Tuesday, January 31st | 10 Shevat 5783

September 16, 2018 9:12 am

Sex, Politics, and Judith Butler at NYU

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avatar by Edward Alexander


Judith Butler lecturing at the University of Hamburg, April 2007. Photo: Jreberlein.

A few days ago, I happened upon a letter of August 17 in the Chronicle of Higher Education calling upon Professor Judith Butler to step down as president-elect of the Modern Language Association. I was pleased to suppose that at least some professors of literature were expressing shock, outrage, and indignation at the news that a fanatical Israel-hater, Israel-boycotter, Israel-slanderer, and would-be destroyer would soon accede to the presidency of America’s largest professional organization of college teachers of literature and language. I had in fact expected that droves of MLA members, especially Jewish ones, would react by heading for the exits.

(True, MLA has in the past elected some very unfit presidents. In the late sixties Louis Kampf (MIT) was the first to be elected to represent “leftist” professors. He would express, for teachers who never liked literature much in the first place, a rationale for their hostility: literary studies were both a result and an instrument of oppression. In later years, when “Palestine” became the leftists’ “revolution du jour,” Edward Said, a member of the PLO executive committee, was elected president. But Said was virtually a Zionist compared with the Jewish Butler; also, unlike her, he could write English prose. In 1997 Butler, a stupefyingly opaque writer, won the annual Bad Writing Contest conducted by the journal Philosophy and Literature.)

But I was wrong. The Chronicle letter calling for Butler to step down was written by an Illinois associate professor of “Israeli Literature and Culture” named Rachel Harris. Yet it expressed not the slightest concern about how an organization presided over by someone whose febrile imagination depicts Israel as the devil’s own experiment and aligns herself with Hamas might interfere with (or even impede) her own scholarly work and impose an MLA boycott of the country on whose existence Harris’ writing depends.

Rachel Harris’ expressed concern was entirely with how the sanctity of Title IX (supposedly a body of federal law invented to protect women from male depredations) might be tarnished by being applied — in this particular case at NYU — on behalf of the 65-year-old woman and against the 34-year-old man who had accused her of sexual aggression. (For newcomers to this brave new world we inhabit, I should perhaps add that the adversaries in this clash both identify themselves as homosexual, and that both possess distinctly Israeli names:  one is called Avital, the other Nimrod.) It was in defense of the exploited young student that Harris sprang to attack Butler, not for any reason that might be derived from fear that Butler will certainly use the MLA to realize her all-consuming passion to blacken Israel’s reputation and turn the pariah people into the pariah nation.

One would have to be blind and deaf to overlook the implications for the MLA of Butler’s fanatical dedication to the boycott of Israeli institutions. But academics are highly skilled in overlooking things seen and heard by everybody else.

Author’s note, Sept. 17th: I would like to offer an apology to Rachel Harris. Her letter does indeed keep the Modern Language Association dispute over title IX entirely separate from the subject of installing a compulsive Israel-hater like Judith Butler as president of that organization. But I am told by people better informed about the MLA’s internal strife than I am that Professor Harris was also a courageous and articulate opponent of Butler’s campaign to boycott Israeli universities, to expel Israel from the family of nations.

Edward Alexander is emeritus professor of English at the University of Washington. His most recent book is Jews Against Themselves (Routledge).

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