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Exilic Alliance: Diasporic Philosophy with Judith Butler

Lecturer: Louis Klee

Originally Taught: Winter School 2018

There is no longer any homeland other than a world in which no one would be cast out any more, the world of a genuinely emancipated humanity.
- Theodor W. Adorno, Notes to Literature

In her book Parting Ways (2012), Judith Butler sets out to articulate a diasporic account of political philosophy, re-reading modern Jewish thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas, Walter Benjamin, and Primo Levi alongside Palestinians such as Edward W. Said and Mahmoud Darwish. The result, in her words, is a “meditation of tarrying with the impossible”; one that hinges on the attempt to find “a set of principles from scattered existence that can serve a new conception of political justice.”

This course takes Butler’s timely reinterpretations of these thinkers as an invitation to read them anew and together; to explore how their ethical and political arguments can speak to the present in ways that they themselves may not have avowed or anticipated. We will trace the alternative ethical tradition of diasporism, focusing especially on the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt. Then, turning to the provocative writings of Ella Shohat and Freud’s enigmatic final work Moses the Man and the Monotheistic Religion, we will question the ways in which identities such as the Arab and the Jew have been shaped and reshaped historically. Finally, we will consider Edward Said’s late project, which asked how Jewish and Palestinian histories of exile might be though together despite their manifest differences. In this light, we will re-read the Arab world’s most celebrated twentieth-century poet, Mahmoud Darwish.

Course Schedule

1. ‘Our Homeland, the Text’: Introducing Diasporism

‘Diaspora’, the ancient Greek word used in the Septuagint to translate the ‘scattering’ of the Jewish people, has, like the Hebrew term galut or ‘exile’, been significant part of Jewish tradition. At its most basic, ‘exile’ recalls a condition of being out of place and the nation of the uprooted; yet it can also, in a more emphatic use, refer to the world’s imperfection, even God’s exile from history. Today, the word diaspora has become a catchall, as Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin write in The Power of Diaspora, used to describe everything from “the Chicano/a disruption of the U.S.-Mexico border, the Black Atlantic, the overseas Chinese, and intellectuals from the Indian subcontinent living and working inside the Euro-American metropole.” What is so compelling about this term? What is its continuing significance? What is the difference, if any, between diaspora, exile, and seeking refuge? And what are the stakes of diaspora in politics and philosophy? 

We will explore these questions by reading Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi’s lucid introduction to the geographic imaginary in Jewish culture—what she calls the “poetics of exile and return”—George Steiner’s famous and impassioned essay ‘Our Homeland, the Text’, and the opening of Butler’s Parting Ways.


  • Judith Butler, ‘Introduction’, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012)
  • Extract from Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination (2000)
  • George Steiner, ‘Our Homeland, the Text’, Salmagundi 66 (1985), pp.4-25

2. Hannah Arendt: A Diasporic Critique of the Nation-State

Hannah Arendt was intimately acquainted with exile. She fled her home in Germany, escaped from an interment camp in France, and took refuge in the United States. In this lecture, we will consider her political philosophy in light of her reflections on the condition of the refugee in her famous essay ‘We Refugees’ and her controversial treatment of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem.

It is in these writings especially, Judith Butler believes, that we can find the impetus for a politics of “cohabitation” and “binationalism.” Despite her relevantly recent turn to Arendt and her reservations, even “revulsion,” at some of Arendt’s political and philosophical convictions, Butler shares a commitment to theorising an alternative form of political community to the nation-state. From Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), Butler derives a principle of cohabitation: the unchosen obligation to share the earth with others.


  • Hannah Arendt, ‘We Refugees’, The Jewish Writings (2007)
  • Extract from Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

3. On Freud’s Moses and Shohat’s ‘Arab-Jew’

“The man Moses, liberator and law-giver of the Jewish people, was not a Jew but an Egyptian.” These are the words of Freud in his final, posthumously published work Moses the Man and the Monotheistic Religion—a curious and erratic text, marked by the unusually difficult circumstances of its composition (“internal misgivings coupled with external constraints”, in Freud’s own description). While the external constraints are clear enough—Freud’s old age, ill-health, and his flight from the rise of fascism to London—the internal misgivings have been the subject of enduring debate. Why does Freud feel compelled, as one commentator puts it, “to publish such a book at a time when European Jewry had already entered its darkest hour?”

Hoping to shed some light on this text, we will read it along with Ella Shohat’s writing on the ‘Arab-Jew’. Though this term may today sound oxymoronic, Shohat urges us to recall the ways in which these categories were together a lived and embodied identity for Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communities for centuries—at least up until the point that, as she puts it in her seminal essay ‘Sephardim in Israel’ (1988), they became antonyms, thrown into a painful binary, with the rise of new nationalisms.


  • Ella Shohat, ‘The Sephardim in Israel’, The Arab Jew and Other Essays (2017)
  • Extract from Sigmund Freud, Moses the Man and the Monotheistic Religion

4. Reflections on Exile: Edward Said’s Palestinian Writings

Across his numerous writings on Palestine, Said returns to manfa, ‘exile’, and ghurba , ‘estrangement’ as “the fundamental condition of Palestinian life.” Manfa, he argues, applies both to those inside the historic borders of Palestine—Arab citizens of Israel and occupied subjects of Gaza and the West Bank—and to those outside, in the shatat, scattered from the refugee camps of Jordan to the suburbs of Australia. In both cases “to be a Palestinian” means, in Said’s words, “to live in a utopia, a nonplace, of some sort.”

There are moments when Said plays on the convergences between Palestinian and Jewish histories of exile, remarking at one point that the Palestinians have “the most extraordinary of exile’s fates: to have been exiled by exiles.” In this lecture, we will consider Said’s ambivalence toward equating or drawing symmetries between these two histories of exile and suffering. What is at stake in comparing them? And what is lost in the translation?


  • Extract from Edward Said’s ‘Reflections on Exile’, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (2007)
  • Extract from Edward Said’s After the Last Sky (1988)

5. Exile’s Poet: Mahmoud Darwish and the Idea of Manfa

Mahmoud Darwish, one of the seminal poets in twentieth-century Arabic writing, is often thought of a poet of resistance or the national poet of Palestine, but he is equally a poet of exile. “Who am I, without exile?” as he writes in one poem, turning exile into an ethos that can be lived, even in one’s homeland. We will read his “lyrical, imagistic, plaintive, haunting, always passionate, and elegant” poems, as Naomi Shihab Nye has described them, in translation alongside those of the Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai, and the Egyptian-born, French-language poet, Edmond Jabès. “I like the conflict between me and Amichai,” Darwish once said, “we compete over who is more in love with this land, and who writes about [this love] more beautifully.”


  • Extract from Judith Butler’s ‘Who are We Without Exile?’, Alif (2012)
  • Poems by Mahmoud Darwish: ‘In the Presence of Absence’, ‘We Travel Like Other People’, ‘Edward Said: A Contrapuntal Reading’
  • Poems by Yehuda Amachi from The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (2015), ed. Robert Alter
  • Extract from Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions