Edited by Jeffrey R. Di Leo and Uppinder Mehan

Terror, Theory, and the Humanities

    II. Terror, Film, and Exceptionalism II. Terror, Film, and Exceptionalism > 10. The Ethics of Trauma/The Trauma of Ethics: Terror After Levinas

    10. The Ethics of Trauma/The Trauma of Ethics: Terror After Levinas

    Trauma theory and continental ethical theory share a deep affinity in US academia. The former is arguably an example of the latter. And as one would expect, for those who are generally hostile to continental philosophy—or its manifestation as literary theory in literature departments—trauma theory is seen as a doubly suspicious field of study. Emmanuel Levinas has contributed perhaps more than any other thinker to the fusion, if not conflation, of ethics and trauma. For Levinas, ethics is defined primarily as a hermeneutic disruption provoked by exposure to the Other’s alterity. In the paradigmatic face-to-face encounter, the Self experiences a shock when faced with the Other, or when faced with the face of the Other, more precisely; we could even say that the face-to-face encounter is an event of terror. In this paper, I want to explore and scrutinize Levinas’s terrorizing model of ethics, looking more closely at the logic of victimhood and the rhetoric of passivity that are often associated with both trauma studies and a certain brand of postmodern ethical theory. More generally, my article aims at the pedagogical difficulties in teaching a Levinasian-inspired ethics: how does one teach about the trauma of ethics, about ethics as persecution in a post-9/11 political environment characterized as a perpetual “War on Terror”?

    Indeed, an ethics of the Other worthy of its name must pass through the test of politics; an ethical philosophy of absolute alterity must invariably confront the material realities of politics. Yet such a test always risks distortion if it ends up resulting in the mere translation of ethics into politics. In tackling this thorny issue, I have chosen to focus on the image of the Jew as a recurrent figure of radical otherness: a figure whose deployment often entails a dangerous conflation of ethics and politics.

    From Sartre to Levinas, continental philosophers have turned and returned time and again to the example of the Jew as the paradigmatic object of and model for ethical inquiry. In Anti-Semite and Jew, Jean-Paul Sartre was arguably the first twentieth-century philosopher to romanticize the Jew, setting him in opposition to France’s outmoded and diluted bourgeois self. [1] More than a figure of marginalization, the Jew gains in Levinas’s work far greater rhetorical force. Levinas dedicates his book Otherwise than Being “To the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions on millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-Semitism.” Levinasian ethics and trauma studies are both the result of, and a response to, the Holocaust, to the state of philosophy after Auschwitz. They radically challenge prior notions of autonomy and comprehension—two key notions for traditional ethical theory. The challenge to comprehension comes from a desire to respect the opacity of the Other, from a recognition of the dangers of hermeneutic violence; my relation to the Other is not a relation of knowledge. This interpretive sensibility is emblematic of what I call an “ethics of trauma.” And what I call “the trauma of ethics” is a further qualification of the Self’s rational agency and interpretive capacity. Ethics is not an interpretive attitude that one can adopt or refuse; rather, ethics is something that terrorizes me (ethics as persecution), that interpellates me, and compels me to act. In this respect, ethics is a profoundly heteronomous condition.

    Anyone who has taught Levinas, however, knows that the pull toward abstraction is strong: how does such an ethics of the Other translate into real everyday life? Recourse to examples often function to counter this pull, to satisfy the hunger for specificity. Levinas does offer some examples. He refers to the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, but it is the figure of the Jew (as we saw in his dedication) which seems to exemplify best the perplexities of his ethics. A host of questions, however, immediately arise: what is at stake in thinking the Other as Jew? [2] Is a rhetoric of exceptionalism or exemplarity, with its unavoidable ontological residue, at odds with shifting political realities? Within this paradigm, what then becomes of the Arab, the Other of the Jew, the Other of the Other, so to speak? [3] Does trauma studies, in its desire to bear witness to the past subject of suffering—in its attempt to come to terms with the subject after Auschwitz—bracket from analysis present operations of power? Would, then, a more sensitive historical approach expose the Palestinian as the Other of the Israeli? Finally, should we, as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek have more recently urged, critically revisit a paradigm of ethics that has been identified almost exclusively with radical alterity, an interpretive horizon under which the Jew as a paradoxical figure of exemplary otherness has flourished? In pursuit of these questions, I would like to turn here to a brief account of Levinasian ethics and its major detractors, and then trace the way the debate over the viability of an “ethics of alterity” spills over and implicitly frames the politically contentious discussion of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

    In his polemical study Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, Alain Badiou exposes the mystification of difference so prevalent in contemporary ethical and political discourses. Returning to the source, as it were, Badiou flatly rejects Levinas’s contention that the Other is “without mediation” (Levinas, “Meaning and Sense” 53). To recall, in Totality and Infinity, Levinas describes the face-to-face encounter as a crucial instant of cognitive frustration; the Other’s face exceeds my attempt at interpretive mastery, bringing into question my autonomy, spontaneity, and self-sufficiency (50). For Badiou, however, Levinas’s ethics of alterity is both dubious and deceptive; it claims to treat all others as others but in fact distinguishes between others who resemble oneself and those who do not. As Badiou puts it, “[T]his celebrated ‘other’ is acceptable only if he is a good other…. That is to say: I respect differences, but only, of course, in so far as that which differs also respects, just as I do, the said differences” (Ethics 24). On Badiou’s account, an ethics of alterity is profoundly ideological; it only masquerades as a respect for difference; in reality, it practices the crudest kind of ethical reductionism.

