Four marquee academics—the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, Canadian public intellectual Charles Taylor, social theorist Judith Butler, and religion historian-cum-one-man-show Cornel West—gathered at Manhattan’s Cooper Union yesterday for a panel discussion on “Rethinking Secularism: The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere.” We caught the second half of the program, when the latter two thinkers spoke. First came Butler, who’s best known for her work on gender, but has in the past several years written about war, trauma, and Judaism. Yesterday, she returned to the theme of Jewish critiques of Zionism, which for Butler primarily means work by German Jewish philosophers of the World War II era—Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem—rather than, say, J Street (though she did name-check her affiliation with the group Jewish Voices for Peace). “I’m not here to say that Jews are obligated to criticize Israel—though I think they are—we are,” she said, then discussed the difficulties of doing so in public: the suspicion such critiques produce that “really something else is going on; really something else is being said” (the something being, of course, anti-Semitism). In fact, though, Butler said, Buber believed that a Jewish state would corrupt a spiritual, utopian form of Zionism, though he later favored a bi-national Jewish-Palestinian state. And Scholem, who introduced Jewish mystical thought to a European intellectual audience, lent her an image of what other thinkers call diasporism: “the kabbalistic notion of a scattered light … in which Jews are always scattered among non-Jews.”
West, not to be outdone, introduced himself as a “bluesman,” delivered his discussion of prophetic religion with the cadences of slam poetry, credited the Jews with the “breakthrough” philosophy that one should “treat the Other as thyself,” and alluded to Hillel: “The rest,” he said, “is just footnotes.”
Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.