Deconstructing Zionism: A Critique

By David LloydAugust 17, 2014

Deconstructing Zionism by Gianni Vattimo and Michael Marder

DECONSTRUCTING ZIONISM: A Critique of Political Metaphysics, a new collection of essays by Gianni Vattimo and Michael Marder, is both timely and necessary. Over the past year, and before the recent crisis in Gaza, academic associations, student groups, religious organizations, and even the Bill Gates Foundation had already taken direct action, ranging from academic boycott to divestment, against Israel and some of the corporations that sustain it. Their actions have occasioned furious public debate, including in these pages. The book is necessary because, at a time when the often overheated nature of this debate has led to attempts to suppress any critique of Zionism, Deconstructing Zionism proposes a moment of stepping back from immediate political engagement in order to reflect. Reflection is not, of course, the same thing as detachment, and its editors take a strong position: “Deconstructing Zionism is a matter of urgency," Vattimo and Marder write, "because the past, present, and future victims of Zionist oppression demand justice.” The essays gathered here, they say, are “practical and political interventions, responding to the singular demands of justice.” 

Many readers will no doubt question the practicality of the essays, if only because few of them present what one might call a practical proposal. Rather, most address the questions Zionism provokes — whether ethical or political — in somewhat abstracted terms. Still, the project of deconstructing Zionism retains its force and its urgency. Zionism has increasingly become the leading alibi for a series of illiberal measures to suppress freedom of speech in the United States and globally, as the book’s introduction ably explains in its anticipation of the many predictable objections (anti-Semitism first among them) that any critique of Zionism faces. It is time for a volume that interrogates the contradictions between a political philosophy that pretends to sustain a liberal democracy (the “only democracy”!) in the Middle East while indulging in legal and political coercion abroad and practicing apartheid policies domestically. Deconstruction, and here I agree with the editors, is one way to show that such contradictions are intrinsic to Zionism in its very being. 


If Deconstructing Zionism is a necessary book, it’s nonetheless an odd one. The first of its oddities is how few of the essays actually practice deconstruction, despite contributions from such critical theory luminaries as Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek, Luce Irigaray, and Walter Mignolo. The editors define deconstruction somewhat ambiguously, first as “a radical ideology critique,” and then as “something more than a good old ideology critique: it is a critique of ‘the metaphysics of presence.’” Of course, the “original and unitary character” of presence that enables certain ideas — “God, the subject, Spirit, and so on” — can be subjected to critique, evidently enough, in other ways, through Marx or Foucault for example. What signals the procedures of deconstruction is, as the editors acknowledge, its elaboration of the “porosity” of the super- and sub-ordinated categories, and of the reversibility of the binary hierarchies that distinguish and valorize them, together with its emphasis on the “dissemination” or dispersal of signification rather than its unitariness.

Zionism’s insistence on presence makes it exactly the sort of belief system that deconstruction so usefully examines. Indeed, Walter Mignolo’s essay spells out some reasons why: Zionism’s roots grow from 19th-century European nationalism, and govern both its corresponding emphasis on the unity of a Jewish people and its emphasis on returning to the origin, the end of diaspora. Surely no better example of a faith in the “eternal, immutable, originary and unitary character” of a people and its spirit could be found?

And yet, for the most part, the essays in this volume seem to sidestep the task of “deconstructing Zionism” that the volume’s title promises it will undertake. This is not to say that the volume lacks substance: its essays, between them, offer a valuable discussion of key issues: of Palestinian dispossession (Žižek and Mignolo), of Zionism’s colonial roots that underlie Israel’s ongoing settlement of Palestinian land (Mignolo), of how anti-Semitism and the Holocaust became alibis for suppressing anti-Israeli critique (Žižek and Marc Ellis), and of how the European left came to understand Zionism as antifascism rather than as an extension of colonialism (Vattimo). But despite these valuable studies, the essays share a certain tentativeness about deconstructing Zionism in the stricter sense of the term. Too many of the essays here simply offer an empirical criticism of Zionism-in-practice, or only partially engage how Zionist logics produced Israeli state practices. In this, the essays strangely resemble liberal Zionist critiques of Israeli policies, which eagerly target specific excesses of the state while refusing to acknowledge the fundamental problem with the “Jewish State”: that exclusionary states can never, in fact, be democratic. Yet — as the creative contortions of these liberal Zionists time and again demonstrate — the situation in Israel calls precisely for a consistent deconstruction of Zionist discourse. The way in which Zionism envelops racial exclusivity in the fabric of emancipation, and settler colonial apartheid in the guise of democracy and civil rights, cries out, indeed, for deconstruction.

