Judith Butler, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is among the leading social theorists alive today. Her most recent books are Frames of War (2009) and The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (2011), an SSRC volume that puts her in conversation with Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West. As we carried out our conversation by email between Brooklyn and Berkeley, uprisings were occurring across the Arab world, and a U.S.-led coalition had just begun conducting airstrikes in support of rebel forces in Libya. We had discussed some similar questions, and some different ones, a year earlier in an interview for Guernica magazine.

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NS: Some commentators have said that the uprisings now taking place are remarkable for being secular in nature. Do you think it’s helpful to speak of them that way?

JB: Well, I am not at all sure why they’re saying that. In Cairo, it was clearly the case that secular, Christian, and Muslim people were in the square, and that it was an impressive mixture. I would be interested to know who has access to the groups involved in Libya to know with certainty that they are secular. Perhaps some of us impose our ideological dreams on concrete situations that we either fail to investigate or have trouble finding out about.

NS: How relevant are these ideological dreams? Do you think that the question of whether these movements are secular is worth caring about?

JB: I myself do not care, and I wonder why people do. It seems to me that the secular/religious debate has not been at the forefront of these uprisings. They have been against censorship, military control, graft, and outrageous class differences, and they have been for various kinds of democratization. And we have seen women in these movements, veiled and unveiled, working together. It is clear that demands for democratization of various kinds are articulated through religious and secular discourses and practices, and sometimes a combination of the two.


NS: But isn’t that precisely what seems so secular about these events? That those religious divisions are no longer the central issue?

JB: Well, you could say that religious difference is not central, or you could say that religious difference is ever-present. Perhaps both are true.

NS: Let’s take a specific example. Would the revolution be “betrayed,” in your view, if, say, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt? Or if something comparable to the regime in Iran were to emerge?

JB: If the Muslim Brotherhood is elected to positions in government, and the elections are free and unconstrained, then that is a democratic outcome. Whether or not one wishes for that outcome, it cannot be contested as undemocratic if it follows from open and free elections. Democracy often means living with results that we find difficult, if not abhorrent. But I have been somewhat shocked that, in the face of this most impressive of uprisings, the “specter” of the Muslim Brotherhood is raised time and again as a way of diminishing and doubting the importance of this mass movement and revolutionary action. I think those biased against Islam will have to get used to the idea that demands for democratization can and do emerge within Muslim lexicons and practice, and that democratic polities can and must be composed of various groups, religious and not. Islam is clearly part of the mix.

NS: Do these popular uprisings affect how we should think about power and sovereignty, as armed dictators are being coerced by nonviolent movements?

JB: I understand the desire to come up with theoretical generalizations. I spend a good deal of my time doing precisely that. But even though nonviolent practices have been important in some of these uprisings, we are also seeing new ways of interpreting nonviolence, and new ways of justifying violence when protestors are under attack from the military. The events in Libya are clearly violent, and so I think we are probably left with new quandaries about whether the line between violent and nonviolent resistance ever can be absolutely clear.

NS: Where in particular do you see that line blurring?

JB: We have to be careful to distinguish between nonviolence as a moral position that applies to all individuals and groups, and nonviolence as a political option that articulates a certain refusal to be intimidated or coerced. These are very different discourses, since most of the moral positions tend to eliminate all reference to power, and the political ones tend to affirm nonviolence as a mode of resistance but leave open the possibility that it might have to be exchanged for a more overtly aggressive one. I am not sure we can ever evacuate the political frame. Moreover, it is important to think about how one understands violence. If one puts one’s body on the line, in the way of a truck or a tank, is one not entering into a violent encounter? This is different from waging a unilateral attack or even starting a violent series, but I am not sure that it is outside the orbit of violence altogether.

NS: President Obama sometimes seems to be policing that distinction in his rhetoric about these uprisings: demanding that protesters and regimes both remain nonviolent, and then bringing U.S. military force to bear in Libya when the state turns to military force. But I would think the difference between how the movements in Egypt and Libya have progressed actually reaffirms that the line between violence and nonviolence is a useful one.

JB: Well, it is interesting that the U.S. affirms that the anti-government forces in Libya are resistance fighters and seeks to provide aerial bombing support to their forces on the ground. So it seems that even liberal public discourse makes room for justified armed resistance. What is most interesting is to figure out when certain forms of violence are considered part of an admirable struggle for freedom, and when, on the contrary, violence is understood as the terrorist activities of non-state actors. Do you have an answer to that?

NS: I certainly can’t think of a consistent rule that would apply to all cases, and probably for good reason. The case of Israel-Palestine comes to mind.

JB: Indeed, it does.

NS: What do you think the Arab uprisings mean for Israel, surrounded by them on all sides as it is?

JB: We can only hope that the movement toward greater democratization will affect Israel as well, so that we can finally see widespread public demands for Israeli Palestinians to be treated on an equal basis, widespread public acknowledgment that the occupation is illegal according to every standard of international law, and a similar affirmation of the right to self-determination of Palestinians. The public acknowledgment of these obvious truths would, in fact, constitute one of the most remarkable advances in the democratic revolutions underway. I think as well that any legitimate democracy would have to provide restitution to those inhabitants whose lands were confiscated. So let us hope that democratization finally comes to Israel and Palestine.

NS: If I may raise the question again, does the religious or secular character of these movements affect how Israelis perceive them?

JB: Israel, of course, is asking its Palestinian citizens to swear loyalty to a Jewish state, which is hardly a very secular thing to do. So, though Israel seems to support secularization in countries where Islam is predominant, it seems to except itself from that standard. This leads to a question of which religions are set in opposition to secularism and which are not? It seems to me that those who call for a secular state in Israel, which would mean separating citizenship from religion or religious status, are often accused of trying to destroy Israel. So we have to watch these debates carefully to see when and where secularism is treated as if it were the very sign of democracy, and when and where secularism is treated as if it were equal to genocide. Public discourse has yet to arrive at very consistent positions here.


NS: In The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, you find reasons to critique Israeli state violence in a kind of Jewish thought articulated by Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt. Yet this seems far from what seems to count as Jewishness in public discourse today. Do you think those thinkers can be made to matter in public?

JB: I have no idea. Let’s remember that we are also in the midst of a paroxysm of anti-intellectualism within the U.S., coupled with an attack on public education and the academy. So your question implies these broader issues.

NS: What, then, would you say anti-intellectualism is keeping people from realizing?

JB: In order for democratic principles to have a chance in Israel-Palestine, there has to be a recognition of the ways in which Zionism, though understanding itself as an emancipatory movement for Jews, instituted a colonial project and the colonial subjugation of the Palestinian people. In order for this contradiction to be understood and effectively addressed, we have to be able to tell two histories at once, and to show how they converge, and how the claim of freedom for one became the claim of dispossession for another. Benjamin made use of Jewish intellectual resources to criticize the kind of progressive narrative that underwrites Zionism, and he concerned himself with the question, avant la lettre, of how the history of the oppressed might erupt within the continuous history of the oppressor.

NS: Asking people to remember two histories at once does seem like a public-relations challenge. And what can we learn from Arendt?

JB: Arendt was herself involved in public politics, actively defending notions of federated authority for Palestine in the 1940s, prior to the catastrophic founding of Israel on the basis of Jewish sovereignty in 1948. Her own views were problematic, often racist, and yet she knew that the production of a new stateless class would lead inevitably to decades of conflict.

NS: Why do you turn to Jewish sources like Benjamin and Arendt to criticize Israeli militarism? Why not appeal to something more universal?

JB: One doesn’t need to turn to Jewish sources, and I’ve never argued that one should. One could criticize not only present-day Israeli militarism but the occupation, the history of land confiscation, or even Zionism itself, without any recourse at all to Jewish sources. One could do it on the basis of universal rights, human rights, a history and critique of settler colonialism, a politics of nonviolence, a left understanding of revolutionary struggle on the part of the stateless, legal rights of refugees and the occupied, liberal democracy, or radical democracy. In fact, if one only used Jewish sources for the critique of Israeli state violence, then one would be unwittingly establishing the Jewish framework, again, as the framework of reference and valuation for adjudicating the competing claims of the region. And even if such a framework were Jewish anti-Zionism, it would turn out to be effectively Zionist, producing a Zionist effect, since it would tacitly hold to the proposition that the Jewish framework must remain dominant.

