The Professor’s Shoddy History
Berlin’s Jewish Museum gave Judith Butler and Germans permission to indulge dangerous political impulses
The most vivid and startling of these developments was the ruling this past summer by a Cologne court that ritual circumcision—the oldest continuously performed religious tradition in the West—amounts to the mutilation of baby boys and should therefore be legally proscribed. “The fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighs the fundamental rights of the parents,” the court ruled. While Chancellor Angela Merkel has admirably condemned the decision, stating that Germany risks becoming a “laughing stock” because of it, the intolerance that the campaign to ban circumcision has unearthed toward Jews (and Muslims) is no laughing matter.
Advertisements that show a child protecting his genitalia with the plea, “My Body Belongs to Me!” now plaster Berlin’s U-Bahn, essentially likening those who circumcise their children to pedophiles, or worse. A recent article in Der Spiegel treated the subject with shocking irreverence, putting Jewish deference to the practice in the same category as Muslims who resorted to violence in response to an anti-Islamic film broadcast on YouTube. “The bitter debate over the circumcision of Jewish and Muslim boys in Germany highlights the things that religious people can find just as abhorrent as violence,” the magazine declared. “Even some German Jews feel that the foreskin has such importance as a symbol of their belief that they are seriously considering leaving Germany.” The controversy has led Israel’s former Chief Rabbi Meir Landau–a Polish-born Holocaust survivor—to remark, “It is an amazing thing (to see) German speakers discover they are sensitive to a baby’s cry.”
Jeffrey Herf, a professor at the University of Maryland and an expert on how contemporary Germans deal with the Holocaust, says that the celebration of Butler represents the victory of one German left-wing intellectual tradition—that of Karl Marx and his “On the Jewish Question”—over another, which regards the Jews as a distinct people who have the right to national self-determination. “The intellectual and scholarly world of Frankfurt/Main is one that has strong currents of empathy and sympathy for Israel and strong traditions of analyzing and criticizing anti-Semitism,” he wrote me in an email. “However, the intellectual left in Frankfurt, especially since the late 1960s, also has a strong and vibrant tradition of anti-Zionism and disdain for Israel. The decision to give the prize to Butler is fully in tune with that tradition.” While Adorno never wrote about Israel for publication, some hints about his sympathetic views toward the Jewish State are apparent in private writings and a handful of public remarks. Days before the outbreak of the Six Day War, for instance, he spoke of his concern that “Israel, the home of countless Jews who fled the horror, is threatened.” “If Adorno were around today,” Herf told me about Butler’s new prize, “I doubt he would be pleased or amused.”
As a new generation of Germans–unshackled by the sense of postwar guilt that was eventually instilled in German society—comes to the fore, it is the latter tradition Herf describes that seems to be gaining power. A January 2009 poll, taken during the last Gaza war, found that half of Germans saw Israel as an “aggressive country,” a third only believed that Germany had a special responsibility toward Israel, and 60 percent believed that Germany had “no responsibility” at all. Mathias Döpfner, CEO of the Axel Springer media conglomerate, which requires its employees to sign a contract obliging them “To promote the reconciliation of Jews and Germans and support the vital rights of the people of Israel,” says there exists among many Germans “a need to put [Israel] on a moral level that is close to its present enemies, Iran, Syria, or whatsoever.” He attributes this to “a kind of subconscious compensation for historic trauma”— and to prove his point he cited the infamous maxim, “The Germans will never forgive the Jews for the Holocaust.”
Then there was Günter Grass’ poem, “What Must Be Said,” which, though widely denounced by the German commentariat, gave voice to a view that is held by a considerable number of Germans. “My sense is that were Israel to launch a military strike on Iran, what remaining sympathy there is in Germany for Israel would evaporate almost overnight,” German author Hans Kundani, wrote in the Guardian earlier this year. The “public is all behind Grass,” the German journalist Georg Diez told the New York Times.
Grass’ fundamental conceit—that Israel, and not the countries threatening to wipe it off the map, will be responsible should war erupt once again in the Middle East—is the same as Butler’s. Both rely on naïve and simplistic conceptions of “imperialism” and “anti-imperialism” and on a belief that power inevitably leads to oppression. Take, for instance, Butler’s reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “I think Bush said that after ten days, that the time for grieving is over and now is time for action,” she told Ha’aretz in 2010. “At which point we started killing populations abroad with no clear rationale.” To Butler, there was “no clear rationale” for overthrowing the Taliban and punishing the people who killed 3,000 Americans; to her, such actions are tantamount to the random murder of whole swathes of innocent people. Butler—who, as a Jew, is uninhibited in what she can say about Israel in Germany—has said what Grass declared in his poem: Israel is the problem. The Israeli “state violence” she complains about exists in a vacuum; Iran’s march to nuclear weapons does not concern her, and the violence of Hamas and Hezbollah is all but ignored.
Following World War II, many Germans internalized pacifism as a fundamental political value, and it is this central belief—as well as the ability to sit in judgment of the Middle East from comfortable, prosperous Europe—that informs much of German attitudes toward Israel. Joschka Fischer, the erstwhile left-wing student activist who rose to become Germany’s first Green Party foreign minister in 1998, used to say that there were two principles that formed his political consciousness: “Never Again War” and “Never Again Auschwitz.” But when the possibility of genocide returned to the European continent during his tenure, in the form of Serb ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, these mantras came into conflict. If preventing another Auschwitz on European soil required war, the breed of German leftists embodied by Fischer argued, then it was the duty of the German left to get over its aversion to force and support war.
As the Iranian regime, which denies the Holocaust while promising another, continues its nuclear weapons program unabated, the German penchant for peace may once again be confronted by reality and historic obligation. “I am very worried,” Döpfner replies when I ask him what German public opinion would be in response to an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “I think there would be no public understanding for that. There would be fierce criticism, and I hope that the German government would understand its historic responsibility.” An irony of Germany’s admirable confrontation with its horrific past is that many Germans have learned their history so well they have learned the wrong lessons—and Judith Butler validates their grave misinterpretation. That Berlin’s Jewish Museum lent a platform for such views betrays precisely the history it is meant to impart.
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