September 19, 2014 By KS Shameer

Co-existence and Diaspora: A Jewish Critique of Zionism


All believers, whatever be their religion, must go through the experience of diaspora, as diaspora is helplessly an important stage in their life. Etymologically the word signifies scattering and dispersal and evokes the memories of homelessness. Where the Quran narrates the story of Banu Israel, addresses the newly emerging community of believers under Prophet Muhammad and tells the tale of the cave dwellers, the divine text idealizes diasporic lives, emphasized further by its usage of hijra, and sublimates exile and migration to the level of a politically subversive and spiritually fulfilling experience. (2:218, 3:195, 4:89, 4:97, 4:100, 8:72, 74-75).

In His ‘The Church and the Kingdom’ Giorgio Agamben speaks about how diaspora means to a Christian. He contrasts the word ‘sojourning’ mentioned in Corinthian’s letters to the Greek paoikosa (dwelling). Sojourning is a disaporic experience in which we dwell in exile. It is opposed to the Greek verb katoikein, which designates how a citizen of a city, state, kingdom or empire dwells. When the church become the state, sources and experiences of an ancient religion gets institutionalized. “The consequence of this position is that the Christian community has ceased to paroikein, to sojourn as a foreigner, so as to begin to katoikein, to live as a citizen and thus function like any other worldly institution.” Agamben ends his essay, asking whether the Church curtails its original relation with the paroikia or whether the Church finally grasps the historical occasion and recover its messianic vocation.

Judith Butler’s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism subtly traces the diasporic history and experiences among the Jewish diaspora about which the word diaspora has been most widely used, amplifying the messianic hopes of such an experience and criticizing the Zionist terrorism, which extinguishes it. Butler relies on Immanuel Levinas’ hermeneutics of Jewish scriptures to develop the ideas of diasporic experience and messianic hope. She says that non-Jew defines the Jew. “My contention from the outset of this book is that the relation with the non-Jew is at the core of Jewish ethics, which means that it is not possible to be Jewish without the non-Jew and that, to be ethical, one must depart from Jewishness as an exclusive frame for ethics. There are various ways to understand this mutual implication of Jew/non-Jew. I do not, for instance, accept the Sartrean formulation that the anti-Semite creates the Jew. I am trying, rather, to delineate a political ethics that belongs to the diaspora, where Jews are scattered among non-Jews, and to derive a set of principles from that geographic condition..” (P 99) She develops this idea of formation of Jewish identity in relation to the non-Jewish other in reliance to Walter Benjamin’s theory about the Messianic hope and Hennah Arendt’s critiques of nationalism.

Benjamin says that the history of the oppressed emerges in flash amidst the homogenous flow of dominant history which attempts to monopolize under the rubrics of progress and growth. Arendt, on the other hand, opposed the homogeneity related to nation states. Arendt said that national unity and sameness would never sustain as the foundations of a state. Arendt’s view is that such a state will have to expel those who are not ‘related’ to such a state and, to legitimize the state; it will have to protect the homogeneity of people who reside in the state.

Butler then explores the history and evolution of Zionism, which violates the sacred Messianic vocation of the diasporic experience. Here she explores the potential of a Zionist critique of Israel. Jewish opposition to Zionism accompanied the founding proposals made by Herzl at the International Zionist Congress in 1897 in Basel, and it has never ceased since that time. It is not anti-Semitic or, indeed, self-hating to criticize the state violence exemplified by Zionism. If it were, then Jewishness would be defined, in part, by its failure to generate a critique of state violence, and that is surely not the case. My question is whether the public criticism of state violence—and I know that term is yet to be explained—is warranted by Jewish values, understood in noncommunitarian terms. Butler develops this critique using the Kabbalistic arguments of Jewish mysticism, using the Zionist critiques of Arendt and Buben. She says that the Jewish faith gives us a philosophy of wandering and waiting, rather than claims for terrritory and aspirations for statehood.

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Hitler’s state terrorism is usually cited as justification for the Zionist politics. However, it has been proven with documental evidence that Zionist had hatched its plot much before Hitler hatched his concentration camps. Also documents which detail the Nazi-Zionist conspiracies are available today. Former Israeli Prime Minister the late Golda Meir’s demand that Israel would not need the handicapped refugees and patients proves that Israel had borrowed the idioms of oppression and genocide of the Nazi state. Here Butler echoes Edward Said, saying that Said proposed that 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.

One of the important features of the book is that Judith Butler maintains the anxiety of influence towards the thinkers on whom she relies in the book. Anxiety of influence, according to its proponent Harlod Bloom, is to reisist the influence of father figures by critiquing and parting ways from their dominant positions. She keeps such a distance from Levinas, Arendt, Benjamin and Said. While she adopts Levinas’ hermeneutics, she attacks his own stance on the Palestine question. Levinas said that the Palestinian had no face, that he only meant to extend ethical obligations to those who were bound together by his version of Judeo-Christian and classical Greek origins.”

Butler relies on Arendt’s critique of Eichmann to attack this stance. Eichmann thought he could choose with whom to cohabit the earth. In her view, cohabitation is not a choice, but a condition of our political life. We are bound to one another prior to contract and prior to any volitional act. The liberal framework according to which each of us enters into a contract knowingly and voluntarily does not take into account that we are already living on the earth with those we never chose and whose language is not the same as our own. For Arendt, one reason why genocide is radically impermissible is that, in fact, we have no choice with whom to cohabit the earth.

She also uses anxiety of influence against Edward Said’s binationalism. Said poses it as a practical solution to the problem in the dense and violent situation of Middle East today. The dismantlement of settlement from the land occupied after 1967 is something that even Hamas has put forth. But the logic of binationalism lies in the word ‘nation’ which was completely formed in the Zionist imagination and which excludes the yet-to-be formed nation of the Palestinians who came to be scattered after 1948. The critique of the Zionist nation should not be the basis on which the yet-to-be formed nation of the Palestinians is imagined and critiqued.

Everyone should learn a lesson from the extermination camps of Adolf Hitler: that we are all committed to opposing all forms of state terrorism and violence and that respecting the human rights and justice of all human beings, including the Palestinians.  But when a society-both religious and secular- keeps away from diaspora and gets institutionalized as a nation state, it is entrapped in the same situation as Israel has been entrapped.

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