Philosophy Hammer
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115: Judith Butler Part VIII:
Is Judaism Zionism? Messianic Secularism

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

Having pointed out the protestant-centric notion of religion in the public sphere and in the secular, and acknowledging the quandary faced by any person who criticize Israeli state violence Judith Butler considers that a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may need to come from a redefinition of Jewishness as alterity (as “the other” living in minority with the majority) and that draws on a rich history of diaspora literature from the experience of both Arab and Jewish/Hebrew history and myth. Coupling these shared roots with a philosophically more modern idea of cohabitation she believes can be the source of lasting peace in the region.

Another aspect of cohabitation is its unchosen nature. She references Hannah Arendt’s, book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” to make the point that “Eichmann thought that he and his superiors might choose with whom to cohabit the earth and failed to realize that the heterogeneity of the earth’s population is an irreversible condition of social and political life….if we seek to make a choice where there is no choice, we are trying to destroy the conditions of our own social and political life….so the exercise of freedom upon which he [Eichmann] insisted was genocide.” The implication is that any attempt to choose with whom to cohabit the earth is wrong; as wrong as genocide. We are therefore obligated to preserve the unchosen nature of the cohabited world. “…concrete political norms and ethical prescriptions emerge from the unchosen character of these modes of cohabitation. To cohabit the earth is prior to any possible community or nation or neighborhood. We might choose where to live, and who to live by, but we cannot choose with whom to cohabit the earth.”

This notion of cohabitation leads the author to the notion of a universal plurality. Plurality in fact needs to be universal (include everyone and every different group) because a plurality that creates an outside, a group that is not in the plurality, is a plurality that excludes another plurality. This strikes her as a contradiction: a partial plurality that excludes is not being true to its own condition of inclusivity. (Q1) However the author does not rest there: since humans can change and societies can change she wants to include potentiality as well as actuality. “If plurality does not exclusively characterize a given and actual condition, but also always a potential one, then it has to be understood as a process, and we will need to shift from a static to a dynamic conception.” (Q2)

Pluralization then would suggest that we need to protect all groups present and future; allowing them to become what they can become. In that sense conflicting parties today may become friends and partners later. These possibilities must never be foreclosed from an ethical cohabitation perspective.

Cohabitation implies an equal worth of protection for all peoples. However this equality is not meant to make people equal in the sense of ‘the same’. “Equal protection or, indeed, equality, is not a principle that homogenizes those to whom it applies; rather, the commitment to equality is a commitment to the process of differentiation itself.”

One source of motivation to alleviate the suffering of others comes from one’s own suffering. However, “[i]f we start with the presumption that one group’s suffering is like another group’s, we have not only assembled the groups into provisional monoliths, we have also launched into a form of analogy building that will invariably fail…. analogy fails because the specificities prove obdurate.” ‘Like’ is not ‘the same’. Analogy: this level of equality is counterproductive because pluralization demands differences be acknowledged and respected. Equality ought to mean that state violence against a minority is equally unacceptable anywhere and anytime.

The author defines the term “messianic secularism” to mean “transposition without analogy, the interruption of one time by another…” where the memory of a collective trauma, personally or in literature, enters into a “historical amnesia and reorients us toward the unacceptable conditions of refugees across time and context…” (Q3)

In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a future “ethical relation depends upon a certain condition of dispossession from national modes of belonging, a dispossession that characterize our relationality from the start….[Cohabitation as in the case of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples] is not a social bond that is entered into through volition and deliberation; it precedes contract, is mired in dependency, and is often effaced by those forms of social contract that depend on an ontology of volitional individuality.”

Given these facts, this history, literature, and theory, the author condemns Israeli settler colonialism and offers 5 fields to practice remembrance, diaspora and cohabitation: 1) reconceive citizenship in terms of alterity; 2) federalism as a new constitutional unity in the region; 3) rethinking of bi-nationalism; 4) reorganization of land partitions in terms of the commons; and 5) cultural heterogeneity protected by citizenship and law.

The author recognizes that there will be fierce opposition. “But perhaps such responses are only utterable on the condition that we fail to remember what Jewish means….The limit on what can be remembered is enforced in the present through what can be said and what can be heard—the limits of the audible and the sensible that constitute the public sphere. For remembrance to break through into that public sphere would be one way for religion, perhaps, to enter into public life one way to conceive of a politics, Jewish and not Jewish…” (Q4)

Q1 The definition of Pluralism in Merriam-Webster dictionary is:
3a: a theory that there are more than one or more than two kinds of ultimate reality b: a theory that reality is composed of a plurality of entities
4a: a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization
b: a concept, doctrine, or policy advocating this state

Does plurality have to be absolute? Can’t we have competing pluralities? Or can we have pluralities with limits?

Q2 How does the idea of a dynamic plurality strike you?

Q3 Messianic secularism: the notion that the experiences of the past will return and enter into the present to set the people of the present free of oppression. The author wishes to reinterpreted the Jewish messiah not as a person but as the diasporic history, experience, and myth remembered and brought back into the collective consciousness as the way to alleviate suffering in the Middle East. How does this notion strike you?

Q4 Is the author’s theory likely to bring peace to the Middle East? Is she on the right track or completely out of touch?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren