were taken up and brought back into the community and given a way to affirm life again. The other idea was that life is transient, and because of that, because there is no after world, because we don’t have any hopes in a final redemption, we have to take especially good care of life in the here and now. Life has to be protected. It is precarious. I would even go so far as to say that precarious life is, in a way, a Jewish value for me.

I realized something, through your way of thinking. A classic mistake that people made with Gender Trouble was the notion that body and language are static. But everything is in dynamic and in constant movement; the original never exists. In a way I felt the same with the Diaspora and the emancipation. Neither are static. No one came before the other. The Diaspora, when it was static, became separatist, became the shtetl. And when the emancipation was realized, it became an ethnocratic state; it also became separatist, a re-construction of the ghetto. So maybe the tension between the two, emancipation and Diaspora, without choosing a one or the other, is the only way to keep us out of ethnocentrism. I suppose my idea is not yet fully formulated. It relates to the way I felt that my grandfather was open to the language of exile while being connected to the land at the same time. By being open to both, emancipation and Diaspora, we might avoid falling into ethnocentrism.

You have a tension between Diaspora and emancipation. But what I am thinking of is perhaps something a little different. I have to say, first of all, that I do not think that there can be emancipation with and through the establishment of state that restricts citizenship in the way that it does, on the basis of religion? So in my view, any effort to retain the idea of emancipation when you don’t have a state that extends equal rights of citizenship to Jews and non-Jews alike is, for me, bankrupt. It’s bankrupt.

That’s why I would say that there should be bi-nationalism from the beginning.

Or even multi-nationalism. Maybe even a kind of citizenship without regard to religion, race, ethnicity, etc. In any case, the more important point here is that there are those who clearly believe that Jews who are not in Israel, who are in the Galut, are actually either in need of return ? they have not yet returned, or they are not and cannot be representative of the Jewish people. So the question is: what does it mean to transform the idea of Galut into Diaspora? In other words, Diaspora is another tradition, one that involves the scattering without return. I am very critical of this idea of return, and I think “Galut” very often demeans the Diasporic traditions within Judaism.


I think we have to get over the idea that a state has to express a nation. And if we have a bi-national state, it’s expressing two nations. Only when bi-nationalism deconstructs the idea of a nation can we hope to think about what a state, what a polity might look like that would actually extend equality. It is no longer the question of “two peoples,” as Martin Buber put it. There is extraordinary complexity and intermixing among both the Jewish and the Palestinian populations. There will be those who say, “Ok, a state that expresses two cultural identities.” No. State should not be in the business of expressing cultural identity.


Now I want to move to the last part of the conversation. It was over three years ago, at the beginning of the Second Lebanon war, that Slavoj Žižek came to Israel to give a speech on my film Forgiveness. The Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel asked him not to come to the Jerusalem Film Festival. They said that I should show my film – as Israelis shouldn’t boycott Israel, but they asked international figures to boycott the festival.

Žižek, who was the subject of one of the films in the festival, said he would not speak about that film. But he asked: why not support the opposition in Israel by speaking about Forgiveness? They answered that he could support the opposition, but not in an official venue. He did not know what to do.

Žižek chose to ask for your advice. Your position then, if I recall correctly, was that it was most important to exercise, solidarity with colleagues who chose nonviolent means of resistance and that it was a mistake to take money from Israeli cultural institutions. Your suggestion to Žižek was that he speak about the film without being a guest of the festival. He gave back the money and announced that he was not a guest. There was no decision about endorsing or not endorsing a boycott. For me, at the time, the concept of cultural boycott was kind of shocking, a strange concept. The movement has since grown a lot, and I know that you’ve done a lot of thinking about it. I wonder what do you think about this movement now, the full Boycott, Diversion and Sanction movement (BDS), three years after that confusing event?

I think that the BDS movement has taken several forms, and it is probably important to distinguish among them. I would say that around six or seven years ago, there was a real confusion about what was being boycotted, what goes under the name of “boycott.” There were some initiatives that seemed to be directed against Israeli academics, or Israeli filmmakers, cultural producers, or artists that did not distinguish between their citizenship and their participation, active or passive, in occupation politics. We must keep in mind that the BDS movement has always been focused on the occupation. It is not a referendum on Zionism, and it does not take an explicit position on the one-state or two-state solution. And then there were those who sought to distinguish boycotting individual Israelis from boycotting the Israeli institutions. But it is not always easy to know how to make the distinction between who is an individual and who is an institution. And I think a lot of people within the U.S. and Europe just backed away, thinking that it was potentially discriminatory to boycott individuals or, indeed, institutions on the basis of citizenship, even though many of those who were reluctant very much wanted to find a way to support a non-violent resistance to the occupation.

