Deconstruction, Religion, Politics

By Olivia HarrisonDecember 21, 2013

Living Together: Jacques Derrida’s Communities of Violence and Peace by Elisabeth Weber

TEN YEARS AGO, the philosopher best known as the inventor of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, gave his last public address in the United States. He would die of cancer less than a year later. The occasion for this talk, now published for the first time in English translation, was a conference on Derrida and religion, organized by Elisabeth Weber and Thomas Carlson at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Of the 14 essays published alongside Derrida’s “Avowing — The Impossible: ‘Returns,’ Repentance, and Reconciliation” in Living Together, only Gil Anidjar’s and Dana Hollander’s were delivered at the October 2003 conference. The remaining pieces, by academics (Ellen T. Armour, A. R. Bjerke, Kevin Hart, Priya Kumar, Joseph Massad, Marc Nichanian, William Robert, Sherene Seikaly) as well as activist lawyers (Raef Zreik, Richard Falk) and writers (Michal Ben Naftali, Michal Govrin, Atar Hadari), were commissioned as responses to Derrida’s essay. Capitalizing on the renewed scholarly interest in religion and the recent political turn in Derrida scholarship, the UCSB conference and the collection it inspired interrogate the ways in which Derrida’s writings on religion might help us understand and address recent and ongoing conflicts — most central among these, Israel-Palestine — that have been cast as religious. Though the contributors take different positions on the usefulness of Derrida’s thinking in approaching this highly contested space, this collection offers a fresh and welcome take on the political potential — and, for some, the political limits — of deconstruction.

First delivered in Jerusalem at conference of French-speaking Jewish intellectuals gathered to discuss the question “How to Live Together?” in 1998, “Avowing — The Impossible” displays what we have come to know as Derrida’s “late style,” to borrow the phrase of literary critic Edward Said: a personal meditation firmly rooted in the speaker’s memories (his Algerian childhood), the place of address (Jerusalem), and his interlocutors (Francophone Jews, as well as Israelis, Palestinians, and others). Born in French-ruled Algeria in 1930, Derrida published several texts on his experience growing up as a colonized “native Jew,” most notably “Circumfession,” published in a book co-authored with Geoffrey Bennington (1991), and Monolingualism of the Other (1996). During the same period, he also began to write about Israel-Palestine, often grounding his interventions in his experience of French colonial rule and European anti-Semitism.

Though in “Avowing — The Impossible” Derrida cites a wide range of examples to illustrate this phenomenon — ranging from the United States after genocide and slavery to Chile, Argentina, and post-reconciliation South Africa — his main concern is Israel-Palestine, and the possibility for living together in that contested space. In order to approach this fraught topic, he draws — perhaps surprisingly — on another site of conflict: colonial Algeria. Rehearsing the by then well known facts of his early life, Derrida compares his experience of “living together” with “the Algerian communities — the Arab, Berber, French of Algeria” to that of living together in Jerusalem, “West to East.”

“Circumfession,” the first text in which Derrida openly wrestles with the autobiographical (he insisted that he has always done so covertly), begins sketching some of the elements that contributed to Derrida’s skepticism vis-à-vis community. In a series of paragraph-long meditations on Saint Augustine’s Confessions (59 “periods,” each composed of a single, long sentence), Derrida alludes, for the first time, to his expulsion from a French school as a result of the numerus clausus, the quotas governing the number of Jewish pupils in public schools. In the curriculum vitae that follows “Circumfession,” Derrida reminds us that not only did the Vichy (Nazi collaborationist) regime in France volunteer to apply the Jewish statutes in Algeria (the Germans did not give them directives to do so), it also applied them much more extensively in Algeria than in the metropolis.