NS: I also see how some Jews in turn could perceive those claiming to speak in “universals” as potential oppressors. But—among Jews, at least—does it make sense to have the discussion within the framework of Jewish tradition?

JB: It depends on whether you are working within an identitarian Jewish framework or a non-identitarian one. One could argue that the obligation to the non-Jew forms the core of any Jewish ethic, which means that we do not sustain obligations only to those who are also Jewish, but equally to those who are not. This means that one is under an obligation, even a Jewish obligation, to displace the exclusive Jewish framework. Otherwise, one’s ethic is bound by nationalism, sameness, even xenophobia.

NS: Do you think it’s necessary for Jews around the world to feel somehow responsible, or especially concerned, for the actions of the Israeli state?

JB: It’s strange that you ask about “necessity.” It assumes that if we could show that, logically, it isn’t necessary for Jews around the world to have such a reaction, then Jews would be freed from the grip of such a conviction. These forms of identification are, fortunately or unfortunately, more profound and less logical than that. Indeed, it would be great if we could all be liberated through reason, but I think it only gets us part of the way. After all, someone may have a very logical view, but for other reasons we may still fail to hear what that person says, or we may turn their words around so that they are understood to say the opposite. The task is really to find ways of addressing deep-seated forms of fear and aggression that make it possible to hold to manifestly inconsistent views without quite acknowledging them.

NS: Where do you see logic breaking down in this case?

JB: For instance, my view is that many liberal and radical democrats, leftists, socialists, and progressive people are willing to name and oppose colonization, to name and oppose illegal occupation, even to name and oppose forms of racism in all parts of the world—except in Israel, for fear that to speak out against those injustices will somehow implicate one in anti-Semitism. We have to ask how this lockdown of thought and politics became possible, and why the world believes that Palestinians should pay the price for the Nazi genocide of the Jews. This is nonsense, and yet it persists. For those of us who emerged from within Jewish and Zionist backgrounds, criticism of Israel was regarded as nothing more than an excuse for anti-Semitism. And if Jews voiced such positions, then they were regarded as self-hating. My belief is that public discourse in general will not be able to express the same outrage over the colonization of Palestine and the ongoing violent occupation of its lands and people until we are able finally to separate anti-Semitism, which is in every instance wrong and must be opposed, and the colonial subjugation of the Palestinian people, which is in every instance wrong and must be opposed.

NS: But what strikes me is that many more of these “progressive people” in the U.S. feel compelled at least to take a stand about Israel-Palestine, as opposed to, say, various conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa or the dispute in Kashmir. And the difference seems much more than merely secular. Do you think Israel-Palestine would be better off if, as in Egypt’s uprising, religious divisions became subsumed in more worldly goals?

JB: I am not sure I agree that religious divisions have been subsumed in worldly goals. It sure seems that religion is very worldly at the moment. But the idea that a religious attachment to the land is what finally fuels Israel is, I think, probably wrong. I understand that it is part of the rationale and legitimating discourse for land confiscation and ritual expulsion, but we are dealing with a savvy military state, a reformulation of settler colonialism, an institutionalized form of racism—and we cannot derive all of these, or, perhaps, any of these, from religious grounds alone.

NS: How implicated do you feel personally in what Israel does, compared to any other country?

JB: I only feel implicated and enraged when Israel claims to represent the Jewish people, since there are myriad strands of diasporic Judaism and Jewishness that have never felt represented by Israel, that no longer feel represented by that state, and who dispute the legitimacy of that state to represent the Jewish people or Jewish values. Those who insist on the representative function of the Israeli state are trying to make it true. They know it is not true, but they are battling to deny and dispute those fault-lines. But even as one opposes such formulations, it is important not to become identitarian or even communitarian in response. After all, the point is to live in a complex world, not in an enclave, and not in separatist polities. If we are looking for signs of democratization, then surely we are looking as well for forms of living on equal terms in and among cultural differences. Many religious and non-religious traditions point to this possibility.

NS: While others point away from it. What do you think will make people choose, in the terms you draw from Arendt, to “cohabit the earth” with each other?

JB: It does not matter whether or not they choose it. Remember, Arendt claimed that Eichmann erred when he sought to choose with whom to inhabit the earth. The populations with whom any of us inhabit the world precede our existence and exceed our will. It has to be that way if we are committed to an anti-genocidal position.