Judith Butler and Identity Politics

In my (fantastic) Women's Studies class this semester, we read quite a few pieces on identity politics: basing one's politics on categories that one claims as one's identity, including woman, working-class, lesbian, and so on. Some theorists, most notably Butler and Wendy Brown, critiqued identity politics, in part for their normalizing tendencies. That is to say, some members in the group might not agree with the hegemonic group viewpoint/party line, so they must either keep quiet or leave the group. In a recent essay responding to comments by Harvard University president Lawrence Summers criticizing what he perceives as "anti-Israel" (and, Butler claims, by implication also anti-Semitic) views, Butler describes this kind of normativity at work:

What are we to make of Jews who disidentify with Israel or, at least, with the Israeli state? Or Jews who identify with Israel, but do not condone some of its practices? There is a wide range here: those who are silently ambivalent about the way Israel handles itself; those who only half articulate their doubts about the occupation; those who are strongly opposed to the occupation, but within a Zionist framework; those who would like to see Zionism rethought or, indeed, abandoned. Jews may hold any of these opinions, but voice them only to their family, or only to their friends; or voice them in public but then face an angry reception at home.

Indeed. But what I find interesting--and refreshing--is Butler's foregrounding of her own identity here, her own stake in this debate:

What do we make of Jews such as myself, who are emotionally invested in the state of Israel, critical of its current form, and call for a radical restructuring of its economic and juridical basis precisely because we are invested in it? It is always possible to say that such Jews have turned against their own Jewishness. But what if one criticises Israel in the name of one's Jewishness, in the name of justice, precisely because such criticisms seem 'best for the Jews'? Why wouldn't it always be 'best for the Jews' to embrace forms of democracy that extend what is 'best' to everyone, Jewish or not? I signed a petition framed in these terms, an 'Open Letter from American Jews', in which 3700 American Jews opposed the Israeli occupation, though in my view it was not nearly strong enough: it did not call for the end of Zionism, or for the reallocation of arable land, for rethinking the Jewish right of return or for the fair distribution of water and medicine to Palestinians, and it did not call for the reorganisation of the Israeli state on a more radically egalitarian basis. It was, nevertheless, an overt criticism of Israel.

Cornel West argued that we need identity politics, that they, to many people in the world, are "a matter of life and death." It looks as though Butler's views on identity politics might have changed. At any rate, I look forward to her new book, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, a collection of essays by Butler about the post-9/11 world.