Andrew Ryder

The life’s work of Jacques Derrida, often referred to by the name “deconstruction,” advanced a new way of reading. Emphasizing the deferral of meaning and the production of irreducible differences within the major concepts of European thought, Derrida’s thought was enormously controversial, particularly for its political implications. The complexity of deconstruction resists biographical interpretation, while Derrida’s life experiences undoubtedly affected its insights. He occasionally spoke of his unusual youth as a Jewish boy in French colonial Algeria, and linked this outsider status to the concern with difference, uncovered as essential to apparent identity, characteristic of his writings. His later work explored, among other things, an approach to experience as necessarily linked to the unforeseen possibilities of the future. One might be tempted to associate this with the trauma of the Algerian war, just as Derrida’s exile from his birthplace seems a literal imposition of the absence of origins insisted upon by his thought. Benoît Peeters’ biography, recently translated into English, provides a rich context for some of these personal and political factors. More than this, it allows for a better understanding of the relevance of Derrida’s work to the contemporary Middle East.

The particularly brutal nature of the Algerian war, and the subsequent expulsion of its heterochthonous population, necessarily haunts Derrida’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His initial sympathy with French liberal commentators on the former struggle developed into a position on the latter that appeared to some commentators as merely neutral, or even unduly sympathetic toward Israel’s claims. His refusal to take a starkly radical position rendered him vulnerable to criticism from both Zionists and advocates of Palestinian national liberation. One of the merits of the information brought to light in Peeters’ book is its value in understanding further Derrida’s memories of Algeria, and their effect on his view of the question of Palestine. In addition to exploring the early development of his thought in the painful experience of exile resulting from the conclusion of the Algerian war, Peeters also acknowledges the prominence of the question of Israel and Palestine in Derrida’s political awareness. Implicitly and explicitly, this crucial problem also affects his philosophical contributions. Derrida becomes discernable as, among many other things, a symptom of a certain crisis in French Zionism, first evident in the early 1970s, that remains unresolved.

This insight has bearing on recent political controversy regarding deconstruction. Christopher Wise’s book, Derrida, Africa, and the Middle East, published in 2009, suggests that a “latent Jewish liberalism” characteristic of deconstruction tends to unconsciously reinforce a Zionist approach to the region. Wise especially criticizes Derrida for his reference to a “war for Jerusalem” as metonymic for global religious struggle, thereby effacing the colonial nature of the continuing occupation of the holy city more historically known by the name Al-Quds. To Wise, this privilege accorded to the name “Jerusalem” refuses to introduce any discrepancy between Derrida’s meditations on ethics and politics and a narrative of cultural appropriation. Pal Ahluwalia’s Out of Africa reasserts the Algerian biographical origins of deconstruction as decisive in its theoretical formulations, in a manner not fully reflected upon by Derrida. Similarly, Lynne Huffer points out that while Derrida speaks a great deal of nature of anti-semitic persecution in French Algeria during the Vichy period, he never fully explores the colonial nature of the French presence in Algeria. Writing of Algeria from the perspective of childhood recollection, he inadvertently renders the French perspective innocent. As a result, for Huffer, what he called his “nostalgeria” is complicit in a French cultural trend towards obfuscating the crimes of the colonial period. Summing this up, Muriam Haleh Davis’s review of Wise’s and Ahluwalia’s books in Jadaliyya sees the focus on the experience of the pied noir as continuing the dynamics of colonialism. In Davis's view, Wise’s argument suggests that “the anti-Semitic sins of the colonial Father became the Zionist apologetics of the hybrid Son.”

So, Derrida’s position regarding both Algeria and Israel remains a point of contention with considerable stakes. We might gain perspective on these issues from the biographical information, such as documents from Derrida’s early adulthood, discussed by Peeters. Three years ago, the historian Edward Baring discovered a letter written by Derrida to Pierre Nora, who had just authored a scathing work on the complicity of French Algerian liberals with the colonial regime. Derrida defended the liberal intellectuals, the most famous representative of which was the late Albert Camus. As Baring summarizes the letter: “For Derrida, one should not resist French sovereignty by directly rejecting France, instituting another nationalist regime; he rather hoped for a Franco-Muslim community that would maintain a robust connection to France.” At this early stage, Derrida is interested in defending a certain place for European culture within North Africa, but reconfigured without its privileges of mastery. Peeters points out that this basic position, suspicious of the rejection of multiculturalism in favor of homogeneous nationalisms, remains with Derrida in his later championing of Nelson Mandela and South African liberation, as well as his view of Israel and Palestine. In Algeria, the goal for which Derrida hoped proved impossible. However, with great admiration for Mandela’s accomplishments, he saw South Africa as a fulfillment of this hope.

Deconstruction resists easy assimilation to “Zionist apologetics.” While Derrida’s work at times appeals to Jewish cultural and theological motifs, this has not prevented productive use of his insights by other traditions. For example, in his Islam: To Reform or to Subvert?, Mohammed Arkoun attempted a deconstruction of the religious truth in Muslim theology, explicitly indebted to Derrida. For Arkoun, Muslim thought carries with it many of the same founding assumptions as other religions of the so-called “West”, and benefits from Derrida’s discovery of these presuppositions. Christopher Wise also points out deconstructive possibilities in Christian and traditional African thought beyond Derrida’s explicit acknowledgment, overcoming any particular privilege given to the Jewish tradition over others. Arguments of this sort have some longevity in deconstructive thought. More than twenty years ago, Derrida’s friend Geoffrey Bennington argued that deconstruction’s insistence on the priority of writing, opening the possibility of a multiplicity of interpretations not readily apparent in the traditional attention to spoken truth, is best understood with an awareness of the role of inscription outside the European continent. For Bennington, the conceptual basis for writing most useful to deconstruction is not Greek or Hebrew, but rather exemplified by Egyptian hieroglyphics. While Derrida at times appeals to motifs borrowed from Judaic thought, it has been clear for some time that deconstruction cannot be in any way confined to this particular religion or culture. While there is no clear origin for deconstructive insights in the Hebrew Bible or Talmudic commentary, this is not true of one of the thinkers who most inspired Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas.

Many of the Jewish theological motifs that at times inflect deconstructive thought are partly inspired by Levinas. In addition, Levinas has a strong and discernible effect on Derrida’s formulation of ethical questions in his later work of the 1990s. Initially schooled in German phenomenology, introducing a new descriptive approach to the structures of consciousness, Levinas was responsible for conveying its insights to French thought. In the wake of Martin Heidegger’s advocacy for Nazism, Levinas argued that phenomenology needed to be drastically reformulated in order to prevent such crimes. Moreover, Levinas aimed to re-invent Western thought by means of a renewed attention to ethical experience. In order to achieve this, he believed it was necessary to translate the insights of the Tanakh into the philosophical tradition. This discovery of religious truth in the language of modern philosophy would call into question the priority of a self-identical subject and its freedoms. For Levinas, ethics involves the unsettling of selfhood by an irrecuperable Other. While he saw this project as limiting the arrogance of Western imperialism, he also asserted an essential need to defend the Jewish people. For him, this imperative to preserve the Jewish tradition and its ethical core required absolute defense of the Israeli state. His occasional references to orientalist tropes, asserting a fundamental coherence to Western thought in opposition to the confused immanence outside it, have become notorious. More concretely, his dismissal of the rights of Palestinians greatly unsettles his project of establishing an absolute ethics of difference. To a degree, Derrida’s association with him has led to attribution of similar biases.

The friendship and intellectual dialogue between Levinas and Derrida began at a decisive moment. According to Peeters,

Derrida wrote to him [Levinas] on 6 June 1967, just after the outbreak of what would soon be called the Six-Day War. ‘Glued to the radio’ since the start of the conflict, he admitted that he had for some time been ‘obsessed by what was happening over in Israel’. This certainly helped to bring him closer to Levinas.

As a result, Derrida’s understanding of relations between Europe and the Arab world in the 1960s might imply certain biases. Beginning the decade defending the French liberal position regarding the Algerian war, he later drew close to Levinas at the moment that Israel began to assume military hegemony. At the same time that he published his two most celebrated early works, Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference, he, like Levinas, felt an affinity with the Israeli territorial expansion of 1967. However, even in his first article on Levinas, Derrida questions the possibility of an absolute difference that could stand as the originator of ethical responsibility. Implicitly, this calls into doubt the significance attributed by Levinas to a single culture as the primary instantiation of a non-totalizing relation to difference. We see this more clearly in an address given much later, in 1996. In Derrida’s later work, he formalizes the Jewish messianism found in Levinas; while maintaining sympathy for the ethical project of messianic politics that Levinas made his own, Derrida opposed its mobilization towards the defense of the Israeli state. Unlike Levinas, Derrida was drawn to extricate his ethical thought from the assumptions of political Zionism. What event altered Derrida’s point of view regarding Israel, so that Levinas’s advocacy for Israeli militarism was no longer acceptable?

According to Peeters, Derrida’s friendship with Jean Genet was a decisive factor. Genet, a great playwright, novelist, and poet, as well as a former thief and convict, is widely known as a poète maudit. Active since the 1940s, his work and temperament were shocking, transgressive of all social norms; in many ways he was Levinas’s opposite. In his most famous work, Genet dedicated himself to profound, nihilistic isolation and a fascination with betrayal and evil. However, after the political upheavals of 1968, he became increasingly fraternal and revolutionary in his aspirations. In 1970 and 1971, he lived in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan for six months, and subsequently wrote startling articles about the experience, and later the memoir entitled Prisoner of Love. In 1982, he visited the refugee camps massacred by the Phalange in Beirut, with the tacit approval of the Israeli Defense Forces. As he wrote in “Four Hours in Shatila,” looking back on his first visits to Jordan: “It was then, and there, that I saw the Palestinian Revolution. The extraordinary evidence of what was taking place, the intensity of this happiness at being alive is also called beauty.” Derrida’s monumental work Glas developed the deconstructive reading of Hegelian dialectics, partly by means of an approach to Genet’s life and work that countered the previous Sartrean existentialist narrative. However, Peeters has discovered that Derrida and Genet were closer friends than generally realized. In Glas, Genet contributed to the undoing of philosophy’s appropriate of its outside—understood in his work as literature and crime. However, alongside this, Genet’s later work interrupted the subsuming of Palestinian experience into a Eurocentric narrative. For this reason, Genet’s most marked effect on Derrida may have been his revaluation of the Palestinian struggle.

