The Professor’s Shoddy History
Berlin’s Jewish Museum gave Judith Butler and Germans permission to indulge dangerous political impulses
Controversy leading up to the discussion at the Jewish Museum had already persuaded the moderator, a journalist from the conservative Die Welt, to drop out. The day before the event, the Jewish Museum was telling the press that Butler would refuse to address her 2006 comments about Hamas and Hezbollah. (Ultimately, a stern-faced man and woman sat beside the stage, performing the commissar-like duty of screening questions audience members had scribbled on slips of paper.) Nonetheless, hundreds of Berliners–a quirky assemblage of chic gay men, butch lesbians, and academic eggheads, most of whom were not Jewish, according to a prominent member of Berlin’s Jewish community whom I spoke to at the event—filled the glass-roofed atrium of the museum and a spillover room where the conversation was simulcast.
Butler’s comments that evening largely reflected the arguments presented in Parting Ways. In the book, Butler offers the standard, post-nationalist critique of Zionism, which, like most post-nationalist critiques of Zionism, is solely concerned with the nation-state of the Jews. At the root of Butler’s anti-Zionism is an appeal to Judaism’s “diasporic tradition” of living among non-Jews as the “ethos” for the post-Zionist, binational state she seeks. Butler makes frequent use of her Jewish upbringing to substantiate her political vision. Butler grew up in Cleveland to a father raised Reform and a mother raised Orthodox; her maternal Hungarian grandmother’s family was almost entirely murdered by the Nazis. She attended Hebrew school as a child and Butler has brought up her own son, raised with her partner, as Jewish.
But particularism of any kind bothers her. “I grew very skeptical of certain kind of Jewish separatism in my youth,” she told Ha’aretz in a 2010 interview. “I saw the Jewish community was always with each other; they didn’t trust anybody outside. You’d bring someone home and the first question was ‘Are they Jewish, are they not Jewish?’ ” This repulsion for parochialism informs her views on Israel, as if it is Jews, and only Jews, who may be clannish. Butler seems to think that she is refuting the Zionist project itself—that Zionism is incompatible with pluralism, cosmopolitanism, and multiculturalism—when she writes that, “If I show … there are Jewish values of cohabitiation with the non-Jews that are part of the very ethical substance of diasporic Jewishness, then it will be possible to conclude that commitments to social equality and social justice have been an integral part of Jewish secular, socialist and religious traditions.”
At the museum event, Butler tried to ingratiate herself to the crowd by hamming it up with an ersatz-Borscht belt routine to make her audience feel more comfortable in their prejudices. Dropping the word tsuris at one point, she looked at the audience with a coy smile: “You don’t know what that word means?” she teased. Asked what she felt about the term “anti-Zionism,” she quoted Franz Kafka as saying that “he couldn’t stand Zionists, but he couldn’t stand anti-Zionists either.” This didn’t earn the intended laugh, a fault she then attributed to “the lack of Jewish humor in Germany,” which did. When Butler’s co-discussant Micha Brumlik, a liberal German Jewish professor of pedagogy at the Goethe University of Frankfurt, replied that her support for boycotting Israel has little following among Jews worldwide, she insisted that “1,000 Jewish groups” support BDS, an absurd allegation that no one in the audience challenged.The message was clear: It’s OK for you Germans to start complaining about Jews again. Indeed, as one German Jew in the audience told me afterwards, “The German people love to hear someone hate Israel.”
What makes Butler’s call for binationalism so disingenuous is that she makes it from behind a pacifistic mask. “If you say, ‘No, I’m not a Zionist,’ that seems to imply you are in favor of the destruction of Israel,” she said at the Jewish Museum. “As long as the debate happens in this way, it becomes an impossible debate.” But it’s not an “impossible debate” for those honest about their desire to end Israel as the sovereign state of the Jews. Whatever the metaphysical or religious arguments for the Jewish state, the practical ones are clear—or at least should be to Germans.
Which is why it was not surprising when Butler’s invitation sparked a confrontation between the Jewish Museum, which is funded by the German government and run independently of the country’s Jewish community, and the state of Israel. “We regret that the Berlin Jewish Museum decided to hold a discussion event, which posed the question about the identity of the Jewish state,” read a statement from the Israeli Embassy in Berlin, issued the week after Butler’s talk. “Similar discussions are not conducted about any other state on the planet.” The Central Council of Jews in Germany had earlier condemned the conferral of the Adorno prize upon an “avowed Israel hater.”
Meanwhile, museum director Michael Blumenthal, a German-born American Jew who served as Jimmy Carter’s treasury secretary, insisted in a letter to the Jerusalem Post that the Jewish Museum “takes no position on political issues” and that “open discussion of differing views, including controversial ones, is a good thing for democracy.” Blumenthal may be able to duck the implications of hosting Butler under the banner of free speech, but it’s not like the museum would host any speaker, and by granting Butler such a platform it granted a measure of respectability to her views.
Butler’s welcome at the museum is but the latest in a series of worrying developments for German Jewry. A recent report in Der Spiegel headlined “Jews Question Their Future in Germany” surveyed a court’s banning circumcision, a violent attack on a Berlin rabbi, Günter Grass’ widely debated poem blaming Israel for the onset of a world war, and increasing antagonism from the country’s Muslims, concluding that “it’s easy to see that many Jewish Germans feel ambivalent about a country that time and again makes it so difficult for them to consider it their home.” Earlier this month, Charlotte Knobloch, the former head of the country’s Jewish community and a Holocaust survivor, wrote, “I seriously ask if this country still wants us.”
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