Philosophy Hammer
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114: Judith Butler Part VII:
Is Judaism Zionism? Judaism, Jewishness, and Zionism; Diaspora & Cohabitation

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

In her essay “Is Judaism Zionism?” Judith Butler considers “the complex relationship between Judaism, Jewishness, and Zionism….” But she starts off with two astute observations: 1) the idea of “religion” in public life is not always a useful or conceivable category; it often depends on which religion one is speaking about. (Q1) We are presupposing a frame work that assumes religion has been (or should be) outside of public life and is now coming in to public life in some different (new, weird, or illegitimate) way; we are presupposing there is a problem. The public sphere, in western political history, is a Protestant accomplishment and so modern “public life presupposes and reaffirms one dominant religious tradition as the secular.” (Q2) Religion survives in a fugitive way within secularism and so “secularization may well be one way that Jewish life continues as Jewish.” (Q3)

2) It is a mistake to equate religion and belief; and then belief to “speculative claims about God” because “a theological presumption…does not always work to describe religious practice….effort to distinguish the cognitive status of religious and nonreligious belief misses the fact that very often religion functions as [1] a matrix of subject formation, [2] an embedded framework for valuations, and [3] a mode of belonging and embodied social practice.” (Q4)

The author enters the debate on the power of religion in the public sphere with a syntactic analysis of the “tension that emerges between religion and public life when public criticism of the Israeli state violence is taken to be anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish.” This is a quandary for the author, first, because criticizing state violence is, for her, an ethical demand of Jewishness, both religious and secular and, secondly, because Jewishness is not the same as Judaism and neither lead necessarily to Zionism. The author continues: “my point is not to say simply that Jews are obligated to criticize Israel, although in fact I think they are – we are – given that Israel acts in the name of the Jewish people, casts itself as the legitimate representative of the Jewish people; there is a question as to what is done in the name of the Jewish people and so all the more reason to reclaim that [public criticism of state violence] tradition and ethics in favor of another politics.” (Q5)

The concept of cohabitation as a solution in the case of Israel can lead to a universal solution to state violence against groups. “It is…a question of understanding the very relation to the non-Jew as the way of configuring religion in public life within Judaism. And it is on the basis of this conception of cohabitation that the critique of illegitimate nation-state violence can and must be waged.” (Q6)

With regards to the intelligibility of any argument in any ethnic conflict (or conflict in general) there is a hyper-sensitivity to which side a speaker is on that opens or closes the mind of the receiver to the words that are spoken; there is also the risk of words being appropriated and used against the intents of the speaker in the public sphere; and lastly, there is also the structural components of what can be debated: “The public sphere is constituted time and again through certain kinds of exclusions: images that cannot be seen, words that cannot be heard. And this means that the regulation of the visual and audible field – along with the other senses, to be sure—is crucial to the constitution of what can become a debatable issue within the sphere of politics.” However given these challenges, the author still believes that the “diasporic tradition” of Judaism should be the source, within Judaism, of a new Jewishness that “effectively contest[s] the right of Israel to exclusively represent Jewish interests, values, or politics but also reanimate certain ideals of cohabitation.” (Q7)

The author weaves a historical and philosophical tapestry of how best to think of diaspora and cohabitation, their meaning, and their sources in order to show a possible way to peace for the specific case of Israel and Palestine and for general interstate and ethnic conflict.

First, cohabitation is “an ethical basis for a public critique of those forms of state violence that seek to produce and maintain [an ethnic] character of the state through the radical disenfranchisement and decimation of its minority, through occupation, assault, or legal restriction.” Then, secondly, the author refers to the work of Edward Said, “in which he remarks that both Palestinians and Jews have an overlapping history of displacement, exile, living as refugees in diaspora, among those who are not the same. This is a mode of living in which alterity is constitutive of who one is. And it is on the basis of these overlapping senses of the displacement and heterogeneous cohabitation that Said proposes diaspora as a historical resource and guiding principle for a rethinking [of] what a just polity might be for those lands.” Thirdly, the author points out that “diaspora” is not the same as “exile”. Exile when it comes with negative connotations of punishment, revenge, and return with vengeance are not helpful for cohabitation. Diaspora is a much better and helpful term.

Q1 Different religious traditions have a different relation to the public sphere. In Hindu and Muslim societies religion is everywhere. Hinduism separates the function of people by caste: Brahmins, Rajanyas, Vaishyas, Shudras. Islam is a way of life with a discipline where social norms are almost all religious in word and deed. Catholicism used to be much more social. Does it matter which religion we speak about when we consider its role in a society?

Q2 How does the author’s notion that secularism is a protestant accomplishment and that secularism is really Protestantism in disguise strike you?

Q3 “Religion survives in a fugitive way in secularism” how does this notion strike you?

Q4 Religion is much more than belief. It is a lens in which we become who we are based on, in part, the values that the doctrines and dogmas impart but more importantly on the social norms of belonging that it provides. The social norms are very different within the same religion depending on a whole list of other conditions (with location, language and time being the most important). Do the doctrines and dogmas of belief really count for very little when considering practice?

Q5 Although there are always sanctions, for a public figure, criticizing Israel from the outside is often worse for the critic than criticizing the Vatican or other religious states. It is very hard to support the critic of Israeli state violence without being labeled anti-Semitic. This is not true of any other religious/ethic government. Does this ring true? If so what is the difference?

Q6 Our relationship with “the other” is easily corrupted and used to legitimate violence and separation against another group. Cohabitation is the term the author uses to describe an ethical philosophy of group interaction that takes the other with all their differences and makes a virtue of living together. Do you believe that the Israeli and Palestinian peoples (either as a single or as two states) can ever live in peace and friendship?

Q7 In our public life there are many things that cannot be said or heard. Sometimes this is good sometimes this is bad. When it is used to stop debate on the evils of state violence then it is harmful to peace. Can the diasporic tradition of Israeli and Palestinian people converge and bring them together?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren