It is surely not anti-Jewish or counter-Jewish to offer a critique of the forms of state violence instituted and maintained by political Zionism (which would include the massive dispossessions of Palestinians in 1948, the appropriation of land in 1967, and the recurrent confiscations of Palestinian lands that continues now with the building of the wall and the expansion of the settlements). This alone is important, since Israel claims to represent the Jewish people, and popular opinion tends to assume that Jews "support" Israel without taking account Jewish traditions of anti-Zionism and the presence of Jews in coalitions that oppose the Israeli colonial subjugation of Palestinians....If the critique of Zionism is to be effective and substantial, that claim of [Jewish] exceptionalism has to be refused in favor of more fundamental democratic values. However important it may be to establish Jewish opposition to Zionism, this cannot be done without a critical move that questions the sufficiency of a Jewish framework, however alternative and progressive, as the defining horizon of the ethical. The opposition to Zionism and requires the departure from Jewishness as an exclusionary framework for thinking both ethics and politics.-- Judith Butler (2012) Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, (2).
Let me start with a point of agreement: it is indeed vital to avoid a conflation of what Judith Butler calls 'political' Zionism with Jewishness (not to mention Judaism). There are historically and at present secular Jewish and religious Jewish arguments against such political Zionism, and these should not be effaced from one's understanding or perception of Jewishness. It should be noted at once, however, that the orthodox Jewish, anti-political Zionist movements and arguments are entirely absent in Butler's treatment (recall), and this absence reflects a wider absence of the role of (traditional) Judaism. It's hard to understand Judaism, and its liturgy, without some reference to the idea of Zion. By contrast, Butler's analysis focuses almost entirely on some twentieth century "Jewish" philosophers (Benjamin, Arendt, Levinas), who, in so far as they take Jewish sources seriously, do so within a Kantianizing ethical (and secularizing) framework [the story is more complicated, especially for Benjamin, of course].
While "popular opinion" is wrong to treat 'being Jewish' as entailing 'support' of political Zionism (if it does so), it does not follow, of course, that the State of Israel, or its elected government, does not "represent" the Jewish people. It all turns on what we mean by 'represent.' For, while there are lots of Jews that are un-involved in Israeli elections nor enfranchised to vote in them (and so are not represented in the way electees represent an electorate) and take themselves to be disinterested from afar in Israeli policies, the State does take itself to guard, or represent, the interests of (to quote the Israeli Declaration of Independence) "Jewish people" without Israeli passports. And this interest is, in part, expressed in the so-called Law of return: "Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh." But such non-Israeli Jews are under no obligation toward the State of Israel nor do they have any responsibility -- say by way of tacit agreement -- for its policies.+
In her book, with its commitments to (recall above) "fundamental democratic values," (2) Butler constitutes, and speaks on behalf of, a "Jewish Left"(20) or "we on the Left" (93), which can (explicitly) include non-Jews, too. But throughout the book she fails to note that political Zionism is itself a nineteenth century response to a failure of democracy (recall this post on Herzl). Democracies are not always able to secure the safety and flourishing of minority populations--xenophobia, racism, antisemtism, and closed borders (which both keep people out and trap those inside) are always live possibilities within democracy. This is, in fact, what makes the rise of Zionism of enduring theoretical relevance. Political Zionism diagnoses an enduring possibility of democracies' tendency to fail to live up to Liberal ideals. While Butler writes about those that wrote against political Zionism during the Weimar Republic, Butler misses the significance of this fact because she construes Zionism nearly exclusively as a response to the Holocaust (see, especially 182-205; although she acknowledges that for Arendt the rise of fascism is rooted in the refugee crisis at the end of WWI (144)). The Israeli declaration of Independence is more precise on this score: "The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people - the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe - was another clear demonstration of the urgency," (emphasis added).
