Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Judith Butler and 9/11 and How We Grieve

It is paradoxical that on 9/11, when we grieve for the victims of an atrocious act of terrorism, Judith Butler, who has written about the paradoxes of grieving for 9/11 victims, is receiving the prestigious Adorno Prize conferring a moral stamp of approval for her philosophical output. There have been some excellent disputations against the bestowal of this prize upon her and I provide links to them at the end. But what I wanted to get at with this post is Butler's very insufficient theory of how we grieve.

On the face of it her descriptionfrom a 2010 interview in Haaretz, of who grieved for whom after 9/11 isn't all that controversial:

"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...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."

True enough, although I would argue with the hierarchy she draws of how the 9/11 victims were mourned. Suffice it say, Americans mourned their own, and the Western world followed

However, her indictment is strictly one sided. While she sets as her target for outrage the US and the West she remains willfully blind to the very same hierarchies of grieving that take place on the other’s side of the world. We mourn those closest to us first. And we tend not to mourn our enemies. Plus she ignores the many conspiracy theories, particularly the Antisemitic ones, that emerged from the Middle East to 'explain' what happened on 9/11.

For Butler, the West is always the agent of harm. It and the 'other' have static positions that cannot be exchanged. Because the of West's global hegemony – and by extension Israel’s in the ME – the 'other' is always the innocent party regardless of how destructive its behavior may be. She states that the globe is divided, "into grievable and ungrievable lives from the perspective of those who wage war," but the mirror is never turned towards Muslims bombing mosques where other Muslims are praying, or markets in which they congregate. As far as I know she has neither said nor written anything on the thousands of Syrian lives that were murdered but not mourned by Assad's regime.

And she has turned a blind eye to the joyous reception that greeted the 9/11 tragedy in the Palestinian territories. 

In fact, she is absolutely incapable of mourning the lives of Israelis lost during the Gaza War nor is she willing to admit to the Hamas tactic of putting Gaza's civilians in harm’s way. 

Her theory of grieving has turned into an important lynchpin of her anti-Zionist discourse. Reading further into the exchange between Butler and filmmaker Udi Aloni, it is clear that just as she accuses Americans for mourning only her 9/11 victims, Israel is guilty of dehumanizing Palestinians such that they are ungrievable. The mendacity is entirely on the Israeli side with not one word of disapproval of Palestinians' dehumanization of their Israeli, usually civilian, targets.

“Aloni:  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.

“Butler:  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.
"...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...They have been transformed, in the Israeli war imaginary, into pure war instruments.But not vice-versa, of course. 
Butler has a particular discomfort with the idea of Jews looking after and grieving their own. It seems to have started when she was growing up middle class and gay within what she describes as a comformist Jewish community. Later this got conflated with her criticism of heterosexist conformity on top of which she added a layer of post-colonialist theory. It's a kind of a radical 'personal is political.' This is how she explains her evolving philosophy

“I grew very skeptical of a 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 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.”

“I then moved toward 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...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.”

Butler's solipsism extends to a misreading of Hillel's famous teaching, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" (Hillel, Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14) Clearly, she privileges the fulfillment of looking beyond ourselves to the 'other', while finding "If I am not for myself," loathsome. Hence, for her, the whole Zionist enterprise is irredeemable because it is based on Jewish solidarity.

From Parting Ways, Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, her latest book we get: "If Jews only mourn the loss of Jews in the conflicts of the Middle East, then they affirm that only those who belong to one's own religion or nation are worthy of grief...One hears, time and and again in Israeli public discourse, that a single Israeli life is worth more than countless Palestinian lives. Yet only when such obscene calculations definitively fail, and all populations are deemed grievable, will the principle of social and political equality start to govern."

So, the movement towards guaranteeing full equality in a binational Palestine-of-the-imagination must start with Jews abandoning the injunction to look after themselves and, as we shall see, de-Judaize their ethical tradition.

They must de-privilege their concerns for the safety of their own: "One claim is that a state was needed on those lands or that rights must be secured in other lands for refugees from the Nazi camps; another claim is that a state was needed on those lands where Jews might be safe (which is still not necessarily a politically Zionist argument, however it is a view that prizes the safety of Jews over all other possible refugees.)..."

Then: "...some aspects of Jewish ethics require us to depart from a concern only with vulnerability and fate of the Jewish people."

