The Professor’s Shoddy History
Berlin’s Jewish Museum gave Judith Butler and Germans permission to indulge dangerous political impulses
On May 31, the city of Frankfurt announced that Berkeley professor Judith Butler would be feted with the Theodor W. Adorno prize, named after the late German Jewish philosopher who taught at the University of Frankfurt Am Main. Though she was ostensibly chosen for her academic work, lauded by the prize committee as “one of the key thinkers of our time,” many correctly inferred that the honor was bestowed, at least in part, because of the gender theorist’s outspoken political beliefs. Chief among these is a critique of “state violence” as being anywhere and everywhere wrong. And by Butler’s lights, no state is a worse offender than Israel.
In recent years, the professor has become one of the most prominent supporters in academe of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel. In her latest book, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, she explicitly calls for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Butler’s anti-Zionism is of a piece with a wide swath of the left-wing professoriate, hers is notorious for a set of comments uttered at a September 2006 Berkeley Teach-In against Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon, in which Butler responded to a question from a member of the audience frustrated with the “hesitation” of some on the left to fully embrace Hamas and Hezbollah due to their use of violence. “Understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important,” she said. “That does not stop us from being critical of certain dimensions of both movements. It doesn’t stop those of us who are interested in nonviolent politics from raising the question of whether there are other options besides violence.”
Butler has repeatedly attempted to walk this statement back. After the Jerusalem Post published a story airing criticisms of Butler, shortly before she was awarded the prize last month, the professor took to the notoriously anti-Zionist MondoWeiss website to launch a 2,000-word defense in which she attempted to paint her subjective description of the Islamic terrorist groups as a normative one. Her point, she stressed, was “merely descriptive.” “Those political organizations define themselves as anti-imperialist, and anti-imperialism is one characteristic of the global left, so on that basis one could describe them as part of the global left,” she wrote. Her critics, she alleged, were guilty of “taking the words of context” and “inverting their meanings.”
But nowhere in Butler’s original statement was there any censure of these two organizations. Instead, Butler’s clarification wasn’t explicit approval, but rather something more pernicious: the subtle inclusion of violent reactionaries as part of a sphere of reasonable actors. As Henryk Broder, Germany’s most famous Jewish journalist, sharply noted in response to Butler’s statement: “[T]he SA and SS were also so-called progressive social movements, which worked with sensational strategies for a political solution to the Jewish Question, that caused Adorno to flee Germany.”
Still, some insisted that whatever Butler’s views on the Arab-Israeli conflict, she was a deserving recipient of the prize named after one of the founders of the neo-Marxist “Frankfurt School” of critical theory. Writing in Ha’aretz, Eva Illouz, a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, admitted to being “dismayed and puzzled by Butler’s views,” but ultimately defended her winning the award. “There is not a shred of doubt that few scholars have had an impact as significant as Judith Butler, and this in various fields, such as literature, philosophy, cultural studies, art history, communications, cinema studies, sociology and anthropology,” she wrote. “No one can ignore her staggering influence in renewing the critical theory so dear to Theodor Adorno.” Given Adorno’s politics and notoriously obscure language, it indeed seemed fitting that Butler—who in 1998 won the “Bad Writing Contest” for “the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles”—would receive an award named after him.
But the real scandal wasn’t Butler being honored with the Adorno Prize on Sept. 11, the late philosopher’s birthday. More significant was an event that occurred several days later, in the German capital. On Sept. 15, Berlin’s taxpayer-funded Jewish Museum hosted the academic for an event titled “Does Zionism Belong to Judaism.” In the country where a boycott of Jewish businesses led to the Holocaust, an American “academic superstar” called for a boycott of the Jewish state—and 700 Germans gave her a rapturous reception.
Why would the Jewish Museum give Butler a podium and allow her to advocate for BDS, a campaign that even the unyielding Israel critic Norman Finkelstein has labeled a “cult” that seeks to “eliminate” Israel by hiding behind nonviolent rhetoric? To understand the answer to that question, one must put Butler’s visit in the context of slowly shifting German attitudes toward Israel and Jews—as well as within Germany’s ongoing attempts to deal with its past. “I have also wondered whether the use of my abridged remarks about Hamas and Hezbollah itself was a kind of anti-Semitic attack,” Butler told the left-wing German newspaper Jungle World in 2010 in response to those Germans who had criticized her for her views on Israel. “I feel, in fact, again my vulnerability as a Jew in Germany, when I am discredited in this way in the media.” With such rhetorical feats, Butler transforms herself from an American intellectual into a latter-day victim of anti-Semitism, and in so doing gives Germans who might feel uneasy expressing support for the boycott of the Jewish state license to feel like victims as well.
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