Judith Butler Unpacks the Bejeezus Out of Zionism at Memorial Chapel

“You’ve all been very good. I’m sorry, I’m a bit traumatized.”

Neither snow nor ice nor free speech restrictions could stop her: as planned, Judith Butler, famed Professor of Rhetoric and Literature at University of California Berkeley, spoke in Memorial Chapel yesterday to a full-capacity crowd about the writings of philosopher Martin Buber and the promise they may hold for reinstating open dialogue about peace in the Middle East.

Butler was introduced by President Roth, who pointed out that she embodied the Wesleyan mission statement to a tee as a practitioner of  “courageous responsibility, which is difficult to carry out to the street and back to the academy.” Professor of Anthropology and American Studies Margot Weiss, who provided background on her for a few minutes afterward, was greeted by a enthusiastic wave of applause when she rose to the stage. Realizing what had happened due to her faintly resembling Butler, she shouted, “I am not Judith Butler, but thank you!” She went on to draw connections between Butler’s current work and the work on gender that she is best known for, saying that her most recent book, Parting Ways, sees Judaism as a kind of “anti-identitarian project.”

Butler’s approach to critiquing Israeli policies was so carefully measured and focused on separating the Jewish people from the idea of the Jewish state that she paused halfway through to assure people she wasn’t a robot. She also thanked the audience for their patient listening and respect for her views, saying, “You’ve all been very good. I’m sorry, I’m a bit traumatized.” Laughter ensued.

“Two Zionisms and the Question of Palestine,” the largely obscure piece written in 1948 by Martin Buber that Butler chose to bring to the fore for this lecture, was important to her because through it, the changing definition of the word “Zionist” can be seen. Buber is best known in most academic circles for his ethics of “I and thou,” the idea that other people should not just be treated as objects, but with the pronoun “thou,” signifying the possibility of a spiritual exchange. Buber was worried that the sort of Zionism with which David Ben-Gurion eventually took his place as Israel’s head of state saw Jewish rebirth as too much of a “normalization.” Jewish spiritual renewal requires “a land, a language, and independence,” but the Israeli policy that emerged, which he was opposed to, treated these things as commodities by creating a state founded upon traditional conceptions of property and the like.

She repeatedly addressed the intense—and often polarized—identifications that result from the label “Zionist” and pressed the need to move beyond that framework: “Today, if you are asked ‘Are you a Zionist?’ you are being asked if you accept Israel’s right to exist, and if you say yes, you mean “in its current form,” and if you say no you wish it to be dismantled or destroyed.” In a way that perhaps ties in with her performative gender politics and the idea of “passing,” she acknowledged the audience’s anxiety to know whether she was a Zionist or not. She noted that today, if you took Buber’s view, you would be considered an anti-Zionist (something that surprised me, and I’m not sure if I agree with, since I think it’s possible both to believe in Israel’s right to exist and be critical of its actions and policies, and many people I know take this stance and, at the very least, don’t call themselves anti-Zionists).

As she did at Brooklyn College, Butler unpacked the association of the Jewish people with the idea of Zionism. She noted that “Buber’s version of Zionism, had it lasted, would now be cast as a potentially genocidal project,” and criticized the “moral browbeating” that put critics of Israel in a difficult place “because we could never could imagine just supporting such a horrible position.” We are in a political position, she said, where it becomes “unconscionable to do anything that might unlock a fear of genocide for the Jewish people.” As she has in the past, she encouraged people to attempt to grapple with this collective trauma than simply run away from it: “Political exploitation of the Holocaust has to be rejected, but we can’t dismiss its absolute importance as a historical reality as well.”

Butler, as you might expect, is not purely a follower of Buber; she criticized his inability to grasp the colonial dimensions of Zionism, and the fact that he never called into question the appropriation of Palestinian land inherent in the settler movement. He also promoted a questionable conception of “the Arab,” and proposed Jews and Arabs as distinct and homogeneous groups, Butler said, when 30% of Jews in Israel were of Arab descent. Despite these issues, it seems to me that the kibbutzim is an issue on which Buber and modern critics—and modern supporters of Israel—can find common ground through the formation of organic communities where Jews and Arabs live and work together. For Buber, she said, Jewish ethic has to be Jewish and non-Jewish to be an ethic at all.


Pictured: Professor Emeritus of Molecular Biology William Firshein

When it came time for her to take questions, an objection was immediately posed by Professor Emeritus of Molecular Biology William Firshein, who identified himself as a second-generation Russian Jew from Brooklyn and cited statistics supporting notions that Israel is frequently attacked, that it has done everything it can to try to keep the peace, and that many Arabs live in Israel. Students began to whispering and murmur around him, and he turned around and yelled, “Shut up!” The convoluted nature of his response led Butler to thank him for his comments, “and I believe there was a question in there also.” She responded in a measured way, acknowledging her lack of precise knowledge. “We could well agree that Israel has legitimate security concerns,” she responded, “but we could also say that it has pursued actions of militarization that exceeds that concern. We would have to sit down with our documentation and have it out.”

There were a few more questions regarding gender and performativity as they pertain to Butler’s current subject of interest. In the wise words of Will Feinstein ’13, these questions seemed to be the academic equivalent of asking a band to “play your old stuff!”

In closing, one student rose and asked for practicality: “How do we introduce these ideas today? We had this beautiful discussion today that’s probably not possible anywhere else. How can we actually move forward?”

“That’s a good last question,” Butler said, pondering silently for a moment. She went on to say that the term “peace” is a site of both skepticism and cynicism, and that maybe it needs a “performative repetition” of its own. In that way she finally tied together her new work, which she says in fact represents her roots—being 14 and studying her first intellectual readings under her Rabbi—and the messages of performance and transformation that have captured the intellectual imaginations of so many.

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6 thoughts on “Judith Butler Unpacks the Bejeezus Out of Zionism at Memorial Chapel

  1. Pingback: Judith Butler has Great Hair, Lively Hands in New Promotional Video | Wesleying

  2. margotweissfan

    I don’t think all that cheering was just because people thought Margot Weiss was Judith Butler. I for one was just cheering because Margot is awesome (and I’m sure a lot of people in there have taken classes with her too).

    1. rachelpincus

      I would hope so! I was going to take a class with her last semester but sadly didn’t have time for it. She seems wonderful.


  3. Pingback: Why Tenured "Radical"? And Other Political Confessions - Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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