Despite the editors’ robust anticipation of the charge of anti-Semitism, it is difficult not to sense a continuing anxiety regarding any critique of what seems a singularly Jewish political philosophy and enterprise. Marc Ellis’s discussion of how this dilemma functions for “Jews of Conscience” (his somewhat polemic name for Jewish critics of Israel) surely redounds with even greater force on the non-Jewish critic of Israel and Zionism:

It may be that the historical situation of Israel’s existence is too complex and immediate for Jews of Conscience to probe. It may be that the sheer existence of Israel makes theoretical work less compelling. At the end of the day, the political opposition to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state may be too involved to dabble in the philosophical identity underpinnings of contemporary Jewish life. There is then the Holocaust and the perception at least in Europe and the United States that opposition to Israel and Zionism is anti-Semitic.

Such scruples, as well as the debt to what Vattimo calls “the richness of Jewish culture and its distinct presence in the spirit of the West and the modern world in general,” may explain why so many of the essays circle around but do not engage with the deconstruction of Zionism — to do so, the writers seem to fear, might be mistaken for deconstructing Judaism

In one fascinating essay, for example, Christopher Wise critiques Jacques Derrida for claiming the singularity of the Jewish conception of spirit or Ruah, arguing that it derives from Afro-Egyptian philosophical concepts and from traditions and myths about blood-purity that originated in Egyptian culture. Though Wise’s essay traces an interesting genealogy for the notion of blood-purity that may underlie Israel’s ethnically exclusive state, Zionism remains beyond the parameters of the essay. By the same token, Žižek’s essay discusses in passing the distinction between the high visibility of occasional Palestinian violence and the ongoing structural or state violence Israel inflicts on Palestine, but does not directly engage with Zionism as a philosophical and political project. Luce Irigaray (in an execrably and unidiomatically translated essay) concludes the volume, proposing that civil rights predicated on “sexuate embodiment” and “a feminine practice of hospitality” might enable peace. These are undoubtedly attractive prospects, but surely unviable in the context of the institutionalization of Zionism in a violent and constitutionally patriarchal state. 

This tactful avoidance, if avoidance it is, of the proposed task of deconstructing Zionism, may yet have deeper causes than political anxiety. It may lie not only in the nature of Zionism, but also in that of deconstruction itself. What if deconstruction is, in the sense that Derrida tentatively unfolds with regard to psychoanalysis in Archive Fever, “a Jewish science”? This is not to affirm that Derrida, the arche-deconstructionist, was himself a Zionist, liberal or otherwise, though Ranjana Khanna recalls, in an epigraph that cites his “Abraham, the Other,” his ambiguous insistence on “the still exemplary phenomenon that is the state of Israel.” Neither Derrida’s individual Jewishness nor his adherence or disaffection from the state of Israel is what is in question in pressing the relation of deconstruction to Jewishness, to Judaism, or finally to Zionism, none of which can ever be in any simple way identified with one another. Wise presses the issue at stake more bluntly, if in a rather vertiginous cascade of guilt by associational logic: 

The exalted status accorded to the concept of the messianic in Derrida’s later writings, both in its overtly theological sense as historical “messianism” and in its allegedly more “neutral” or universal sense as “messianicity”, reinforces troubling mythologies of blood nobility that are influential not only among messianic Zionists in Israel and the Occupied Territories but also among militant and fundamentalist Christians in the US.

Clearly there are forms of messianism (or messianicity) that are not bound up with myths of blood purity (one need think only of the leftist “messianism” of Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”), as there are forms of Zionism that are at odds with the religious messianic impulse, as Jacqueline Rose amply demonstrates in her brilliant The Question of Zion. Yet Wise touches on the difficult matter at hand: the intimate ways in which deconstruction both rehearses and problematizes the intimate interweaving of Jewishness, Judaism, and Zionism.

