“other sorts of values and political aspirations”

by tobybee

In a presentation upstairs in a bar in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago, Israeli activist Micha Kurz, when asked by an audience member what we in Melbourne could do to support anti-Occupation work in Israel/Palestine, said that we all needed to take care of what is happening on our own blocks. So, just as G4S (the “largest private militia in the world”) is running prisons in Israel, imprisoning Palestinians, so too are they running prisons and immigration detention centres in Australia. We live today, as is quite evident, in a global economy, and so targeting companies where we live will have an impact on these companies wherever they work.

In this way, it seems to me, Micha — who was on a speaking tour of Australia with Sahar Vardi, an activist and refusenik – was asking us to conceptualise of ourselves not just as people with shared interests, but people whose interests were intertwined or interlinked. I think here of the work of Michael Rothberg on multidirectional memory. Rothberg, in his 2009 book of the same name, argues for a form of memory that does not see the interactions between collective memories held by different groups as competitive – “as a zero-sum struggle over scarce resources” – but rather as “illustrat[ing] the productive, intercultural dynamic” of memory (3). Starting with memories of the Holocaust—as indeed so much of modern-day Jewish collective memory seems to—Rothberg brings together different memories of different events. He shows us that to remember persecutions ethically is to remember them as intertwined. And thus when discussing the fear that seems to characterise Israeli society today, Sahar, in her talks, would often point to the Holocaust as a motivating factor. It is, we know well, held up as a key reason why Israel, Israelis, and many Jews worldwide, feel that Jewish existence in the world should be characterized by fear. But, on the contrary, Sahar was suggesting, in a way reminiscent of Rothberg, that instead of Israeli collective memory of the Holocaust needing to produce fear, it could be redirected into a collaborative approach: into a sense that victims of persecution can stand, and remember, together. In this way, Rothberg, Micha and Sahar are pointing us to, I think, a form of thinking about world-wide collaboration and disruption which is diasporic. It calls on us to recognise the ways in which we are implicated in each others lives: we don’t exist in isolation from each other.

And indeed, thinking the implications of this implicatedness through is part of the project of Judith Butler’s new work, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. In her introduction Butler asks us to ponder the nationalist/fascist idea that we can choose who we live with. This is the motivation behind the guarding of borders, the policing of migrants, the destruction of indigenous communities. It was the motivation, the belief, that structured the Holocaust: that the Nazis and their collaborators could decide next to whom they would live. It is, Butler argues, the structuring force of the way that Israeli treats the Palestinians: they can be pushed to the side because there is a belief that a choice can be made not to live next to, or with, another person. Butler writes at one point that “for those who extrapolated principles of justice from the historical experience of internment and dispossession”—and here we hear a ringing of Rothberg’s idea of the interlinking of memories which constructs a multidirectional memory—“the political aim is to extend equality regardless of cultural background or formation, across languages and religions, to those none of us ever chose (or did not recognize that we chose) and with whom we have an enduring obligation to find a way to live” (24). To put it another way: if our experience is of someone not wanting to live with us to extent that we would face total destruction and annihilation, then surely we have some sort of historical and ethical responsibility to figure out how to live with others whom we did not choose to live with. Just as we do not choose them, so we are not chosen, as Butler continues: “we are nevertheless unchosen together” (25). Instead of this being a limit on our lives, it could contain a “radical potential for new modes of sociality and politics” (24).

In this vein, elsewhere Butler writes, “I’m trying to understand how the exilic—or more emphatically, the diasporic—is built into the idea of the Jewish (not analytically, but historically, that is, over time); in this sense, to ‘be’ a Jew is to be departing from oneself, cast out into a world of the non-Jew, bound to make one’s way ethically and politically precisely there within a world of irreversible heterogeneity” (15). We can take issue with her offering a precise definition of what it is to be a Jew—I don’t know how helpful it is to offer gatekeeper statements like that—but agree, as I do, with it as an aspirational comment, or a comment on the kinds of Jews that we want to be associated with. I like this idea, offered by Butler, writing in the shadow of many other diasporic Jewish writers, that to be Jewish is to live in collaboration, and to be implicated in others’ lives and identities, as they are implicated in mine.

This is, I think, one message that Sahar and Micha were offering to us in their talks. As they spoke of rebellion against a militarised state, as they talked about their work with different grassroots communities, as they offered a condemnation of the ‘facts on the ground’ that the Israeli government and the settler movement are pursuing, they were asking us all to think about how we choose to live: do we live in collaboration, or do we live in isolation?