Dear Judith Butler,
I have recently read up on the controversy surrounding your getting the Adorno Prize. After an initial survey of the field, I think you need to seriously consider the criticism leveled against you. Even those who do not question your sincerity, worry about your judgment. Their case is strong. Although you disassociated yourself from Hamas and Hizbullah’s violence, you did stress the “extreme” importance of “understanding [them] as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left.”
Does that mean you have no strong objections about their pervasive misogyny, their blatant homophobia, their cult of death, their genocidal discourse? They are the antithesis of everything we on the global Left stand for: the dignity of voluntary human interaction. They display all the most prominent of the totalitarian impulses that imprisoned minds and murdered tens of millions in the last century. How can you not denounce the shocking notion that a group pervaded by such violently regressive attitudes, be even thought of as “social movements that are progressive.” What about them is progressive?
You clarify: “They are “left” in the sense that they oppose colonialism and imperialism, but their tactics are not ones that I would ever condone.” Later, you clarify further: they “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.” This is, you assure us, a purely descriptive, even academic position.
Are you serious? Do you know what these groups formally believe? Have you read Hamas’ charter (which considers your solution an abomination)? Do you not know of the imperialism of global Islamism? Have you even checked to see if they’re perhaps not against imperialism in all its forms, like you, but only against the imperialism of others? Would it make a difference to your thinking if it turns out they’re a ferocious strain of monotheist imperialism, embracing one of the most destructive beliefs in the history of humanity?
Honestly, do you really believe that the people who join these groups share the anti-hierarchical, anti-domineering values of the civic culture you, we all, thrive in? The signs are everywhere that, “no.” They are violently hostile to every one of your espoused concerns. Indeed, even as we carry on this conversation, violent imperial Islamists drive Christians and Jews from lands they’ve inhabited for millennia, while moderate Muslims are cowed into submission.
How on earth can you make a mistake as huge as to say: they say they’re anti-imperialist so that makes them “arguably” on the progressive, global left? Who are so uninformed on these matters that they’d even make so foolish an argument, and why on earth do you cede to them? This is not serious scholarship; it is “academic” only if that word has become a synonym for principled gullibility.
You claim that you are not a representative of the left, that there are lots of elements of the Left that you do not approve of. What kind of cowardly retreat is that? Your entire audience is on the “Left.” That’s where you get you kudos. And when it’s time to criticize them, you absent yourself? It’s a fundamental Jewish principle – diaspora and Zionist – “do not stand idly by on your neighbor’s blood” (Lev. 19:16). And yet, all of a sudden you want to be a by-stander while your comrades go after the violent deities of “destroying the world to save it”?
You claim to understand the criticism of your work, even though you say it’s not articulated very well. Really? It’s cogently articulated, both without reference to your particular case, and directly about you. You think your critics accuse you of anti-Semitism, and that they’ll do that to anyone who criticizes Israel. Instead, the criticism is that you, and some others, go so far overboard in your hyper-criticism of Israel, that you scapegoat her, even as you deny the threat to your people. In so doing, you empower the real anti-Semites and their genocidal impulses. In other words, you’re the dupe of enemies of your people, diasporic as well as Zionist. If you, who declined the Berlin Pride award out of concern that “bi, trans and queer people can be used by those who want to wage war,” should you not also ask yourself if others, even possibly the most high-minded of Jews, also can suffer that fate. You say we need to recognize and fight anti-Semitism in all its forms. Start with your own comrades. (Or is it only right-wing warmongers that disturb you?)
Indeed, you actually missed a great opportunity that day in Berkeley (and so many times since). You could have stood up for all the values of the “progressive Left” and certainly of anyone committed to a global civil society. Instead, you punted. You spoke not a word of rebuke; you granted the key premise; you mumbled your objections to some vaguely defined violence for the record. What you should have said is, “OMG no! These groups are the antithesis of our values.”
So, alright. It happens. We all have moments when we should have spoken and failed to find the words. Everyone has a volume of their ésprit de l’escalier tucked away in the memories of embarrassment. We all have moments that we rue, when we failed to speak truth to power.
In Berkeley that day in September 2006, you made the same mistake that the Iranian communists did in 1400 AH, when they allied with Khoumeini. You allowed people who embraced revolutionary violence of the most revolting kind, to use you to Jew-wash their violent hatreds. You not only failed to distance yourself from the emperor’s new clothes (a “revolution” of hatred and violence), you failed a moment of redemptive performativity, to make a transformative intervention in the global Left movement that thinks it seeks collective redemption but was (and is, alas!) pursuing a self-destructive path. You failed to perform a true tikkun of the world of social justice, and instead you empowered the sitra achra, a world of violence and oppression.
So surely, you can understand if you can’t speak out against such terrifying behavior and beliefs, but do not hesitate to pour existential accusations against Israel, some people think you’re reckless, especially those who live with the violent forces you identified as “socially progressive” (!). In these Israeli victims’ experience, H&H are explicitly anti-Semitic groups by the most stringent definition – genocidal, delirious, paranoid.
Sadly, the only thing that H&H have in common with the global Left today is their anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism, arguably some of the ugliest manifestations of progressive thought in the 21st century. For all their hegemonic political and military deeds, the USA and Israel represent two of the most fruitful hot-houses of progressive techniques and initiatives in every major area of the social and ecological fabric, local, national, and international, and their armies try to adhere to the most stringent moral standards. Unlike H&H, Israel and the US have cultures pervaded by a progressive ethos.
On that day in Berkeley, in that moment of failure, you comforted to your people’s merciless enemies, and as a Jew, betrayed them. Why did you do it? Ultimately only you can know.
Were you intimidated (which is why your response has so many “uh”s)? The atmosphere in later 2006 still reeked of the waves of riots that, starting with the vandalism throughout the French Zones Urbaines Sensibles a year earlier, had given way to a global wave of violence and its threat, in response to the Muhammad Cartoons, six months earlier. Maybe, like Yale University Press, you didn’t have the courage to speak out, in your case, against this crazy alliance on the Left.
Can you recognize that your critics are sincere, that they are human beings who really feel pain and fear? Can you acknowledge that your own people have real and remorseless enemies? Can you realize that you are the one now dehumanizing a people and paving the way to their extermination?
If you can, you will refuse the Adorno Prize.
Then, let us have a conversation. Come to Israel for a year and speak primarily with people who disagree with you. You’re very smart, you’ll actually learn a lot.
Richard Landes, who, with his friends, welcomes you to Israel for a serious discussion of Judaism, Tikkun Olam, and the state of the world today.