What is it that Derrida says of messianicity? Parsing this point might help us see why deconstructing Zionism might feel all too much like deconstructing deconstruction. In Archive Fever, Derrida writes of the “question of the archive” that: 

It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive: if we want to know what that will have meant we will only know in times to come, later on or perhaps never. A spectral messianicity is at work in the concept of the archive and ties it, like religion, like history, like science itself, to a very singular experience of the promise. 

Messianicity operates on the archive and the futures it projects much as “historicity” works to brush the grain of history against itself, troubling any confident assertion of its coherence or progressive movement. Messianicity is not, as Derrida goes on to say, identical with messianism, the belief in the realization of the Messiah’s promised coming or return. But it is tied to the singularity of a promise and a responsibility. This singular ethical relation to the future is what defines Jewishness for Derrida:

The being-Jewish and the being-open-toward-the-future would be the same thing, the same unique thing, the same thing as uniqueness — and they would not be dissociable the one from the other. To be open toward the future would be to be Jewish. And vice-versa. And in exemplary fashion. It would be not only to have a future, to be capable of anticipation, etc., a shared aptitude whose universality could appear to be indisputable, but to be in relation to the future as such, and to hold one’s identity, reflect it, declare it, announce it to oneself, only out of what comes from the future to come. 

This singular relation of Jewishness to the advent, the à venir, of the future, rather than the Zionist call to return to the place of origins, distinguishes messianicity from messianism. But it simultaneously bespeaks the no less intimate linking of both deconstruction and Jewishness to the concept of justice that is, as the editors remind us, identical with deconstruction itself: “Deconstruction is justice,” as Derrida announced in “Force of Law.”[i] Justice, as opposed to the Law (Droit, or Right, Recht), is not realized in decision or in institution, but is always that which has yet to come, that which remains à venir.

This intimate linking of deconstruction, Jewishness, and justice in Derrida’s thought thus gives a peculiar edge to the injunction that informs this volume, that “to deconstruct Zionism […] is to demand justice for its victims,” or, to cite Ellis, “a deconstruction of Zionism must take place. Justice demands it.” This demand hovers uneasily between a more or less empirical demand to set things right, to honor the rights of the victims, and a larger, philosophical interrogation of the ethical singularity that ties Jewishness to justice and lies at the heart of deconstruction itself. 

In different ways, several of Deconstructing Zionism’s writers approach these issues. Ellis, perhaps somewhat anxiously, teases at them, recognizing the degree to which questions about “a future for Jewish life” have historically been answered by geographical location in the state of Israel. In doing so, he reads the “promise,” the supposed covenant with God that legitimates Jewish possession of the land of Israel, as a kind of messianic realization that another Jewish tradition, that of ethical prophecy, opposes:

Paradoxically, what threatens Jewish empowerment is the prophetic impulse which Jews have so often applied to others who commit injustice. […] If applied within an empowered Jewish community as it was in its biblical origins, the prophetic impulse endangers the State of Israel. 

But if this prophetic impulse “demands an accounting of Zionism and the State of Israel,” it is limited to the horizon of historical rectification: it would demand “a detailed historical accounting of what Jews have done to Palestine and Palestinians, and thus to Jewish ethics and Jewish destiny,” but not necessarily a deconstruction of Zionism or of its ethnocratic state. That “accounting” might still be undertaken within the framework of a reformed Zionism or of a state of Israel that respected somewhat better the rights of its “minority” population. As Ellis’s essay hints, the lack of unity in Jewish traditions has high stakes, and Judith Butler’s essay gives the clearest account of why. Her essay, “Is Judaism Zionism?,” which some readers will recognize as a chapter from her recent book, Parting Ways, does not so much deconstruct Zionism as the link that Zionism persistently affirms between Israel and “the Jewish people,” making it the only state that claims to represent a people not composed of its actual citizens. For Butler, Jewish ethics are predicated not on the project, messianic or not, of a “return” to the historical homeland, but precisely on the scattering, or diaspora, of the Jews:

The point is not simply to scatter geographically, but to derive a set of principles from scattered existence that can serve a new conception of political justice. That conception would entail a fair doctrine on the rights of refugees and a critique of nationalist modes of state violence that sustain the occupation, land confiscation, and the political imprisonment and exile of Palestinians. It would also imply a notion of cohabitation whose condition of emergence would be the end of settler colonialism.

