The second issue of Fathom is now out. One of the things in it is a review by Alan Johnson of Judith Butler's Parting Ways. This is not a book I have read or will read. (Not because I don't read books with which I'm likely to disagree; I often do. Rather because, like anybody else, I choose my reading, and I cut out much which I judge unlikely to be worth my time. That includes - or should it be 'excludes' - Judith Butler.) So I'm relying on Alan's account of the book here. On his account, Butler contrasts a diasporic Jewish experience and consciousness with Zionism, to the disbenefit of the latter. He writes:
In the diaspora, she argues, Jews lived lives of 'irreversible heterogeneity' as cohabitees (the Ghetto and the Pale figuring little in this narrative) and as such they developed a rich ethical tradition based on 'the relation to the non-Jew and the non-Jewish' that foregrounded justice and respect for the Other; values that were experienced as 'an ethical obligation and demand for Jewishness.'
Butler then excavates a tradition of diasporic Jewish voices... By her lights, each is of value today to those Jews such as herself who are searching for a specifically Jewish basis to effect a radical separation (the 'parting of the ways' of the book's title) between Jewishness and Zionism... Dispersion, for Butler, must be thought 'not only as a geographical situation but also as an ethical modality.' By returning to the diasporic experience we find a 'Jewish route to the insight that equality must be secured for a population regardless of religious affiliation' and a means to effect 'a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.' And that displacement will make possible 'a collective struggle to find forms of political governance that intimate principles of equality and justice for the full demographic of the region.'
The shadowy villain of Butler's book is, of course, Zionism. In her terms, when 'cultural Zionism' (Israel understood as a nation) was overtaken by 'political Zionism' (Eretz Israel understood as a land) Jews lost touch with the justice-based ethics of the diaspora and fell into 'a violent project of settler colonialism.'
Alan offers a critique of Butler's thesis that focuses on her simplification of the complex history of Zionism, on her treatment of it as a unitary ideology. Much of what he sets out of her thinking will already be familiar to people who haven't read a line of Parting Ways. But I should still like to observe that while 'rich ethical tradition... foreground[ing] justice and respect for the Other' is very much to the point, and indeed this is a tradition to which I attach great value; still, there has been another side to the diasporic Jewish experience that is both hard to ignore and rather darker. There has been, to state the obvious, anti-Jewish prejudice and persecution across more than two millennia, and a genocide against the Jewish people the very name of which has become a byword for barbarous inhumanity. In the face of all that, one might have thought that a right widely recognized for human beings in general could also be admitted for the Jews - namely, the right to national self-determination. Apparently not by Judith Butler, however, for whom justice and respecting the Other is something that Jews need to practise by passing up this key right for themselves.