Several years ago, I traveled to Jerusalem with a group of Messianic Jews to attend their annual conference. The Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations holds conferences for its members each year in different locations and this year they were meeting in the Holy Land. Although I was starting to call myself a Messianic Jew (or, affectionately, a “Messy Jew”) at this time, I never officially affiliated with any Messianic Jewish congregation. However, I very was excited to attend this year’s conference due to its location (and due to the fact that I liked a girl who was also attending). I thought of the trip as a personal and spiritual pilgrimage to the land where many of my favorite heroes once lived: Abraham, Joshua, King David, and, of course, Jesus of Nazareth. It was almost like I was going to Narnia, a place I had only encountered in books and could only visit in my imagination.
When I arrived, I enjoyed soaking up the holiness of the land as I felt the texture of its ancient walls, peered out at the desert expanse, and perspired under the same sun that stood still in the sky for Joshua. I was expecting the Holy Land and my encounter with it to work on my soul in ways that no other place could. And I was expecting the conference and its tours to equip me with the tools and knowledge necessary for such a spiritual transformation to take place. I was somewhat aware of the violence and the political chaos that plagued the land, but was not expecting that stuff to be a major part of my trip. As it turned out, the politics of the land took the forefront in discussions, seminars and tours. And perhaps needless to say, the conference held a profoundly pro-Zionist agenda, which demanded my attention.
Five years later, I returned to Jerusalem for another conference, this time with a group of Palestinian Christians, a very different group of people with a very different agenda. It was an international conference sponsored by Sabeel, an ecumenical non-violent liberation theology organization among Palestinian Christians. This conference offered an entirely different story from the one I heard from Messianic Jews. Each conference told its own narrative of oppression, constructing a frame around its story, conveniently omitting key elements of the opposing story.
In this post, I will seek to apply the insights of post-structuralist philosopher Judith Butler regarding “Frames of War” to my experience in Israel-Palestine with both Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians. I will tell the story of Israel that I heard from the Messianic Jews, followed by the story of Palestine that I heard from the Palestinian Christians. In doing so, the frames of violence that each group constructs will become clear. I will then conclude with a final analysis and a call for “a more inclusive and egalitarian way of recognizing precariousness” and grievability. This “more inclusive and egalitarian way of recognizing precariousness” will involve taking on the perspective of the “other” a la Levinas’ alterity.
In Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, Butler argues that war is “framed” in the media so as to prevent one group of people from recognizing another group of people as living fully “grievable” lives. “The frame,” Butler writes, “is always throwing something away, always keeping something out, always de-realizing and de-legitimating alternative versions of reality.” Although Butler focuses on the frames constructed by photographers of war, it is worthwhile analyzing how her observations on frames apply to collective narratives, particularly those held by Israelis and Palestinians. These collective narratives, which we will see, construct frames, which throw important details away, thereby “de-realizing and de-legitimating alternative versions of reality.” These frames are constructed in order to highlight some lives as “grievable” and other lives as not “grievable,” or perhaps as less “grievable.” In her work, Butler coins the term “grievability,” which she describes as a “presupposition for the life that matters.” A person’s life matters because of its grievability. In other words, a person’s life matters because, if that person were to die, others would experience grief. Butler elaborates,
For the most part, we imagine that an infant comes into the world, is sustained in and by that world through to adulthood and old age, and finally dies. We imagine that when the child is wanted, there is celebration at the beginning of life. But there can be no celebration without an implicit understanding that the life is grievable, that it would be grieved if it were lost, and that this future anterior is installed as the condition of its life.
A person’s life is celebrated because it is grievable, because it would be grieved if it were lost. “Without grievability,” Butler conversely states, “there is no life, or, rather, there is something living that is other than life.”
