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Netta van Vliet reviews Deconstructing Zionism: A Critique of Political Metaphysics

Gianni Vattimo and Michael Marder. Deconstructing Zionism: A Critique of Political Metaphysics. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 208 pp. Hardcover $100.00. Paperback $29.95. 

Review by Netta van Vliet

12 March 2015

Gianni Vattimo’s and Michael Marder’s Deconstructing Zionism: A Critique of Political Metaphysics, contains chapters by nine prominent thinkers in contemporary critical theory: Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, Walter Mignolo, Artemy Magun, Marc H. Ellis, Christopher Wise, Ranjana Khanna, Santiago Zabala, and Luce Irigaray, in addition to an introduction and individual essays by the editors. Vattimo and Marder open the volume with a militant call to use Jacques Derrida’s work to deconstruct Zionism; “deconstructing Zionism is a matter of urgency, because the past, present, and future victims of Zionist oppression demand justice” (p.xvi).

The volume’s first four essays, by Zizek, Vattimo, Mignolo, and Butler, all argue that to be anti-Zionist is not to be anti-Semitic. All four emphasize this important point differently, but all share the assumption that the question is not what Zionism is, but rather how to get rid of it. Vattimo focuses also on what he sees as the connection between Zionism (which he defines interchangeably with Israeli politics toward Palestinians), and Jewish tradition, suggesting that “the bloody racist politics of the State of Israel have begun to push the American Jewish community – its better parts, certainly, starting with Chomsky – to take note that the very praiseworthy richness and profundity of the Jewish tradition is only so much putrid, hot air from which one must free oneself . . .” (p.21). Arguably, such a declaration suggests that the debates over “the Jewish question” in turn of the century Europe, shaped by concerns about whether Jewish difference could be assimilated into, or eliminated from, a secular European modernity, are far from over, whether in the context of debates about Israel, or in the different but related debates about what Anne Norton has called “the Muslim question” in contemporary Europe.

In “The Prophetic Instability of Zionism,” Ellis takes a quite different tack, emphasizing the diversity of meanings attached to “Jewish” and “Zion,” asking: “Should Zionism be handled within the framework of Jewish particularity or in the framework of international law?” (p.106). This is an interesting, different iteration of the question that Israel’s establishment as a Jewish liberal democracy itself resulted from: should Jewish difference be handled within the framework of European liberal democracy, or within the framework of Jewish particularity? Magun poses a related question in terms of theology, through a discussion of how “Arendt and Marx read ‘Judaism’ as a synonym of a political order where the particular is torn away from the universal” (p.75).

In her chapter, “Sharing Humanity: Towards a Peaceful Coexistence in Difference,” Irigaray addresses Israel and Zionism in terms of “the Arab-Israeli conflict.” In a critique of the phallocentrism of metaphysics, she argues for the formation of civil rights based not on divisions of different peoples, or on the assumption of a universal neutral human, but rather on division between two different sexes, male and female, through which the human is produced. It is the question of the constitution of the human in the nexus between the difference of a people and sexual difference that Khanna’s chapter engages in a consideration of Zionism in terms of asylum through a reading of Israeli novelist Yoram Kanuik’s Adam Resurrected (1971). Her analysis of Zionism calls attention to the failures of the liberal state form out of which Zionism emerged. In this reading, Zionism is not metaphysics, but rather a product of the violence of metaphysics that can turn our attention, like Derrida’s work, to a critique of the political assumptions carried in European modernity’s ideals of the human, the citizen and the modern liberal state. In contrast, the editors suggest Zionism is itself a form of metaphysics, and deconstruction, as a critique of metaphysics, can thus be called upon to critique Zionism. But deconstruction, Derrida wrote, “never applies itself to anything from the outside. It is in some way the operation or rather the very experience that this text, it seems to me, first does to itself, by itself, on itself.”[1] The very framework of the volume then, in which deconstruction becomes a verb that is set to the noun that is Zionism, appears to have little to do with Derrida’s work or with Zionism.The contributions to the volume thus provocatively illuminate the productive relation between Zionism and deconstruction. In part they do so through drawing attention to that which is largely left out. As Jonathan Boyarin, Daniel Boyarin, George L. Mosse and others have pointed out, Zionism defined its ideal of “the New Jew” predominantly in relation to the gendered and racialized understandings of Jewish difference in fin-de-siècle Europe.  Bringing together the different archives of Zionism, rather than defining it only in terms of Palestinian oppression, as well as addressing Zionism and Derrida’s work through the fields of postcolonial studies, feminist theory, and psychoanalysis, which constitute a shared terrain for questions about Jewish difference and the ways in which it was pathologized, would perhaps be a more fruitful way in which to further an encounter between Zionism and that which goes under the name deconstruction.



[1] Derrida, Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar (New York, 2002), p. 264.