Dr Judith Butler's view on lessons from Jewish ethics
It is always surprising to find a Jew talk against what is happening in Israel. It is even more gratifying when it is a famous Jew respected the world over for being a philosopher. And perhaps the best thing is when their arguments unsheath paradoxes.
That Jew, for the purposes of this curated piece, is philosopher, professor and author Judith Butler. Her insights into the actions of Israel may have appeared in an interview with Haartez in 2010, ten years ago, but her words ring true today with what is happening in Gaza.
Prof Butler’s parents were practicing Jews, many of her relatives were killed in the Holocaust and she studied at Jewish ethics at Hebrew school. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Dr Butler was deeply observant of the losses of the HIV/Aids epidemic, and later, the deaths in 9/11 and the subsequent wars fought by America. She started to ask questions on grieving and which lives were grievable and which were not.
“What is the condition under which we fail to grieve others?” she told Haaretz. She had thought as a child that this was something that Jews asked given the experience of the Holocaust. Butler says that as a Jew she was taught it was “ethically imperative to speak up and to speak out against arbitrary state violence”. These were after all, the lessons from the Second World War and the concentration camps. Butler was fascinated with book written by psychoanalyst Margarete Mitscherlich, The inability to mourn (1984), which was a criticism of German post-war culture.
“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,” Butler told Haaretz. “Certain lives become grievable within the Israeli press, for instance – highly grievable and highly valuable – and others are understood as ungrievable because they are understood as instruments of war, or they are understood as outside the nation, outside religion, or outside that sense of belonging which makes for a grievable life.”
She spoke of how the Israeli government and media started to say that everyone who was killed or injured in Gaza was Hamas. They said that Palestinians even used children as targets to prove to the world that Israelis killed children. “At this point, every single living being who is Palestinian becomes a war instrument,” she said. “They are all, in their being, or by virtue of being Palestinian, declaring war on Israel or seeking the destruction of the Israel.”
This made it possible for Israel and its supporters to then stop seeing Palestinians as living beings and instead view them as “artillery”. The most extreme example is the suicide bomber, as their body becomes artillery. This is how Palestinians have been dehumanized and thus, if they are killed, their deaths are not worthy of grieving. “Because everyone who is a living Palestinian is, in their being, a declaration of war, or a threat to the existence of Israel, or pure military artillery, materiel. They have been transformed, in the Israeli war imaginary, into pure war instruments.”