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Judith Butler, renounce the Adorno Prize

Alternatively, take the prize money, and spend it on coming to Israel for a year

Dear Judith,

I have recently read up on the controversy surrounding your getting the Adorno Prize. After an initial survey of the field, I think you need to seriously consider the criticism leveled against you. Even those who do not question your sincerity worry about your judgment. Their case is strong. Although you disassociated yourself from Hamas and Hezbollah’s violence, you did stress the “extreme” importance of “understanding [them] as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global left.”

Does that mean you have 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. They display all the most prominent and negative traits of the totalitarian impulses that imprisoned minds and murdered tens of millions in the last century. How 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?

You clarify:

They are “left” in the sense that they oppose colonialism and imperialism, but their tactics are not ones that I would ever condone.

Later, you clarify further: they “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.” This is, you assure us, a purely descriptive, even academic position.

Are you serious? Do you know what these groups formally believe? Have you read Hamas’s charter (which considers your solution an abomination)? Do you not know of the imperialism of global Islamism? Have you even checked to see if they’re perhaps not against imperialism in all its forms, like you, but only against the imperialism of others? Would it make a difference to your thinking if it turns out they’re one of the most ferocious strains of monotheist imperialism? That they embrace one of the most destructive beliefs in the history of humanity?

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.

Judith Butler (photo credit: CC-BY Andrew Rusk, flickr)
Judith Butler (photo credit: CC-BY Andrew Rusk, flickr)

You claim that you are not a spokesman for the left, that there are many elements of the left that you do not approve of. What kind of cowardly retreat is that? Your entire audience is on the “left.” That’s where you get you kudos. And when it’s time to criticize them, you absent yourself? It’s a fundamental Jewish principle – Diaspora and Zionist – “do not stand idly by on your neighbor’s blood” (Lev. 19:16). And yet, all of a sudden you want to be a by-stander while your comrades go after the violent deities of “destroying the world to save it”?

You claim to understand the criticism of your work, even though it’s not articulated very well. Really? It’s cogently articulated, both without reference to your particular case, and directly about you. And you still don’t understand. You may be right to argue that Zionism is not identical with Judaism, but it’s equally inaccurate to argue, as you do, that they have nothing to do with each other. (Please come to Israel and see the remarkable flourishing of all kinds of progressive Jewish spirituality possible where Jews have sovereignty.) In making so counter-evidential a claim, you at once privilege your reading of what you so restrictively define as “Diaspora Judaism,” and join in with real anti-Semites who, not blinded by your messianic goggles, understand that in attacking Zionism they are attacking Judaism.

You think your critics accuse you of anti-Semitism, and that they’ll do that to anyone who criticizes Israel. Instead, the criticism is that you, and some others, go so far overboard in your hyper-criticism of Israel, that you empower the real anti-Semites… that you’re the dupe of enemies of your people, diasporic as well as Zionist. If you declined the Berlin Pride award out of concern that “bi, trans and queer people can be used by those who want to wage war,” should you not also ask yourself if others, even possibly the most high-minded of Jews, also can suffer that fate. You say we need to recognize and fight anti-Semitism in all its forms. Start with your own comrades. (Or is it only right-wing warmongers that disturb you?)

Indeed, you actually missed a great opportunity that day in Berkeley (and so many times since). You could have stood up for all the values of the “progressive left” and certainly of anyone committed to a global civil society. Instead, you punted. You spoke not a word of rebuke; you granted the key premise; you mumbled your objections to some vaguely defined violence for the record. What you should have said is, “Oh my God, no! These groups are the antithesis of our values.”

So, alright, it happens. We all have moments when we should have spoken and failed to find the words. Everyone has a volume of their ésprit de l’escalier tucked away in the memories of embarrassment. We all have moments that we rue, when we failed to speak truth to power.

In Berkeley that day in September 2006, you made the same mistake that the Iranian communists did in 1979 when they allied with Khoumeini. You allowed people who embraced revolutionary violence of the most revolting kind to use you to Jew-wash their violent hatreds. You not only failed to distance yourself from the emperor’s new clothes (a “revolution” of hatred and violence), you failed a moment of redemptive performativity, to make a transformative intervention in the global left movement that thinks it seeks collective redemption but was (and is, alas!) pursuing a self-destructive path. You failed to perform a true tikkun of the world of social justice.

On the contrary, there you participated in the marriage ceremony of pre-modern sadism and post-modern masochism, where “they” accuse “us” of unpardonable crimes, a scape-goating narrative designed to unleash their violence, and we, attempting to overcome the primitive “us-them” dichotomy, say, “You’re right, we’re sorry, how can we atone for our crimes?” You were in the room when the question went out, “Does anyone have a reason to object to this union?” And you mumbled, “Well I’m not especially happy about it, but, no, I don’t object.”

So surely, Judith, you can understand if you can’t speak out against such terrifying behavior and beliefs, but do not hesitate to pour existential accusations against Israel, some people think you’re reckless, especially those who live with the violent behavior of the forces you identified as “socially progressive” (!) After all, in their experience, Hamas and Hezbollah (H&H) are two explicitly anti-Semitic groups by the most stringent definition; genocidal — “either we exterminate them or they will exterminate us” — delirious, and paranoid. And although you don’t give a hekhsher to H&H, you certainly let them off the hook.

Sadly, the only thing that H&H have in common with the global left today is their anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism, arguably some of the less noble manifestations of progressive thought in the 21st century. After all, for all their political military deeds, the USA and Israel represent two of the most fruitful hot-houses of progressive techniques and initiatives in every major area of the social and ecological fabric — local, national, and international — and their armies try to adhere to the most stringent moral standards. Unlike H&H, Israel and the US have cultures pervasively dedicated to a progressive ethos.

