The Post-Self-Destructivism of Judith Butler

November 24, 2016 23:06

On September 11th, a German organization will reward the American scholar and anti-Israel activist who is "the useful idiot of antisemites, allowing them to "Jew-wash" their genocidal hatreds with her good name."


In 1938, shortly after philosopher Martin Buber, formerly of the University of Frankfurt, came to Israel to teach at Hebrew University, a reporter asked how his Hebrew was. He replied: "Good, but not good enough to be obscure in."

The joke, apparently, is on the city of Frankfurt, which tomorrow—Sept. 11, incidentally—will hand its prestigious Adorno Prize for excellence in philosophy, music, theater and film to Judith Butler. Ms. Butler, an American philosopher and anti-Israel activist, is a great admirer of Buber and the 1998 recipient of one journal's "Bad Writing Prize" for her impenetrable prose.

The choice of Ms. Butler has been controversial, to say the least. Critics argue that a German city should not honor a woman who virulently condemns the state of Israel, where Buber and so many others fled for shelter from the Nazis. The controversy is the latest in a series of recent strains in the "special relationship" between Germany and Israel: Germany's circumcision bans, Berlin sending submarines to a newly belligerent Egypt, and ugly revelations of German behavior in the Munich Olympics terror attack.

Felix Semmelroth, a deputy mayor of Frankfurt, insists that the award committee recognized Ms. Butler's academic work alone, and that the political issues did not even arise. He says the "incriminating evidence" about her politics will not change the decision.

But the controversy has proved vexing. Germany's central council of Jews and Frankfurt's Jewish community have openly objected, saying they will not participate in the ceremony. Frankfurt Mayor Peter Feldmann, the first Jew to hold that office since the Holocaust, announced that he has travel plans that will prevent him from appearing. Jacques Schuster, a journalist with Die Welt, pulled out of moderating a discussion with Ms. Butler later this month at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

Some have tried to separate politics from academic content, criticizing both Ms. Butler and her political denigrators. Alas, anti-Zionist politics and unintelligible academic theory are inextricably linked in both Ms. Butler's writings and her political activism. Her theory views Western civilization as a peculiarly sinister form of imperial domination, and believes that "subverting" that "hegemony" constitutes an act of liberation. Postcolonial theory tells her that Israelis are imperialists, using apartheid laws to oppress Palestinian "subalterns." Her interpretation of diasporic Judaism tells her that Jews should "oppose violence of all kinds, including state violence."

Therefore she favors dismantling the Jewish state as we know it, in favor of "multi-cultural co-habitation," reminiscent of Buber's "bi-national democratic state." In her latest book, "Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism," she nods to the prodigious forces of hatred and intolerance militating against her solution: "It may be that binationalism is an impossibility, but that mere fact does not suffice as a reason to be against it."

Would that Ms. Butler contented herself with abstruse publications. She is also a highly vociferous public critic of Israel. Participating in an "Anti-War Teach-In" at Berkeley in 2006, Ms. Butler answered a question about Hamas's and Hezbollah's place "in the global left." These are two of the most belligerent movements within the warmongering, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic world of Islamist jihad. Yet while criticizing violence and "certain dimensions of both movements," Ms. Butler told the students that "understanding Hamas [and] Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important."

For Ms. Butler, anything that opposes Western power can be defended. It does not seem to concern her that in so doing, she betrays every constituency she claims to celebrate—lesbians, gays, women, Jews and other diasporic minorities. Their problems, it seems, are always the fault of oppressive "colonial" powers.

Ms. Butler fights the regressive "my side, right or wrong" with the liberating "your side, right or wrong." It's the post-structuralist version of the Sermon on the Mount: "Love thy enemy more than thyself." But what if that enemy embraces a savage form of loving themselves and hating us? What if it takes an extreme interpretation of Muslims' edict to "love and hate for Allah's sake"? This enemy makes all our utopian and multiculturalist projects impossible.

Ms. Butler has defended herself against charges of anti-Semitism by pointing to her own love of Judaism—or at least, her version of it. She wrote last month on the notoriously anti-Israel Middle East-affairs blog Mondoweiss that she is "perhaps more naïve than dangerous." But this avoids the real charge: not that she is an anti-Semite, but that she is the useful idiot of anti-Semites, and that she allows them to "Jew-wash" their genocidal hatreds with her good name.

Blogging about Ms. Butler last week for the Jewish newspaper the Algemeiner, A. Jay Adler invoked Graham Greene: "Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm." Ms. Butler is of course fully vocal, but the quote is all too apt considering the harm she and her colleagues have done—and continue to do—the world over.

Mr. Landes is a professor of history at Boston University and author of "Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience" (Oxford, 2011); he blogs at Mr. Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a European affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.

Postscript 1: Here's the protest against the awarding of the prize to someone who facilitates Jew-washing:

Postscript 2: Petra Marquardt-Bigman says:

......the “debate” hosted by Berlin’s Jewish Museum illustrated once again that in a climate where it is regarded as legitimate to assert that it would only be ethical to do away with the Jewish state, antisemitism is never far away.

November 24, 2016 23:06

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...


Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive