Judith Butler: As a Jew, I Was Taught It Was Ethically Imperative to Speak Up

The philosopher, professor and author talks about gender, the dehumanization of Gazans, and how Jewish values drove her to criticize the actions of the State of Israel.

Udi Aloni
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Udi Aloni

Philosopher, professor and author Judith Butler arrived in Israel this month, en route to the West Bank, where she was to give a seminar at Bir Zeit University, visit the theater in Jenin, and meet privately with friends and students. A leading light in her field, Butler chose not to visit any academic institutions in Israel itself. In the conversation below, conducted in New York several months ago, Butler talks about gender, the dehumanization of Gazans, and how Jewish values drove her to criticize the actions of the State of Israel.

In Israel, people know you well. Your name was even in the popular film Ha-Buah [The Bubble - the tragic tale of a gay relationship between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim].

[laughs] Although I disagreed with the use of my name in that context. I mean, it was very funny to say, "don't Judith Butler me," but "to Judith Butler someone" meant to say something very negative about men and to identify with a form of feminism that was against men. And I've never been identified with that form of feminism. That?s not my mode. I'm not known for that. So it seems like it was confusing me with a radical feminist view that one would associate with Catharine MacKinnon or Andrea Dworkin, a completely different feminist modality. I'm not always calling into question who's a man and who's not, and am I a man? Maybe I'm a man. [laughs] Call me a man. I am much more open about categories of gender, and my feminism has been about women's safety from violence, increased literacy, decreased poverty and more equality. I was never against the category of men.

A beautiful Israeli poem asks, "How does one become Avot Yeshurun?" Avot Yeshurun was a poet who caused turmoil in Israeli poetry. I want to ask, how does one become Judith Butler -especially with the issue of Gender Trouble, the book that so troubled the discourse on gender?

You know, I'm not sure that I know how to give an account of it, and I think it troubles gender differently depending on how it is received and translated. For instance, one of the first receptions [of the book] was in Germany, and there, it seemed very clear that young people wanted a politics that emphasized agency, or something affirmative that they could create or produce. The idea of performativity - which involved bringing categories into being or bringing new social realities about - was very exciting, especially for younger people who were tired with old models of oppression - indeed, the very model men oppress women, or straights oppress gays.

It seemed that if you were subjugated, there were also forms of agency that were available to you, and you were not just a victim, or you were not only oppressed, but oppression could become the condition of your agency. Certain kinds of unexpected results can emerge from the situation of oppression if you have the resources and if you have collective support. It's not an automatic response; it's not a necessary response. But it's possible. I think I also probably spoke to something that was already happening in the movement. I put into theoretical language what was already being impressed upon me from elsewhere. So I didn't bring it into being single-handedly. I received it from several cultural resources and put it into another language.

Once you became "Judith Butler," we began to hear more about Jews and Jewish texts. People came to hear you speak about gender and suddenly they were faced with Gaza, divine violence. It almost felt like you had some closure on the previous matter. Is there a connection, a continuum, or is this a new phase?

Let's go back further. I'm sure I've told you that I began to be interested in philosophy when I was 14, and I was in trouble in the synagogue. The rabbi said, "You are too talkative in class. You talk back, you are not well behaved. You have to come and have a tutorial with me." I said "OK, great!" I was thrilled.

He said: "What do you want to study in the tutorial? This is your punishment. Now you have to study something seriously." I think he thought of me as unserious. I explained that I wanted to read existential theology focusing on Martin Buber. (I've never left Martin Buber.) I wanted look at the question of whether German idealism could be linked with National Socialism. Was the tradition of Kant and Hegel responsible in some way for the origins of National Socialism? My third question was why Spinoza was excommunicated from the synagogue. I wanted to know what happened and whether the synagogue was justified.

Now I must go Jewish: what was your parents' relation to Judaism?

My parents were practicing Jews. My mother grew up in an orthodox synagogue and after my grandfather died, she went to a conservative synagogue and a little later ended up in a reform synagogue. My father was in reform synagogues from the beginning.

My mother's uncles and aunts were all killed in Hungary [during the Holocaust]. My grandmother lost all of her relatives, except for the two nephews who came with them in the car when my grandmother went back in 1938 to see who she could rescue. It was important for me. I went to Hebrew school. But I also went after school to special classes on Jewish ethics because I was interested in the debates. So I didn't do just the minimum. Through high school, I suppose, I continued Jewish studies alongside my public school education.

And you showed me the photos of the bar mitzvah of your son as a good proud Jewish Mother...

So it's been there from the start, it's not as if I arrived at some place that I haven't always been in. I grew very skeptical of certain kind of Jewish separatism in my youth. I mean, I saw the Jewish community was always with each other; they didn't trust anybody outside. You'd bring someone home and the first question was "Are they Jewish, are they not Jewish?" Then I entered into a lesbian community in college, late college, graduate school, and the first thing they asked was, "Are you a feminist, are you not a feminist?" "Are you a lesbian, are you not a lesbian?" and I thought "Enough with the separatism!"

