Zionism and Its Discontents

Judith Butler Fails To Make Coherent Case for Anti-Zionist Views

The Butler Did It: Academic superstar Judith Butler has aligned herself with  some of the most outspoken critics of Israel.
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The Butler Did It: Academic superstar Judith Butler has aligned herself with some of the most outspoken critics of Israel.

By Jo-Ann Mort

Published September 17, 2012, issue of September 21, 2012.
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Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism
By Judith Butler
Columbia University Press, 256 pages, $27

Judith Butler is not anti-Semitic. I agree with her on that point, which she makes on her publisher’s website. Her new book, “Parting Ways,” represents her attempt to set the record straight regarding her controversial views on Zionism.

As a professor in the departments of rhetoric and comparative literature and as the co-director of the program of critical theory at the University of California, Berkeley, Butler is considered a superstar academic with a big following among gender and sexuality activists along with supporters who promote boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Recently, she was awarded the revered Theodor Adorno Prize in Frankfurt, Germany, igniting a global debate about her worthiness to receive this award, which is given triannually by the City of Frankfurt for excellence in philosophy, music, film and theater. The award is named for the prominent German Jewish sociologist, philosopher and musicologist who most famously fashioned the phrase “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”

In her book, Butler attempts to parse distinctions not only between Judaism and Zionism, but between different forms of Zionism, while laying out the case for what she alternately calls a one-state solution and a binational solution. She yearns to prove the existence of a “different Jewishness than the one in whose name the Israeli state claims to speak.” Yet, her chosen subjects are so varied that they really don’t create a coherent argument. They range from Edward Said to the lyrical poet and activist Mahmoud Darwish to Hannah Arendt, Emanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, Walter Benjamin and Primo Levi.

As a cross-disciplinarian, it is her impulse to include this variety of intellectuals in her book, but it is too much of a stretch to link intellectual arguments to make her points among such a diverse group. But in her reading of these philosophers, literary critics and poets, there is nothing new and there is a lot of confusion in her assertions.

Since Zionism was founded as a political ideology in the 1800s, there have been Jews who have opposed it, most notably the Bundists, who prided themselves on their secular socialist universalism. However, the Holocaust knocked much of their philosophy on its side.


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