    Levinas’s own struggle with articulating a philosophy of the Other that is not simply formal and abstract is brought to light most clearly in a radio interview broadcasted shortly after the massacres of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Israeli-occupied Lebanon in 1982. News of the massacres shocked the world and deeply affected the Jewish community, leading the interviewer to ask Levinas, “Emmanuel Levinas, you are the philosopher of the ‘other.’ Isn’t history, isn’t politics the very site of the encounter with the ‘other,’ and for the Israeli isn’t the ‘other’ above all Palestinian?” Levinas answers:

    My definition of the other is completely different. The other is the neighbor, who is not necessarily my kin but who may be. But if your neighbor attacks another neighbor, or treats him unjustly, what can you do? Then alterity takes on another character, in alterity we can find an enemy, or at least we are faced with the problem of knowing who is right and who is wrong, who is just and who is unjust. There are people who are wrong. (“Ethics and Politics” 294)

    Levinas’s response disappoints; it even calls into question his entire philosophy of the Other. Martin Jay voices what came to be a common response to Levinas’s stance on the massacres, on what distinguishes a good neighbor (neighbor as kin) from bad neighbor (neighbor as enemy): “Here the infinity of alterity, the transcendence of mere being by ethical commands, the hostage-like substitution of self for other, are abruptly circumscribed by the cultural-cum-biological limits of permissible kinship alliance” (87).

    On this reading, it is not Levinas’s philosophy of the Other itself that is questioned, but only its inconsistency or “misguided” application. What could be more contrary to Levinasian ethics than an appeal to religious and national sameness (as the basis for ethical or political action)? Moreover, Levinas’s comment that “there are people who are wrong” seems to confuse the victim and the aggressor. In the context of an answer addressing the massacres of Sabra and Shatila, it is clear that the persecuted, fragile, vulnerable Other here is the Palestinian refugee, not the Israeli occupier. Yet more recently, Robert Bernasconi cautioned that this line of inquiry is misleading in that it risks distorting Levinas’s actual account of the Other. According to Bernasconi, Levinas refuses “to treat the notion of alterity as a sociological category that might be applied as a cultural or ethnic designation” (247). In other words, the Levinasian Other is not a postcolonial Other; it is never the by-product of a process of othering. On one level, Bernasconi is absolutely right; Levinas’s philosophy of the Other must be situated within the phenomenological tradition, a tradition that Levinas seriously questions by challenging the powers of consciousness to grasp the meaning of its enigmatic object (the face of the Other). As a result, any self/Other relation is always (at some level) asymmetrical, involving both a joining and disjoining, proximity and distance, a “relation without relation” (rapport sans rapport), as Levinas calls it elsewhere (Totality and Infinity 80). So the Palestinian cannot lay any special claim to being the Other of the Jew/Israeli. Yet, on another level, Bernasconi’s careful (one could say faithful) reading of Levinas’s Other minimizes the phantasmatic investment in the image of the Jew as a figure of radical alterity, an image that Levinas, as we have seen, does much to perpetuate. Evoking the Palestinian as the Other of the Israeli might be interpreted less as a descriptive account of the ethico-political situation than a rhetorical move aiming at disrupting an ideologically captivating image of the persecutor and the persecuted.

    Less concerned with assessing Levinas on his own terms, Slavoj Žižek raises questions about the political viability of Levinasian ethics. What Žižek finds most problematic in Levinas’s language is not the inconsistency of his thought, Zionist ideology, or cold indifference to the plight of the Palestinians, but the necessary failure to translate theory into practice, the failure of an ethics that cannot produce a progressive politics. “What Levinas is basically saying is that, as a principle, respect for alterity is unconditional (the highest sort of respect), but, when faced with a concrete other, one should nonetheless see if he is a friend or an enemy. In short, in practical politics, the respect for alterity strictly means nothing” (Organs without Bodies 106). In his essay “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence,” Žižek develops this line of critique, taking issue with what he sees as the Levinasian fascination with the Other, which blinds one to the suffering of concrete others: “[T]he true ethical step is the one beyond the face of the other, the one of suspending the hold of the face, the one of choosing against the face, for the third” (183). True ethics, then, necessitates a move away from the dyadic moment of the face-to-face encounter (the ethical proper) to an incorporation of the Other’s others (the political proper). [4]

