Judith Butler and the Cause of the Other

By Olivia HarrisonDecember 9, 2012

Judith Butler and the Cause of the Other

Parting Ways by Judith Butler

ISRAEL'S RECENT MILITARY ASSAULT on Gaza serves as a reminder of the continuing urgency of the Palestinian question, which has been a topic of worldwide debate since the June 1967 war and returns to the center stage of global politics whenever Palestinian or Israeli blood is spilt. Something has changed in recent years, however, particularly after conflicts so disproportionate (the 2006 Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon, the 2008-2009 Gaza war) that it becomes difficult to speak of two “sides” in a conflict involving a military force, on the one hand, and a majority of unarmed civilians on the other.

But the increasingly uneven balance of forces is not the only thing that has tipped the scales in favor of the Palestinian people (if not their leadership) at dinner tables across the world. Palestinian civil society has also made itself heard more forcefully, particularly through non-violent protest actions (represented in films such Bil’in My Love and 5 Broken Cameras) and the 2005 West Bank-based call for an international campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Modeled after the South African boycott campaigns, the BDS movement has received wide support from luminaries including Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, and Alice Walker. It has also garnered the support (sometimes partial or qualified) of an increasing number of Jewish activists against Israeli state violence, including groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace or intellectuals such as Judith Butler and Naomi Klein. The growing legitimacy of the BDS movement is a symptom of the changing fortunes of the Palestinian question. It also reveals the extent to which it has become a Jewish question.

More than 60 years ago, a similar evolution in public opinion occurred at another historical juncture. In 1960, toward the end of the bloody Algerian war of independence, 121 French writers, artists, and intellectuals, including Maurice Blanchot, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Guy Debord, and André Breton, signed a manifesto in favor of support for the Algerian cause and the right to military insubordination. The manifesto’s objective was to make public the growing resistance to the “nameless war” in France, lending legitimacy to actions that were deemed illegal — army desertion, material assistance to the Algerian nationalist movement — but that were, according to the manifesto’s signatories, just. The most visible in a long series of public denunciations of the war — including the publication of Henri Alleg’s first-hand account of torture, The Question, in 1958, and the trial of supporters of the Algerian National Liberation Front in 1960 — was the “Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War.” Informally know as the “Manifesto of the 121,” this document gave voice to those French citizens who actively refused to comply with a colonial war waged in their name. To borrow the philosopher Jacques Rancière’s expression, these were French citizens who “disidentified” with the French state.

In an article titled “The Cause of the Other,” Rancière develops the concept of “disidentification” in relation to an event that occurred a year after the publication of the Manifesto, on October 17, 1961: the massacre, in the center of Paris, of an estimated 200 Algerian civilians protesting a racist curfew. In his account, October 17 marks a moment of disidentification with the state that claimed to act in the name of the French. The first step in what he calls “political subjectivation,” disidentification is the “refusal to identify with a certain ‘self’” — in this case, the French citizen, defined by the state in opposition to its colonial subjects. Equally important are the second and third steps in the process of political subjectivation: a relation to “an other that constitutes a community defined by a certain wrong” (here, the Algerians); and “an impossible identification” with this other. Political subjectivation, then, demands both disidentification and impossible identification, refusal of self and espousal of the cause of the other, who remains, nevertheless, not-me.


Judith Butler’s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism begins with just such a move. The book begins to answer the question she formulated most succinctly in a 2003 essay for the London Review of Books: “What are we to make of Jews who disidentify with Israel or, at least, with the Israeli state?” As such, it constitutes a public expression of her disidentification with the state of Israel. It is much more than this, of course: a rigorous reading of the philosophers Emmanuel Levinas, Walter Benjamin, and Hannah Arendt; a generous engagement with writings on Israel-Palestine by Edward Said, Primo Levi, and Mahmoud Darwish; and a remarkable demonstration of the ways in which philosophy allows us to apprehend Palestine-Israel’s present and imagine its future in new ways. Yet Butler consistently frames her careful readings of these philosophical, political, and poetic texts by articulating her own relation to Israel and Zionism. Like other Jewish intellectuals and artists who have denounced Israeli treatment of Palestinians, Butler feels compelled, today, to make a public rejoinder to the state that claims to speak in her name.

