Judith Butler. Criticism and anti-Semitism. Let's Start Talking to Each Other.
- Judith butler has been subject of a smear campaign orchestrated by the Israeli state. In Germany the Israeli embassy lobbied against this academic receiving the Adorno prize, and tried to get her "no platformed" at a Jewish institution.
Judith Butler. "Criticism and anti-Semitism. Let's Start Talking to Each Other." in: European Graduate School. August 31, 2012. (English).
Judith Butler. "Fangen wir an, miteinander zu sprechen." in: Frankfurter Rundschau. August 31, 2012. (German).
I am not altogether surprised that the General Secretary of the Jewish Council, Mr. Kramer, has objected to my point of view, but I cannot tell on the basis of his remarks whether he has actually sought to understand my point of view, or the range of views that I hold. His remarks are denunciations, and they are meant to signal a profound rejection of my perceived position. Given his authority in the German-Jewish community, the denunciation is also, I presume, meant to carry that authority and to speak in the name of the community.
A denunciation such as this does not actually give reasons for having a set of objections to my views. So I am not able to respond directly to those reasons. A debate or a disputation demands that we try to give reasons in the best way we know how, even when we are very angry. But this denunciation is, I believe, trying to say âthis is not a debateâ and âthis topic is not debatable.â One can disagree with me, even vehemently, and still engage in a debate. But I presume that the reason that no explicit reasons are offered for his point of view is that the force of the denunciation is meant to communicate: this topic is not debatable, and those who claim that it is are not to be regarded as legitimate interlocutors. I understand this attack against me not as a personal one, but as directed against anyone who articulates critical views on the state of Israel or its current policies. That form of criticism is considered outside the boundaries of debate. One way to establish a speaker and his or her views as âoutside the boundaries of reasonable debateâ is to denounce, demonize, and de-legitimate. So without an argument to which I might respond, I am left to analyze this particular kind of speech act and the political effects it seeks to establish.
That said, I understand very well why many Jews, especially German Jews, would react very negatively to explicit criticisms of the state of Israel. There is always the lurking question: does this person really have good grounds for stating a critical view, or is this person simply using the critique of Israel to express anti-Semitic views? Or the question can take this form: does the person âsingle outâ Israel for criticism for anti-Semitic reasons? If the critique of Israel is considered always to be a cloak or cover for anti-Semitism, then there can never be an open debate on any number of topics. The entire matter would be simpler to explain if we could say that the charge of anti-Semitism only works to censor debate in this way. That is not true. We actually need to be able to identify and oppose anti-Semitism, especially in relation to right-wing extremists and self-identified Nazis elected into European parliaments. The recent election of Nazi-identified candidates in Greece is appalling, and must be vigorously opposed by the international community. The actions of the National Party of Deutschland, including the recirculation of Nazi symbolism and discourse, within Germany, must be identified and opposed as anti-Semitism and as racism. The attack on Jewish schools in France or elsewhere must be opposed as anti-Semitism. And all forms of revisionist history that seek to deny or minimize the atrocities of the Nazi genocide must be vigorously and publicly opposed as anti-Semitism. For all these reasons, and more, we have to be very clear about where anti-Semitism exists, and we have to oppose it explicitly and without qualification wherever it exists.
I know that in Germany there are reasons to be suspicious that groups who oppose Israeli policy may well be anti-Semitic. If we understand Israel to be the sanctuary for Jews fleeing Europe during World War II and for refugees of the camps after World War II, then any opposition to Israel seems as if it is depriving the Jews of their sanctuary, which means that it is exposing the Jewish people once again to attack, if not destruction. This is a very powerful conviction, and it is one reason why the critique of Israel is sometimes equated with the potential destruction of the Jewish people, or an indifference or insensitivity to the Nazi genocide or to the present vulnerability to states like Iran who have made their own destructive aims clear.
We know that anti-Semitism can work in subterfuge fashion. I think that the anti-Deutschen, for instance, developed a strong critique of what is called âthe anti-imperialist Leftâ precisely on the grounds that the critique of Israel within the German context calls upon and reactivates nascent forms of anti-Semitism that continue to remain bound up with German nationalism. This kind of criticism is very important, since it seeks to expose the way in which anti-Semitism continues in a cloaked or covered way. I take it that the point of their critique is to show that the critique of Israel as imperialist fails to recognize the importance of Israel historically as a sanctuary for the Jews, and fails as well to see that continuing anti-Semitism continues to justify the need for that state in its present form and with its present policies. In this sense, German anti-imperialism failed to engage in a sufficient critique of German nationalism and its implicit and explicit forms of anti-Semitism. I would add to this: a critique is needed of German nationalism and Eurocentrism for its anti-Semitism and for its other forms of racism as well, especially those directed against immigrants from Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa.
So, yes, I do understand the criticisms against my perceived views, although they do not always take a reasoned form. One problem is that the presumption that âthe Jewish peopleâ and âthe State of Israelâ are the same (or that the latter is the sole legitimate political representation of the Jewsâ elides the history of Jewishness, including early forms of Zionism that were not state-centered, forms of Jewish internationalism that were anti-nationalist, and diasporic forms of Judaism that formed and sustained communities in multi-lingual and multi-cultural environments. My grandparents left Russia and Eastern Europe after a succession of pogroms and in the face of impending genocide, and I was, as a result, brought up in a diasporic Jewish environment where we opposed not only anti-Semitism, but all forms of racism. This was part of my upbringing, and it remains an integral part of my understanding of Jewishness. There are larger debates to be had about Jewish nationalism and the Jewish critique of nationalism, but these debates do not get easily heard or considered when we begin with the assumption that the Jewish people are a single nation with a single view, and that the State of Israel is its sole and legitimate representative. For Jews on the left who have their own critique of Jewish nationalism, and who worry that forms of racism may be built into that nationalism, it is important establish a critical perspective on a state whose nationalism has helped to make Israel less of a sanctuary than a battlefield.