    A typical gesture among readers sympathetic to Levinas who would prefer to de-emphasize the tension or friction between ethics and politics while still alluding to their significant differences is to argue for the incommensurability of the two realms. [5] Rather than pursuing this approach, however, Badiou, like Žižek, calls for an ethics grounded in the recognition of the Same:

    The whole ethical predication based upon recognition of the other should be purely and simply abandoned. For the real question…is much more that of recognizing the Same…. The Same, in effect, is not what is (i.e. the infinite multiplicity of differences) but what comes to be. (Ethics 25, 27)

    As one could expect, Badiou’s way of thinking of the political and the ethical makes him especially hostile to the language of exceptionalism. In his 2005 piece “Uses of the Word ‘Jew,’” published in his book Polemics—a text that has generated harsh criticism [6] —Badiou contests the mystical meaning of the notion of “Jew”:

    Today it is not uncommon to read that “Jew” is indeed a name beyond ordinary names. And it seems to be presumed that, like an inverted original sin, the grace of having been an incomparable victim can be passed down not only to descendants and to the descendants of descendants but to all who come under the predicate in question, be they heads of state or armies engaging in the severe oppression of those whose lands they have confiscated. (160)

    While critics have tended to minimize somewhat the relevance of Badiou’s Polemics, I would stress its significance for an understanding of Badiou’s ethical and political position. If the Badiou of the book Ethics pursued a critique of an ethics of alterity, the Badiou of Polemics historicizes his critique through a careful analysis of the Jew as an ideological interpretive category, as a fetishized predicate. Though there are no explicit references to Levinas in this essay, Levinas’s thought, I would argue, is far from absent. In fact, it is precisely the following type of passages from Levinas’s Difficult Freedom that Badiou finds most objectionable:

    The traumatic experience of my slavery in Egypt constitutes my very humanity, a fact that immediately allies me to the workers, the wretched, and the persecuted people of the world…. Among the millions of human beings who encountered misery and death, the Jews alone experienced a total dereliction. They experienced a condition inferior to that of things, an experience of total passivity, an experience of Passion. (11, 26)

    The traumatic experiences of Jews endow them with a unique capacity to identify with the suffering of all others. Their trauma attests to the universal human core of ethical subjectivity, to their exemplarity as a people: their trauma is a sign of both their uniqueness (their election) and humanity’s vulnerability (we are all potentially Jews).

    Badiou’s critique alerts us to the convoluted metaphysics, to the phantasmatic structure, underpinning this use and abuse of the signifier Jew: “[W]hat is at issue is to know whether or not, in the general field of public intellectual discussion, the word ‘Jew’ constitutes an exceptional signifier, such that it would be legitimate to make it play the role of a final, or even sacred, signifier” (Polemics 158). The problem here for Badiou is not that the current representation of Jews as victims somehow distorts the actual history of Jews. On the contrary, Badiou repeatedly acknowledges the historical tragedy of the Jews and insists on the need to remain vigilant and to denounce explicit and latent anti-Semitism whenever it manifests itself. His point rather is that a certain ideology of the Jew, “a certain philo-Semitism” (159), as he calls it, generally conditions mainstream Western discussion of Israeli politics. [7] The Jews’ unprecedented historical suffering transforms them as a people from “victims” to “Victims” of Humanity, guaranteeing them the (timeless) status of (morally untouchable) Other—giving them, in turn, a paradigmatic status in trauma studies. [8] But such a metamorphosis has political implications, especially for anyone who finds him- or herself opposed to Israel and its policies. This transformation gives the right to the Israeli Jew, as to any Jew, to profess his or her universalism (the history of Jews is the history of Humanity [9] ) and to maintain a right to difference (a righteous defense of the Jewish state, a state to which the charge of state terrorism can never stick, for example). The Jews are always the object of terror—never the subjects or agents of terror. Attempts to expose the uneasy relation of these two claims, to scrutinize their dubious conflation, often earn the critic the pernicious label of anti-Semite. With this ubiquitous threat, Palestinians and advocates of the Palestinian cause are, as a result, constantly silenced, discredited, or excluded from the realm of rational public discourse, amounting to, as Badiou points out, nothing short of “political blackmail” (Polemics 162).