Derrida elaborates on the implications of colonial exclusion in Monolingualism of the Other, the text that most clearly explains what his friend the Moroccan writer Abdelkebir Khatibi, one of Derrida’s interlocutors in this essay, neatly sums up as the parallels between deconstruction and decolonization. Drawing on his experience as an assimilated colonial subject, Derrida theorizes what he calls the “double interdict” as paradigmatic of language in general. Growing up in French Algeria, Derrida was (on the one hand) compelled to speak French in school rather than any other Algerian language — Arabic, Hebrew, or Berber — which were banned to various degrees. (Arabic was classified as a “foreign” language.) As an assimilated Jew, Derrida in any case could not speak these other languages — languages that should have been “his.” Yet (on the other hand), as a “native” Jew, he couldn’t become fully French either — an impossibility that was illustrated when the collaborationist Vichy regime took it upon itself to exclude Jews from French schools, the liberal professions, and French citizenship itself. Having been decreed French in 1870, the Jews of Algeria were banned from French citizenship from 1940 to 1943. This excommunication revealed that the French language and French identity were fundamentally inaccessible to him. Banned from speaking the indigenous languages of Algeria, neither could he claim French as his language. It is in this sense that Derrida was the object of a “double interdict.”

Derrida comes back to the particularities of colonial anti-Semitism in Monolingualism of the Other, where he also explains that it was in a French school that he was made to learn the difference between Jews and Arabs. “Very near and infinitely far away, such was the distance that we were forced — if that’s the right word — to experience.” It is when he became the object of racism in colonial Algeria — when he was excommunicated from the French citizenship and civilization bestowed upon the Jews, but not the Muslims, of Algeria by the 1870 Crémieux decree and attendant processes of assimilation — that he came to understand, for the first time, the dangers of community and the exclusions it necessarily entails. Derrida was ill at ease in the makeshift Jewish schools that were set up in the wake of the numerus clausus — how could he not be, as an assimilated colonial subject? — and in “Circumfession” and other texts (“Abraham, the Other”), he explains that his “impatience with gregarious identification” is at the root of his distrust of all communities, including Jewish ones.

“Avowing — The Impossible” takes aim, specifically, at “a certain communitarianism, a certain Zionism, a certain nationalism.” With this text, Derrida adds his voice to a growing chorus of Jewish thinkers who have interrogated their relationship to Zionism and to the state that claims to speak for all Jews: Martin Buber, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and, most recently, Judith Butler. Unlike these dissident voices, however, Derrida’s is rooted not only in Jewishness, but also in his experience of European colonialism. For him, this experience is the starting point for any reflection on Zionism and Israel:

It pushes the said child [Derrida] not only to oppose, sometimes publicly, the politics of the current Israeli government and of a great number of those that preceded it, but also to continue to interrogate himself in the most insomniac fashion regarding the conditions in which the modern state of Israel established itself.

Derrida extrapolates from the foundational violence of the establishment of Israel to make a much larger claim: “any juridico-political founding of a ‘living together’ is, by essence, violent, since it inaugurates there where a law [droit] did not yet exist. [...] No state has ever been founded without this violence, whatever form and whatever time it might have taken.” This generalization is not intended to let Israel off the hook, however. Instead, Derrida wonders

whether the founding of the modern state of Israel [...] could be no more than an example among others of this originary violence from which no state can escape, or whether, because this modern state intended not to be a state like others, it had to appear before another law and appeal to another justice.

In other words, is Israel (and should Israel remain) a state like any other, founded in violence? Or, because it claims exceptional status, because it was founded as a state to end all violence, is it, should it instead seek to be a non-violent, non-exclusionary state?

