Judith Butler, Under Attack, Responds to her Critics

I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, where our family’s dentist was Dr. Danny Butler, a gentle man whom I never minded having take care of my teeth. He was a pleasant-looking fellow, who in retrospect I remember looking a little bit like Jack Paar. When I moved to New York in 1985, Diane Butler, one of Danny’s daughters, was living in the city, studying dance. I met up with her in Gotham, and traded old Cleveland stories. Remembering that my family had run Undercover Books, Diane told me her about her smart sister who was starting to make waves in academia, and as an author. Her sister was Judith Butler–who went on to become well known as a philosopher, UC Berkeley professor, and author.

Soon after I got settled in New York I began working in publishing, and began hearing about Judith’s written work in the fields of women’s studies, gender, philosophy, and related topics.  One of her latest books is Parting Ways: A Jewish Critique of Zionism (Columbia University Press, 2012), in which she grapples with the ideas of earlier thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi, Edward Said, and Mahmoud Darwish, to arrive at her own critique of Zionism. She is a serious thinker, and not a hater.

I was intrigued this week to see that she’d written a personal essay for the website Mondoweiss, in which she responds to critics who object to her stated beliefs and opinions about the Middle East conflict. Right-wing elements in the Jewish community have objected to her for some time, but it seems the objections have become more vocal recently with the news that she would be the recipient of the Theodore Adorno Prize, awarded every three years by the city of Frankfurt, Germany.

I was struck by Judith’s cogent and temperate response to what I take to be inaccurate attacks by her critics. Below is the first paragraph of her rebuttal. If you find it reasonable and well-reasoned, I urge you to read her entire statement.

The Jerusalem Post recently published an article reporting that some organizations are opposed to my receiving the Adorno Prize, an award given every three years to someone who works in the tradition of critical theory broadly construed. The accusations against me are that I support Hamas and Hezbollah (which is not true) that I support BDS (partially true), and that I am anti-Semitic (patently false). Perhaps I should not be as surprised as I am that those who oppose my receiving the Adorno Prize would seek recourse to such scurrilous and unfounded charges to make their point. 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.

For my own part, I believe in co-existence and a two-state solution. In 2008, I lamented the return of Netanyahu to power in Israel, as I feared that his settlements policy would marginalize reasonable voices on all sides, and make a peaceful solution an ever-diminishing prospect. I  condemn intolerance, hateful rhetoric, and violence. I do not endorse all of Judith Butler’s positions, but I emphatically support her right of self-expression and applaud the decision of Frankfurt to award her the Adorno Prize.

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  1. […] the city of Frankfurt to be denied her. I was glad that the critics’ demands were unavailing. My post from last summer focused on her beliefs about Israel and Palestine, but also about the fact that in a twist of […]

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