    It is clear that the Self as victim, though not an unproblematic ethical model, does open up or provide you (for the one who can claim this you) some avenues for remedy. To claim victimhood, or better yet to have an ostensibly “neutral” third party (such as the Western media) claim it for you, can often succeed in arousing, in the international public arena, feelings of pathos (guilt, empathy, pity, compassion, etc.) that are becoming a precondition for understanding a people’s plight. Unless I can see you as a victim—as someone who has endured an injustice and can only react in defense, never offensively, I will not be amenable to empathizing with you nor moved to intervene and rectify the political situation. In her article “Compassion and Terror,” Martha Nussbaum makes some pertinent observations about the precondition for compassion between Self and Others. In her example, it is the poor. Nussbaum considers the reasons why some people fail to cultivate any sense of compassion toward them. She writes: “People who have the idea that the poor brought their poverty upon themselves by laziness fail, for that reason, to have compassion for them” (15). It is not difficult to expand Nussbaum’s reading to the Palestinians. For those who fail to have compassion for the Palestinians, the Palestinians are seen as responsible for their condition. The story goes as follows: the Palestinians had several chances at peace and co-existence with Israel, from 1948 to Bill Clinton’s last push in 2000; but each time, the Palestinians chose violence over peace. The Palestinians therefore cannot be seen as victims—objects of empathy and compassion—if they are construed as the primary agents of their misery.

    This narrative helps to explain the failure of the mainstream American public to be outraged by the continued hardship of the Palestinians. [10] In the American imaginary, the Palestinian is not a traumatized subject; seeing him as a heteronomous subject, a fractured cogito (which would constitute an attempt at comprehension, an attempt at understanding the social, economic, and political conditions which could have helped to produce him as a so-called terrorist) is simply interpreted as an endorsement, rationalization, or justification of Palestinian violence. In the American imaginary, the Palestinian is thus never the victim but almost always the Israeli’s aggressor. [11] But what explains this persistent misrecognition of the Palestinians? Is it a public relations matter, a failure to convey their message to the rest of the world, especially to the US government and the dominant Western media? An affirmative answer would unduly simplify the problem. The problem of the Palestinians is first and foremost a structural problem, having more to do with a deeply ingrained image of the Palestinians, caught within the prism of Orientalism, and more recently the “War on Terror.”

    As an alternative to a Levinasian account of radical alterity, which is at once ahistorical and historically biased when it comes to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Žižek and others have productively turned to the notion “homo sacer” in their discussion of the abject condition of the Palestinians. Homo sacer is a legal notion, of course, brought back in ethical and political circles by Giorgio Agamben. In ancient Roman jurisprudence, “homo sacer” designated the excluded or exiled Other par excellence, someone who is cast out of the community, who could be killed with impunity by anyone but whose life lacked any sacrificial value (since it no longer possessed any worth). Living in the occupied territories, where psychological humiliation is part of everyday existence, Palestinians can be said to occupy the undesirable position of the homines sacri; Palestinians have become non-citizens dwelling in zones of exclusion, perpetually robbed of their dignity, reduced to “bare life,” and made to appear to an international public as less than human—that is, barbaric, irrational, and evil. Žižek exposes the Palestinians’ overdetermination:

    The logic of homo sacer is clearly discernible in the way the Western media report from the occupied West Bank: when the Israeli Army, in what Israel itself describes as a ‘war’ operation, attacks the Palestinian police and sets about systematically destroying the Palestinian infrastructure, Palestinian resistance is cited as proof that we are dealing with terrorists. This paradox is inscribed into the very notion of a ‘war on terror’—a strange war in which the enemy is criminalised if he defends himself and returns fire with fire. (“Are We in a War?” par. 3) [12]

    Their designation as terrorists functions to dehumanize Palestinians (they are only terrorists) and to forestall their inclusion (as mature rational agents) in any serious and balanced peace negotiations: Israel needs a true partner in peace, goes the argument, which requires that Palestinians renounce their “identity” as terrorists. According to this perverse reasoning, the Israeli military is helping the Palestinian people overcome themselves through its targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, which of course comes with acceptable “collateral damage.” We could even say that Israelis are engaged in their own “civilizing mission,” using force only in order to achieve a noble end. Lacking the “concept of compromise,” Arabs, according to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, are doomed to barbarism, while Israel, in an obscenely self-serving assessment, represents a “vanguard of culture against barbarism…a villa in the middle of a jungle,” a “protective wall” to the West (qtd. in Slater 180).

    Israel’s more recent 2009 Gaza invasion crystallized the Palestinians status as homines sacri. The failure to generate outrage among the general American public could be explained as a result of Israeli censorship, which successfully limited the visual transmission of the Palestinian devastation on cable news outlets, neutralizing, in turn, the potentially unsettling effects of pathos in the observer (the American public) of Palestinian suffering. Yet such an explanation is again at best only partial. What contributed greatly to this indifference, or failure to empathize with an all-too-distant Other, to see their lives as “grievable,” as Judith Butler’s puts it in her most recent book Frames of War, was again the relatively unchallenged ideological narrative—the Israelis as victims, and the Palestinians as aggressors—that pre-existed the Gaza war and continues to inform if not determine the American public’s (mis)understanding of the Palestinian question. [13]

