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The Professor’s Shoddy History

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

James Kirchick
October 05, 2012
(Frank Rumpenhorst/EPA/Corbis)
(Frank Rumpenhorst/EPA/Corbis)

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.


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.”

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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James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.