Despite Gil Anidjar’s faithful translation of Derrida’s text, some critics have misconstrued these statements as proof that Derrida was normalizing — worse, justifying — Israeli state violence. In his contribution to Living Together, the Palestinian-Israeli lawyer and rights advocate Raef Zreik argues that “Derrida distances himself from Zionism in the same manner that he distances himself from any other form of communitarianism or nationalism,” leading to the foreclosure of any “conceptual space that allows us at once to accept nationalism [for example for the purpose of achieving national sovereignty] and reject Zionism [as a colonial venture].” Unlike Zreik, who stops shy of accusing Derrida of legitimating Israel, Joseph Massad claims in his response essay that he “seems to have opted for normalizing Israel among the nations.” Derrida does so by recourse to the “Abrahamic” — according to Massad, a Judeo-Christian and not a Muslim notion — evacuating the political, indeed the colonial, nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by characterizing it as a millennial struggle over the holy land. Massad’s main point of contention with the Abrahamic — a loose concept Derrida has often invoked to gesture toward, and by the same token forestall, the rift between Jews and Muslims — is that it disguises a political conflict in religious terms, flirting dangerously with a “clash of civilizations”–type discourse and with the ethnicization of religion that is the hallmark of modern racism, from 19th century anti-Semitism to contemporary Islamophobia. If this is true — and invocations of religious difference can indeed muddy the political waters — what do we make of Derrida’s comparison between French Algeria and Israel?

A detour by way of language might prove instructive. Speaking to his fellow French-language Jewish intellectuals (and interrogating the markers of identity this expression bodies forth — Francophone and Jewish, especially), Derrida insists in this essay, as he often does, on the specificities of the French language. He explains, for example, that he prefers the prescriptive “one must live together well” to the cynical “one must live together, after all.” (Il faut bien vivre ensemble carries both meanings in French, depending on the intonation.) As Priya Kumar demonstrates in her contribution to Living Together, Derrida opts for the French adverb ensemble (“together”) rather than the eponymous noun, which, in both French and English, designates a complete whole, a totality already determined and therefore closed to the foreigner or stranger (l’étranger). One must live together well, in a transitive and open sense, for to live together only means anything if it means to live together well, and this, potentially, with a total foreigner or stranger. Here we find, in condensed form, Derrida’s absolute hospitality as the unconditional welcoming of an unexpected, and perhaps unwanted, guest.

As Joseph Massad points out, it would seem rather ironic to use the concept of hospitality in the context of Israel-Palestine. Both parties claim to be at home, with the attendant rights and responsibilities of hospitality. But Derrida’s writings on hospitality (Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, Of Hospitality, “Hostipitality,” among others) instruct us to treat hospitality with great caution. Derrida plays on the ambiguity of the French word hôte, which means both guest and host in French, or of the Greek hospis (guest, enemy), to shore up the inherent contradictions attendant to conditional hospitality, according to which a guest is expected to abide by the rules of the house. But shouldn’t hospitality entail welcoming the other no matter how and when she or he might arrive, Derrida asks? He has often elaborated on this concept of absolute hospitality in the context of immigration to Europe. Derrida has much to say about the eastern frontiers of Europe in, for example, The Other Heading. But quite often he is speaking of migration from the southern shores of the continent: the sans-papiers, undocumented workers from outside the borders of Europe or at least the Schengen space; and “Muslims,” whose religious otherness has long been ethnicized — and racialized — in France and beyond.

Derrida’s political positions became more explicit precisely around these twin problems, as recounted in Benoît Peeters’s recent biography: the sans-papiers and the right of refuge for Algerians fleeing the war between the state and armed Islamist groups in the 1990s. In 1994, Derrida signed an “Appeal for Civil Peace in Algeria,” delivered a talk with the rather un-deconstructivist title “Taking a Stand for Algeria,” and joined demonstrations urging the French government to admit Algerian refugees without reservations. Clearly, hospitality in the common sense of the term — magnanimity, generosity — is not what is at stake here. An old and contentious relationship such as that between France and Algeria, which France occupied for 132 years and considered an integral part of its territory for more than a century, does not lend itself easily to such a distribution of roles — though of course the history of this fraught relationship is all but completely forgotten in contemporary debates about immigration to France. (How many foreigners should France admit, and with what consequences on the harmonious inner workings of the Republic? What if these foreigners do not behave the way we do, i.e., what if they veil their women, and so on.)

Derrida was all too aware of the ironies of affording what Mireille Rosello calls “postcolonial hospitality” to former subjects of the French Empire. He was equally aware of the trappings of such a concept in the context of Israel-Palestine. As Anidjar puts it in his contribution to Living Together, “Mal de Sionisme (Zionism Fever)”:

We have never been closer [than with Derrida] to a thinking of hospitality that would dispossess the current host of his chez-soi [at-home] prior to any belonging, a thinking of hospitality that recognizes the host for the colonizer that he is.

