[N.B. A longer version of this piece can be found at Richard Landes’s blog here]
Judith Butler’s feelings are hurt because some professors who claim they’re for “peace in the Middle East,” have criticized her and openly called on the Adorno Committee to withdraw the Prize that they have announced would be offered to her this year, on Adorno’s birthday, 9-11. Stung by the criticism, Butler responded at the site of the notoriously anti-Israel Jewish blog, Mondoweiss. in her defense. The defense illustrates every aspect of the problem with Butler’s approach to the criticism of her work, including the folly of German intellectuals to raise her up as a heroic example.
The criticism of her receiving the Adorno prize involves the following three points: 1) Her criticism of Israel for violations of (her) moral standards is exceptionally harsh, even though she has very little to say about exceptionally harsh violations among Israel’s enemies. 2) She has taken this moral imbalance from mere rhetoric to determined action, supporting extensive and punishing academic boycotts of Israel (e.g., Kafka archive should not go to Hebrew University). And 3) she enables and encourages virulent anti-Semitism both in this participation in BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), and in identifying some of the worst offenders where that ancient hatred is concerned (Hamas and Hizbullah) as part of the “progressive, global, Left.”
Her response was a long, rambling, self-defense (2000 words) in which she systematically misrepresents the critique, and shields herself by claiming the status of a suffering victim of a vicious attack that deeply hurt her feelings.
I. Listening to Criticism, Reasoning Together about Anti-Semitism
Butler begins with a lengthy (500 word) repetitive complaint about how her “detractors” have misrepresented her positions in order to demonize her and silence her. Instead of paying attention to what she says, Butler claims that her critics systematically misrepresent her discourse as anti-Semitic in order to shut her up. We who criticize her and her anti-Zionist colleagues “target the person by taking the words out of context, inverting their meanings and having them stand for the person; indeed, …nullify the views of that person without regard to the content of those views.”
Take, for example, the problem of anti-Semitism which Butler dismisses out of hand as “patently false.” Butler makes three claims: 1) the accusation is absurd and offensive; 2) her opponents call any criticism of Israel anti-Semitic; and 3) she cannot be anti-Semitic because she intends to represent the highest values of Judaism, and to suggest otherwise, especially to someone like herself whose family was destroyed in the Holocaust, is deeply hurtful.
Let’s take them in order.
1) Accusation of anti-Semitism Absurd: No one cited in the JPost article (Steinberg, Small, Bawer), nor in the German SPME statementhttps://spme.org/cgi-bin/articles.cgi?ID=8837 (Küntzel, Schumann, Hansen, Rensmann) accuse her of anti-Semitism. They do accuse her of enabling, facilitating, spreading anti-Semitic discourse by engaging in a relentlessly hostile criticism of Israel while, at the very most, mumbling allusions of criticism towards relentlessly anti-Semitic enemies of Israel. The closest anyone came to the accusation was Gerald Steinberg who, with reference to her support of BDS, noted that “the boycott campaign is part of the wider NGO-led war targeting Israel and demonizing the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and equality – the modern embodiment of anti-Semitism.”
Not only does Butler refuse to listen to what her critics are saying, she does not want anyone else to pay attention either. Stung by the opposition, Butler rushed to the site of SPME to find out who had the nerve to smear her so outrageously. She rapidly landed on what she was looking for, evidence that, as she assures her readers, SPME claims [sic] that “Islam” is an “inherently anti-semetic (sic) religion.” She did not pause the three seconds it would have taken to realize that the headline, along with its misspelling, came from RTV (Russian), and that SPME had it up there to give its members and visitors access to the debate between the Norman Finkelstein, who systematically compares Israel with the Nazis, and Jeffrey Herf, who has chronicled the depressing history of Islamist-Nazi ties specifically bound up with the problem of Zion. Obviously it’s easier to wax indignant and dismiss someone if one believes he or she is a boorish, uneducated racist. After all, who else would oppose her award?
2) Her critics consider “any criticism” of Israel anti-Semitic. As part of her defense, Butler repeatedly characterizes her opponents as accusing “anyone who criticizes Israel… those who formulate a criticism of the State of Israel… people [who] offer a criticism of Israel…” as being anti-Semitic. This is a common rhetorical trope among Israel’s harshest critics: any criticism is immediately dismissed by the Israel-first crowd as anti-Semitism. Now if we’re looking for examples of systematically misrepresenting one’s opponents’ views for the sake of dismissing them and shutting down debate, this offers a fine exemplar.
Jews and Israelis have an extraordinary tolerance for dissent and debate. A wide range of often harsh criticism of Israel takes place without cries of anti-Semitism: critics have to overstep a remarkably high threshold before some counter-critics associate their attacks on Israel as anti-Semitic. Some draw the line at the remorseless recourse to accusations of malicious violence, what David Hirsch calls “The Livingstone Formulation“; many draw the line at apartheid; most at accusations of being as bad as, or worse than the Nazis. BDS is full of the whole rainbow of calumny.
3) I don’t intend to be anti-Semitic, so I can’t be. One aspect of the issues surrounding anti-Semitism becomes particularly salient and more broadly significant concerns the role of intention. Butler has been fighting this issue for over a decade now, ever since, in 2002, Larry Summers referred to academic calls for boycotting Israel in conjunction with a widespread campaign of vilification as “anti-Semitic in its effect if not necessarily in its intention.” (In Marxian terms, this is “objective” anti-Semitism – the product of false consciousness.) Butler then, as now, preferred to take the remark as an insult to her (pure) intentions, rather than, as it was intended, as an insult to her judgment in participating, pure intentions and all, in an anti-Semitic enterprise to which she gave her Jewish voice.
In terms recently coined by Gerald Steinberg, Butler is a tool used by anti-Semites in intent to “Jew-wash” their hatred by disguising it as “legitimate” criticism of Israel. “How can you say I’m anti-Semitic? I’m just saying what Jews themselves say.” In other words, she did not (or could not allow herself to) realize that the criticism leveled against her was not for anti-Semitism, but for her role as a useful idiot in the service of anti-Semites. Her insistence on her sincerity in all she does merely dots the i‘s.
II. Moral Narcissism, False Consciousness, and Superficial Scholarship
Butler fits perfectly into the category of what Shmuel Trigano and other French Jewish intellectuals, overwhelmed with a tsunami of Jew-hatred in the early aughts (‘00s), called the alter-juifs. These were (largely) fully assimilated Jews who had not previously identified publicly as Jews, but who, suddenly, once the images of al Durah and the Al Aqsa Intifadah hit their TV screens in October 2000, felt the need “as Jews” to denounce loudly before the most hostile audiences, the sins, even the basic character flaws, of their people.
Butler the alter-juif, the non-violent activist of true Jewish values, the self-consciously moral voice that insists on her ideological purity, turns out primarily to be a moral narcissist. Butler’s concern is not that the world be a better place – that’s her good intention; more important is the ability to “perform” as a moral person, no matter what the consequences. “Not in my name… I represent the finest values, and I will not get ‘dirty’ with the unseemly behavior of fighting back.”
Like most narcissists, Butler lives in the moment, her historical memory virtually non-existent. Her definition of both the “Jewish tradition” and the Jewish “Diaspora” are deracinated self-serving notions that float in a modern/post-modern bubble, completely detached, even contradictory to, the ballast of a history about which she is profoundly uninformed (or prefers to ignore). Ignoring that past (unless she needs to trot it out to defend herself), makes it much easier to dismiss the problems of (her stirring up) anti-Semitism, lest they cramp her redemptive style.
Bawer refers to Butler’s notion of “performativity” as “a kind of high-rent postmodern version of showing off.” To be slightly less generous, it’s moral preening. (Obviously if this is the case, anything written about performativity needs to keep things abstruse, and indeed in 1998, Butler won the “Bad Writing Contest” for “the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles published in the last few years.”)
And moral show-off, she is. She, the “good Jew” the good feminist, the good post-modern, post-identity, post-sovereignty, embracer of the “Other,” will show her bona fides on the international stage by denouncing Israel’s crimes, no “ifs” “ands” or “buts,” no excuses allowed concerning the feverish violence in word and deed arrayed against that nation that “state beyond the pale.” “As long as I, Judith Butler, shine in ethical performativity, and serve as a living example to others who want to maintain their identities as Jews without the moral stain of Israel’s barbaric ways, things are well with the world. How dare you criticize me for not attending to the consequences? Moi, a victim of false consciousness? Moi, unable to engage in serious self-criticism? Moi, ignorant of history? Moi, preen for audience approval? You should be ashamed to even entertain the thought.”
And behind this moral performativity, lies something much more troubling, what one might call a “post-modern honor-killing.” Progressive Jews, who believe in tikkun olam as social justice and who want Jews to “lead the world” in the belief that we – all humans – “are called upon by others, and by ourselves, to respond to suffering and to call for its alleviation,” have been horribly shamed by the behavior of the Israelis. Their brutality, oppression, and aggression towards their Palestinian victim neighbors, has given Judaism a bad name. How can I, a good Jew, hold my head high when the media reflects back on me the awful behavior of my fellow Jews in Israel.
And in order to restore that good name, in order that progressive Jews can regain their honor in the eyes of the world, and present themselves as redemptive performers of tikkun olam, , Israel must be slain. Then all will be fine for us fine diasporic Jews.
Of course, the pre-modern performers of honor-killings will – indeed must – carry out the violent deed themselves, Butler and her post-modern, non-violent performers, however, cannot. They can only empower the forces that seek, openly, to do so violently. They can only identify with aggressors. Would she intentionally stir up genocidal forces against her people? God Forbid! Would she do so in practice by signing petitions and writing denunciations of that allude to a comparison between Israel and the Nazis, and by hanging with people like the gang at Mondoweiss, who have no problem making the analogy? Yes. But as long as it’s not an intentional murder, her hands are clean.
