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Judith Butler, Once More a Target of Critics Who Would Silence Her

Readers here may recall I’ve written and shared about literary scholar and contemporary philosopher Judith Butler, a frequent target of criticism by right-wing conservative Jewish commentators, owing to positions of hers such as support for the boycott/divest/sanction (BDS) movement with regard to Israel. Some people in this debate–like Peter Beinart in his book The Crisis of Zionism–support boycotting only those goods that come from the Occupied Territories, not all of Israel. That’s my position, too. I’m not certain where Butler lands on that point–but regardless, unlike her opponents, I fully support her right to freely express herself and be heard, in all realms–political, critical and aesthetic.

All this comes up again because of a new instance of the Jewish establishment trying to banish her voice from the communal conversation. In the current episode, Philip Weiss writes in a blog post headed, “Jewish community commits intellectual suicide before our eyes,” that Butler had been asked to participate in a March 6 discussion of Franz Kafka at NYC’s Jewish Museum, but the invitation was withdrawn, owing to what Weiss believes was ‘pressure from donors.’ Weiss writes, “One critic said, ‘The hosting of [BDS] advocate Judith Butler by The Jewish Museum is a slap in the face to every Jew,’ Richard Allen, head of JCC Watch, told” This, all about a discussion of Kafka, with no direct relevance to Israel.

In the same vein of craven submission to angry types, the museum also recently canceled a panel that was to discuss John Judis’s important new book Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict. Many Jews on the right are nowadays inflamed by discussions like these, and many organizations, whether or not they share the same conservative ideology, succumb to threats and pressure.

This is all kind of personal to me. Judith Butler and I grew up in the same Jewish community in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, where her father, known to all his patients as “Danny,” was a friendly family dentist. He looked after the teeth of all five Turners. He resembled Jack Paar, but nicer looking. Judith’s sister Diane was in my same year in school, where we knew each other. She moved to NY at around the same time I did, as part of a modern dance company, and we continued to see each other in the city from time to time. I occasionally heard from Diane about her sister, Judith, already then a professor, and a rising star in academia. She is an honorable person and a serious scholar. She should not be castigated or exiled for what I know to be an honest expression of belief, arrived at through careful deliberation and the weighing of difficult moral choices. As an example of her thoughtfulness, I submit this transcript of a talk she gave last February at Brooklyn College. It is well worth reading, and all in her own words.


Judith Butler, Magnet for Critics, Voicing Truths She Sees

Judith-ButlerLast August I wrote about philosopher and author Judith Butler and her critics who wanted the Adorno Prize she’d been awarded by 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, and about the fact that in a twist of circumstance, I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, with Judith’s father as my dentist. I knew Judith’s sister, Diane. Our parents were friendly, too. As the tweet above indicates, this week Judith was again the target of critics, when a speech she gave at Brooklyn College drew protesters critical of her support for the B.D.S movement, which advocates Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel for its policies in the Occupied Territories and the West Bank.

For my part, I believe in co-existence and a two-state solution. I abhor the policies of the Netanyahu government, and believe that its construction of settlements on land that should be the subject of negotiation marginalizes reasonable voices on all sides, making a peaceful solution an ever-diminishing prospect. I condemn intolerance, hateful rhetoric, and violence. I do not share all of Judith Butler’s positions, but I emphatically support her right of self-expression and applaud the decision of Brooklyn College to uphold the principles of free speech and academic freedom, allowing her to speak this week, even in the face of critics who wanted the event canceled.


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.