Obviously, Butler has every right to consider xenophobia, racism, antisemitism, and closed borders as inimical to fundamental democratic values (after all, this animates her criticism of Israeli practices) and itself a consequence of the nation-state (which she opposes). One can grant Butler's point at the level of pure theory, but it is not true of, so to speak, the phenomenology of democracies. That is to say, Butler's assumptions presuppose conditions under which political Zionism would not be needed. Acknowledging the truth of the previous sentence is compatible with Butler's ethical criticisms of the practices that she describes as "colonial subjugation of Palestinians." (For useful critical comments on this kind language, see Benhabib's review.)*
So, what Butler takes to be the inherent flaws of political Zionism is itself a feature of the state system that gives rise to the need for Zionism. In her analysis of Arendt's critique of the nation-state (24-36), Butler (implicitly) recognizes this, too. Butler's own stance embraces a rejection of the nation-state and state-violence. On the former: non-nation states (i.e., multi-ethnic Empires) have also caused trouble for minorities, too; this is why the epistemic neglect of nineteenth century roots of Zionism is so damaging [Herzl was born in the Austro-Hungarian empire]. On the latter: one can reject state-violence, in principle, but still find unilateral disarmament or power sharing a worse option. And Butler is unwilling to fully confront the prudence, if not fear, that may underwrite such stance. Her position presupposes a fundamental revolution in the very nature of the international state system, but somehow one should start with abolishing political Zionism. (Again, that's not intended to give political Zionism a moral-pass on its crimes.) For, Butler confronts the prudential position only (tangentially) by way of (legitimate and important!) criticism Levinas' racist, ethnocentrism, which she treats as an "Ashkenazi presumption"--it is ironic, indeed, that the elitism and racism of Heidegger's Jewish 'students' is meant to stand in for Ashkenazis in general!
I return to Butler's inability to confront genuinely the roots of the Zionist project (including her analysis of Zionist demographic fears) in future post(s). Here I close with an observation. Within the history of Jewish intellectual thought, Butler recognizes the ways in which Hermann Cohen and Hannah Arendt both respresent a kind of "faith in Europe" in which the "Jewish people" are a European nation that combines "German humanism and Jewish messianism" without territory, that is, a (Kantianized) "cultural Zionism (140-1). She acknowledges that Cohen's faith (that is, his German nationalism) is "painful to read;" and while she is critical of Arendt's occasional ethnocentrism, she tends to embrace Arendt's general program of the "dissolution of sovereignty." (146) As a general program for the state system this is a consistent position; but if, in practice, it seems to mean that the Jews should not be sovereign and (only) political Zionism is illegitimate. For, if (nearly) all existing states are illegitimate according to Butler's ethics, as seems to follow from her position, it is again to confuse a symptom (political Zionism) for its cause (state violence).
I started by noting that Butler often implies she speaks for "the Left." This label does little justice to the ethics of 'alterity' and 'relationality' she develops. In particular, she insists that prior to politics (as represented by her by the liberal social contract [oddly she cannot forfeit Kantianism herself]) we are all in a sense akin to the diasporic Jew, who confronts "irreversible heterogeneity." (State formation is thereby equated with forceful homogenization.) But we get little information on how to think about states without the violent and powerful trappings of sovereignty. Butler is right to think alternatives to the existing political cul-de-sac in Israeli-Palestinian relations. That these alternatives may seem utopian now, is no argument against her. (After all, political Zionism must have seemed utopian to earlier generations.) But 'Jewish' reflection on politics (as can be found in the Hebrew Bible, Maimonides, Spinoza, etc. (recall)) is largely absent in her analysis; she denies herself resources to think about political power (as distinct from the ethical) from within her Galut ethic, and that's an odd place to be for somebody of the Left, especially when we write from within American empire (and its "public opinion"). If reflection on political Zionism wishes to be of philosophical significance, it must do so not just as a critique of state violence, but also as a means toward a proper understanding of the role of power today.
+UPDATE: Butler thinks that "Jews are obligated to criticize Israel" because of the Israeli claim to represent; she also think there are other "frameworks" from which to criticize (117).
*I thank Julie Klein for calling my attention to the review.