This is not Butler’s first foray into the question of Israel-Palestine, though it is her first book entirely devoted to the topic. Building on more than a decade of reflection on state violence, Parting Ways follows the publication of Precarious Life (2006) and Frames of War (2009), as well as the many talks, interviews, and essays that take up the daunting task of critiquing Israeli state policies and actions — a task that, as Butler well knows, inevitably elicits the charge of anti-Semitism or Jewish self-hatred. (See for example her recent rejoinder to the charge that she condones Hamas and Hezbollah, a classic example of decontextualized quoting aimed at making any critique of the Israeli state illegitimate.) Best known for her pioneering book on gender and sexuality, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), Butler has consistently applied philosophical rigor to political problems. Asked in a recent interview by Israeli film maker Udi Aloni about the connection between her early writings on gender and her more recent work on Jewishness, she takes a detour via queer politics, which began, in her telling, as a movement against homophobia rather than for any given gay, lesbian, or transgender identity, and was forged in alliance with other movements (the anti-racist movement, for example). For Butler, “queer is about interlocking minorities; it has never been about an identity politics.” Speaking of Jewish movements that protest Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the London Review of Books, she writes: “it is as Jews that they [these movements] assert their disidentification with that policy, that they seek to widen the rift between the state of Israel and the Jewish people in order to produce an alternative vision of the future.” In other words, it is because Israel speaks and acts in the name of all Jews that she, as a Jew, is compelled to speak out against the state of Israel. The thread that ties her work on gender and sexuality to her recent writings on Palestine-Israel, then, is a common resistance to all forms of “policing of [...] community,” be it queer or Jewish.

Yet Parting Ways is not only a critique of Zionism. It is also a project for the future. Butler’s readings are aimed at formulating a non-identitarian, relational conception of Jewishness that might help to pave the way for “cohabitation” (a concept she borrows from Hannah Arendt) in an Israel-Palestine open to all its inhabitants, regardless of ethnicity, race or creed. To this end, she draws on the work of writers and philosophers who have reflected on the diasporic condition of Jewishness. For Butler, this alternative tradition places the other at the heart of Jewishness:

Jewishness can and must be understood as an anti-identitarian project insofar as we might even say that being a Jew implies taking up an ethical relation to the non-Jew, and this follows from the diasporic condition of Jewishness where living in a socially plural world under conditions of equality remains an ethical and political ideal.

Jewishness, for Butler, is historically premised on cohabitation with the other, and this diasporic history offers a chance “for the theorization of cohabitation and binationalism.”

Like Arendt before her, Butler attempts to rethink Jewishness as separate from state sovereignty and from “the ongoing and violent project of settler colonialism that constitutes political Zionism.” But she also distances her work from an exclusively Jewish critique of Israel, claiming the universality of an ethics based on Jewish thought. Applying her reconceptualization of an ethics interrupted by the other to her own writing, Butler takes pains to engage with two non-Jewish thinkers who, significantly, bookend Parting Ways: Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish.

Butler begins with Said, placing her book under the aegis of Said’s late work, particularly Freud and the Non-European and Reflections on Exile, which consider the historically distinct Jewish and Palestinian diasporas in order to reconceptualize political community in Palestine-Israel. Said offers Butler a way of proposing the political and ethical usefulness of analogy: far from collapsing heterogeneous, and ostensibly conflicting, histories of displacement, Said’s attempts to think Jewish and Palestinian exile together allow for an ethical conception of politics “in which alterity is constitutive of who one is.” Butler is, of course, aware of the pitfalls of comparison: how can one compare Jewish suffering, epitomized in the Holocaust, with the relatively lesser evils of Palestinian dispossession and exile?

And yet it is precisely from the point of view of Jewish suffering that she makes a plea for justice toward all others, and, first and foremost, the Palestinians. Thus, if she warns against the betrayal of Jewish suffering through Israeli state violence, it is in pursuit of a “multidirectional memory” (to borrow the literary critic Michael Rothberg’s terminology) of Jewish and Palestinian dispersal. Rather than pit the Holocaust against the forcible eviction, in 1948, of more than three quarters of a million Palestinians from their homes (an event known in Arabic as “the Catastrophe,” al-Nakba) Butler asks “whether the Shoah and its suffering might contribute to an ethical and political framework for the present that speaks up against state-sanctioned violence.” While remaining careful to distinguish between the Hebrew and Arabic terms for catastrophe (Shoah and Nakba), which denote two separate historical events, Butler nevertheless makes a plea for the productive cross-fertilization of memory, suggesting that there are lessons to be learnt by each from the other’s history.