And indeed, in “Avowing — The Impossible,” Derrida suggests that, as the stronger party, Israel is responsible for hospitality. More urgently, he calls on Israel, “those who [...] have the most power, state power, economic, military, national, or international power, to take the initiative for peace in a manner that is first of all wisely unilateral.”

During the second intifada, Derrida sent an open letter to the delegation of the International Parliament of Writers (IPW) to Palestine. (The IPW was founded in 1993 to extend protection to Algerian writers targeted by armed Islamist militias.) Calling for a complete stop to violence on all “sides” (a term he qualifies as inadequate, given the asymmetry of the conflict), he quotes a text he wrote after an encounter with Palestinians in Ramallah in 1998:

I wonder how I manage to allow all these things to cohabit within my body, through a sleepwalking specter: millennia of amnesic love for every stone, every dead person in Jerusalem, and my “difficulties” (that’s an understatement, and they are not only, and so seriously, so radically political) with so many Israelis, on the basis of my innocent culpability — that is to say perhaps, the last link that remains indestructible in me — that with every Jewish community in the world, to the extent that we remain infinitely guilty, and well beyond Israel itself, of the violence inflicted on the Palestinians, and my alliance with the Palestinian cause, and my affection and limitless compassion for many Palestinians — and Algerians.

Derrida speculates here on the coexistence of multiple and apparently contradictory allegiances: his tie to all Jewish communities, indestructible in spite of his differences with Israelis, political or otherwise, and that linking him to Palestinians and Algerians. The “innocent guilt” of his sense of community with Jews the world over might be a sign of his inability to totally resist the “gregarious” impulses he deconstructs elsewhere. But it also announces the culpability of the Jewish community vis-à-vis Palestinians, the violence in which he is, by his attachment to this community, an unwilling partner. If Derrida approaches Israel-Palestine as a once-colonized Algerian Jew all too aware of the violence of colonial state-building, he is also, unwittingly, on the other “side” of the divide: potentially, at least, an Israeli national, more an insider in the nation-state hosting him than the citizens who do not hold Israeli nationality (not to mention Palestinians from the Occupied Territories, Palestinian refugees, or those living in exile). And yet here, as in “Avowing — The Impossible,” he insists on his Algerianness, even if it is in the form of an afterthought: “my affection and limitless compassion for many Palestinians — and Algerians.” For if Algerians are, like Palestinians, the external objects of Derrida’s affection and compassion (but is empathy already a form of identification?), they nevertheless “cohabit within [his] body.”

It is puzzling that Derrida refrains from explaining his identification of Palestine and Algeria in this text. Instead, he simply appends his love for Algerians to his love for Palestinians with an em dash, as if it required no explanation. Of course an em dash still marks a separation, like the comma in the expression Anidjar focuses his attentions on in his eponymous book, The Jew, the Arab (a quote from Derrida’s “How to Avoid Speaking”). As Anidjar reminds us, the hyphen is not, in Derrida, synonymous with peaceful cohabitation. Presenting himself, in Monolingualism of the Other, as an exemplary Franco-Maghrebi by virtue of his experience of the double interdict, Derrida nevertheless refuses to embrace an unproblematic hybridity:

The silence of that hyphen [Franco-Maghrebi] does not pacify or appease anything, not a single torment, not a single torture. It will never silence their memory. It could even worsen the terror, the lesions, and the wounds. A hyphen is never enough to conceal protests, cries of anger or suffering, the noise of weapons, airplanes, and bombs.

Though Derrida is speaking of Algeria here (the war of independence, but also the “civil war” between the state and armed Islamist militias), it is easy to see how this remark might pertain to other hyphens: Israel-Palestine, Arab-Jews.

