Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Packed to the Rafters at the District Six Museum

It was a frigid, windy night in Cape Town when I saw Judith Butler give a talk about Zionism and Judaism at the District Six Museum.

I got there 15 minutes before the lecture, and it was standing-room only!

I found myself an interesting seat, just above the podium:

The topic is delicate, even hot-button, so I will try to be as clear and fair as possible in describing what was said.

Butler began by commenting on the fact that Judaism predates Zionism, and that Zionism has had different streams, and existed in different fields, although her focus would be the modern-day connotation regarding the state of Israel and conflict with Palestine.

Throughout the 20th Century, Butler reported, there were movements for political, religious and cultural renewal in Jewish thought, all of which fit under the umbrella of Zionism. But after World War II, in the face of contested Israeli settlements on the West Bank, "The Wall," and land redistributed since 1948, "Zionism" is often understood to mean a radical right-wing Jewish movement in favor of settler-colonialism.

From here, Butler gave a painstakingly detailed philosophical presentation on representations of "The Jewish People." It was certainly thought-provoking, and raised questions like, Who decides who is Jewish and who is not? Does the state of Israel have this authority--does it have the ultimate or only authority? Following that, is criticism of the State of Israel a criticism of all Jewish people? Is criticism of the State of Israel always Antisemitic? What if a Jewish person criticizes the actions of the Israeli government--must that individual be a "self-hating Jew"?

Butler criticized what she termed the postulation of unity of The Jewish People, culminating in the State of Israel claiming to have the power to determine who has a Jewish voice. Currently, the Israeli government deems a person treasonous for actions like boycotting or petition-signing (Butler gave the example of signing a petition supporting a two-state solution), seemingly rights guaranteed to citizens in a democracy.

Identity was also a focus in this talk. Butler made it clear that a conflation of criticism of the Israeli government with Antisemitism is unproductive and unfair--indeed, she called it "intellectually paralyzing," as well as "painful and paradoxical" for people who oppose racism and colonialism worldwide.

When trying to imagine ways forward, Butler said that Judaism offers its own criticism of this current embodiment of Zionism. Drawing on the thought of Levinas and Hannah Arendt (though offering her own criticisms of each), Butler presented Jewish frameworks that support the values of social and political equality, self-determination and peaceful cohabitation. Butler explained it as such: In Judaism, all lives are valuable and considered grievable. Devaluation of any life--Jewish or not--would then oppose a Jewish ethical framework.

Butler then presented communitarianism as a possible ethical framework for the future of Israel-Palestine, with its tenet of responsibility for others. Radical responsibility toward others was explored, with propositions like: I am obligated to The Other more than I am to myself. And: Egoism is unethical.

What this radical communitarianism boils down to is: like it or not, I am bound to you, and this is how I am/how I exist/how I act as a self. (Are you still reading? You get a gold star. I was a B-level philosophy student, and this sort of writing usually confounds me.)

In this postulated communitarian framework (via Arendt and Levitas and Butler) we must undermine the sacred value of choice in favor of cohabitation. Why? Because we have to live with those people who already exist--if we believe we have the right to determine which people exist and where, we are proponents of genocide. Arendt coined the phrase "the irreversible plurality of Earth's population," and if we do not condone genocide, we are obligated to protect this plurality.

Cohabitation. The only ethical option then is peaceful cohabitation. Translating this into a political framework is the real catch.

The goal of the Judaism/Zionism project, Butler said, was to offer a calm, logical explanation of these ideas--but she admitted her own temptation toward "yelling" (her word, said jokingly). And yet, buttons were clearly pushed that night. An hour was left for a question and answer session, and one young man took the opportunity to ask a series of questions with hardly enough time to draw a breath. The line of questioning went something like, "Where is your condemnation of real and present Antisemitism in the world? Where is your condemnation of violent and undemocratic Arab nations? Where is your condemnation for subjugation of women in Arab states?" and so on. Butler eventually interrupted him to ask if he wanted to have a conversation with her, or if he wanted to talk at her. He said, "I've had enough indoctrination," and stormed out of the room.

I don't really know how to conclude my summary, other than: I was struck by the view of Butler standing on this map of District Six, which was bulldozed and reclaimed by the Apartheid government of South Africa.

Land. We fight and die for land, all over the world. My deconstructivist theory isn't up to snuff for me to observe anything other than that.

Clearly there was a lot to digest, so Peej and I went back to Pickwick's after the talk.

Would it be twee of me to point out that not too long ago, there was no such thing as a District Six museum, criticism of forced removals was considered treasonous, and it would be illegal for PJ and I to sit in a Long Street restaurant together?

I don't know how to translate a communitarian ethical framework into a political blueprint for peace. But I know how to hope.


  1. Laura, that's fascinating - both your summary and the more practical and current interpretation of Butlers that you described. We talked about Arendt a bit with HEX last year, though I've now forgotten the finer details of the conversation. I'll have to look it up for you. And generally speaking Butler is a rock star.
    Do you know what inspired her to research this issue?
    Also, sort of unrelated, but now I'm curious, what is the history of Judaism in South Africa? Is that a large population?

  2. Thanks for reading! I have never read Hannah Arendt, but now I am definitely going to. I'd love to see the piece you discussed with the HEX scholars.

    It seems that Butler has been writing essays on Israel/Palestine and her identity as an American Jew. This was news to me this week! She seemed very passionate about claiming her space as a Jew who is critical of the Israeli government, and my guess is that her work springs from that passion?

    South Africa has a Jewish population--my understanding is that it is small, but certainly has its influence. Cape Town has always been a port city, and so people from all over the world emigrated here for various reasons--escaping Europe during WWII seems like a pretty common one. Under apartheid South Africa, when racial classification was the rule of the day, I understand that Jews were hard to "classify" as white or not. There certainly is a history of Antisemitism in SA.

    But my knowledge is embarrassingly incomplete!