A life’s grievability is deeply connected to a life’s precariousness. Fond of coining new terms, Butler describes what she means by “precariousness” or “precarity”:
To say that a life is injurable, for instance, or that it can be lost, destroyed, or systematically neglected to the point of death, is to underscore not only the finitude of a life (that death is certain) but also its precariousness (that life requires various social and economic conditions to be met in order to be sustained as a life). Precariousness implies living socially, that is, the fact that one’s life is always in some sense in the hands of the other.
All life is precarious, but the degree of precariousness depends on the life’s grievability. In other words, “the various social and economic conditions” necessary to sustain a life are provided to a life based on that life’s grievability. So who decides on life’s grievability? Or, as Butler puts it, “when is life grievable”?
Generally, the lives of those who are close to me and part of the “we” that includes me will be more grievable to me than those who are part of the “other.” If I am in a position of power, I will work to reduce the precariousness or precarity of those lives that are more grievable to me, even if this means increasing the precariousness of those lives that are less grievable to me. At the same time, I feel a moral obligation to those whose lives are less grievable to me. Butler addresses this when she writes,
We could say that “we” have such obligations to “others” and presume that we know who “we” are in such an instance. The social implications of this view, however, is precisely that the “we” does not, and cannot, recognize itself, that is riven from the start, interrupted by alterity, as Levinas has said, and the obligations “we” have are precisely those that disrupt any established notion of the “we.”
Here, Butler brings up Levinas’ alterity, which disrupts any established notion of the “we,” breaking down the lines drawn (and the frames constructed) between “we” and the “other”, thus inviting us to see the “we” in the “other.” Seeing the “we” in the “other” involves taking on the perspective of the “other”. This involves hearing the story of the “other” and seeing the world through the frame of the “other.” A sharing of frames and perspectives can lead to what Butler is arguing for: “a more inclusive and egalitarian way of recognizing precariousness…[taking form] as concrete social policy regarding such issues as shelter, work, food, medical care and legal status.”
In her Introduction to the Paperback Edition, Butler applies her argument to Israel-Palestine. In this post, I will apply Bulter’s “Frames of War” to my experience in Israel-Palestine with both the Messianic Jews and the Palestinian Christians. I will tell the story of Israel that I heard from the Messianic Jews, followed by the story of Palestine that I heard from the Palestinian Christians. In doing so, the frames of violence that each group constructs will become clear. I will then conclude with a final analysis and a call for “a more inclusive and egalitarian way of recognizing precariousness” and grievability.
The Story of Israel That I Heard from Messianic Jews
Now I want to be clear that I am not saying that this is “The Story of Israel told by all Messianic Jews and/or Israelis.” I am simply sharing the story that I heard told by tour guides, seminar leaders and conference participants in Israel in 2003 at the Conference of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. This event took place several years ago so I am dependent on my memory and on my notes. I do not intend to indict the Messianic Jews or Christian Zionists. I simply want to look at the story that I heard when I was among them and apply Butler’s “frames.” Also, no one person narrated the following story to me. This story is a conglomeration of multiple voices rolled into one semi-cohesive narrative through my own biased lens.
The story begins in the book of Bereshit (Genesis), in the Torah, when Abraham receives the promise from G-d that he will inherit the land, which is mostly modern-day Israel. After escaping from Egyptian oppression and slavery under the mighty leadership of Moses, Abraham’s descendants move into the land under the military leadership of Joshua. G-d helps them defeat their enemies (ie. the Philistines) so that they can eventually establish their own kingdom, which is ruled by King Saul, followed by the beloved King David and then the wise King Solomon, who builds the first temple in Jerusalem. This is known as the Golden Age of Ancient Israel. After Solomon, the kingdom splits into the north (Israel) and the south (Judah). Then Israel is overtaken by Assyria, followed by the Babylonian exile of the Judahites and the destruction of the temple in Judah in 587 BCE. The Judahites then return from exile under Persia, rebuild the temple and live relatively peacefully in the land (now called Judea) until 70 CE when Rome destroys the second temple and disperses the Judahites (now called the “Jews”). After the second temple is destroyed, Rome renames Jerusalem “Aelia Capitolina” and renames Judea “Palestine” after the Jews’ long-lasting enemy, the Philistines.
