Friday, March 25, 2011

Why Judith Butler hates Israel

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 and superficially about the legal dispute over Kafka’s unpublished papers, opens with a long and winding libel of the Jewish state, whose National Library seeks possession of the Kafka archive.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:

I have of course already had “individual thoughts” about Kafka, although these do not concern Kafka’s position in the continuum of German literature (in which he has no position of any sort, something that he himself did not have the least doubt about; as you probably know, he was a Zionist), but his position in the continuum of Jewish literature. I advise you to begin any inquiry into Kafka with the Book of Job, or at least with a discussion of the possibility of divine judgment, which I regard as the sole subject of Kafka’s production [worthy of] being treated in a work of literature. There, you see, are in my opinion also the vantage points from which one can describe Kafka’s linguistic world, which with its affinity to the language of the Last Judgment probably represents the prosaic in its most canonical form.[1]It is most inconvenient for Butler that Kafka was a Zionist, and was thus at odds with pretty much her entire argument, but she struggles to make the best of it. “So far as we’re concerned with assessing the rights of ownership,” she says, “it probably doesn’t matter whether or not Kafka was a Zionist or whether he planned seriously to move to Palestine.”

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:[I]f it is to represent its population fairly or equally, [Israel] must represent both Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. The assertion that Israel represents the Jewish people thus denies the vast number of Jews outside Israel who are not represented by it, either legally or politically, but also the Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens of that state.But this is nonsense, both politically and conceptually. Israel is not the political deputy of Jews living in the diaspora, and it is not the symbolic emblem of non-Jews anywhere. Because it is a representative democracy in which all of its citizens are empowered to vote and to elect delegates to the Knesset, Israel does, “fairly and equally,” represent its non-Jewish citizens: just as President Obama represents the United States, even though some American citizens dissent from his policies. Even for those who disagree with him, however, the United States represents an image of something larger and more noble than its current policies.

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.

[1] Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship [1975], trans. Harry Zohn (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1981), p. 170.


David Gruber said...


This question is sparked by the essay on Chabon that you link to in this post. I'm wondering if you have read Adam Levin's "The Instructions" (yet) and if so, what you think of it? I'm in the midst of the book now, and it seems that Levin is grappling with some of the questions of what Jewish exclusiveness means in America that Chabon elides in his fiction.


D. G. Myers said...


I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve read only enough of The Instructions to know that I didn’t particularly want to read more. It struck me as a Jewish knockoff of Infinite Jest.

Joshua Cohen’s Witz is equally maddening—and, for long stretches, equally boring—but is more deeply invested in the question of Jewish identity, I think. At least Cohen seems to have a better (and more independent) sense of what he is up to.


David Gruber said...


Thanks for your response. I had the opposite reaction to the two books -- I found "Witz" basically impenetrable, while "The Instructions," despite Levin's indulgence in DFW-style flights of verbiage, is/was very engaging once I got beyond page 100. (But, of course, to each his own.)

However, being one of those American Jews who has had little exposure to Jewish culture and history (a condition which I am trying to rectify), I was hoping to get a take on the book from someone more thoroughly versed in Jewish life. If you ever do find it interesting enough to finish, I would love to hear what you think about it.


claves curiae said...

Butler writes about "poetic non-arrival;" but after she drags it through hill and dale any poetry or meaning it once held seems distant and forgotten, yet she forges forward with academic license breathing new life and meaning into the now naked phrase stripped of context. Michael Stein wrote an excellent response, "The Uses of Kafka." The first paragraph is a great!

"As modern as ever, the Kafka of the 21st Century is more like IKEA, a huge do-it-yourself store where you can furnish your intellectual arguments to your heart’s content. The lecture that American post-structuralist philosopher Judith Butler gave February 4 to launch the London Review of Books’ winter series - “Who Owns Kafka?” - is a case in point."
I think the conclusion he wrote is powerful, profound; that it's also true is a tragedy. As to why Butler can't see that???
His last two paragraphs are: "The rest of the lecture is an attempt at making the issue of Kafka’s belonging to the Jewish people more problematic than it already was. In this Kafka doesn’t need any help, and the interpretative attempts to tease out a “poetics of non-arrival” as a way of saying Kafka wouldn’t have emigrated to Palestine fall flat with the real-life knowledge that much of Kafka’s fatalism about the impossibility of going somewhere towards the end of his life came from the fact that he was dying of tuberculosis. Had he lived, “non-arrival” wouldn’t have been an option anyway. He would have faced the same choice as his contemporaries. Go to Palestine like Brod and the Hoffes, to Britain or the US like many of his writer friends, or join his sisters on a train ride that would only end at the gas chambers."
His article is published by the Prague Post and Czech Position.

His blog is

michael reidy said...

You forgot to mention that Kafka's instructions were that his papers be destroyed. In that case it is clear that the title to them is defective. As you know under the Ottoman law that applied at the time when Kafka first formed his notion of Zion all defective title reverts to the state. The Israeli Gov. to be fair to them have been punctilious in this regard and therefore they have the duty of care.

The other thing is that the old lady with the disputed title was for selling them off by the pound weight.

Any old irony:

- Such fine paper, written on both sides even. You don't get work like this anymore.

- The blots and bad spelling yet. In '67 I could get you a good price now it's on my hands forever. What can I do, it's the world we live in.