Then: "...the relation with non-Jew is at the core of Jewish ethics, which means that it is not possible to be Jewish without the non-Jew and that, to be ethical, one must depart from Jewishness as an exclusive frame of ethics."

And finally to: "If the principles of equality and justice that drive the movement against political Zionism were elusively derived from such (Jewish) sources, they would immediately prove to be insufficient, even contradictory. Indeed, even the critique of Zionism, if exclusively Jewish, extends Jewish hegemony for thinking about the region and becomes, in spite of itself, part of what we might call the Zionist effect. Surely any effort that extends Jewish hegemony in the region is part of the Zionist effect, whether or not it understands itself as Zionist or anti-Zionist. Is there a way around this conundrum if one still wants to contest the Israeli claim to represent Jews and Jewishness and to sever the connection so many now make between the State of Israel and the Jewish people and, indeed, Jewish values?" No, honey, there isn't.

How paradoxical that she who claims as her moral underpinning the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam should preach a kind of ethical deracination so that Jews may live in harmony with their neighbors. And again, not a word about the 'other's responsibility to accept a Jewish presence in its midst.

Some of the better and more comprehensive analyses that have come out in response to Butler's Adorno Prize include those by Petra Marquardt-BigmanRichard Landesand 
A. Jay Adler. You should read them.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Nakba v Nakba Update: The Hanan Ashrawi Version***

Peter Beinart's Open Zion blog has run a four-part debate about whether or not the 800,000+ Jews who were forced to flee the Arab countries after 1948, should be considered refugees entitled to the same consideration as the 800,000+ Palestinians who fled or forced out of the areas that became Israel. The debate turns on naming, and consequently on compensation.

Lara Friedman's arguments, here and here, rely retroactively far too much on the success of the eventual integration of the Jewish refugees, as if to say: Israel wanted them, see how well they've done, how can you call them refugees? "They are either refugees, or they are new immigrants—they can’t be both.”

Lyn Julius' response, here and here, is that the Jews of Arab countries who had lived there for centuries fled as refugees with almost nothing, their property having been confiscated by the Arabs and were forced to live for years in miserable conditions either in Israel tent cities, or in rat-infested rooms in way-stations such Paris awaiting future absorption, somewhere, anywhere. What can you call them other than refugees?

No doubt both Israel and the Arab countries were driven by ideology in naming the two sets of people: Israel seeking an ingathering of Jews from all over the world named their refugees immigrants and made them citizens. The Arab countries which had provoked the war that resulted in Palestinian refugees insisted on maintaining their status and, apart from Jordan, refused to integrate them, give them full civil rights and fed them an illusory yearning for a return. Six decades on and we don't need to rehash the results.

I realize I'm guilty of narrowing the arguments tremedously, but what I really wanted to do with this post was to challenge Open Zion's editors' insidious choices of photos to accompany each side of the debate: all four parts are illustrated with pictures related only to the Palestinian refugees. There are mourning Palestinians, protesting Palestinians, Palestinians of every generation, as if to say, the Palestinian refugees are still here, where are the Jewish refugees? Why even bring this up now?

Well, take a look at the photo montage above. See if you can tell the Arab refugees from the Jews. Both sets lived in very similar conditions upon losing their homes. Life was hell for both. One of these groups has been exploited mercilessly and most of its members are still mired in misery, but do not belittle the suffering of the other group whose story now is very different. Open Zion should have reached back into the archives to find contemporary photos of both Jews and Palestinians. That they didn't confirms their ideological bias.

There is lots more to say about this issue and the Open Zion debate is worth a read for Lyn Julius' excellent summary of the history behind the Jewish expulsion. For more background, I recommend Point of No Return, a blog detailing the lives and history of Jews from Arab countries then and now, and Lucette Lagnado's rich memoir of the life of one Egyptian family forced to leave their beloved Cairo, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.

1, 4, 5, 8: Palestinian refugees
2, 3, 6, 7: Jewish refugees

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, has just published an article in the Arab press asserting that there are no Jewish refugees. According to her, "Jews who came to Israel from Arab countries are not refugees, because they left their homes voluntarily and under pressure from Zionist groups and the Jewish Agency." A preposterous claim and a couple of excellent refutations to it are worth reading:

David Harris in the Huffinton Post: Hanan Ashrawi is to truth what smoking is to health.
Lyn Julius in Times of Israel: No cats in America for Hanan Ashrawi.