The intensity of Genet’s experience and its transformative effect on him was correlated with a drastic shift in the attitudes of French intellectuals toward the Palestinian cause. Indeed, we might even locate Genet’s journey in 1970 as marking the beginning of a “crisis in French Zionism” that has yet to conclude. French intellectuals from 1947 to 1967 tended to see Israel as an essential bulwark against world anti-semitism. Appalled by the Shoah, figures as diverse as Jean-Paul Sartre, Marguerite Duras, and Michel Foucault all defended Israeli claims. Despite fidelity to the left, and even the harsh experience of the Algerian war, the French intellectual community was resolutely pro-Zionist throughout the 1960s. The new military supremacy of Israel, marked by the Six-Day War, and the consequent acceleration of the dispossession of the Palestinian people, was first inscribed into French thought by Genet. As a result, Derrida’s sympathies changed markedly.

Derrida first visited Israel in 1988, attending a conference in Jerusalem as well as meeting with intellectuals in the West Bank. He said directly at this visit that he supported Palestinian self-determination, “inspired not only by my concern for justice and by my friendship for both the Palestinians and the Israelis.” However, he also described this position as “as an expression of respect for a certain image of Israel and as an expression of hope for its future.” In a manner of speaking, he continued to develop his intervention in defense of the French Algerian liberals decades earlier, criticizing the violence of settler-colonialism in order to defend a higher possibility inherent in its existence. He returned to Israel in 1998, giving an address at Birzeit University in Ramallah as well. These visits took place years before the beginning of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. One wonders today if he would advocate this strategy, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Judith Butler have. It is difficult to say; however, his interest in the South African liberation struggle suggests that he would be amenable to this strategy with regard to the fight against apartheid in Palestine.

Only months before his death in 2004, Derrida made clear that he preferred to surpass a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, linking this to his previous beliefs regarding the bond between Algeria and France:

[A]lthough I approved of the independence movement, I would have preferred there to be a different type of settlement, one from which, in fact, the Algerians would have suffered less, and which would have spurned the rigidly unconditional terms of sovereignty.

For this reason, Derrida was fascinated by the South African struggle against apartheid and its peaceful resolution. From this example, Derrida believed it possible to reinvent Europe’s place in the world, in particular by the example of Palestinian national self-determination. That same year, he spoke of support for Europe, but a Europe of the future — where one can support the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people to recover its rights, its land and a state, without thereby approving of suicide attacks and the anti-Semitic propaganda that often – too often – tends, in the Arab world, to give renewed credit to the monstrous Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

In the final years of his life following the World Trade Center attack in 2001, Derrida had become increasingly radical, rejecting the increasingly reactionary Islamophobia and Zionism of traditionally leftist journals such as Les Temps Modernes. Arguing for the Palestinian nationalism alongside a certain defense of Israel can lead the reader to suspect Derrida of a liberal Zionist position, like that espoused by Amos Oz or Peter Beinart. However, while liberal Zionism argues for the two-state solution as an essential compromise necessary to safeguard the Jewish character of Israeli democracy, Derrida unhesitatingly recommended the South African model.

Rather than subtending the territorial divisions of semi-sovereign bantustans, the South African resistance to apartheid achieved a multiethnic democratic state. In Alain Badiou’s words, “In the opposition Jew/Arab, in the Palestinian conflict, Derrida adopted the position of deconstructing the duality.” This deconstruction is not simply a liberal recommendation of peaceful coexistence, but rather a refusal of ethnic hierarchies and politically codified cultural divisions. However, the continuing drastic inequality in South Africa suggests the need to further radicalize the approach to equality in nations marked by settler-colonialism. Here as elsewhere, it seems that the deconstruction of dualities of oppression remains an unfinished project.

Derrida’s early position on colonial rule in Algeria, as advanced in the letter to Pierre Nora, does express a certain naïveté towards the effects and conditions of struggle. His subsequent proximity to Emmanuel Levinas and concern for Israel’s continuing existence, shared to a degree by nearly all the French intellectuals of his generation, reinforces the sense that a certain cultural prejudice affected his point of view on political matters. However, Derrida’s openness to the experiences of Palestinian struggle communicated by Genet, and later his interest in the commitment pursued by Mandela, radicalized his political position towards a much more uncompromising position for the deconstructive approach to ethics and politics; one that cannot be easily ignored or dismissed. While biography is often the most reductive approach to the implications of thought, awareness of Derrida’s interlocutors and sympathies can help us greatly in determining the continuing significance of his thought to contemporary political conflict.

This article is cross-posted on Jadaliyya.

Andrew Ryder is Postdoctoral Associate of the Department of French and Italian at the University of Pittsburgh. He has written numerous articles on ethical phenomenology, French modern literature, and post-Marxism. He is presently writing a book manuscript, titled Irreducible Excess: Politics, Sexuality, and Materialism.