The Jews then live dispersed throughout the known world, among Muslims and Christians for hundreds of years until 1920, when the British Mandate implements the Balfour Declaration, which promises a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. During the Third Reich, more Jews attempt to migrate to Palestine, where they begin to “make the desert bloom.” Soon after the UN learns about the horrifying atrocities committed against the Jews in the Shoah (Holocaust), the Jews are given Palestine (now called Israel) as a home state, “a land without a people for a people without a land.” However, on the day that the Jews declare independence, the armies of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq all invade the tiny new state with the intention of destroying it completely. Israel manages to survive the attack, only to be attacked again in 1967 by Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Once again, Israel survives, but is attacked yet again in 1973 by Arab countries on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, when most Israelis are praying and fasting. Israel defends its existence and then consistently seeks peace and armistice with the surrounding Arab countries. The Arab countries, however, refuse to pursue any possibility of peace unless the truce involves the complete annihilation of Israel, which sticks out like a knife in the middle of the Arab world. The Palestinians and surrounding Arabs continue to terrorize Israelis by throwing rocks at soldiers, launching lethal rockets at civilians, and bombing buses with suicidal terrorists.
The Story of Palestine That I Heard from Palestinian Christians
Again, I want to be clear that I am not saying that this is “The Story of Palestine told by all Palestinian Christians and/or Palestinian Muslims.” I am simply sharing the story that I heard told by tour guides, seminar leaders and conference participants in Palestine in 2009 at the Sabeel Young Adult Conference. This event took place a couple years ago so I am dependent on my memory and on my notes. I do not intend to indict the Palestinian Christians or their supporters. I simply want to look at the story that I heard when I was among them and apply Butler’s “frames.” Also, no one person narrated the following story to me. This story is a conglomeration of multiple voices rolled into one semi-cohesive narrative through my own biased lens.
The story begins in the Biblical book of Acts at the Council of Jerusalem (about 50 AD), when Christian leaders decide to allow non-Jews into the Church, without having to convert to Judaism. Many of these non-Jewish Christians remain in Judea after Rome destroys the second temple in 70 AD and stay in the land as it is renamed Palestine. These Palestinian Christians live relatively peacefully in the land, even when Islam takes over the territory in the seventh century. Under tolerant Muslim rule, the Palestinian Christians, Jews and Muslims live peacefully together, for the most part. After World War I, the British take over the land and eventually allow the Jews to have their own independent state. Thousands and thousands of Jews immigrate to Israel after World War II. The British and then the US equip the state of Israel with enough military strength to fight the neighboring Arab countries and to treat the Palestinian Christians and Muslims as “less than human.” As more Jews move in, Palestinian homes are bulldozed and neighborhoods are destroyed. And, after learning how to farm from the Palestinians, the Israelis violently seize the fertile plots of the land, leaving Palestinians with the barren territories. Palestinian families who have been living in the land for centuries are now treated like foreigners who should starve to death or “get the hell out.” Palestinian territories lack sufficient water supply, medical access, and other necessary resources for adequate living. Israel practices “apartheid” by constructing walls of separation in the name of “security,” herding Palestinians through humiliating and dehumanizing checkpoints. Because of their military superiority, the Israelis have taken over more and more territory, kicking out and often slaughtering unarmed Palestinian women and children in the process. Whenever Palestinians attempt to fight back or stand up for their rights, they are branded as “terrorists” by Israel and by the rest of the world. The US, in particular, staunchly supports Israel fiscally and militarily, even when the Israeli government continues to violate the basic human rights of Palestinians. Because Jews and Israelis have the power and money to influence the world media, the truth of Palestinian oppression under Israeli occupation remains cloaked under the guise of Israeli security from Palestinian terrorism.