It felt like the same kind of policing of the community. You only trust those who are absolutely like yourself, those who have signed a pledge of allegiance to this particular identity. Is that person really Jewish, maybe they're not so Jewish. I don?t know if they're really Jewish. Maybe they're self-hating. Is that person lesbian? I think maybe they had a relationship with a man. What does that say about how true their identity was? I thought I can't live in a world in which identity is being policed in this way.

But if I go back to your other question... In Gender Trouble, there is a whole discussion of melancholy. What is the condition under which we fail to grieve others? I presumed, throughout my childhood, that this was a question the Jewish community was asking itself. It was also a question that I was interested in when I went to study in Germany. The famous Mitscherlich book on the incapacity to mourn, which was a criticism of German post-war culture, was very, very interesting to me.

In the 70s and 80s, in the gay and lesbian community, it became clear to me that very often, when a relationship would break up, a gay person wouldn't be able to tell their parents, his or her parents. So here, people were going through all kinds of emotional losses that were publicly unacknowledged and that became very acute during the AIDS crisis. In the earliest years of the AIDS crisis, there were many gay men who were unable to come out about the fact that their lovers were ill, A, and then dead, B. They were unable to get access to the hospital to see their lover, unable to call their parents and say, "I have just lost the love of my life."

This was extremely important to my thinking throughout the 80s and 90s. But it also became important to me as I started to think about war. After 9/11, I was shocked by the fact that there was public mourning for many of the people who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center, less public mourning for those who died in the attack on the Pentagon, no public mourning for the illegal workers of the WTC, and, for a very long time, no public acknowledgment of the gay and lesbian families and relationships that had been destroyed by the loss of one of the partners in the bombings. Then we went to war very quickly, Bush having decided that the time for grieving is over. I think he said that after ten days, that the time for grieving is over and now is time for action. At which point we started killing populations abroad with no clear rationale. And the populations we targeted for violence were ones that never appeared to us in pictures. We never got little obituaries for them. We never heard anything about what lives had been destroyed. And we still don't.

I then moved towards a different kind of theory, asking under what conditions certain lives are grievable and certain lives not grievable or ungrievable. It's clear to me that in Israel-Palestine and in the violent conflicts that have taken place over the years, there is differential grieving. Certain lives become grievable within the Israeli press, for instance - highly grievable and highly valuable - and others are understood as ungrievable because they are understood as instruments of war, or they are understood as outside the nation, outside religion, or outside that sense of belonging which makes for a grievable life. The question of grievability has linked my work on queer politics, especially the AIDS crisis, with my more contemporary work on war and violence, including the work on Israel-Palestine.

It's interesting because when the war on Gaza started, I couldn't stay in Tel Aviv anymore. I visited the Galilee a lot. And suddenly I realized that many of the Palestinians who died in Gaza have families there, relatives who are citizens of Israel. What people didn't know is that there was a massed grief in Israel. Grief for families who died in Gaza, a grief within Israel, of citizens of Israel. And nobody in the country spoke about it, about the grief within Israel. It was shocking.

The Israeli government and the media started to say that everyone who was killed or injured in Gaza was a member of Hamas; or that they were all being used as part of the war effort; that even the children were instruments of the war effort; that the Palestinians put them out there, in the targets, to show that Israelis would kill children, and this was actually part of a war effort. At this point, every single living being who is Palestinian becomes a war instrument. They are all, in their being, or by virtue of being Palestinian, declaring war on Israel or seeking the destruction of the Israel.

So any and all Palestinian lives that are killed or injured are understood no longer to be lives, no longer understood to be living, no longer understood even to be human in a recognizable sense, but they are artillery. The bodies themselves are artillery. And of course, the extreme instance of that is the suicide bomber, who has become unpopular in recent years. That is the instance in which a body becomes artillery, or becomes part of a violent act. If that figure gets extended to the entire Palestinian population, then there is no living human population anymore, and no one who is killed there can be grieved. Because everyone who is a living Palestinian is, in their being, a declaration of war, or a threat to the existence of Israel, or pure military artillery, materiel. They have been transformed, in the Israeli war imaginary, into pure war instruments.

So when a people who believes that another people is out to destroy them sees all the means of destruction killed, or some extraordinary number of the means of destruction destroyed, they are thrilled, because they think their safety and well-being and happiness are being purchased, are being achieved through this destruction.

And what happened with the perspective from the outside, the outside media, was extremely interesting to me. The European press, the U.S. press, the South American press, the East Asian press all raised questions about the excessive violence of the Gaza assault. It was very strange to see how the Israeli media made the claim that people on the outside do not understand; that people on the outside are anti-Semitic; that people on the outside are blaming Israel for defending themselves when they themselves, if attacked, would do the exact same thing.

Why Israel-Palestine? Is this directly connected to your Jewishness?