Whatever the reasons you could not speak out that day, in that moment of failure you were a comfort to your people’s merciless enemies, and as a Jew you betrayed them. Why did you do it? Ultimately only you can know.

Could some of it, however, have been that you felt somewhat intimidated (which is why your response had so many “uh”s)? After all, the atmosphere in later 2006 still reeked of the waves of riots that, starting with the vandalism throughout the French ZUS a year earlier, had given rise to a global wave of violence, and its threat, in response to the Muhammad Cartoons, half a year earlier. Maybe, like Yale University Press, you didn’t have the courage to speak out — in your case against this crazy alliance on the left.

And yet, five years later, you turned your moral ire on the gays in Berlin who wanted to recognize your contribution to their cause: “I must distance myself from complicity with racism, including anti-Muslim racism,” you said, slapping them in the face. Where was the accompanying desire to not be seen as complicit with Islamist racism, misogyny, homophobia? Or do they, as subaltern “resisters,” get a free pass? Sort of like “blacks can’t be racists.”

Whatever has led you to take measures that betrayed the very values and communities you claim to represent, the last thing you should do now is try and squeeze out of it by making distinctions (“merely descriptive,” not prescriptive, “they believe” they are anti-imperialist) that only make you look woefully ignorant, like a foolish child playing not with fire but with dynamite in an ammunition dump.

You say you appreciate the Jewish tradition and want to remain loyal to a certain kind of diasporic Judaism that does not need state violence to make itself heard — in favor of a true encounter with the “Other.” Well, one of those ancient Jewish values is called tohaha (rebuke). It is a positive commandment in the Bible (Lev. 19:17), directly related to “loving your neighbor as yourself.” The rabbinical fathers (ca. 200 CE) considered a lover to Torah to be a “lover of rebuke” (Pirke Avot 6:6).

It’s as hard to give tohaha well, constructively, as it is to take well; and both are extremely difficult. It means having the restraint to rebuke not in anger, to speak in a voice that can be heard, and to reciprocally listen even when it’s painful to our ego. Tohaha underlies the basic distinction between polite and civil: one is polite to avoid violence; one is in a civil society when one can give tohaha and there won’t be violence. Tohaha has been basic to Jewish religiosity no matter what the form it has taken over the last 3,500 years, from the beginning to its most advanced diasporic forms, and it has been a major aspect of Jewish abilities to survive and thrive in/despite diaspora.

Indeed, one might argue that the Enlightenment represents a secularization of that tohaha. (The paranoids of the “Protocols” thought that true, but not to make the world a more moral place, but rather to enslave it.) This current of (now philiosophical) thought was taken further in various academic and philosophical schools that waxed eloquent with the desire for a redemptive engagement with the “Other” in the later 20th century.

You know tohaha in English as “criticism.” It is at the core of your belief that you, especially as a Jew, must rebuke Israel in the most unsparing terms. You are a culture tohahist.

So let me try to give you some tohaha by giving you a report card on yours:

Judith Butler’s report card for her performance in effective tohaha

Your tohahah of the Jews is way overboard. You believe nonsense about the State of Israel, reported to you constantly by the people that you hang out with. Be honest: You don’t know the other side of this narrative in which you’ve taken decisive sides against your people. You have turned many off to your message by broadcasting it among the sworn enemies of your people. You have made the conflict far worse — not better.

Your tohahah of the Arab-Muslim world, to judge by your public record, is scandalously underdeveloped. Indeed, one might suspect a certain loss of courage. In your apologia, you insist far too much on “I do not, cannot, endorse Hamas and Hizbullah” and too little of “I denounce their violence against everyone who disagrees with their extremist goals, and I call on my fellow members of the global left to distance themselves from such right-wing, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynist forms of religious zealotry.

Your tohahah of the Left: is almost non-existent, and in desperate need of repair (tikkun), since your voice has enabled and encouraged the left’s worst instincts (totalitarian death-cult), even as you thought you were — and your supporters told you it was so — appealing to its best instincts (progressive voluntary relations). And since those instincts you fail to denounce include paranoid and anti-Semitic currents, you need to consider that you have made a grievous error here.

Your tohahah of yourself is strikingly deficient. Despite your self-advertising, there seems to be very little real personal (rather than philosophical, representative) self-awareness in your thought. You have systematically refused to listen to anyone who challenges your approach to the Middle East conflict; you have and continue to misrepresent and misunderstand your critics. This is not to say that in all areas you are not exquisitely self-critical; just not here, in one of the more important “real-world” events in which you participate.

And in so doing, in this case, you have not only endangered your own people, but everyone around the world who shares you highest values of tikkun olam as true social justice; or, as one of your defenders put it, “non-violence, human dignity, co-habitation and justice.” In a word, you have endangered the socially progressive global left.

Assignment to student with below D- in effective tikkun olam

Refuse the Adorno Prize, apologize to the Berlin Pride Civil Courage Prize, and make a public confession to the effect that you have misjudged the situation and misled people seriously. Maybe even give us some reflections on how we can raise the many problems manifest in current Islamic religiosity (e.g., Hamas and Hizbullah) constructively.

Alternatively, take the prize money, and spend it on coming to Israel for a year and speaking primarily with people who disagree with you. You’re very smart, you’ll actually learn a lot.

About the Author
Richard Allen Landes is an historian and author, specializing in millennialism. He currently serves as the Chairman of the Council Scholars of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME). He blogs at The Augean Stables on matters concerning media coverage of both the Middle East Conflict and global Jihad.