Defending Judith Butler in the Ivory Tower

September 7, 2012 2:15 pm 2 comments

Judith Butler. Photo: Javier Ignacio Acuña Ditzel.

The controversy that erupted when it became known that the prominent American post-structuralist philosopher Judith Butler will be awarded Frankfurt’s prestigious Theodor Adorno Prize has already resulted in a large volume of writings. The website of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East provides a long list of critical commentaries; if you’re looking for voices defending Butler, one place to go to is Mondoweiss – a site that, for good reason, has often been criticized for publishing antisemitic material and views. Yet, Judith Butler chose Mondoweiss to publish her first response to the critics of her Adorno award, and since then, the blog has been quoted by highly respected sites, including the publisher of Butler’s recent book, Columbia University Press (CUP). This illustrates in a nutshell some of the major problems that the defenders of Butler – prominently among them her fellow-academics – are trying to ignore or downplay.

Imagine for a moment that there was a controversy about a prominent academic who just published a book with CUP, and she would choose to respond to her critics on a site that is single-mindedly focused on the failings of the Muslim world and is known to often publish material that can be legitimately described as bigoted against Muslims. Would CUP happily link to the site?

Unfortunately, it seems fair to assume that Butler chose to have her response to her critics published on Mondoweiss because she knows the blog and agrees with its view that the world would be a better place if there was no Jewish state. Indeed, according to the advertisement for her new book Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, she “affirms Edward Said’s late proposals for a one-state solution within the ethos of binationalism.” Moreover, Butler also offers the “startling suggestion” that “Jewish ethics not only demand a critique of Zionism, but must transcend its exclusive Jewishness in order to realize the ethical and political ideals of living together in radical democracy.”

It’s indeed a “startling suggestion,” but of course Judith Butler is entitled to her own interpretation of Jewish ethics. At the same time, her critics must be entitled to point out that when Butler claims to merely “criticize” Israeli policies, she does so within the context of her view that Israel shouldn’t exist as a Jewish state.

While Butler seizes every possible opportunity to fight the popular straw-man argument that thanks to Israel’s mindless defenders, anyone who dares to criticize Israeli policies risks being denounced as an antisemite, she ignores the very real problem that her views about the illegitimacy of a Jewish state are not only shared by the Mondoweiss crowd, but also by bizarre Jewish fringe groups like Neturei Karta, and of course by Islamist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, whom Butler once described so controversially as “social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left.”

To be sure, Butler makes her case for a “world without Zionism” in very different terms than the “anti-Zionist” Jew-haters in the Middle East and elsewhere, but she also seems strikingly unwilling to wrestle with the fact that she advocates a vision cheered and shared mostly by people who justify their views with blood-thirsty Muslim texts and ideas that reflect a Nazi-like demonization of Jews.

Given Butler’s apparent lack of concern about the motivations of those who will be thrilled that a prominent Jewish intellectual and academic lends her prestige to the cause of doing away with the world’s only Jewish state, there is little justification for Todd Gitlin’s view that in the controversy about the Adorno prize, Butler is a victim of the “gotcha habit of seeking the author’s clumsiest, least defensible moments and waving them in the air like chunks of raw meat.”

Indeed, when it comes to Judith Butler’s views on Israel, the real challenge is arguably not to find the least defensible moments, but to find defensible ones.

To pick just one of the many particularly indefensible “moments,” let’s consider some of the implications of the idea that Israel’s Jews should give up their state “in order to realize the ethical and political ideals of living together in radical democracy.” It may not matter in the post-structuralist Ivory Tower inhabited by Judith Butler, but in the real world, the Middle East’s ancient sectarian and ethnic hatreds continue to make the region one of the most dangerous conflict zones in the world.

If this is not enough to illustrate the fact that the Middle East is not really a good place for minorities, let alone for a newly disempowered Jewish minority that has to play the guinea pig for some bi-national experiment in radical democracy, one could also consider the poisonous effects of the endless glorification of terrorism that has long been a regular feature of Palestinian political culture.

Since Butler will receive the Adorno prize on 9/11 – the birthday of Adorno – it is perhaps most appropriate to recall in this context the PEW surveys that monitored Muslim views of Osama bin Laden for several years, beginning in 2003. The specific survey question inquired “how much confidence you have in [X – from a list of named leaders] to do the right thing regarding world affairs.”

Throughout the surveys, it was the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank that expressed the highest confidence in bin Laden, starting with an astonishing 72 percent in 2003, and ending with a hardly less remarkable 34 percent in 2011. When bin Laden was killed, Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the left-wing progressive social movement Hamas in Gaza, condemned “the assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior,” adding: “We ask God to offer him mercy with the true believers and the martyrs.”

A commentary in the German publication taz anticipated sorrowfully that the controversy about Judith Butler’s Adorno prize could ultimately mean that Butler will suffer the same fate as French philosopher Michel Foucault “after his undifferentiated jubilation about the Iranian revolution in 1979” – that is to say that Butler could no longer expect to be taken all that serious as a political thinker. As far as her views on Israel are concerned, that would certainly be a well-deserved fate.

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