Udi Aloni’s What Does a Jew Want?: On Binationalism and Other Specters includes interventions and conversations with Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, and Judith Butler. All three figures have been commentators of Aloni’s work and have joined him in conversation about Israel and Palestine. The following is an excerpt from a conversation between Aloni and Butler, originally published Haaretz:
Udi Aloni: Why Israel-Palestine? Is this directly connected to your Jewishness?
Judith Butler: 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.
UA: 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.
JB: 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.
UA: That’s why I would say that there should be bi-nationalism from the beginning.
JB: 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.
UA: 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.
JB: 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.