Cynthia Ozick and William Shakespeare on Judith Butler: Plus Ca Change, Plus C’est La Meme Chose
by Edward Alexander
Will Judith Butler, who recently brought her frenzied campaign to expel Israel from the family of nations to Brooklyn College, be remembered as a latter-day Yael in reverse, delivering Israel not from but to her enemies? Or as the author of anti-Israel diatribes comprising a virtual Magna Carta of stupidity (written not in Latin, to be sure, but in prose of stupefying opacity)? Or as a Malvolio, sick with self-love? Or as just another self-deluded and self-fascinated Jewish apostate? Cynthia Ozick answered this question almost a decade ago in her conclusion to an essay called “The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!” which Paul Bogdanor and I used as a Preamble to a book about Jews who hate Israel called The Jewish Divide over Israel. I take the liberty of quoting Ms. Ozick here.
Judith Butler, identifying herself as a Jew in the London Review of Books, the claim that linking “Zionism with Jewishness… is adopting the very tactic favored by antisemites.” A skilled sophist (one might dare to say solipsist), she tosses those who meticulously chart and expose antisemitism’s disguises into the same bin as the antisemites themselves. Having accused Israel of the “dehumanization of Palestinians”; having acknowledged that she was a signatory to a petition opposing “the Israeli occupation, though in my mind it is not nearly strong enough: it did not call for the end of Zionism”; and having acknowledged also that (explicitly) as a Jew she seeks “to widen the rift between the state of Israel and the Jewish people,” she writes:
It will not do to equate Jews with Zionists or Jewishness with Zionism…. It is one thing to oppose Israel in its current form and practices or, indeed, to have critical questions about Zionism itself, but it is quite another to oppose “Jews” or assume that all “Jews” have the same view; that they are all in favor of Israel, identified with Israel, or represented by Israel….To say that all Jews hold a given view on Israel or are adequately represented by Israel, or, conversely, that the acts of Israel, the state, adequately stand for the acts of all Jews, is to conflate Jews with Israel and, thereby, to commit an antisemitic reduction of Jewishness.
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One can surely agree with Butler that not all Jews are “in favor of Israel”: she is a dazzling model of one who is not, and she cites, by name, a handful of “post- Zionists” in Israel proper, whom she praises. But her misunderstanding of antisemitism is profound; she theorizes rifts and demarcations, borders and dikes; she is sunk in self-deception. The “good” anti-Zionists, she believes, the ones who speak and write in splendidly cultivated English, will never do her or her fellow Jews any harm; they are not like the guttersnipe antisemites who behave so badly. It is true that she appears to have everything in common with those Western literary intellectuals (e.g., Tom Paulin and the late Edward Said) whose aspirations are indistinguishable from her own: that Israel “in its current form” ought to disappear. Or, as Paulin puts it, “I never believed that Israel had the right to exist at all.” Tony Judt, a professor of European history, confirms this baleful view; writing in the New York Review of Books, he dismisses the Jewish state as—alone among the nations-“an anachronism.” Yet Butler’s unspoken assumption is that consonance, or collusion, with those who would wish away the Jewish state will earn one a standing in the European, if not the global, anti-Zionist world club. To a degree she may be right: the congenial welcome she received in a prestigious British journal confirms it, and she is safe enough, for the nonce, in those rarefied places where, as George Eliot has it (with a word altered), it would be “difficult to find a form of bad reasoning about [Zionism] which had not been heard in conversation or been admitted to the dignity of print.” In that company she is at home. There she is among friends. But George Eliot’s Zionist views are notorious; she is partial to Jewish national liberation. A moment, then, for the inventor of the pound of flesh. Here is Cinna, the poet, on his way to Caesar’s funeral [in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar]:
Citizen: As a friend or an enemy?
Cinna: As a friend.
Citizen: Your name, sir, truly.
Cinna: Truly, my name is Cinna.
Citizen: Tear him to pieces; he’s a conspirator.
Cinna: I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet! I am not Cinna the conspirator!
Citizen: It is no matter, his name’s Cinna …. Tear him, tear him! Come, brands,
ho! firebrands! Burn all!
And here is Butler, the theorist, on her way to widen the rift between the state of Israel and the Jewish people:
Citizen: As a friend, or as a Zionist?
Butler: As an anti-Zionist Jew.
Citizen: Tear her to pieces, she’s a Jew.
Butler: I am Butler the anti-Zionist, I am Butler the anti-Zionist! I am not Butler the Zionist!
What’s in a name? Ah, the curse of mistaken identity. How many politically conforming Jews will suffer from it, even as they toil to distance themselves from the others, those benighted Jews who admit to being “in favor of Israel”? As for that nobly desired rift, one can rely on Hep! to close it. To comprehend this is to comprehend antisemitism at its root. And to assert, as Butler does, that in the heart of this understanding lurks “the very tactic favored by antisemites” is not merely sophistry; not merely illusion; but simple stupidity, of a kind onlythe most subtle intellectuals are capable of.
The melancholy encounter with antisemitism is not, after all, coequal with Jewish history; the history of oppression belongs to the culture of the oppressors. The long, long Jewish narrative is in reality a procession of ideas and ideals, of ethical legislation and ethical striving, of the study of books and the making of books. It is not a chronicle of victimhood, despite the centuries of travail, and despite the corruptions of the hour, when the vocabulary of human rights is too often turned ubiquitously on its head. So contaminated have the most treasured humanist words become, that when one happens on a mass of placards emblazoned with “peace,” “justice,” and the like, one can see almost at once what is afoot—a collection of so-called anti-globalization rioters declaiming defamation of Israel, or an anti-Zionist campus demonstration (not always peaceful), or any anti-Zionist herd of lockstep radicals, such as ANSWER, or the self-proclaimed International Parliament of Writers, or the International Solidarity Movement, which (in the name of human rights) shields terrorists. Or even persons who are distinguished and upright. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched at Selma, and who was impassioned in protesting the Vietnam War, appealed to his peace-and-justice colleagues to sign a declaration condemning the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics. Too many refused.
It is long past time (pace … Butler) when the duplicitous “rift” between anti-Zionism and antisemitism can be logically sustained. Whether in its secular or religious expression, Zionism is, in essence, the modern flowering of a vast series of diverse intellectual and pietistic movements, all of them steeped in the yearning for human dignity—symbolized by the Exodus from slavery—that has characterized Jewish civilization for millennia. Contempt and defamation from without have sometimes infiltrated the abject psyches of defeatist Jews, who then begin to judge themselves according to the prevailing canards. Such Jews certainly are not what is commonly called self-haters, since they are motivated by the preening self-love that congratulates itself on always “seeing the other side.” Not self-haters, no; low moral cowards, rather, often trailing uplifting slogans.