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The Professor’s Shoddy History

Berlin’s Jewish Museum gave Judith Butler and Germans permission to indulge dangerous political impulses

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(Frank Rumpenhorst/EPA/Corbis)

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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julis123 says:

There’s no mystery here. In an attempt to assuage their guilt, the Germans point at the Israelis and say: look, they’re just like Nazis so we have nothing to feel guilty about. What’s ironic is that the Jews were the first to embrace the whole ethos of cancelling the nation state, universal brotherhood etc… When WWII came around the Jews suffered most because they had no one to defend them. The creation of Israel is in part a function of the bitter lesson learned from WWII and now the Europeans, who taught the Jews the lesson that weakness leads to extinction, condemns Israel.

did you just compare a former nazi, grass, to a jewish academic? jesus

wishnitz says:

well, they think the same, don’t they? just being born jewish doesn’t insulate one from criticism.

herbcaen says:

I visited the Jewish museum in Berlin last year, and noted that its gift shop was filled with anti-zionist texts. I would recommend that visitors to Berlin give the museum the Judith Butler treatment and boycott the museum. Apparently, the real interesting story is who is at the leadership of this museum, and who is guiding its anti-zionist policies-between promoting anti-zionism in the gift shop and hosting Frau Butler

kidblast0_1 says:

Thank you for the article.

Grass is a loathsome, self-important windbag. For years he pontificated endlessly, tediously and – as you point out above – dogmatically about the need for “atonement” until revelations about his past as a young SS man damaged his credibility. But true to the German adage “Es waechst zusammen, was zusammengehoert” and motivated by fear of fading into obscurity as a public figure, he published his hideous poem, garnered undeserved media attention, and placed himself firmly on the side of the self-loathing, self-denying and politically abhorrent Butler. Contemptible bedfellows indeed.

I grew up in a Jewish family near Chicago, have lived in Germany for over 30 years and have never sensed such a departure from the country’s avowed solidarity with Israel than at present. I’m glad my son had his bris before the procedure was considered a crime. The fact that the Springer journalist was prevented from attending the Frankfurt event with Butler was more than regrettable, but then again, no one kowtows to intellectual “authorities” quite as obsequiously as the German left.

Israel is being abandoned by its former friends and by those who are morally obliged to it. In fact, in some cases moral obligation has led to open contempt. The sooner Israel learns to stand on its own, the better.

Linda Rich says:


I see absolutely no democratic justification for the authoritarian assertion by this article’s author that it was somehow illegitimate to allow a person he disagrees with to present her views. The answer to views, however much one might find them misguided or abhorrent, is to present counterarguments. As a US Supreme Court Justice famously said, “The answer to bad speech is more speech.” Or, as the European Human Rights Court has ruled: “Freedom of expression … is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favorably received or regarded as inoffensive or a matter of indifference, but also those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.” The answer to anti-Zionism is not anti-democracy. If the case for Zionism were really so weak that it sought to silence its opponents, then Zionism would inevitably lose. I’m amazed that there should be any need in a forum such as this to recall the simple, banal principles of Civics 101.

Linda Rich says:

I support your notion. It is a crime and an outrage, that something like this could be taking place.

rocky2345 says:

If Israel fails as a nation state, it won’t be because chic gays, butch lesbians and academic eggheads from Germany no longer like it. In fact tens of thousands of Jews have moved to Germany in recent years (many from Israel), making it perhaps the fastest growing Jewish community in the world on a percentage basis. Increasingly, young secular Israeli Jews don’t see much of a future in Israel, which is become more fundamentalist by the year. The Haredi, the fastest growing Jewish segment in Israel (and in the US), refuse to serve in the IDF and refuse to give their children a good secular education so that they can stay off welfare when they become adults. Haredi youngsters now make up 25% of the grade 1 Jewish cohort in Israel, a percentage which keeps increasing every year because of the high Haredi birth rate.

Stop looking for Nazis under every bed. Worry about the Jewish mothers who no longer hope that their sons becomes doctors, lawyers, dentists and accountants.

Mr. Kirchick, did you know that “The New Republic” is now owned by a “chic gay”?

Csaba Tóth says:

that’s it, i won’t click on tabletmag again. Shame on you for publishing an article that belongs to some mad-shady rightist website at a dark corner of the internet.