Parting Ways’s concluding chapter articulates most clearly Butler’s position vis-à-vis the state of Israel as it is currently constituted, and what she calls its “wretched” forms of binationalism, exerted through different forms of dispossession of the Palestinians. This is where she comes closest to formulating a specific political project: one rooted in the ethics and politics of diaspora developed throughout the book. As her use of the term binationalism and her invocation of Said’s latter day adoption of the one-state solution suggest, the Israel-Palestine Butler imagines would resemble the federal state envisioned by Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt, a state protecting all citizens irrespective of ethnic or religious belonging. A binational state is necessary, she argues, because there are already two nations present on the same territory, making a pragmatic or, in her words, “descriptive” argument familiar to advocates of the one-state solution. The claims of political Zionism are unrealizable, and as a consequence Israel “must continually seek to cover over the gap that exists permanently between its claim to be a Jewish state and its struggle to maintain demographic advantage because it is not a Jewish state.” More importantly, however, the claim to define a state as Jewish, to the exclusion of all other ethnic-religious identities, is unacceptable to Butler. Her principal objection to such a definition is “normative”: “no polity has the right to secure demographic advantage for any particular ethnic or religious group.”

If Butler’s conclusion makes explicit the political positions taken throughout her readings, she ends Parting Ways in a much less decisive mode: that of literary analysis. Butler turns to poetry in an attempt to imagine cohabitation, juxtaposing the question that guides her readings — “What would Israel do or be without the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians?” — with the refrain of a poem by Darwish: “what shall we do without exile?” There is a provocation in this juxtaposition: if Palestinians are constituted by exile — which is, as Said put it in his writings on Israel-Palestine, a quintessentially Jewish condition — Israel is defined by the dispossession of Palestinians, rather than by Jewish exile. Could this be precisely the chance that wretched forms of binationalism represent? Palestinians are already part and parcel of Israel; what is needed is a complete overhaul of the form this binationalism takes. Butler develops this point through her reading of Darwish’s poem “Who Am I, Without Exile?”, which, according to her, implies “that this terrible embrace has to become something else and that exile forms something of a signpost for the future.” The continued life-and-death urgency of the Palestinian question demands far more than poetry and literary analysis, of course. Yet Butler invokes poetry here as a way to imagine the future — a task that is surely too important to leave to politicians alone. And though Darwish’s poetry is much more complex than her reading suggests, her proposal that we read him as a thinker of binationalism is compelling. For Butler, Darwish’s verse “There’s nothing left of me but you, and nothing left of you / but me [...]” constitutes proof that alliance is possible in exile.

Butler’s own conclusion seems, paradoxically, more pessimistic. Yet her question — “What would Israel do or be without the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians?” — is not just a negative observation (Israel is dialectically bound to the Palestinians, and is nothing without their dispossession). Her question is also an attempt to imagine an alternative future: what might Israel look like if it were not defined by the dispossessions of Palestinians? It is important to note that Butler is speaking of the relation of a state (Israel) to its constitutive other (Palestinians). In thinking of this asymmetrical relation between a state and a people, and of Butler’s relation to both, we would do well to return to Rancière’s conception of political subjectivation: disidentification with the state that claims to act in one’s name, impossible identification with those it oppresses. Butler, as a Jew, disidentifies with the state that acts in her name, and impossibly identifies with the Palestinians it oppresses.

The Algerian war ended in large part because a growing number of French citizens refused to allow the French state to kill Algerians in their name. Of course, France is not Israel, and the Algerians are not Palestinians. And yet, to paraphrase Butler: how can we draw lessons from one set of historical conditions to grasp another? In the wake of yet another disproportionate confrontation in which civilians are the main victims, it is more urgent than ever to heed the lessons of history. As Butler shows, there has been Jewish resistance to political Zionism from its turn-of-the-century beginnings, and there continues to be Jewish resistance to Israeli state policies today. There is hope, then, that disidentification and impossible identification may lay the ground for cohabitation in Israel-Palestine, and not only in philosophy and poetry.


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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