The Case of Judith Butler: The Anti-Semitism that Defines Today's Western Left
Tomorrow, September 11, the city of Frankfurt, Germany, is going to give American academic Judith Butler its Adorno Award of 50,000 euros, or roughly 63,000 U.S. dollars. The award is given in honor of the late Theodor Adorno, a founder of the Frankfurt School in Weimar Germany.
Adorno, who was Jewish and a defender of Israel, went into exile in the United States, where, along with his friend Herbert Marcuse, he created the neo-Marxist school of cultural critique. Adorno, unlike Marcuse, was a critic of the New Left. The award has been presented by the city every three years since 1977, on the date of Adorno’s birthday.
Butler may not be a well-known name to most readers of this column, but her position in academia reflects not only on the corruption of the academy and the decline of real liberal arts in the university (so well-critiqued in the current Weekly Standard by Joseph Epstein), but also the shocking growth of opposition to Israel as the main cause of today’s global Left.
At a 2006 teach-in at UC Berkeley (an event which in itself is a throwback to the Vietnam era and the birth of the New Left), she stated in response to a question (video here) that “understanding Hamas and Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive and that are on the left, that are part of the global left is extremely important.”
As the video went viral, Butler later tried to explain her statement. The explanation she offered only succeeded in further revealing her animus and hatred for Israel. As Butler explained, writing in the vitriolic anti-Israeli website Mondoweiss:
I do not endorse practices of violent resistance and neither do I endorse state violence, cannot, and never have. This view makes me perhaps more naïve than dangerous, but it is my view. So it has always seemed absurd to me that my comments were taken to mean that I support or endorse Hamas and Hezbollah! I have never taken a stand on either organization, just as I have never supported every organization that is arguably part of the global left -- I am not unconditionally supportive of all groups that currently constitute 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.
I do support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in a very specific way. I reject some versions and accept others. For me, BDS means that I oppose investments in companies that make military equipment whose sole purpose is to demolish homes. It means as well that I do not speak at Israeli institutions unless they take a strong stand against the occupation. I do not accept any version of BDS that discriminates against individuals on the basis of their national citizenship, and I maintain strong collaborative relationships with many Israeli scholars. One reason I can endorse BDS and not endorse Hamas and Hezbollah is that BDS is the largest non-violent civic political movement seeking to establish equality and the rights of self-determination for Palestinians. My own view is that the peoples of those lands, Jewish and Palestinian, must find a way to live together on the condition of equality.
In other words, Butler claims not to be anti-Semitic or a supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah, but only a critic of Israel who works and writes in the Jewish tradition. Her explanation is standard left-wing boilerplate, in which enemies of Israel claim to be its real friends and spend their entire time condemning Israel for the “occupation” and never attacking its serious foes that are devoting themselves to its destruction. Moreover, as Dovid Efune writes, her words at the Berkeley event were “by no means descriptive but strongly prescriptive.” Moreover, it is telling that by calling Hamas and Hezbollah anti-imperialist, she in fact uses that to point out that it is accurate -- as indeed it is -- to see them as part of the global left that Butler identifies with. The truth, as Efune and many others have pointed out time and time again: these organizations are proxies of Iran and aggressive and violent opponents of Israel. Indeed, they regularly use terror and violence in their campaign to bring down the Jewish state.
It is no wonder that throughout Europe and Israel, the announcement of the Adorno Award for Butler has produced major opposition. The Jerusalem Post first called attention to her award, in an article by its European correspondent, Benjamin Weinthal. Later, someone began to circulate a petition opposed to giving her the award. Adorno, it pointed out:
... himself was a victim of the monstrous Nazi race laws, not only was forced to save his life by going into exile; he was deprived of academic teaching because he was considered Jewish. His insight that Jewish statehood may be the only means to protect Jews from persecution arose his concern for Israel’s ever present endangered existence. More than 20 years after the Shoah he wrote: "We are in extreme worry about Israel. … One can only hope the Israelis will be superior enough to the Arabs militarily for the time being to uphold the situation.”
As the petition pointed out:
[Hamas and Hezbollah] are terror organizations whose declared goal is Israel’s annihilation as well as the murder and expulsion of the Jews from the Middle East and the establishment of an Islamist theocracy founded on terror and murder. In a perfidious twist of reality Butler not only belittles these anti-Semitic gang of killers with their aspiration to establish theocratic-fascist dictatorships but also to equate the only democracy in the Middle East -- Israel -- with Apartheid South Africa and the War on Terror after 9/11 with the actions of the Nazis against the Jews.
Writing an open letter to Butler in The Times of Israel, Richard Landes, a historian at Boston University who considers himself part of the left, asked Butler -- whose sincerity he does not question -- to consider other things. First, Landes asks if she has “no particularly strong objections about their pervasive misogyny, their blatant homophobia, their cult of death, their genocidal discourse? They are the antithesis of everything we on the global left stand for: the dignity of voluntary human interaction.” How, he asked her, “can you not denounce loudly the shocking notion that a group that pervaded with such violently regressive attitudes be even thought of as 'social movements that are progressive.' What about them is progressive?”