But now I feel that it has become more possible, more urgent to reconsider the politics of the BDS. It is not that the principles of the BDS have changed: they have not. But there are now ways to think about implementing the BDS that keep in mind the central focus: any event, practice, or institution that seeks to normalize the occupation, or presupposes that “ordinary” cultural life can continue without an explicit opposition to the occupation is itself complicit with the occupation.

We can think of this as passive complicity, if you like. But the main point is to challenge those institutions that seek to separate the occupation from other cultural activities. The idea is that we cannot participate in cultural institutions that act as if there is no occupation or that refuse to take a clear and strong stand against the occupation and dedicate their activities to its undoing.
So, with this in mind, we can ask, what does it mean to engage in boycott? It means that, for those of us on the outside, we can only go to an Israeli institution, or an Israeli cultural event, in order to use the occasion to call attention to the brutality and injustice of the occupation and to articulate an opposition to it.

I think that’s what Naomi Klein did, and I think it actually opened up another route for interpreting the BDS principles. It is no longer possible for me to come to Tel Aviv and talk about gender, Jewish philosophy, or Foucault, as interesting as that might be for me; it is certainly not possible to take money from an organization or university or a cultural organization that is not explicitly and actively anti-occupation, acting as if the cultural event within Israeli borders was not happening against the background of occupation? Against the background of the assault on, and continuing siege of, Gaza? It is this unspoken and violent background of “ordinary” cultural life that needs to become the explicit object of cultural and political production and criticism. Historically, I see no other choice, since affirming the status quo means affirming the occupation. One cannot “set aside” the radical impoverishment, the malnutrition, the limits on mobility, the intimidation and harassment at the borders, and the exercise of state violence in both Gaza and the West Bank and talk about other matters in public? If one were to talk about other matters, then one is actively engaged in producing a limited public sphere of discourse which has the repression and, hence, continuation of violence as its aim.

Let us remember that the politics of boycott are not just matters of “conscience” for left intellectuals within Israel or outside. The point of the boycott is to produce and enact an international consensus that calls for the state of Israel to comply with international law. The point is to insist on the rights of self-determination for Palestinians, to end the occupation and colonization of Arab lands, to dismantle the Wall that continues the illegal seizure of Palestinian land, and to honor several UN resolutions that have been consistently defied by the Israeli state, including UN resolution 194, which insists upon the rights of refugees from 1948.

So, an approach to the cultural boycott in particular would have to be one that opposes the normalization of the occupation in order to bring into public discourse the basic principles of injustice at stake. There are many ways to articulate those principles, and this is where intellectuals are doubtless under a political obligation to become innovative, to use the cultural means at our disposal to make whatever interventions we can.

The point is not simply to refuse contact and forms of cultural and monetary exchange – although sometimes these are most important – but rather, affirmatively, to lend one’s support to the strongest anti-violent movement against the occupation that not only affirms international law, but establishing exchanges with Palestinian cultural and academic workers, cultivating international consensus on the rights of the Palestinian people, but also altering that hegemonic presumption within the global media that any critique of Israel is implicitly anti-democratic or anti-Semitic.

Surely it has always been the best part of the Jewish intellectual tradition to insist upon the ethical relation to the non-Jew, the extension of equality and justice, and the refusal to keep silent in the face of egregrious wrongs.


But let me return to the question of whether boycott politics undermines collaborative ventures, or opens them up. My wager is that the minute you come out in favor of some boycott, divestment or sanctions strategy, Udi, you will have many collaborators among Palestinians. I think many people fear that the boycott is against collaboration, but in fact Israelis have the power to produce enormous collaborative networks if they agree that they will use their public power, their cultural power, to oppose the occupation through the most powerful non-violent means available. Things change the minute you say, “We cannot continue to act as normal.”


The boycott is not just about saying “no” – it is also a way to give shape to one’s work, to make alliances, and to insist on international norms of justice. To work to the side of the problem of the occupation is to participate in its normalization. And the way that normalization works is to efface or distort that reality within public discourse. As a result, neutrality is not an option.

So we’re boycotting normalization.

That’s what we’re boycotting. We are against normalization. And you know what, there are going to be many tactics for disrupting the normalization of the occupation. Some of us will be well-equipped to intervene with images and words, and others will continue demonstrations and other forms of cultural and political statements. The question is not what your passport says (if you have a passport), but what you do. We are talking about what happens in the activity itself. Does it disrupt and contest the normalization of the occupation?