Butler reframes identity in Zionism debate

Philosopher Judith Butler spoke to Vassar on April 9 in the Villard Room. She discussed the complexities of Zionist and anti-Zionist identities in light of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Photo By: Wikimedia
Philosopher Judith Butler spoke to Vassar on April 9 in the Villard Room. She discussed the complexities of Zionist and anti-Zionist identities in light of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Photo By: Wikimedia
Philosopher Judith Butler spoke to Vassar on April 9 in the Villard Room. She discussed the
complexities of Zionist and anti-Zionist identities in light of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Photo By: Wikimedia

During her lecture on Monday April 9, 2013, Judith Butler framed her discussion around a seemingly straightforward question: ‘What does it mean to be a Zionist?’ The talk, entitled ‘Martin Buber’s Two Zionisms and the Question of Palestine,’ dove headfirst into complicating this query. Butler discussed the often-polarizing identities of Zionist and Anti-Zionist within the Israel-Palestine conflict in conjunction with 20th century existentialist philosopher Martin Buber’s idea of dialogic ethics. Butler dissected the notion that to be Zionist means simply to believe in the right of the Israeli state to exist.

“What I’m offering is an experiment in thought—trying to go forwards by going backwards,” she said. Buber, who is best known for his book I and Thou, emphasized the importance of dialogue and encounter in human existence. The I-Thou relationship hinges on the codependent, mutual experiences of life between people. Pulling from this basic symbiotic understanding, Butler quoted Buber: “One human should treat another not as an object, but as someone who can be addressed directly and with whom a form of communication considered spiritual might take place.”

Cory Epstein ’13, a Political Science and Jewish Studies double major who spent last year studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explained of the lecture, “She located an earlier Jewish memory to inform the Jewish present. Memory plays a major role in biblical and contemporary Judaism.”

Butler applied Buber’s thinking to the Zionist identity, citing Buber’s two definitions of Zionism. One stresses a spiritual renewal, restoration, and purification of the Israeli people—a return to the true Israel. The other defines rebirth as a process of normalization that utilizes the established ideas of nationalism and the nation state. Buber, who advocated the former, spiritual definition, exhibited a commitment to dialogue, one with which Butler aligned herself in her critique of nationalist sovereignty. To extend sovereignty exclusively to the Jewish people, she argued, would necessarily exclude the lives of two peoples—the I and the Thou. “Sovereignty at the expense of cohabitation is unjust,” she explained.

Critical to Butler’s questioning of Zionism is the need to historicize and acknowledge the spectrum of Zionist and Non-Zionist identities currently at play. “Indeed I want to suggest to you that when we engage in debates about Zionism today, we have to ask ourselves, which version of Zionism is at issue among us,” she said. Debating Zionism is both an interesting and difficult charge, she explained, because many people are assured they understand the concept’s meaning and importance. However, Butler challenged this certainty, arguing that the limits and overlaps of Zionist and Non-Zionist thought are often left neglected. She posed the possibility of both favoring a radical transformation of the Jewish state and calling oneself a Zionist. Does this type of transformation exist within or outside the parameters of Zionism? Or, she suggested, perhaps even the corollary of a Zionism that once was.

In expanding and obscuring the definition of Zionism, Butler questions the connotations of identifying as a non-Zionist. She challenged the tendency to associate ideas of anti-semitism with non-Zionism, arguing, “There is a difference between anti-semitism, which relies of false and demeaning images of the Jewish people, and a political opposition to the state of Israel in it’s current form.” These two projects have been conflated to a polarizing and even violent degree. Butler explained that to criticize violence and militarization in the current Israeli state must not be read as a threat of destruction to the Jewish people.

Although Butler did argue that a struggle for democracy in Israel is not equivalent to anti-Semitic acts, she also stressed the incredible need to document and memorialize the Holocaust. She took profound issue with the cynicism and skepticism that often accompanies this discussion. She firmly stated, “It won’t do to simply say, oh there goes the Holocaust discourse again.” Such thinking, she argued, is a repercussion of mainstream instrumentalization of the Holocaust as a political or rhetorical ploy. “Anti-semitism has to remain a very serious charge,” she noted.

Butler would aruge that to crystallize an identity or belief system of individuals who identify as Zionist or others who do not identify as such is utterly impossible. What she called for in a closing that could justly be applied to all fraught political and cultural conflicts, is the need for a world in which we are open enough to hear each other: “I’m trying to argue against forms of cynicism that get in the way of any being able to be heard at all,” she said.

In thinking about his experience abroad, Epstein testified to the proclivity to shut off dialogue: “[Israelis and Palestinians] treat each other as objects, either an “occupier” or “terrorist”,  because there are few if any safe spaces in the city for Israelis and Palestinians to meet on an equal level and understand each other beyond these stereotypical labels.”

Recalling Buber, Butler suggests the need for a living set of relations among people involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict, especially considering the irony of polarizing two groups that are hardly two, but rather multiple in their nations of origin, states of dislocation and exile. She concluded by quoting Buber once more: “For Buber it would seem a Jewish ethic has to be Jewish and non-Jewish to be ethical at all. That implies living in proximity with others under a condition of equality and difference,” she explained, adding, “The condition of reciprocal dependency is the condition of renewing and repairing the world.”

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