Judith Butler’s lecture is preceded by Eduardo Mendieta‘s introduction.
A certain problem emerges between religion and public life when public criticism of Israeli state violence is taken to be anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish. For the record, I would like to make clear that some of those criticisms do employ anti-Semitic rhetoric and do engage anti-Semitic sentiment although many of those criticisms do not, especially those but not exclusively those that emerge from within Jewish frameworks of social justice. My point is not to distinguish between these two kinds of criticism, although I think they must be distinguished, but to consider whether the public criticism of state violence — and I know that term is yet to be explained — isn’t in some sense a Jewish thing to do. You will, I hope, forgive my initial flippancy here, but you will see the quandary I am trying to approach, if you consider that, if one openly and publicly criticizes Israeli state violence, then one is considered anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish in some quarters, and yet, to openly and publicly criticize such violence is in some ways an obligatory ethical demand from within certain Jewish frameworks, both religious and non-religious.
Of course, you already see a second set of quandaries introduced by this first formulation. As Hannah Arendt made clear in her early writings, Jewishness is not always the same as Judaism, and as she made clear in her evolving political position on the state of Israel, neither Judaism nor Jewishness necessarily leads to the embrace of Zionism. My aim is not to repeat the claim that Jews differ among themselves on the value of Zionism, on the injustice of the occupation, or on the military destructiveness of the Israeli state; these are complex matters, and there are vast disagreements on all of them. And my point is not to say simply Jews are obligated to criticize Israel, although in fact I think they are, we are. Given that Israel acts within the name of the Jewish people and casts itself as the legitimate representative of the Jewish people, there is a question of what is done in the name of the Jewish people, and so all the more reason to reclaim that tradition and ethics in favor of another politics.
The effort to establish the presence of progressive Jews runs the risk of remaining within a certain identitarian presumption if not a fully narcissistic one. One opposes any and all expressions of anti-Jewish anti-Semitism, and one reclaims Jewishness for a project that seeks to dismantle Israeli state violence. Now, this particular form of the solution is of course challenged if we consider that, within several ethical frameworks, Jewishness is itself an anti-identitarian project in so far as being a Jew, we might even say being the Jew, implies taking up an ethical relation to the non-Jew. Indeed, if the relevant Jewish tradition for raising public criticism of Israeli state violence is one that draws upon cohabitation as the norm of sociality, then, what follows is the need not only to establish an alternative Jewish public presence, distinct from AIPAC for instance, or an alternative Jewish movement, such as Jewish Voice for Peace of which I am a part, but to affirm the displacement of identity that Jewishness is, as paradoxical as that may first sound. Only then can we come to understand the mode of ethical relationality that informs some key historical and religious understandings of what it is to be a Jew. In the end, it’s not about specifying the ontology of the Jew over and against some other cultural or religious group. We have every reason to be suspicious of any effort to do such a thing. It is rather a question of understanding the very relation to the non-Jew as the way of configuring religion and public life within Judaism. And it’s on the basis of this conception of cohabitation that critique of illegitimate nation-state violence can and must be waged.
Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Butler is the author of numerous articles and books, including Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France; Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”; The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection; Excitable Speech; Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death; and Precarious Life: Powers of Violence and Mourning. Most recently, Butler has written Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (Verso), and she has co-authored Is Critique Secular? with Saba Mahmood, Talal Asad, and Wendy Brown (forthcoming with University of California Press). This lecture was delivered at the “Rethinking Secularism: the Power of Religion in the Public Sphere” conference, Cooper Union, 22 October 2009. The text above is a partial transcript of the lecture.