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The Trouble With Judith Butler—and Her Critics

Whatever one wants to say about the philosopher Judith Butler’s contribution to contemporary thought, I suspect that not even her most devoted disciple would call her a lucid writer. In her introduction to an early book, Gender Trouble, she writes:

There is a new venue for theory, necessarily impure, where it emerges in and as the very event of cultural translation. This is not the displacement of theory by historicism, nor a simple historicization of theory that exposes the contingent limits of its more generalizable claims. It is, rather, the emergence of theory at the site where cultural horizons meet, where the demand for translation is acute and its promise of success, uncertain.

What we have here, and throughout Butler’s writings, are not so much sentences that carry propositions as a whiff of the burning of incense before an idol called “theory.” There are some in the academy who find this practice “emancipating.” I do not.

Be that as it may, the author of those unilluminating sentences is soon to receive the City of Frankfurt’s triennial Theodor W. Adorno Prize, named for the brilliant, prolific, vastly complex, often tangled, so-called Frankfurt School German-Jewish thinker genius who was himself given to wild overstatement of the sort that Butler, in fact, quotes in the epigraph to another one of her books: “The value of thought is measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar.” A moment’s reflection shows this to be nonsense. Adorno had bad days, too.

The politics of “theory” and prize committees would be interesting subjects on their own, but the focus of vehement attack by The Jerusalem Post and organizations devoted to My-Israel-Right-or-Wrong politics is a more specific claim. In the words of the Post’s Benjamin Weinthal, Butler “advocates a sweeping boycott of ties with Israel’s cultural and academic establishment and has defended Hezbollah and Hamas as progressive organizations.”

This slovenly slash-and-burn propaganda, masquerading as journalism, has occasioned a crisp reply by Butler:

The accusations against me are that I support Hamas and Hezbollah (which is not true), that I support BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] (partially true), and that I am anti-Semitic (patently false).

As to the first, here is Butler’s statement:

I was asked by a member of an academic audience a few years ago whether I thought Hamas and Hezbollah belonged to “the global left,” and I replied with two points. My first point 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. My second point was then critical: As with any group on the left, one has to decide whether one is for that group or against that group, and one needs to critically evaluate their stand. I do not accept or endorse all groups on the global left. … To say that those organizations belong to the left is not to say that they should belong, or that I endorse or support them in any way.

Whether Hamas does indeed define itself as “anti-imperialist” I do not know or care, and I do not know why Butler cares. Hitler defined himself as that contradiction in terms, a “national socialist.” The Japanese Empire was hostile to Western imperialism, preferring its own imperialism. Salafists of the Al Qaeda stripe would like to replace one empire with another, their own. So? There can be no doubt that Hamas, for example, is both anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic; it cites the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious czarist forgery, in its charter. In what she calls her descriptive remark, Butler obfuscates—unhelpfully. But the critics offer no evidence that she “supports” Hamas or Hezbollah. She explicitly denies it. Enough.

As for her view of boycotts, Butler writes:

I do support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in a very specific way. I reject some versions and accept others. … I do not accept any version of BDS that discriminates against individuals on the basis of their national citizenship.

The right to boycott in order to change the behavior of a state is a human right. One may agree or disagree. (I have myself written against recent academic boycotts, for example here.) But the political scientist Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University, quoted in the Post, does more than disagree. He believes that Butler is “immoral,” and that the BDS campaign “demoniz[es] the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and equality—the modern embodiment of anti-Semitism.”

Agree with me, says Steinberg, or be cursed as an anti-Semite. In full chutzpah mode, Steinberg goes on to accuse Butler of ignoring “the suffering of Syrians, Iranians, and millions of others who are victims of real rather than invented war crimes.” How does he seriously know her views on their sufferings? On the strength of her writings, what he says is, to say the least, implausible.

Finally, Butler sets out a cogent view of Jewish ethics—which, as The Jerusalem Post and Gerald Steinberg probably know, has been the subject of considerable dispute for millennia. Her view is that Jews are called upon to pay particular attention to how they live with those who are not Jews on shared or neighboring land. On this subject, Butler stands foursquare in an honorable Jewish tradition, as she writes in a recent book, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism:

If I show … that there are Jewish values of cohabitation with the non-Jew 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.

And, more recently:

there are strong Jewish traditions, even early Zionist traditions, that value cohabitation [with non-Jews] and that offer ways to oppose violence of all kinds, including state violence.

A book known as Numbers has something to say (9:14) about a single law for natives and strangers, in fact. Argue away about who qualifies as which, but I must have missed the segment of Jewish history when the official orthodoxy of Israel declared Benjamin Netanyahu the pope of the Jews.

Butler is right about this, too:

When one set of Jews labels another set of Jews “anti-Semitic,” they are trying to monopolize the right to speak in the name of the Jews. So the allegation of anti-Semitism is actually a cover for an intra-Jewish quarrel.

These days, even the most lucid writers fall victims to scurrilous, slovenly, sound-bite spitballing that pretends to be grown-up debate. The gotcha habit of seeking the author’s clumsiest, least defensible moments and waving them in the air like chunks of raw meat, is a disgrace and a curse. I imagine there is Talmudic support for this view.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. He is author, with Liel Leibovitz, of The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election (Simon & Schuster, 2010).

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