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.

2 Comments

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Education Why We Should Invest in Jewish Children

    Why We Should Invest in Jewish Children

    JNS.org – My wife Suzy and I will never forget our wedding day. It was not just the uplifting ceremony and beautiful party that left an indelible mark. Some life-altering advice that we received from one of our guests informed and shaped our lives from that day forward. My high school teacher, Rabbi Moshe Yagid, pulled us aside just before the chuppah and challenged us to choose one mitzvah that would be the foundation of our marriage and our lives. He explained [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    JNS.org – Influenced by his Jewish upbringing and a summer on a kibbutz, basketball coach David Blatt is embarking on his highest-profile challenge yet: coaching LeBron James, the four-time National Basketball Association (NBA) Most Valuable Player who has made waves for returning to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. After guiding Israel’s storied Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball franchise to its 51st Israeli league championship and 6th Euroleague title this past season, Blatt landed the Cavaliers head-coaching job in June. Just weeks later, [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity Young Syrian Jewish Restauranteur Continues a Family Legacy

    Young Syrian Jewish Restauranteur Continues a Family Legacy

    JNS.org – At the turn of the century, a young Jewish immigrant arrived in New York. So begins the history of many American Jewish families. It is 27-year-old Albert Allaham’s story, too, with a few unusual twists. Albert’s “century” is the 21st—he arrived almost 100 years after the massive waves of European Jewish immigration. Rather than coming from a small town along the Danube river, his shtetl was Damascus. His first American business was not a pushcart on the Lower East [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity A Holistic Look at the Rebbe’s Life and Career (REVIEW)

    A Holistic Look at the Rebbe’s Life and Career (REVIEW)

    Did you know that in the entire Bible, only one birthday is mentioned and it is that of Pharaoh? And did you know that according to some scientists, by accepting Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, it is impossible to prove or disprove that the sun is the gravitational center of our solar system? In his new book, REBBE, best-selling author Joseph Telushkin reveals many surprising and sometimes shocking details as he chronicles the life and teachings of the charismatic Rabbi [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Mitzvos New Jerusalem Eatery’s Uniform Pricing Seeks to ‘Help People Make It’

    New Jerusalem Eatery’s Uniform Pricing Seeks to ‘Help People Make It’

    JNS.org – Omelet sandwich: 5 shekels. Iced coffee: 5 shekels. Tuna sandwich: 5 shekels. Fresh-squeezed orange juice: 5 shekels. Cheese bureka: 5 shekels. There’s plenty more on the Cofizz menu, but you get the idea. Dani Mizrahi and Amir Amshalm, two Israeli men in their early 30s, asked themselves: Why not launch a take-out food joint in busy neighborhoods around Jerusalem where everything—and that means everything—goes for five shekels, or about $1.50. They’d seen the concept take off in Tel Aviv, where [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel New Primetime Drama ‘Tyrant’ Filmed Entirely in Israel (VIDEO)

    New Primetime Drama ‘Tyrant’ Filmed Entirely in Israel (VIDEO)

    The new FX Network drama Tyrant was shot entirely in Israel, just 10 miles north of Tel Aviv, Bloomberg News reported last Tuesday. Tyrant follows the life of an Arab dictator’s second son Barry, played by Adam Rayner, who reluctantly returns home to the Middle Eastern nation of his birth to join the family business away from his suburban life in America. The elaborate set production for the primetime drama included a crew of 300 and a reported cost of over $3 million [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Supermodel: Jewish Mothers Are Constantly Trying to Set Me Up With Their Sons

    Supermodel: Jewish Mothers Are Constantly Trying to Set Me Up With Their Sons

    Skokie, Il-born 25-year-old Erin Heatherton (Erin Heather Bubley) is rocking the modeling world. And in a new interview accompanying a cover spread for Miami’s Ocean Drive magazine, she says Jewish moms are “constantly trying to set her up with their sons.” Imagine that – who would have thought? “The moms, they’re doing what they do. It doesn’t matter what country they live in, what city – grandmothers, too,” she admitted. “But I’m probably going to do that too one day.” Heatherton was [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Israel First Ever: Turkish Academics to Visit Israel Holocaust Museum for Seminar

    First Ever: Turkish Academics to Visit Israel Holocaust Museum for Seminar

    Some 15 Turkish university professors and lecturers will take part in a first of its kind seminar at Holocaust museum Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies starting next week. The trip is especially significant as Holocaust denial is rampant in the Arab world. A Palestinian professor was recently forced to resign after he led a trip to the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz. Participants in the week-long program at Yad Vashem will experience in-depth tours of the museum’s archives and [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.