As someone who is “unambiguously hostile” to the enemies of Israel, I was aggravated but not particularly surprised by Judith Butler’s essay in the March 3rd issue of the London Review of Books (h/t: Jesse Freedman, Books, Inq.).
Several years ago, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum accused Butler of collaborating with evil by resorting to a “hip quietism” that obscures the “difficulty of realizing justice in America.” Since then Butler has begun to emphasize her Jewish identity to give cover to a public critique of Israel, becoming an active collaborator with the evil of Arab irredentism.
Her new essay, entitled “Who Owns Kafka?” and superficially about the legal dispute over Kafka’s unpublished papers, opens with a long and winding libel of the Jewish state, whose National Library seeks possession of the Kafka archive. The very idea of Israel is so scandalous to her that Butler cannot bear to imagine Kafka’s papers being housed there, in a facility open to all researchers.
She is especially upset at the National Library’s claim that Kafka is an “asset” of the Jewish people. The claim, she says, is controversial, because “it effaces other modes of belonging or, rather, non-belonging,” and is particularly galling for Butler, because the library’s “legal case rests on the presumption that it is the state of Israel that represents the Jewish people.”
Perhaps Butler is worried that being known as a Jew will efface her connections to feminism and the Left, but the worry is misplaced. The notion that Jewish identity somehow cancels out any other identification is so numbskulled that only an intellectual ambivalent about her own identity could come up with it. A human being is a convergence of identities; she is the experience in which her loyalties and commitments overlap. My children belong to their mother and me, but they also belong to the Jewish people, the student body of the school they attend, their teams and scout troops, the United States of America. Belonging to a people or an institution is nothing like investing all of your retirement savings in just one stock.
The question whether Kafka belongs to the Jews is an altogether different question, and I won’t even try to offer a definitive answer here. What I will do, though, is to quote the answer of a much greater scholar than either Butler or me. Writing in August 1931 to Walter Benjamin, who asked for a “hint” about his opinion of Kafka, Gershom Scholem said:
Except it turns out that it does matter, after all. In contesting the “presumption” that “the state of Israel . . . represents the Jewish people,” Butler advances a distinction between Zionist and non-Zionist Jews, and holds that Israel cannot possibly represent the Jewish people because not all Jews are Zionists. Why, just look at her!
Her problem is the factual one that the overwhelming majority of Jews are Zionists. Oh, there are a few marginal Jews, like Butler and her Berkeley neighbors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, for whom Jewishness is a claim to special status without much in the way of Jewish learning behind it, who are not. But to say no more than this is to be coy and misleading. The kind of Jew that Butler has in mind, who is not represented by the state of Israel, is not merely non-Zionist, but loudly and proudly anti-Zionist. But how then can an anti-Zionist like Butler, unrelentingly antagonistic toward the Jewish state, argue in good faith that Israel has no right of “ownership” to his papers unless she is able to separate Kafka from his well-recorded Zionism?
Here’s how. Butler proposes to divide “Jews who are Zionist [from] Jews who are not, for example Jews in the diaspora for whom the homeland is not a place of inevitable return or a final destination.” On this showing Kafka, who never “planned seriously to move to Palestine,” was no Zionist. (Butler conveniently ignores the historical facts of the Third Aliyah to Palestine. In August 1920, the British mandatory government restricted Jewish immigration to 16,500 a year, and only for those who could prove that they would be employed upon arrival. Two years later, the British stipulated that future immigration should not exceed Palestine’s ability to absorb new immigrants, and adopted a system of granting permits by employment categories. How many Jewish novelists would be permitted into the country is unclear.)
At all events, Butler’s distinction is completely ahistorical. Her classification of “Jews who are not [Zionists]” has never existed in Jewish literature and thought, anywhere, at any time. The more accurate distinction was advanced by Peter Beinert last year in the New York Review of Books. “Among American Jews today,” Beinert said, “there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included.”
Butler would claim the secularized Jews, who throb in sympathy for the Palestinian Arabs, among those who are “not” Zionist (while concealing her belief that non-Zionists are identical to anti-Zionists). It is undeniably true that most of the Jews living in the diaspora will never relocate to Israel, but it does not follow that they are not Zionists. And only the smallest of minorities think like Butler. The American Jewish Committee’s annual survey of Jewish opinion for 2010 found that thirty percent of American Jews feel “very close” to Israel, while another forty-four percent feel “fairly close.” While only twenty percent admit to feeling “fairly distant,” the camp of those like Butler who feel “very distant” includes just five percent of American Jews.
But is it really presumptuous to suggest that Israel represents the Jews? Butler is able to defend her assertion that it does not only by sneaking from one meaning of the word representation to another. It is one thing to say that Israel stands for the Jewish people as the physical embodiment of a spiritual ideal. It is quite another thing to hold, as Butler does, that the state of Israel acts as if it has been delegated to speak for the Jews as a whole. She writes:
And that is what Butler cannot stomach. In her view, exile is the proper condition for the Jewish people. Although she cites the little-known Israeli historian Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin in support of her view, a far better-known spokesman is the novelist Michael Chabon. I have already discussed the nostalgia for exile in the last paragraphs of my Sewanee Review essay on him, but perhaps a little more might be said. Israel may not be a perfect state—no state is—but it exemplifies the Jews’ three-thousand-year-old dream of self-determination in their own land. For Jews like Judith Butler, who have exiled themselves from Jewish languages and institutions, perhaps the only warm refuge is to be found in a passionate hatred for the Jewish state.
 Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship , trans. Harry Zohn (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1981), p. 170.