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...

  • Music US & Canada Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Pop superstar Lady Gaga on Thursday accepted an award from Jewish human rights group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on behalf of her Born This Way Foundation, which strives to combat bullying among young people. “Your philosophies are so in line with ours,” she said of the ADL upon accepting the Making a Difference Award in a videotaped message, which was shown at a ceremony in New York City. “We want to help young people know that their feelings and who they are on [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    JNS.org – Eighty years young, Leonard Cohen fits many descriptions—singer, songwriter, poet, novelist, monk. From his Jewish upbringing in Canada to the present day, Cohen has always explored his spiritual side. This month, the singer-songwriter released the CD (May 12) and iTunes (on May 8 of this year) formats of his latest album, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, which features live recordings from his world tours in 2012 and 2013. Last year, Cohen’s Popular Problems was voted by Rolling Stone [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    JNS.org – Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) head Sepp Blatter said during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that contrary to Palestinian complaints, Israel has not violated any FIFA statutes and should not be suspended from international soccer’s governing body. “We should not come to one federation saying we will exclude them,” said Blatter, the Jerusalem Post reported. “If the national association is fulfilling its obligations then there is no need to intervene,” he said. “I’m on a [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Middle East Sports Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish human rights group the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) said on Tuesday it was “appalled” by a Palestinian Football Association initiative to suspend Israel from FIFA, calling it another “front waged in the context of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign.” “We are appalled at the temerity of the Palestinan Football Association (PFA) demand that FIFA suspend Israel at your forthcoming Congress in Zurich,” wrote the group’s international relations director, Dr. Shimon Samuels, in a letter to FIFA President Joseph [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    The lead actor in Son of Saul, an Auschwitz thriller featured at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, told the UK’s The Guardian that he believes God was “holding the hand” of each Jew who died in the Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. “I do not for one nanosecond like to pretend that God is off the hook. He could and should have stopped it at a much earlier stage,” Géza Röhrig, 48, said. ”But I would not be able to get [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Backstreet Boys Singer Howie D Gushes Over Masada During Israel Trip

    Backstreet Boys Singer Howie D Gushes Over Masada During Israel Trip

    Backstreet Boys singer Howie Dorough took to Instagram on Tuesday to marvel about climbing the famed Masada fortress with his band during their visit to Israel, where they will perform this week for the first time. The group’s second day of sightseeing in the Jewish state included the Masada hike, and taking a mud bath at the Dead Sea. A picture from the band’s official Twitter page shows the five singers covered in mud. While relaxing in the Dead Sea, [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews US & Canada ‘Arms and the Dudes:’ New Book, Film Detail How Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Guys Became Top Suppliers for Afghan Army

    ‘Arms and the Dudes:’ New Book, Film Detail How Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Guys Became Top Suppliers for Afghan Army

    A new book and its upcoming film adaptation tell the true story of how three former yeshiva students who habitually smoked marijuana scored a $300 million contract from the U.S. government to supply weapons for the Afghan Army, the New York Daily News reported on Sunday. Arms and the Dudes details how the Miami Beach potheads became “the most unlikely gunrunners in history,” according to the book’s author, investigative reporter Guy Lawson. The tale begins with Efraim Diveroli, nephew of [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater Natalie Portman: Israel-Themed ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ Not Political

    Natalie Portman: Israel-Themed ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ Not Political

    JNS.org – Natalie Portman, who directs and stars in the new Hebrew-language film adaptation of author Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, says that despite Oz’s record as a vocal left-wing critic of Israel, her film is not political. Like the book on which it is based, Portman’s film is about a young boy at the time of the founding of the state of Israel. “I think the movie is very much about this very particular, specific family story. Of [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.