Lou Levine says:

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the views of the author as to the appropriateness of Judith Butler’s receiving the Adonro Prize and being hosted by the Jewish Museum, his characterization of the audience at the Jewish Museum as “chic gays, butch lesbians and academic eggheads” is reprehensible. Even if it were true – and I can think of no way in which the author could have verified this statement, a sine qua non for responsible reporting – the sexual orientation of audience members has nothing to do with their purported political views. Such characterizations were sanctioned by the German government, and found acceptable to the German reading public during the darkest days of the National Socialist regime, and do not belong in the current dialogue. James Kirchick should be ashamed of the introduction of such language into the debate, and owes all of his readers an apology.

jacob_arnon says:

Butler has a one dimensional mind. Her writing is in fact the opposite of what Adorno would have thought of as critical theory. There is no logical dialectic in her work.

Stephan says:

Smearing todays Germans as antisemite and throwing around broad generalizations. The pasttime of braindead Likudniks. Why can’t i see an ounce of difference between them and their antizionist counterparts? Right … because there is none. Fanatics are fanatics. Does not matter what they believe in.

jacob_arnon says:

Exactly, Judith isn’t just anti-Zionist she is anti-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.””

Most anti Zionists are also anti-Jewish.

J.Butler’s writings are far from the critical theory style of Adorno. It’s pretty clear from her books and publications over the years that she’s made a career out of trading in ideas that are hip and popular among her colleagues in liberal arts. Real scholars can critically consider BOTH sides , if not all sides, of a position, not just advocate one and cast its opposite in simplistic terms like she’s done. She might be right/wrong about the 1 state solution but that’s not the point, the point is her treatment of both sides of arguments which she doesnt consider with the same critical concern. Her shrewd choice of rhetoric and selective, simplistic consideration of multi-faceted positions has resulted in great popularity, good career in academia, but nothing beyond that. She does not deserve the comparison to Adorno.

I disagree and suggest that visitors visit the museum and lodge a firm protest.
Boycotting is a loser’s tactic.

Did you just use a Jew’s name as a swearword?

The krauts are the krauts, always have been, always will be.

dmikics says:

I agree with Kirchick’s criticisms of Butler and of Blumenthal’s decision to host her at the Jewish Museum, but he paints German opinion with a rather broad brush. According to a poll in _Die Welt_ (April 2012), 48 percent of Germans thought Iran was the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East, while only 18 percent thought. The vast majority of Germans support Israel’s right to exist (only 18 percent oppose it). The rates of Anti-Semitism in Germany are remarkable low in comparison to certain other European countries (e.g., Spain and Hungary). It should be remembered, too, that the German public’s criticism of the Netanyahu government or, earlier, the Olmert government as “aggressive” comes in the context of close military cooperation between Germany and Israel, and unyielding support on the part of the German government and media of Israel. It’s necessary to recognize the difference between criticism of a government’s policies and criticism of a national group, even if one disagrees with the criticism. As for _Der Spiegel_, one bad joke about foreskins doesn’t outweigh its countless sympathetic articles about Israel.

Jacob Arnon says:

The professor says that her mother’s family from Hungary was killed in the Shoah. So why isn’t she as concerned about the fascistic and antisemitic culture that is taking hold in that country?

“Blood and Soil” Hungarian styleGuest Post, October 7th 2012, 3:58 pmGuest post by Karl Pfeifer

This was a really messy and mucky hit and run piece and really did little to shed any light on the personality (Butler) it sought to attack.

Michael Blumenthal spent the war years as a refugee in Shanghai. After he arrived in the US he was baptized as a Presbiterian. He also had a very problematic attitude to his own Jewishness, and shared Carter’s antagonism to Israel. It’s too ironic that he should choose to lead the Jewish museum.

I think there is a lot of ignorance about anti-semitism and that many secular Jews are as ignorant as non-Jews.

I recently tried to find material about anti-Jewish boycotts before the second world war. There were, of course, quite a few and they are often very similar to present day ones, with students leading the way etc. but there is very little research material out there and the Nazi boycott of the Jews overwhelms everything else. Unfortunately the Holocaust has enabled many European countries to hide their anti-Semitic pasts.