Scattering or exile thus produces — in Butler’s reading of Hannah Arendt — a peculiar ethical disposition, such that “‘to belong’ is to undergo a dispossession from the category of Jewishness, a formula as promising as it is paradoxical.” The essay affirms Jewishness to be “an anti-identitarian project” directly opposing Zionism’s arrogation to itself the singular destiny of representing all Jewish people globally. This claim is what Michael Marder describes as “the global synecdoche of Israeli Jews for the whole of the Jewish people [which] hinges upon the metaphysical unity that, for the Zionists, finds its embodiment in the place of Zion and its political expression, the Israeli State.” Against this “unwholesome substitution,” Marder, like Butler, poses the diaspora, linking it back directly to the deconstructive concept of dissemination. Dissemination, or diaspora,which embodies “the argument that the origin is not one,” has been “the implicit sine qua non of Derrida’s deconstruction of Western metaphysics” and equally the converse of Zionism’s “gathering of the diaspora in the imperial palace of Zion,” and of affirming the “higher unity” of the Jewish people in “this Messianic mission” of return. 

These essays affirm most strongly Marder and Vattimo’s introductory assertion that “just as deconstruction is the possibility of justice, so it is the necessity of diaspora.” It becomes clear in the essays that do most fully engage in deconstructing Zionism that this entails asserting an alternative conception of Jewishness, a conception that refuses to link Jewishness with a land or a state and ties it instead to the diaspora and its radically “anti-identitarian” possibilities. Ironically, this perspective reveals Zionism to be less the culmination of Jewish history than the most effective destruction of Judaism. As Gil Anidjar puts it in “Mal de Sionisme,” in a passage cited by Khanna, “Zionism is the end of Judaism”: 

Following a strict logic of the supplement, Zionism simultaneously adds to and substitutes for Judaism. To the extent that it calls for the end of exile […], to the extent that it that it embodies what Levinas has described as a way of “escaping or renouncing the fact of diaspora,” Zionism also has a profoundly negative, even destructive, rapport with Judaism, a rapport that asserts itself most forcefully in the polemical rhetoric that repeatedly equates the Jews with the state of Israel […].

Deconstructing Zionism and asserting an alternative tradition of Judaism are thus inseparable from both justice and dissemination, as deconstruction itself has elaborated those terms.

This is, of course, by no means a new argument, important as it is. It is one that has been lived by Jewish activists associated with groups like Jewish Voice for Peace or the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, those “Jews of Conscience” who consistently question Israel and its policies, and who reject the legitimacy of Zionist claims to monopolize the representation of a “Jewish people.” It was already outlined philosophically and succinctly in Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin’s classic essay of 1993, “Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity,” which pithily remarked that “political possession of the Land most threatened the possibility of continued Jewish cultural practice and difference.”[ii]

In that essay, the Boyarins argued prospectively the logical probability of “an as yet unrealized but necessary theoretical compatibility between Zionist ideology and the fascism of state ethnicity.” What may have seemed scandalous in such an assertion 20 years ago now seems, with the increasing rightward tendency of Israeli society as a whole, a sober assessment in tune with the great anticolonial theorist Albert Memmi’s general analysis of how settler colonial societies drift toward rigidification and fascism.[iii] But of more importance is the Boyarins’ recognition of the typicalness of Israel as a colonial or racial state. Zionism has always worked to its benefit the paradox of claiming simultaneously that Israel is a “normal” democratic state, endowed with sovereignty and the right to inflict violence, and that it is an exception, both in terms of its Messianic destiny and in terms of its right to impose a permanent state of exception upon its Palestinian subjects. As the State of Israel continues to annex land internationally recognized as Palestinian, and perforce incorporates an increasing number of Palestinian subjects, it remains to be seen how long this contradiction can continue before the simple demand that Israel live up to its pretensions to be a normal or exemplary democracy comes into contradiction with its exclusionary, ethnic constitution. 