    New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a case in point. Justifying Israel’s right to defend itself, Bloomberg said: “I can only think what would happen in this country if somebody was lobbing missiles onto our shores or across the border.” On Israel’s brutal disproportional response to Hamas’ firing of rockets into Israel, Bloomberg was equally unyielding, providing us again with a hypothetical example: “If you’re in your apartment and some emotionally disturbed person is banging on your door, screaming, ‘I’m going to come through this door and kill you!’ do you want us to respond with one police officer, which is proportional, or with all the resources at our command?” Fortunately, yet also sadly, this all-too-common frame or narrative found a critical response not from the mainstream media but from late-night comedian Jon Stewart, who, on Comedy Central’s cable program the Daily Show, humorously deconstructed the framing of the problem, the narrative of victim and perpetrator with this follow-up to Bloomberg’s comment: “I guess it depends if I forced that guy to live in my hallway… and make him go through checkpoints every time he has to take a sh*t!” (qtd. in Hishmeh n.p.). We can of course radicalize further Stewart’s response by saying “it depends if I kicked that guy out of his own home, and now live in it…and took out a restraining order on him.”

    Like the Sabra and Shatila massacres, the Gaza war made visible the ethico-political inadequacies of seeing the Jew as simply the Other. America’s “War on Terror,” along with its clear and distinct logic of good and evil, facilitated even further the US identification with Israel, as well as the Palestinians’ identification with international terrorism. While the Israelis were depicted as a mirror image of the Americans (unjustly shocked and traumatized by the violence of the Islamic Other [14] ), Palestinians—like the terrorists or “Islamo-fascists” who attacked America on 9/11—were depicted as profoundly evil, hating the freedom of Israelis and their democratic way of life. [15] This Manichean way of interpreting the Gaza offensive puts the blame of civilian casualties squarely on Hamas and thus helps to preserve the self-proclaimed moral superiority of the Israeli government—exemplified in the self-righteous claim of possessing the “world’s most moral army.” This mythic view of the Israeli military, however, faced serious objections from within, not only from Israel’s human rights groups but more significantly from some of its own veterans. For instance, one soldier, under condition of anonymity , testified as follows to his moral predicament and personal struggle to make sense of the prescribed rules of engagement:

    We were supposed to... burst through the lower door, start shooting inside and then... I call this murder... in effect, we were supposed to go up floor by floor, and any person we identified, we were supposed to shoot. I initially asked myself: Where is the logic in this? From above they said it was permissible, because anyone who remained in the sector and inside Gaza City was in effect condemned, a terrorist, because they hadn’t fled. (qtd. in Harel n.p.; emphasis added)

    The logic is unfortunately all too clear; the logic that justifies the murder of innocent civilians is precisely the same logic that fixes the identity of terrorists and victims according to a phantasmatic field, and places the burden of proving one’s innocence on those deemed guilty by reason of ethnic and religious affiliations. Seeing the possibility of war crimes in the actions of the “world’s most moral army” in effect demystifies Israel’s exclusive claim to victimhood, [16] “humanizes” the enemy, opening the possibility of not treating the Palestinian as “homo sacer” (the Palestinian is seen as someone who can be both killed and murdered). It also introduces a critical distance between the history of Jews and the current politics of Israel. Recognition of the former does not entail a blind endorsement of the latter. Judith Butler, speaking as a Jew herself, argues along these lines for a self-scrutinizing use of victimhood: “historically we are now in the position in which Jews cannot be understood always and only as presumptive victims…. No political ethics can start with the assumption that Jews monopolize the position of victim” (The Precarious Life 103).

    Badiou, for his part, articulates his objection in slightly different terms, calling for dislodging the meaning of the Jew from the hegemony of “the tripod of the Shoah, the State of Israel and the Talmudic Tradition,” which, he says, “stigmatizes and exposes to public contempt anyone who contends that it is, in all rigour, possible to subscribe to a universalist and egalitarian sense of this word” (Polemics 230). Consistent with the thrust of his philosophy, Badiou favors a rhetoric of the concrete universal (as opposed to Jewish universalism—a universalism, as we have seen, that posits and sustains the Jew as exemplary victim only by denying others, such as the Palestinians, the claim to victimhood). Badiou’s universalism demands a radical reconfiguring of Jewish identity, as otherwise than irreproachable victim, racist Zionist, and intolerably religious. To his credit, Badiou applies the same logic to the Palestinian or Arab signifier:

    A more immediately relevant consequence is that the signifier ‘Palestinian’ or ‘Arab’ should not be glorified any more than is permitted for the signifier ‘Jew’. As a result, the legitimate solution to the Middle East conflict is not the dreadful institution of two barbed-wire states. The solution is the creation of a secular and democratic Palestine, one subtracted from all predicates, and which, in the school of Paul—who declared that, in view of the universal, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek” and that “circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing”—would show that it is perfectly possible to create a place in these lands where, from a political point of view and regardless of the apolitical continuity of customs, there is “neither Arab nor Jew” (Polemics 164; emphasis added).

    Uncompromising in his rejection of identity politics, Badiou advocates a philosophy of subtraction, a philosophy that suspends or strips away the inessential in order to get at a “generic humanity” (Infinite Thought 51).