I’ve put what I found here:

If anyone can find more material I would be grateful.

There’s too much denial of Israel’s murderous racism. The Palestinians are regarded as cockroaches to be stepped on and if needs be exterminated. Hamas and Hezbollah are no different than Urging and the Stern Gang.

There is room to do an equally long analysis of the Berlin Jewish Museum. It is no surprise that this was the venue hosting Ms. Butler.

If one walks through the entire museum, it is glaringly obvious that the tenor of the exhibitions is, “Although we may not have begun like you, we REALLY are JUST LIKE YOU!” This Berlin Jewish Museum is an apologist abomination. I left Germany in 2000, returned for a short consulting job in 2009, and cut short my visit to this museum when I realized what it was all about. People rave about the architecture – haven’t seen too much commentary on the content.

I worked in Germany 1984 – 2000, lived in Cologne full time 1988 – 2000. In my own experience, Germans are very good at designating which peoples, according to their own shifting criteria, are downtrodden and victimized. I was astounded

disqus_GlnyHwxtjM says:

There is room to do an equally long analysis of the Berlin Jewish Museum. It is no surprise that this was the venue hosting Ms. Butler.

If one walks through the entire museum, it is glaringly obvious that the tenor of the exhibitions is, “Although we may not have begun like you, we REALLY are JUST LIKE YOU!” This Berlin Jewish Museum is an apologist abomination. I left Germany in 2000, returned for a short consulting job in 2009, and cut short my visit to this museum when I realized what it was all about. People rave about the architecture – haven’t seen too much commentary on the content.

I worked in Germany 1984 – 2000, lived in Cologne full time 1988 – 2000. In my own experience, Germans are very good at designating which peoples, according to their own shifting criteria, are downtrodden and victimized. I was astounded by the comment of Charlotte Knobluch, “I seriously ask if this country still wants us.” Lady, they NEVER wanted us. Didn’t they make that abundantly clear?

It did quite well to describe the milieu that Butler is celebrated in, and the current concerns of many German Jews. After all, when someone like Knobloch wonders whether Jews are still welcome in Germany (a German-born Holocaust survivor herself) – after living in Germany post-Holocaust – it is time to seriously wonder about it, and what exactly West-coast living Butler is contributing to.

The world began to change it’s collective mind about America’s greatness when it saw George Bush mug Iraq and rape his own middle class, and most Jews understood this change. Why do they today have such a hard time understanding when the world begins to denounce the actions of an Israel that is being misled by the likes of land-grabbing, war-mongering, anti-Arab racists Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu? Give us a more moderate Israel led by someone closer to a Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Rabin and you’ll see a much less angry world reaction to Israel. Most of what you see and hear is a justifiable anger, not anti-semitism.

That was long before the Likud Party was founded.

One man’s Freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.

Counting German farts is much more interesting and important than watching what their own country is doing to the people they occupy and humiliate from birth to death in Gaza and the West Bank. Israeli Jews alive today are allowing the Palestinian almost-Holocaust to continue while throwing guilt at German’s who weren’t even born during WWII? How long will they scream at the great grandchildren of past criminals while committing those same crimes themselves?

We’ve been trying to make a deal with Chief Sitting Bull for years. I think it’s time we drive them out west and let the few who survive the trip live on a few acres of land no one else wants.

Ariel Sharon is a land-grabber? He oversaw the 2005 removal of Israeli settlements in Gaza. Clearly, there are some nuances that you are missing here.

You can’t claim a position is “justifiable” if you are not being truthful.

Natan79 says:

You mean you like Hamas and the SS?

danyel says:

A terrible case of corruption. Imagine how insulted Adorno (who’s style wasn’t nearly as obscure as Kirchick’s and who’s politics, unlike Butler’s, were very carefully thought through) would feel if he was alive! However, unfortunately it does not go without another insult added by Kirchick, or what is the following obscure statement supposed to mean? “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.” I read Adorno in the original and found him the only German philosopher who’s style is not obscure. BTW he was not Jewish, as his mother was a shikse and he was never introduced to the torah by his father. He had to leave Germany because the Nazis resented his “politics”.


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The Professor’s Shoddy History

Berlin’s Jewish Museum gave Judith Butler and Germans permission to indulge dangerous political impulses

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