Why Judith Butler had to be shut down

The announcement of a prestigious international academic prize doesn’t typically generate endless sturm und drang on the pages of major newspapers around the world, threatening to turn into an international incident. But when that prize is given by a German city, and the recipient is Judith Butler, one of the great thinkers of our time– who also happens to be a vocal critic of Israeli policies—apparently it signifies the end is near.

Within minutes of announcing that Judith Butler, who can best be described as the Mick Jagger of left academia, had won the prestigious Theodor Adorno prize for her extraordinary and wide-ranging body of critical theory work, the hapless judges of the Frankfurt prize were besieged with complaints by those who said it should be revoked immediately.

Writing in the pages of the Wall Street Journal,  Richard Landes and Ben Weinthal claimed the decision to give Butler the award would threaten Germany and Israel’s “special relationship”, and compared it to

Germany’s circumcision bans, Berlin sending submarines to a newly belligerent Egypt, and ugly revelations of German behavior in the Munich Olympics terror attack.

Elsewhere in Opposite-landia, the weird through-the-looking-glass world created by those who would defend Israel at all costs, right-wing critics claimed Judith Butler is anti-Semitic.  Judith Butler loves Hamas. Judith Butler is too political. Judith Butler isn’t political enough . Or my favorite, Judith Butler is ignorant.

But the truth is Butler became a lightning rod because one of the world’s best-known philosophers, who happens to be Jewish, is also deeply engaged in questions of Judaism, Jewish ethics and Zionism. Her lifelong investigation of these questions, in the spirit of Arendt and Buber who inspired because they walked their own paths—led her to keep one foot solidly in Jewish culture while placing the other in solidarity with precisely the people much of the Jewish world want us to forget, Palestinians.

Equally unforgivably, her intellectual and personal journey led her to support a movement that mainstream Jewish institutions are desperately trying to claim as anti-Semitic: the Palestinian-led, nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. (My use of the the word desperately is deliberate. As more and more individual Jews and Jewish organizations support some form of boycott or divestment to pressure Israel into being accountable to international law and basic Jewish ethics, the argument that doing so is essentially anti-Jewish reveals itself for the emptiness that it is.)

Butler wrote her own defense:

I am a scholar who gained an introduction to philosophy through Jewish thought, and I understand myself as defending and continuing a Jewish ethical tradition that includes figures such as Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt. I received a Jewish education in Cleveland, Ohio at The Temple under the tutelage of Rabbi Daniel Silver where I developed strong ethical views on the basis of Jewish philosophical thought. I learned, and came to accept, that we are called upon by others, and by ourselves, to respond to suffering and to call for its alleviation. But to do this, we have to hear the call, find the resources by which to respond, and sometimes suffer the consequences for speaking out as we do. I was taught at every step in my Jewish education that it is not acceptable to stay silent in the face of injustice. Such an injunction is a difficult one, since it does not tell us exactly when and how to speak, or how to speak in a way that does not produce a new injustice, or how to speak in a way that will be heard and registered in the right way. My actual position is not heard by these detractors, and perhaps that should not surprise me, since their tactic is to destroy the conditions of audibility.

WWTD? What would Theodor Do?

Back in the late 80s as an undergraduate at Brown, my world couldn’t get enough of Adorno and the Frankfurt School. And when the Matrix films came out, we were all certain the Wachowski (then) Brothers had stayed up late nights imbibing Marcuse and Adorno, and probably something a bit stronger, to come up with their too-close-to home dystopian trilogy.

Reading Adorno helped us understand the signs of fascism and our own willing imprisonment. I suppose his criticisms of mass culture helped herald the rise of the corporatocracy.

Adorno was a big Schoenberg fan. He didn’t go for treacly harmonies, for much the same reasons my mother used to refuse to let us watch the Brady Bunch, though the cynical MASH was OK. Adorno liked dissonance. It revealed the dark truth behind harmonious bourgeois culture. I suppose it was the only thing that made sense to someone who witnessed, and escaped, the Nazi Holocaust. (Real differences aside, it could be said that it took the war to help Adorno and others like him see the underlying brutality and dehumanization that colonized peoples of all kinds have always known firsthand at the hands of “the civilized”. Just ask the Congolese about King Leopold. Or just ask…women.)

This is the realm in which Judith Butler and her work dwells that makes her so utterly inspiring–especially to those of us who aspire to justice in Israel and Palestine while remaining firmly grounded in our Jewishness.

There is Butler’s personal willingness to try to embody the best of the Jewish texts she studies. And her willing look at the dark underbelly of “civilized” cultures (think Pamela Geller ads) which declare some people grievable and others entirely unworthy of grieving. (In that sense, the United States and Israel have more than a special relationship, they are conjoined twins, awash in self congratulatory language about democracy and civilization that obscures the foundation of structural violence that in both cases, has never really ceased.)

Adorno is often quoted for sayng that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz. But he also wrote:

“The single genuine power standing against the principle of Auschwitz is autonomy, if I might use the Kantian expression: the power of reflection, of self-determination, of not cooperating.”

Hold that thought. Let us all, like JB and so many countless others, refuse to cooperate. We must refuse to be that person laughing at a Tel Aviv café while just miles away a captive population in Gaza is bombed ceaselessly, or to simply ask someone to pass the cereal moments after reading again that the US military drone dropped a bomb on a group of civilians, this time a group of women and girls.

Let us refuse to cooperate with the mythical Jewish consensus that to be a good Jew, one must not mourn Palestinians as one mourns Jews, and one must not hold Israel up to those same standards.

This Yom Kippur, I’m going to think about the times I didn’t refuse.

I hope also that some of the people who called Judith Butler and so many like her anti-Semites, simply in order to maker them “inaudible,” will consider the gravity of their actions. But I’m not holding my breath.

(Oh, and by the way, Judith Butler did get that prize after all. And the room of 700 cheered.)

-Cecilie Surasky