Parting Ways: Jewish Critiques of Zionism

An Arabic translation of Judith Butler's Critique of Zionism
25 September, 2017

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published an Arabic translation of Judith Butler's Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (384 pp. in translation; originally published in English by Columbia University Press in 2012). The book, in a translation by Noor Hariri, gives Arabic language readers an opportunity to read an important contribution by one of America's most important public intellectuals, debunking a widespread assertion that any criticism of the State of Israel is by definition anti-Semitic. In making this argument, Butler uses Jewish sources to demonstrate that Israeli state violence against the indigenous Palestinians is incompatible with Jewish ethical principles. In other words, Butler brings to the fore critiques of Israeli state policy which are rooted in the ethical principles of the Jewish Diaspora.   

In her introduction to the work, Butler begins with the problematics which arise from Jewish principles that stand in contrast to state violence. She argues that a Jewish tradition of commitment to justice and equality necessarily leads to a criticism of the State of Israel. This, Butler suggests, is the beginning not only of Jewish non-Zionism, but of Jewish anti-Zionism. The author also offers that any fundamental and effective critique of Zionism must abandon what she calls a "Jewish exceptionalism," insisting instead on more fundamental democratic values.

Moving into the first chapter, Butler suggests that Jewishness has at its heart the ability to live with non-Jews, and the need to find a means to overcome the identity-based barriers which separate Jews from gentiles. In the second chapter, Butler suggests that the motive for non-violence arises from the continuous tension created by the fear of submitting to violence and the fear of resorting to violence. In this sense, peace is an active struggle against violence; it can only be defined against violence, and not in a void of its own. A third chapter offers a critique of violence in which Butler illustrates how Walter Benjamin's criticisms of legalized violence as well as his criticisms of historical materialism were rooted in both Jewish and non-Jewish sources. Butler continues to dwell on Benjamin in the fourth chapter, trying to better elucidate his approach to counter-violence, and to also highlight Benjamin's values of coexistence and memory.

A fifth chapter is titled "Is Judaism Zionism? Or, Arendt and the Critique of the Nation-state," and is used to understand how the Jewish tradition of coexistence makes necessary an alternative Jewish identity. Butler also explains how Arendt's ideas of coexistence make the idea of an exclusionary Jewish homeland in Palestine incompatible with diaspora Jewish ethics. In the vision of Arendt's Jewish ethics which Butler adopts, pluralism and the ability to coexist with others is a fundamental Jewish tenet. In contrast to Arendt, Butler views the latter writings of Primo Levi as confusing the relationship between these two ideas.

The eighth and final chapter is the one where Butler incorporates Palestinian voices. "What Shall We Do Without Exile?": Said and Darwish Address the Future" is the chapter where the author drives home the importance of combatting the trend towards denial of the Nakba, a phenomenon prevalent even in attempts to deal pragmatically with the Palestinian question. Butler also asserts that recognition of Palestinian suffering is essential to Jewish coexistence with others.

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