‘Despising’ Judith Butler and the future of Zionism

The only hope for a lasting peace in Israel and/or Palestine lies in a reimagination of the two nationalisms.

Judith Butler recently had to cancel a lecture on Kafka at the Jewish Museum of New York [EPA]

The New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier clearly believes himself to be a good man. One of those who put principles before emotions and politics. One who will fight for the right of even the most bigoted people and views to have a public hearing. Say, Nazis marching in Slokie, Illinois in the 1970s. Or rabidly anti-gay Christians protesting outside soldiers’ funerals during the Iraq war. Or an anti-Zionist Jewish scholar lecturing about Franz Kafka’s literary work at a Jewish museum.

Okay, perhaps the last example isn’t quite on the order of the first two, is it? Apparently, for Wieseltier, and for much of the American Jewish establishment, it is. So much so that even the thought of allowing a Jewish academic who believes in a democratic Israeli state in which Palestinians and Jews have the same political, economic and civil rights is cause for existential angst and anger.

The scholar in question is Judith Butler, the literary critic and philosopher whose criticism of Israel and support for the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement have recently defined her in the public eye far more than her seminal research on feminist, queer, literary theory and political philosophy. The pressure on Butler and the Jewish Museum of New York, where she was scheduled to deliver a talk on March 6, was so great that Butler cancelled it.

Too critical of Israel?

The cancellation of Butler’s talk coincided with other attempts within the organised Jewish community to prevent writers believed to be critical of Israel from speaking to Jewish audiences. And so John Judis, senior editor at The New Republic, was disinvited from speaking about his new book, “Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict”, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.

Al Jazeera Correspondent – Identity and Exile: Part one

This happened after museum management bowed to pressure from Israel supporters who felt the book was too critical of the mainstream narrative of Israel’s founding. Judis was subsequently reinvited after strong protests from other Jewish leaders, including Wieseltier, against the cancellation.

Completing the trifecta of attempts to censor seeming critics of Israel was the refusal of a Jewish high school in New York, Ramaz, to allow Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi, perhaps the most senior Palestinian scholar of the country’s history, to speak at the school. The decision was made despite a petition drive by hundreds of students who wanted to understand the Palestinian narrative about the conflict and its history. This follows a debate within many Hillels on college campuses over the stifling internal debate about Israeli policies towards Palestinians.

So contrary to the disputational tradition of Jewish cultural and political life are these attempts at censorship that one critic labelled them evidence of a desire by the Jewish community to “commit intellectual suicide“.

The organised Jewish community leadership seems increasingly in freak-out mode thanks to the growing acceptance of criticism of Israel. Younger Jews in particular are demonstrating far less willingness to accept the cognitive dissonance that comes with holding progressive views on everything but Israel than were their parents and grandparents’ generations.

They are increasingly being pitted against the leadership on college campuses, where a war against Jewish progressives has become a core component of the battle against anti-Occupation groups like Jewish Voices for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine, which are facing intense sanctions by officials at universities like Northeastern.   

There are two issues here that are not being raised in most commentary on these attempts at internal censorship that are crucial for understanding how far remains the road to be traveled before the American Jewish community can have a truly honest debate on Israel and Palestine.

The first is the lack of historical context in the discussions. While debate about and opposition to Zionism were once staples of Jewish communal life, in the almost five decades since Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the organised Jewish leadership in the diaspora and Israel have invested massive resources in stifling all criticism and debate about Israeli policies.

In an interview with me, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun, explained:

“There’s nothing new about this censorship. This has been happening to critics of Israeli policy for at least the last 40 years. One generation after another have been delegitimated in the Jewish world; the difference is that now there are more and more people expressing the kind of criticisms that only recently saw Tikkun and other critics as voices in the wilderness.”

Al Jazeera Correspondent – Identity and Exile : Part two

From this perspective, the public and increasingly rancorous debate over Israeli policies within the Jewish community is a marker of how far it has traveled in the last few years. But at the same time, it is also indicative of how far it has to go before serious criticism of Israeli policies, and even Zionism as the governing political ideology of the state of Israel, are not merely tolerated occasionally, but accepted as legitimate intellectual, ethical and political positions within the community.

Despising alternative views

Wieseltier best evidenced the distance remaining with his comments about the Butler controversy, declaring: “I despise Judith Butler, but her misguided views [on Israel] should not disqualify her from speaking on Kafka.”

It is shocking really that a prominent so-called “liberal” intellectual can display hatred against someone merely for holding a principled position opposed to their own, without being questioned, never mind called out, for such indecorum. Instead, in the article about the controversy, Wieseltier comes off as a principled intellectual, supporting the airing of voices even diametrically opposed to his views.

And so Wieseltier advocates allowing even Jewish high school students to hear the view of Rashid Khalidi. But not with the idea that they might appreciate Palestinian history and present realities more. Instead, it’s only to help burst “the bubble” in which too many still exist when they start college and are inevitably exposed to the pro-Palestinian narrative.

“The bubble strategy never works. As soon as the kid leaves the bubble, you’ve got a problem,” he explained.

The problem, of course, is that these students might not just be exposed to critical Jewish or Palestinian narratives. It’s that they might humanise them, grow to empathise and even stand in solidarity with such views and the people holding them. This remains a red line for the organised Jewish community and its leadership.

If it’s no longer feasible to shut out completely such voices, you can still treat them unworthy of serious consideration. But of course when alternative views are treated with such derision it remains extremely difficult for most listeners in the community to imagine that they might be right.

Ironically, Franz Kafka, the subject of Judith Butler’s cancelled lecture, was himself representative of an extremely ambivalent strain of Zionism.

“I admire Zionism and am nauseated by it,” he declared, explaining that while he understood the “universal Zionist yearning”. He had even contemplated immigrating to Palestine (he died well before the establishment of Israel, in 1924) he wasn’t one who had “joined the ranks” of the movement (as the work of scholars such as Saul Friedlander and Iris Bruce have demonstrated). Similarly, the great pre-War German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who was deeply influenced by Kafka and died trying to escape the Nazis, was attacked by mainstream Zionists for being a “deracinated intellectual” with a “Diaspora mentality”.

What is common to voices like Kafka and Benjamin, and more recently Butler, Lerner and the late Tony Judt (among others), is that all refuse to accept the kind of fixed identities upon which Zionism, like all nationalisms, has always been grounded. 

Whatever one’s views towards Zionism, Israel or Palestinians, the only hope for a just and lasting peace in Israel and/or Palestine lies in a reimagination of the two nationalisms towards a more holistic and inclusive vision. As long as voices like Butler can be despised without comment by mainstream Jewish leaders, that future will remain tragically distant.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. His new book is One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, co-edited with Ambassador Mathias Mossberg.