Butler and others in this volume may be correct to forecast that only accepting an ethics of cohabitation can bring about a just resolution and an end to Israel’s settler colonial — and certainly not democratic — domination of Palestine. Such an ethic is thinkable, following Butler, through the experience of diaspora, though not only as an experience of scattering but also as an experience of what Žižek calls “their subtraction from every state power.” This “position of the ‘part of no-part’ in every organic nation-state community” (the antithesis of the Zionist “synecdoche”) is, for him, what makes Jews “the immediate embodiment of universality,” even if, as a position that becomes critical of the state of Israel, as of all nation-states, it also shapes the “uncanny Jew” who is the object of “Zionist anti-Semitism.” In this understanding, the Jew historically has occupied the position that Santiago Zabala identifies as that of the “discharged,” the marginalized remainders of state formation or of identity who are disidentified from its projects or, now indeed, from global capitalism. The discharged are the parti pris of deconstruction, and to deconstruct Zionism is to take on their position. 

Fully considering this position’s implications has dramatic ramifications: in essence, the effect of Zionism’s destruction of Judaism is to make of the Palestinians the Jews of the present, dispossessed, forced into exile, deprived of statehood, part of no-part, exemplary subjects of a continuing diaspora, even within Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The singularity of the Jew transfers to the Palestinians. They are, as Mignolo asserts, “in the middle of the struggle at the heart of the crisis of the form nation-state and the possibility of its dismantling,” in the “privileged” critical position, that is, once occupied by the European Jew.

It is from this position that Palestinians, even against any aspiration for statehood and normal national existence, embody and carry forward the possibility, according to Butler, Arendt limned, that of “undoing sovereignty” and of imagining polities or socialities that would exceed the post-Westphalian formation of territorial states and sanctioned violence. This possibility isn’t foreign to currents within the Jewish-Palestinian tradition, as Marder’s fascinating instance of the anarchist and pacifist Nathan Chofshi shows. It entails imagining “a place of co-existence outside the exclusive purview of a single identity, or, indeed, of any identity; a place of ultimate hospitality beyond the rigidity of the nation-state.” It demands envisioning a space of non-sovereignty and of uncoerced dispossession, a space removed from the siege mentality that so deeply characterizes settler colonial polities everywhere and that justifies the disproportionate violence of every response to resistance. It is to think decolonization not in the paranoid framework of mutual expulsion and genocidal fantasies, but in the parameters of living with and in difference that Butler describes as cohabitation. That is a project that demands of us all — and not only of the Jewish citizens of Israel or of Zionist Jews anywhere — the capacity to imagine otherwise and to enter into the possibilities of a non coercive cohabitation. 

To recognize that is to have to ask, and not for the first time, why a volume dedicated to the deconstruction of Zionism should itself perpetuate the disappearance of Palestinian perspectives. Why is it that, in a book dedicated to both justice and dissemination, not only is not a single Palestinian writer included, but also not a single Palestinian or even Arab voice is invoked? Deconstructing Zionism cannot be the privilege of Jewish intellectuals, or even of intellectuals committed to traditions of Jewish thought, any more than decolonization itself can be the work of the settler. It would be dismaying to conclude that the limit of a deconstructive approach to Zionism is given in advance by the very intellectual heritage that deconstruction claimed as its singular and exemplary archive. But the failure to engage with the positions of a single member of what may be the most “discharged” of populations in our moment, subject to dispossession, bombardment, displacement, and incarceration on a daily basis, suggests that the internal critique of Zionism’s contradictions is not now, and never has been, a sufficient response to Israel’s colonial enterprise. No effective political cohabitation will ever emerge absent the conditions of a genuine intellectual cohabitation. For all its value, the sad truth is that this volume perpetuates what is, in an ugly but useful expression, the invisibilization of the Palestinians. Ironically, such a blindness entails everything that, at least in principle, deconstruction should have revealed.


David Lloyd is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, and a founding member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.



[i] Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority,’” in Drucilla Cornell, Michael Rosenfeld, David Grey Carlson, eds., Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 15. 

[ii] Daniel Boyarin and Jonathan Boyarin, “Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity,” Critical Inquiry 19 (Summer 1993), p. 719.

[iii] Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre, trans. Howard Greenfield (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967).

LARB Contributor

David Lloyd is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, and a founding member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. He has published numerous articles on Palestine and Israel, including “Settler Colonialism and the State of Exception: The Example of Israel/Palestine” in The Journal of Settler Colonial Studies and, with Malini Johar Schueller, an essay on the rationale for the academic boycott of Israel in the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom. Lloyd works primarily on Irish culture and on postcolonial and cultural theory. His most recent book is Irish Culture and Colonial Modernity: The Transformation of Oral Space (Cambridge University Press, 2011). 


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