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Judith Butler. Trauma and the Holocaust.

Judith Butler. "Trauma and the Holocaust." in: European Graduate School Lecture. 2006. Transcribed by Deneige Nadeau, (English).

Which is why waking from trauma is the only way to forestall its endless reiteration. Indeed in this way, we might say that trauma presents us with a specific responsibility precisely because it threatens to render us ceaselessly as pure victims who can not take responsibility for the conditions that we impose upon others. And, although trauma can not be willed away, I think it can to certain extent be worked with, to the extent that we can become mindful of the way which it threatens to absorb the present into the past while reenact the past as the present and so, bypasses the presence of a historical distance the interval that we needed to reflect and consider the best way in which we can create history now in light of such a past.

If we can we return to the scene in Gaza for a moment, I think we can discern something of the difficulties of this task. Some Israeli Jews compelled to evacuate their homes insisted upon constructing memorials of their lives in Gaza modeled on holocaust memorials. This is in Certeau's view, a sanctification of the holocaust that evades its reality and produces it as a political cliché. Yet other Jews in Israel and the diaspora clearly understand that the holocaust taught them to care about social justice and disenfranchisement of people and the violence and the danger of unchecked militarization. The difference between such groups is also mistakes of nationhood and nationalism. Since for some, like ... in Israel and ... Palestinian human rights activist, the only way to a just peace is for both sides to live to their side of their nationalisms resisting the pathos of the nationalism itself.

Interestingly it was Edward Said who claims that in the diasporic idea of Judaism in his book “Freud and the Non European", that in this idea of a diasporic Judaism one can find reference to a Judaism that makes alliance with, that seeks and supports solidarity with, those in our age who suffer vast population transfers, with refugees, exiles, ex-patriots, and immigrants. And he further characterizes this diasporic Judaism as the diasporic wandering, unresolved cosmopolitan consciousness of someone who is both inside and outside his or her community. Said finds there, at the origin of Judaism which of course he elaborates upon in the book, very interestingly as being inaugurated by Moses, an Egyptian, a non European, and how important it is that Judaism is founded by an Egyptian. And, in understanding this he suggests that at the origin of Judaism there is a mixing with otherness, a question of ethical contact, a question of living in proximity with a non Jew, since not all Egyptians will be Jews, not all Jews will be Egyptians. So there is the chiasmic link there to the figure of Moses. And, he even goes so far as to tell us that living in proximity with a non Jew is constitutive of what it means to be a Jew, so here is Said telling us what Judaism is. The strength of this thought, the non Jew as it were founding us once again, the strength of this thought he tells us is that it can be articulated in and speak to other beseeched identities as well as a troubling disabling destabilizing secular wound.

Said asks whether we might continue to think this thought of two peoples, Palestinians and Jews, diasporically living together, and of course what is interesting here is that we tend to think of diasporic as outside the land of Zion and what he is suggesting, as others have suggested as well is that diasporic could become the basis for the land itself. And it could be understood, diaspora as the basis for living together and then diaspora would be understood as a way of attaining identity only with and through the other and this would become the basis for certain bi-nationalism. He asks whether this thought could even aspire to the condition of politics and he asks this, of course, before the current situation. Can it ever become the not so precarious foundation of the land of Jews and Palestinians of a bi-national state in which Israel and Palestine are parts rather than antagonists of each others history and underlying realty. I would like to query further is that precisely through politics of this kind that affirms the irresolution of identity that bi-nationalism becomes thinkable.

In 1984 Levi spoke again about Israel after a self imposed period of censorship and he embraced this notion of diaspora for the Jewish people. In response to a questioner, he said “I thought about this a great deal, the center is in the diaspora, it is in the coming back to the diaspora. I would prefer the center of gravity of Judaism to stay outside of Israel and then again I would say that the best of Jewish culture is bound to the fact that being dispersed poly-centric, the history of the diaspora is the history of persecution not also of inter-ethnic exchange and relations. In other words a school for tolerance."

So I’ve gone on, I’ve been a bit to long. Let me close and return to Levi again. He understood the Holocaust, Levi did, to provide a moral framework for his own criticisms of Israel and he wouldn’t listen to those who said that in his position you ought to remain silent. At least he wouldn’t listen for a long time. On the eve of his departure to revisit Auschwitz in 1982, to commemorate it, he signed the open letter La Repubblica calling for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon. He refused to understand the Israeli army as representative of a persecuted minority, the discourse of persecution could not be used for such a purpose and over and against those who would revive the images of the camps to authorize Israeli aggression he wrote provocatively in manifesto “everybody is somebody’s Jew and today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis". Of course this is a controversial claim, I think we have to finally reject it as an unwise formulation. After all, if Levi says that the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis he’s transposing the victimized position of the Jews onto the Nazis to the victimized position of the Palestinians onto the Israelis. I think that this is a crude and cynical use of a holocaust resonance precisely the kind that I’m talking against. But consider that he is also saying that just as the Jew was persecuted under the Nazi so others can be in the position of being persecute and if we equate the Jew with the persecuted than today others can be Jews including Palestinians. Further Israelis understood as the Israeli government are not the same as Jews. When asked later about his controversial formulation he made clear that he did not think that Begin and Sharon were Nazis. And in response to yet another interviewer, who came after him after he made this outrageous formulation from La Repubblica that interviewer asked are Palestinians in the same position that Jews under the Nazis. He replied that he didn’t accept such simplistic analogies and there was no policy that he knew of to exterminate the Palestinians. When, after Sabra and Shatilla he joined with other Jewish intellectuals to ask both Begin and Sharon to resign. He was also horrified by the anti Semitic slogans that suddenly appeared on the walls of his town Turin equating Jews with Nazis. These words came back to him on the walls of the town and he was I daresay flooded with remorse.

This was, for him, a radically untenable situation and it produced for him a conflict, could he continue to elaborate those principles as he understood them derived from his experience of Auschwitz to condemn state violence without contributing to an anti semitic seizure of the event. This was the issue he had to negotiate within a few months of these anti semitic slogans appearing on the walls of his town Levi fell silent on the issue and even fell into a serious depression one that doubtless had several causes but could not have been helped by the impasse that was before him.