Not surprisingly, so solipsistic a moral approach to the real world of people, expresses itself with striking self-absorption. In her essay of 2000 words, “I” appears 50 times, often followed by irrelevant (but apparently not to her) personal information. The consequences of her deeds, what Summers referred to as the effects of her performance on her own people, apparently carry no weight in her moral calculus. Her good intentions absolve all accidental sins, defend from all criticism.
Nothing illustrates this hot-house morality better than the invocation of her Hungarian family, which perished in the Holocaust, to reject the notion that she is anti-Semitic.
For those of us who are descendants of European Jews who were destroyed in the Nazi genocide (my grandmother’s family was destroyed in a small village south of Budapest), it is the most painful insult and injury to be called complicitous with the hatred of Jews or to be called self-hating. And it is all the more difficult to endure the pain of such an allegation when one seeks to affirm what is most valuable in Judaism for thinking about contemporary ethics, including the ethical relation to those who are dispossessed of land and rights of self-determination, to those who seek to keep the memory of their oppression alive, to those who seek to live a life that will be, and must be, worthy of being grieved.
Obviously, given that members of your family perished in the Holocaust, you would find accusations of collaborating with the kind of forces that destroyed them painful. But does that make the criticism a priori wrong? You, apparently, do not feel you need to consider whether you are, “in effect if not in intent” complicitous with Jew-hatred. Your intentions alone matter to you: because you mean to “affirm what is most valuable in Judaism for thinking about contemporary ethics,” those of us who think you’re reckless in your behavior and contributing to Jew-hatred have no right to point this out. On the contrary, we unfairly “seek recourse to… scurrilous and unfounded charges.” Where Butler looks in the mirror and sees proof of sincerity, critics might see serious hypocrisy.
But let us ask a question that Judith Butler has apparently not considered. Who will grieve your passing? Will your grandmother’s family, and their descendants? Or will the people who seek to “do it again”? Will women, LGBTs, non-Muslims, moderate Muslims, Jews, independent thinkers, believers in human rights and dignity to be free of coercion… mourn your passing, or will they, living in a world animated by a Islamist hatred and aggression, encouraged by Europeans too ashamed to openly espouse such attitudes, the path to which you paved with your good intentions, rue the long days you performed your dance of moral narcissism on the world stage? When the consequences of your betraying all those you should be protecting become clear, will the only people who grieve your passing be the nastiest warmongers on the planet? And will they mourn, or laugh at your useful infidelity?
III. Germany and the Adorno Prize
And Germany. What on earth are they up to? They have a prize dedicated, in Adorno’s memory to promote “the liberal and enlightening spirit” Adorno so decisively and exactingly labored to encourage by stripping away false consciousness. They choose, already well into the second decade of the new and deeply troubled century, to continue to hold up as an example of “cutting edge” intellectual achievement, a poster-woman for moral narcissism who, in abiding (willful) ignorance of the forces opposed to that spirit, has systematically encouraged its worst enemies. It’s of a piece with a European intellectual elite so addicted to their anti-Americanism that they, in utter contempt for their own exceptional intellectual traditions, consider Noam Chomsky the leading American intellectual.
Few things better illustrate the folly and self-destructiveness of “objective” anti-Semitism, than the spectacle of Germany, itself in disarray at the challenge of Islamism, offering as an exemplary model to its intelligent youth, a woman whose scholarship of the real (rather than hoped for) world is as shallow as it is mistaken, who has not done the most elementary work self-criticizing her own and her comrades’ false consciousness. If there’s anything honest German academics can admit, it’s that they, like the French and others, have no idea how to handle the challenge of Islamism. And although I can’t tell them what to do, I can suggest some things they not do. And one of the most obvious and basic things not to do, is to encourage further precisely the kind of virulent anti-Semitism that produced their last paranoid psychotic episode and which this time, in post-modern rather than pre-modern mode, foments hatred and violence not against their (imagined) enemies, but against their very selves.
A sympathetic outsider might wonder: are Germans so addicted to hearing and believing stories about Jews behaving badly, that they can’t give up such lethal narratives, even when to do so is suicidal? Do they not understand that in today’s global scene, Jew-baiting is no longer a freebee, not a bit of innocent fun? Or have they become so morally disoriented by their effort at Nie Wieder [Never Again], that they don’t understand how inadvisable it is to embrace an “Other” that really does want to take over your society, and how dangerous it is to accept Jewish moral narcissists (who are trying to please your worst instincts) as guides to dealing with real moral dilemmas? If the latter is the case, then please, German intellectuals, wake up! Stop the ideological and moral hemorrhaging before it’s too late.
For the sad and redeeming truth of the Twenty-First century, is that if Europeans truly treasure their progressive inheritance, their spirit of liberal enlightenment, if they truly want the sovereign entities dedicated to protecting all people’s rights and dignity to endure, if they truly desire to “choose life,” they will have to overcome their anti-Semitism. Not only does Judith Butler fail to contribute to that truly ethical accomplishment, she impedes it. If the dead can weep, Adorno and Butler’s Hungarian ancestors grieve for those of us living in the darkening shadow of her monstrous ethical performativity.
Richard Allen Landes is an American historian and author, specializing in Millennialism. He currently serves as an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Boston University.