    Badiou can be seen here as extending Gilles Deleuze’s own illuminating observation on the type of identitarian claims made both by Israelis and Palestinians. In a 1982 interview with Elias Sanbar titled “The Indians of Palestine,” Deleuze offers the following commentary:

    The opening pages of the first issue of your journal [La Revue d’Études Palestiniennes] contain a manifesto: we are “a people like any other people.” The sense of this declaration is multiple. In the first place, it is a reminder, or a cry. The Palestinians are constantly reproached with refusing to recognize Israel. Look, say the Israelis, they want to destroy us. But for more than 50 years now, the Palestinians have been struggling for recognition as a people. In the second place, the declaration marks an opposition with the manifesto of Israel, which says ‘we are not a people like any other people’ because of our transcendence and the enormity of our persecutions. (199)

    Both of these passages capture the ambivalent exemplarity of the Palestinians, each passage highlighting a different aspect of their exemplarity. Deleuze’s claim that Palestinians are “‘a people like any other people’” stresses their representative status; they too hunger for recognition and suffer from the lack of it. Badiou’s passage is perhaps more abstract, pointing to a social reality still to come, where in their secular, universalist appeal, an appeal open to all political subjects, Palestinians will compel Jews and Arabs alike to bracket communal interests, to overcome their outdated logic of particularism, their pragmatic and phantasmatic attachments to religious and ethnic differences, and embrace a shared co-existence under new universal ideals. Here, the exemplarity of the Palestinians would reside not in their uniqueness, instantiated in their victimhood and suffering (past and present), but in the boldness and courage of their political vision, in their practice of subtraction. Likewise, Israelis could affirm an alternative universality by deciding to rethink the very notion of a “Jewish state,” abandoning its myth of a sacred origin in favor of a more democratic and egalitarian political regime. [17]

    Yet is there another way to address the shortcomings of identity politics without adopting a universalist stance? Is it really a matter of choosing between the unity of Humanity (a prescriptive universalism) or an ethics of alterity (a resilient particuliarism)? It depends, of course, on the meaning one finally ascribes to alterity or difference. In the context of the Nation-State, preserving difference, as we have seen, takes the form of social antagonism. The phenomenon of Israel dramatizes this point, since its antagonism is not only directed against Palestinians and its defenders but also against other Jews (“the Jews of the Jew,” as it were). Žižek describes the latter attitude as a “Zionist anti-Semitism”:

    [W]ith the establishment of the Jewish Nation-State, a new figure of the Jew emerged: a Jew resisting identification with the State of Israel, refusing to accept the State of Israel as his true home, a Jew who subtracts himself from this State. This Jew includes the State of Israel among the states towards which he insists on maintaining a distance… It is this uncanny Jew who is the object of what one cannot but designate as Zionist anti-Semitism: Zionists perceive him as the foreign excess disturbing their Nation-State community. (“The Strange Rise” n.p.)

    Rescuing and updating this other (and more productive) genealogy of the Jew as profoundly other to him- or herself, always in excess of his or her existing phantasmatic and symbolic identity complicates a simple choice between universalism (the transcendence of one’s facticity) and particularism (the mystification of one’s predicates). [18] For this Jew, the call for election not only takes the form of suspicion toward the state of Israel but of radical skepticism toward his or her election, sustaining, in the words of Jacques Derrida, “the terrible and indecisive experience of…election” (31).

    Detaching the signifier Jew from any ahistorical ontological claims opens it up to inscription within different, less totalizing, less certain and more provisional systems of signification. Palestinian critic Edward Said made ample use of such a possibility in one of his last interviews. Responding to his Israeli interlocutor’s observation that “[he] sound[s] very Jewish,” Said boldly concurred: “Of course. I’m the last Jewish intellectual. You don’t know anyone else. All your other Jewish intellectuals are now suburban squires. From Amos Oz to all these people here in America. So I’m the last one. The only true follower of Adorno. Let me put it this way: I’m a Jewish-Palestinian” (2000). [19] Playfully troping the signifier Jew, Said creatively gestures toward the possibility of thinking beyond the Jew and Arab as monolithic differences, producing his own unlikely example of the Jewish-Palestinian. Thinking the Palestinian as Jewish today is clearly not an attempt to silence Jews, to speak for them, to appropriate their trauma, but Said’s “Levinasian” (I dare say) gesture toward rethinking the Jew (and his own Palestinian identity) as otherwise than being—not by abandoning the language of difference, but by traversing it and adapting it, short-circuiting, in turn, any fixed or timeless narrative of the victim.

    Works Cited

    • The American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “American Leaders Speak Out in Support of Israel’s Right to Self Defense.” http://www.aipac.org/Publications/SourceMaterialsCongressionalAction/CongressIsraelGazaSelfDefense.pdf.
    • Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
    • Anidjar, Gil. The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy. Stanford: University of Stanford Press, 2003.
    • Badiou, Alain. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Trans. Peter Hallward. London: Verso, 2001.
    • Badiou, Alain. Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy. Trans. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens. New York: Continuum, 2005.
    • Badiou, Alain. Polemics. Trans. Steve Corcoran. New York: Verso, 2006.
    • Balibar, Etienne. “Un nouvel antisémitisme?” Antisémitisme: l’intolérable chantage. Israël-Palestine, une affaire française? Paris: Editions La Découverte, Paris, 2003. 89–96.
    • Balibar, Etienne. “Universalité de la cause palestinienne.” Le Monde diplomatique (May 2004): 26–27.
    • Bernasconi, Robert. “Strangers and Slaves in the Land of Egypt: Levinas and the Politics of Otherness. Difficult Justice: Commentaries on Levinas and Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. 246–61.
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    Notes

    1. For Sartre, the Jew’s identity persists in its defiance of France’s assimilative Republican ideal and demoded bourgeois values: “Jewish authenticity consists in choosing oneself as Jew—that is, in realizing one’s Jewish condition. The authentic Jew abandons the myth of the universal man…he ceases to run away from himself and to be ashamed of his own kind” (136). For other examples of continental philosophers and critics using the Jew as a privileged sign for alterity, see, in particular, Jean-François Lyotard’s Heidegger and “the Jews” and The Differend: Phrases in Dispute; Maurice Blanchot’s “Being Jewish” in The Infinite Conversation; Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection; Jacques Derrida’s Judeities: Questions for Jacques Derrida; and Emmanuel Levinas’s Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism.return to text
    2. Joseph Massad traces this intellectual bias in favor of the Jew from Sartre to Žižek. I wish to nuance Massad’s view by looking more carefully at the ways some of these philosophers have scrutinized the ideological deployment of the Jew in the realm of public discourse. See Massad’s “The Legacy of Jean-Paul Sartre.”return to text
    3. The opposition Jew/Arab is itself questionable, since it juxtaposes a primarily religious difference (Jew) with an exclusively ethnic one (Arab). Imagining the Arab as the Other of the Jew reveals the deep connection of the Jew to the Nation-State of Israel. The Jew’s enemy/Other is Israel’s enemy, the Arab states (although in recent years, in the context of the “War on Terror,” Israel’s enemies include non-Arab states like Iran, under the broader category of the Islamic Other). For a lucid account of the discursive construction of the enemy in this context, see Gil Anidjar’s The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy.return to text
    4. “If there were only two people in the world, there would be no need for law courts because I would always be responsible for and before, the other. As soon as there are three, the ethical relationship with the other becomes political and enters into the totalizing discourse of ontology. We can never completely escape from the language of ontology and politics” (Levinas, “Dialogue” 21–22).return to text
    5. Levinas puts the matter in terms of a potential contradiction between these two distinct realms: “[T]here’s a direct contradiction between ethics and politics, if both these demands are taken to the extreme” (“Ethics and Politics” 292).return to text
    6. See, in particular, Eric Marty’s Une querelle avec Alain Badiou, philosophe. return to text
    7. For Joseph Massad, such philo-Semitism not only informs Western media coverage but also conditions much of the Left’s discourse on the Israel/Palestinian conflict. Many so-called progressive intellectuals remain “blind to the ultimate achievement of Israel: the transformation of the Jew into the anti-Semite, and the Palestinian into the Jew” (par. 17).return to text
    8. Cécile Winter makes a similar point: “[T]he ideological frame mounted at Nuremberg laid the foundations for a durable edifice. The ‘Crime’ against ‘Humanity’, the first, the incomparable and absolute, the inaccessible, definitive yardstick of all others, elevated its victims to exemplary status. The ‘Victims’, once jews, became ‘Jews’. ‘Jew’, that is, turned into a metonymical signifier for Humanity… ‘Jew’ is the Victim par excellence” (223).return to text
    9. Levinas warns Jews not to take this universality lightly, that their election comes with an even greater sense of duty, an infinite responsibility to and for the Other: “We have the reputation of considering ourselves to be a chosen people, and this reputation greatly wrongs this universalism. The idea of a chosen people must not be taken as a sign of pride. It does not involve being aware of exceptional rights, but of exceptional duties. It is the prerogative of a moral consciousness itself. It knows itself at the centre of the world and for it the world is not homogeneous: for I am always alone in being able to answer the call, I am irreplaceable in my assumption of responsibility. Being chosen involves a surplus of obligations for which the ‘I’ of moral consciousness utters” (Difficult Freedom 176–77). return to text
    10. For a critical account of the American media’s preferential treatment given to Israel, see Marda Dunsky’s Pens and Swords: How the American Mainstream Media Report the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.return to text