After reading the two collective narratives side-by-side, the reader can begin to see what each narrative frame throws out and what alternative versions of reality are de-realized and de-legitimated. The above story of Israel leaves out the fact that many Palestinians were living in what they called a “land without a people” and that hundreds of homes were bulldozed and neighborhoods destroyed as Jews moved in. The story of Israel also fails to mention the violence that Israel has afflicted on unarmed Palestinians along with the wall of “apartheid” that obstructs Palestinian access to basic human resources. Furthermore, the above story presents the lives of Jews and Israelis as grievable while presenting the lives of Palestinians as simply not grievable and “without grievability, there is not life, or rather, there is something living that is other than life.” Viewing Jewish and Israeli life as grievable causes the Israeli government to reduce the precariousness of Israeli lives at the expense of increasing the precariousness of the Palestinian lives.
The story of Palestine, on the other hand, has its own frames at work. The Shoah (the Holocaust), the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Six-Day War (1967), the Yom Kippur War (1973), and the Palestinian attacks on innocent Israeli citizens are conveniently left out of the story. Also, when considering the history of violent Christian anti-Semitism over the last two millennia, it is unwise to galvanize old portrayals of Jews as bloodthirsty and evil, as the Palestinian story tends to do.
Each story tends to de-humanize, if not demonize, the “other.” In so doing, grievability and precariousness increase and decrease concomitantly on both sides, failing to forge an “inclusive and egalitarian way of recognizing precariousness” and grievability. Although Butler only briefly acknowledges it, Levinas’ alterity seems to be the way out of this binary opposition of de-humanizaiton and demonization. Levinas’ alterity invites both sides to experience the perspective, the story and the frame of the “other.” In my experience in Israel-Palestine, I did not see this alterity taking place. I did not see Israelis sympathizing with the plight of Palestinians or vice versa. However, I know this alterity is happening nonetheless. When I read authors like Judith Butler and Daniel Boyarin, I have hope that more people can experience the frames of the “other,” thereby increasing and expanding their own frames.
In his introduction to Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity, Daniel Boyarin describes “the pain of watching a tradition, my Judaism, to which I have dedicated my life, morally disintegrating before my eyes.” “It has been said by many Christians,” Boyarin continues, “that Christianity died at Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor. I fear—G-d forbid—that my Judaism may be dying at Nablus, Daheishe, Beteen (Beth El), and al-Khalil (Hebron). The violent actions taken in the name of defense may help some Jewish bodies survive (and even that only dubiously, temporarily, momentarily), but they threaten to empty Jewish existence of all meaning, to make hollow the resistance for two thousand years to being dissolved into the majority. If we are not for ourselves, other Jews say to me, who will be for us? And I answer, but if we are for ourselves alone, what are we?”
Referencing the ancient Jewish Rabbi Hillel (who said, “If I am not for myself who will be? But if I am for myself only, what am I?”), Boyarin invites alterity and encourages Jews to know their own frame while also acknowledging their own frame’s limitation. Boyarin invites Jews to see the story through a Palestinian frame, thus expanding their own.
This alterity and this openness to acknowledging the limitations of our frames and to see through other frames allow us to expand our vision and increase compassion. As a result, we can arrive at a “more inclusive and egalitarian way of recognizing precariousness” and grievability especially in Israel-Palestine, where precarity and grief are all too familiar.
 Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (New York: Verson, 2010), xiii.
 Butler, 14.
 Ibid, 15.
 Ibid, 13.
 Ibid, 14.
 Ibid, 13.
 I should say that my bias at this time (2003) was leaning much more towards being pro-Israel than being pro-Palestinian.
 I should say that my bias at this time (2009) was leaning more towards being pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel.
 Butler, xiii.
 Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), xiv.
 The Talmud: Selected Writings, trans. Ben Zion Bokser (New York: Paulist Press, 1989),221.