I am not at all sure I am part of a âglobal left.â There are many dimensions of the âLeftâ that I do not agree with, and never have. I surely do not speak as its representative: I tend to be positioned somewhere along a liberal-left spectrum, affirming constitutional rights and parliamentary democracy. When I took a question from an audience member in 2009 who asked me whether Hamas and Hezbollah were part of the global left, I thought I was being asked to describe what I thought was the case. I made clear that even if they were part of the left, that was no reason to endorse them. Indeed, I would never endorse every group âon the leftâ. I am not such a committed leftist that I applaud or accept every left position. That would surely be extremely uncritical. Indeed, my answer was two-fold, namely, we can describe them as part of a global left, but that does not mean that we accept every group that can be described as part of the global left. I never endorsed them. No one asked me what form the global left should take â" I would have talked about the need for alliances that oppose induced precarity. I would have given a different answer, to be sure. On that occasion, when I had just spoken about my opposition to state violence and defended my own views on non-violent political resistance, it seemed unnecessary to say much more, since I had already established those views. But those views were not included in the citation that has been circulated so widely and that has come to stand as a distorted representation of my views.
But even if I describe such groups as part of a complex âglobal leftâ, am I thereby giving them âlegitimacyâ? My guess is that even the Israeli Defense Forces study these groups, tries to find out how to position them politically, in order to sustain their opposition to them. To study or seek to understand such a group can be undertaken by someone who endorses them, opposes them, or someone who is simply doing the academic work of trying to describe the political spectrum of political movements as they currently exist. My error, apparently, was to act as an academic of this kind, rather than to make a strong normative claim about their activities. Suffice it to say: I have never endorsed them.
Finally, I understand that in Germany the first and most important question about any critique of Israel is whether this is a new or subterfuge form of anti-Semitism. I suppose I am trying to introduce another set of issues into the debate. Why is it that so many Jewish groups have formed through Europe, Australia, the United States, that seeks to establish an âindependent voiceâ on Jewish politics, one that raises questions about the legitimacy of the occupation, the unequal rights of Palestinians within Israel, and even the history and politics of the dispossession of Palestinians in 1948. These groups include Independent Jewish Voices in UK, Jewish Voice for Peace in the US, which includes a Rabbinical Council and a youth activist group, âYoung, Jewish, and Proud.â To raise questions such as these is not to speak or act from âhatredâ of any kind. It is to speak and act rather from hope, from an ethical aspiration to achieve a political future for Israel/Palestine that would honor the most fundamental precepts of democracy: equality, justice, and freedom for all of its inhabitants, and for those who have been displaced from their homes. It will remain difficult to have this conversation as long as (a) any critique of Israel is presumed to be anti-Semitic and (b) as long as anti-Semitism continues to exist. One finds oneself in a twilight zone: even if the critique is legitimate, it may provoke or draw upon anti-Semitism, so should one remain silent? Or does one take the risk, and then dedicate oneself to opposing anti-Semitism when it emerges. The answer can only be that any legitimate critique of the State of Israel or its policies must give persuasive grounds for its claims and must oppose all forms of anti-Semitism and racism, including anti-Arab racism.
Finally, I think that it may be difficult for most Germans to grasp that nearly every Jewish dinner table erupts into argument about Israeli politics â" and this is as true in the US as it is in Israel itself. I have joked that one way you know you are at a Jewish dinner table is that there is no agreement on what the state of Israel is doing, and what it should do. Sometimes it is a quarrel about this or that policy; sometimes it is about the occupation; sometimes it is about its military attacks on Gaza or Lebanon; and sometimes it is about Zionism itself. When one imagines that one is âforâ or âagainstâ Israel, and that this is an immediate sign of whether one if âforâ or âagainstâ the Jews, then the actual and conflicting views of Jewish people on the topic of Israel is erased from view and ruled out of discussion. But what if the Jews, like any other people, turn out to have myriad and conflicting views, and that these conflicts have been part of Jewish life from the start? If some members of the German left think that a reflex defense of Israel is the only way to fight anti-Semitism, then they must refuse all alliance with the Jewish left - a paradoxical consequence, to be sure.
There are several hundred groups that are trying to formulate a complex and internally divided Jewish left, one that is unified only by its clear opposition to anti-Semitism and to forms of injustice perpetrated by the Israeli state in the name of the Jewish people. It is surely not self-hating to engage in such a project that seeks peace and equality for all inhabitants of that land; such a struggle emerges not from hate, but from a principle of hope. For me, it is a specifically Jewish struggle for social and political justice, one that can only succeed through an alliance with non-Jews, enacting the plural democracy for which it struggles. Perhaps one important lesson to learn from this most recent incident concerning my views is that the Jewish people are complex; they do not always agree with one another; that disputation is part of a valuable Talmudic heritage and traditions of political debate; and that open and reasoned debate is surely the best way to make this intra-Jewish quarrel productive. Despite the painful character of these most recent events, this last remains my hope as I come to Germany this time.