    11. Candidate Obama’s comment that “no one has suffered more than the Palestinians” generated a fury of objections, which subsequently led him to qualify and diminish the full force of the statement, blaming the cause of the suffering on Palestinian leadership: “nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people from the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel, to renounce violence, and to get serious about negotiating peace and security for the region” (South Carolina Democratic Debate n.p.). This is a myopic judgment, lacking both nuance (all the causes mentioned are internal ones) and political courage (a missed opportunity to challenge the political status quo), which is also tantamount to blaming the victim.return to text
    12. Derek Gregory also notes, “Israel’s offensive operations were designed to turn the Palestinian people not only into enemies but into aliens, and in placing them outside the modern, figuratively and physically, they were constructed as…homines sacri” (187).return to text
    13. This emphasis of the management or conditioning of grievability can be seen as a further qualification to the Levinasian face-to-face encounter (understood as a privileged pre-discursive or unmediated space outside of power). “It is not enough to say, in a Levinasian way,” Butler argues, “that the claim is made upon me prior to my knowing and as an inaugurating instance of my coming into being. That may be formally true, but its truth is of no use to me if I lack the conditions for responsiveness that allow me to apprehend it in the midst of this social and political life” (Frames of War 179).return to text
    14. The notion of “Islamic terrorism” makes terrorism “constitutive of the very identity of Islam” (Žižek, Iraq 45). return to text
    15. For example, Democrat Representative Eliot Engel from New York stated, “The terrorist organization that runs Gaza called Hamas…thinking that it can use terrorism as a way of somehow getting its state, must understand that in order to gain acceptance of nations in the free world, that it needs to renounce terror, that it needs to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and that it needs to abide by all previous resolutions that were signed by the Palestinian Authority. It doesn’t do it because it’s a terrorist state. It doesn’t do it because its vow is to destroy the Jewish State of Israel. It doesn’t do it because, like Hezbollah and like Osama bin Laden and like al Qaeda [sic], it thinks it can use terrorism to establish its aims and goals, but it cannot.” Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher from California offered a similar one-dimensional assessment of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict: “The hate-filled radicals who launched missiles into Israel—Hamas triggermen, not Israeli pilots—are the ones who are really responsible for the horrible mayhem we are witnessing in Gaza. The radical Islamists ruthlessly and without any remorse did what they knew would bring retaliation and result in the slaughter of their own people. The hatred of Israel in the hearts of these Hamas radicals clearly outweighs their commitment to the safety and well being of their own people. That’s a hard fact. And that after shooting rockets into Israel, they hide among and behind non-combatants—women, and children—makes their actions even more despicable.” These comments, and those of many other government officials, can be found on AIPAC’s web-document titled “American Leaders Speak Out in Support of Israel’s Right to Self Defense.” While it might be convenient for such US leaders to draw a “moral” distinction between the guilty Hamas and the innocent Palestinian population (and thus acknowledging that not all Palestinians are a priori evil), the distinction itself should be seen as profoundly ideological, distorting the all-pervasive logic that interprets and transforms any violent form of resistance (even in self-defense) to Israeli military into an act of terrorism. Before Hamas, it was of course the more secular Palestinian Liberation Organization that was subjected to the same logic.return to text
    16. The sheer imbalance in the death toll (totaling 13 Israelis and 1,417 Palestinians, as estimated by The Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza) troubles the portrayal of the Israeli as sole victim. return to text
    17. Israel as a Jewish state and Israel as a truly democratic nation are mutually exclusive. As Etienne Balibar puts it, Israel as a Jewish state “is not only relentlessly expanding at the expense of Palestinians, but, within its own borders, it reduces them to second-class citizenship deprived of numerous rights and symbolically excluded from equality with ‘real Israelis’ in owning their common land” (“Universalité de la cause palestinienne,” Le Monde diplomatique 27). return to text
    18. Similarly yearning to liberate the word “Jew” from its sense of destiny, Judith Butler writes: “The ‘Jew’ is to be found, substantively, as this diasporic excess, a historically and culturally changing identity that takes no single form and has no single telos” (Precarious Life 126). return to text
    19. Alain Finkielkraut sarcastically objects to Said’s words, seeing in them a further assimilation and policing of Jews: “These are strange times for real Jews. Not long ago, they were on the lookout, ready to strike down anti-Semitism wherever it dared rear its head. They were determined never again to succumb to hatred, and to clip the wings of anyone who spoke of them as ‘dirty Jews.’ What they weren’t expecting—and what makes it all the more disconcerting—was to be faced with a grievance that is in its form moral and not brutish, virtuous and not vile, an altruistic grievance, sure of its legitimacy, full of kindness, and steeped in concern. While they are used to hearing themselves denounced as Jewish traitors, they did not expect to be denounced as traitors to their Jewishness” (26). What Finkielkraut fails to appreciate about Said’s comment is its profound ethical thrust, its demystifying and denaturalizing call, a call not intended to diminish the agency of “real” Jews but to unsettle reified narratives about “authentic” Arab and Jewish identities. return to text