Honestly, do you really believe that the people who join these groups share the anti-hierarchical, anti-domineering values of the civic culture you, we all, thrive in? The signs everywhere say “no.” To every one of your espoused concerns, they are violently hostile. Indeed, even as we carry on this conversation, violent imperial Islamists drive Christians and Jews from lands they’ve inhabited for millennia, while moderate Muslims are cowed into submission.
How on earth can you make a mistake as huge as to suggest that if they say they’re anti-imperialist, that makes them “arguably” on the progressive, global left? Who are so uninformed on these matters that they’d even make so foolish an argument, and why on earth do you cede to them? This is not serious scholarship; it is “academic” only if that word has become a synonym for principled gullibility.
I admire Landes’ desire to go on the offensive against Butler, and to expose her gullibility and hypocrisy. I would, however, ask Landes the following question: Why is it that so few on the left -- either in the United States or especially in Europe -- do not take your position?
As the British writer and left-wing intellectual Norman Geras discussed at the YIVO conference on Jews and the Left, the left in his own Britain made opposition to Israel its main focus and concern, and has willingly joined hands with anti-Semites. Geras writes:
At the same time, that affinity has now been compromised by the existence of a new climate of anti-Semitic opinion within the left. This climate of opinion affects a section of the left only, and not the whole of it. But it is a substantial section. Its convenient alibi is the state of Israel -- by which I mean that Israel is standardly invoked to deflect the charge that there is anything of anti-Semitism at work. Israel, so the story goes, is a delinquent state and, for many of those who regard it so, a non-legitimate one -- colonialist, imperialist, vehicle of oppression and what have you. Similarly, diaspora Jews who defend Israel within their home countries are not seen as the conduit of Jewish interests and/or opinion in the normal way of any other democratic articulation; they are treated, rather, as a dubious force -- the notorious "Jewish lobby" -- as if their organized existence were somehow improper.
Speaking about the British newspaper The Guardian, Geras writes:
This once great paper of British liberalism now provides space on its opinion pages for the spokesmen of Hamas, the contents of its programmatic charter notwithstanding; provides space on its letters page for philosophers justifying the murder of Jews; and provides space on its website for people who deploy well-known anti-Semitic themes even while professing that they have nothing whatever against Jews.
His point speaks directly as well to Judith Butler, whose support of Hamas is justified by her in precisely the terms that Geras notes the British leftists use as rationale for their anti-Semitism.
Geras concluded his remarks by saying:
We now know, as well, that should a new calamity ever befall the Jewish people, there will be, again, not only the direct architects and executants but also those who collaborate, who collude, who look away and find the words to go with doing so. Some of these, dismayingly, shamefully, will be of the left.
Judith Butler is one of those Americans who now has helped, despite her own so-called explanations, the campaign to delegitimize Israel. But in contrast to Professor Landes, I would argue that this new anti-Semitism defines the left today. Landes writes that Butler’s entire audience is on the left; as he tells her, “that’s where you get your kudos.”
That is precisely the point. And that is because the new anti-Semitism -- masquerading as anti-Zionism -- is the mantra of today’s left. The few social-democrats who support Israel, like Michael Walzer, Norm Geras, and Richard Landes, are few and far between. They are virtually a voice crying in the wilderness, and they have not succeeded in mitigating the anti-Semitism coming from today’s left.
As Daniel Pipes has written:
The burgeoning alliance of Western leftists and Islamists ranks as one of today's most disturbing political developments, one that impedes the West's efforts to protect itself. When Stalin and Hitler made their infamous pact in 1939, the Red-Brown alliance posed a mortal danger to the West and, indeed, to civilization itself. Less dramatically but no less certainly, the coalition today poses the same threat. As seven decades ago, this one must be exposed, rejected, resisted, and defeated.
Perhaps Judith Butler tomorrow will address the pleas of her fellow critics on the left, especially Richard Landes. But judging from Landes’ op-ed in today’s European edition of The Wall Street Journal, Butler has ignored his passionate open letter to her. As he and Benjamin Weinthal write:
For Ms. Butler, anything that opposes Western power can be defended. It does not seem to concern her that in so doing, she betrays every constituency she claims to celebrate -- lesbians, gays, women, Jews, and other diasporic minorities. Their problems, it seems, are always the fault of oppressive "colonial" powers.
That is the mindset of today’s left, which is why so many of us who once inhabited its precincts have departed from its ranks.
The logic of the left is the same logic its ancestors used to defend Stalinism in its heyday -- the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and the enemy of the left is Western democracy, as it exists in both the United States and Israel. Butler’s anti-Americanism and anti-Israel posturing defines the left.
Isn’t it time for good men like Landes and Geras to face reality, and to stop trying to get the left to change its tune? The fight to defend Israel must henceforth include the effort to fight the left, whose agenda, as always has been the case, leads to horrendous ends.