As a Jew, I was taught that it was ethically imperative to speak up and to speak out against arbitrary state violence. That was part of what I learned when I learned about the Second World War and the concentration camps. There were those who would and could speak out against state racism and state violence, and it was imperative that we be able to speak out. Not just for Jews, but for any number of people. There was an entire idea of social justice that emerged for me from the consideration of the Nazi genocide.

I would also say that what became really hard for me is that if one wanted to criticize Israeli state violence - precisely because that as a Jew one is under obligation to criticize excessive state violence and state racism - then one is in a bind, because one is told that one is either self-hating as a Jew or engaging anti-Semitism. And yet for me, it comes out of a certain Jewish value of social justice. So how can I fulfill my obligation as a Jew to speak out against an injustice when, in speaking out against Israeli state and military injustice, I am accused of not being a good enough Jew or of being a self-hating Jew? This is the bind of my current situation.

Let me say one other thing about Jewish values. There are two things I took from Jewish philosophy and my Jewish formation that were really important for me... well there are many. There are many. Sitting shiva, for instance, explicit grieving. I thought it was the one of the most beautiful rituals of my youth. There were several people who died in my youth, and there were several moments when whole communities gathered in order to make sure that those who had suffered terrible losses were taken up and brought back into the community and given a way to affirm life again. The other idea was that life is transient, and because of that, because there is no after world, because we don't have any hopes in a final redemption, we have to take especially good care of life in the here and now. Life has to be protected. It is precarious. I would even go so far as to say that precarious life is, in a way, a Jewish value for me.

I realized something, through your way of thinking. A classic mistake that people made with Gender Trouble was the notion that body and language are static. But everything is in dynamic and in constant movement; the original never exists. In a way I felt the same with the Diaspora and the emancipation. Neither are static. No one came before the other. The Diaspora, when it was static, became separatist, became the shtetl. And when the emancipation was realized, it became an ethnocratic state; it also became separatist, a re-construction of the ghetto. So maybe the tension between the two, emancipation and Diaspora, without choosing a one or the other, is the only way to keep us out of ethnocentrism. I suppose my idea is not yet fully formulated. It relates to the way I felt that my grandfather was open to the language of exile while being connected to the land at the same time. By being open to both, emancipation and Diaspora, we might avoid falling into ethnocentrism.

You have a tension between Diaspora and emancipation. But what I am thinking of is perhaps something a little different. I have to say, first of all, that I do not think that there can be emancipation with and through the establishment of state that restricts citizenship in the way that it does, on the basis of religion? So in my view, any effort to retain the idea of emancipation when you don't have a state that extends equal rights of citizenship to Jews and non-Jews alike is, for me, bankrupt. It's bankrupt.

That's why I would say that there should be bi-nationalism from the beginning.

Or even multi-nationalism. Maybe even a kind of citizenship without regard to religion, race, ethnicity, etc. In any case, the more important point here is that there are those who clearly believe that Jews who are not in Israel, who are in the Galut, are actually either in need of return ? they have not yet returned, or they are not and cannot be representative of the Jewish people. So the question is: what does it mean to transform the idea of Galut into Diaspora? In other words, Diaspora is another tradition, one that involves the scattering without return. I am very critical of this idea of return, and I think "Galut" very often demeans the Diasporic traditions within Judaism.

I thought that if we make a film about bi-nationalism, the opening scene should be a meeting of "The First Jewish Congress for Bi-Nationalism." It could be a secret meeting in which we all discuss who we would like to be our first president, and the others there send me to choose you? because we need to have a woman, and she has to be queer. But not only queer, and not only woman. She has to be the most important Jewish philosopher today.

But seriously, you know, it would be astonishing to think about what forms of political participation would still be possible on a model of federal government. Like a federated authority for Palestine-Israel that was actually governed by a strong constitution that guaranteed rights regardless of cultural background, religion, ethnicity, race, and the rest. In a way, bi-nationalism goes part of the way towards explaining what has to happen. And I completely agree with you that there has to be a cultural movement that overcomes hatred and paranoia and that actually draws on questions of cohabitation. Living in mixity and in diversity, accepting your neighbor, finding modes of living together. And no political solution, at a purely procedural level, is going to be successful if there is no bilingual education, if there are no ways of reorganizing neighborhoods, if there are no ways of reorganizing territory, bringing down the wall, accepting the neighbors you have, and accepting that there are profound obligations that emerge from being adjacent to another people in this way.

So I agree with you. But I think we have to get over the idea that a state has to express a nation. And if we have a bi-national state, it's expressing two nations. Only when bi-nationalism deconstructs the idea of a nation can we hope to think about what a state, what a polity might look like that would actually extend equality. It is no longer the question of "two peoples," as Martin Buber put it. There is extraordinary complexity and intermixing among both the Jewish and the Palestinian populations. There will be those who say, "Ok, a state that expresses two cultural identities." No. State should not be in the business of expressing cultural identity.