This is all good and well, argue skeptics of deconstruction, but what about politics? If the hyphen doesn’t resolve violence; if, worse, it risks to silence it, isn’t the philosopher complicit in epistemic violence? Derrida makes an uncharacteristically clear case for the political potential and indeed necessity of deconstructing discourses of belonging in Monolingualism of the Other. Using the exemplary case of the assimilated native Jew, he argues that it reveals the colonial impulse of language in general: though language does not, cannot belong, it generates only “appropriative madness.” As in “Avowing — The Impossible,” the particular (the colonial) is taken to be paradigmatic of a more general truth (foundational state violence, the double interdict):

In spite of appearances, this exceptional situation [the double interdict that makes Derrida speak only one language, French, that is not his own] is, at the same time, certainly exemplary of a universal structure; it represents or reflects a type of originary “alienation” that institutes every language as a language of the other: the impossible property of a language.

Derrida hastens to add that such a general claim should not dilute the force of critique — on the contrary:

But that must not lead to a kind of neutralization of differences, to the misrecognition of determinate expropriations against which a struggle can be waged on quite different fronts. On the contrary, that is what allows the stakes to be repoliticized. Where neither natural property nor the law of property in general exist, where this de-propriation is recognized, it is possible and it becomes more necessary than ever to identify, sometimes in order to combat them, impulses, phantasms, “ideologies,” “fetishizations,” and symbolics of appropriation.

In other words, it is precisely in order to resist specific forms of monolingualism that one must draw general conclusions on the basis of particular situations.

Derrida’s characterization of language in the colony to account for the way language works in general parallels his invocation of Israel as a paradigmatic example of state violence in “Avowing — The Impossible.” If the state of Israel is exemplary of foundational state violence, this is not to say that Zionism can be reduced to nationalism, but that nationalism and other forms of community-building are inherently exclusionary. In other words, Zionism is a manifestation of a much larger appropriating and depropriating impulse. Following Derrida’s logic in the passage quoted above, such a general claim is the basis from which one can condemn and resist Israeli state violence.

Where are the Palestinians in Derrida’s account, one might ask? At no point does Derrida speak for them, and this is undoubtedly one of the charges leveled at deconstruction: it does not allow for political representation. In an analogous move, Sherene Seikaly rebukes Derrida for praising those he calls “authentic patriots”: the new historians and Israeli citizens who, in the last 30 years, have contested Zionist historiography, particularly concerning the conditions in which the state of Israel was founded. According to her, Derrida disregards Palestinian civil society, activists, and scholars who have sought to document and commemorate the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic, a term that designates the expulsion of some three quarters of a million Palestinians from their homes in 1948).

Yet there is another Algerian intertext here, one that reveals the links between critique and resistance. During the Algerian war of independence — a conflict that was much briefer, and in some ways more clear-cut than the “war” hidden in the hyphen of Israel-Palestine — the French and pieds-noirs (European settlers) who advocated for Algerian independence claimed to be the true patriots, invoking the Resistance and countering the charge that they were traitors to France. Though their opinions varied wildly, pro-Algerian French and European “patriots” (such diverse and often antagonistic figures as Henri Alleg, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Bourdieu, and Albert Camus, whose positions ran the gamut of what we might anachronistically call one-state and two-state solutions) imagined Algeria as a democratic, plural space, open to all those who sought to be part of its future, irrespective of race or creed. Without making Derrida say something he doesn’t — nowhere does he advocate a concrete political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian “conflict” — might we read “the impossible” in his title as an invitation to imagine such a non-gregarious community? And might this not be one of the most important lessons of what could be called “a politics of deconstruction”?


Olivia Harrison teaches Mediterranean Studies at the University of Southern California, and is currently working on two books on the question of Palestine in North Africa and France.

LARB Contributor

Olivia Harrison holds a PhD from Columbia University and teaches Mediterranean Studies at the University of Southern California. She is currently working on two books on the question of Palestine in North Africa and France, respectively, and has forthcoming and published articles in Postcolonial Text, Social Text, and PMLA. She is also co-editing a translation of selected texts from the literary and political Moroccan journal Souffles-Anfas.


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