Judith Butler, Poster Girl for Moral Narcissism to be Honored by Germans with Adorno Prize

September 6, 2012

Below is a fisking of Judith Butler’s first response to criticism of her getting the Adorno Prize at Mondoweiss. I stopped after a while and went on to more expository forms of critiquing her work and her getting the prize. But there are important points here, that I think bear making in the controversy. The links to some of these comments are in the various pieces I’ve written so far.


August 27, 2012

Judith Butler has just been awarded the Adorno Prize. A number of organizations, many of them associated with defending Israel in the world arena, have objected, in particular on the basis of Butler’s role in the wave of exterminationist anti-Zionism and its accompanying anti-Semitism that has battered the global community with particular force since the dawn of the new century. Stung by the criticism, especially from a group to which I belong, the SPME, she responded on one of the most notorious Jewish anti-Zionist sites on the web, Mondoweiss.

Below,  a fisking.

Judith Butler responds to attack: ‘I affirm a Judaism that is not associated with state violence’

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)

This is clintonesque. What do you mean by “support”? (See below.)

that I support BDS (partially true), and that I am anti-Semitic (patently false).

Again, what do you mean by “anti-semitic”? (See below.) Patently false is actually the words of a dogmatist, not a self-critical person.

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.

Notice that once she’s made her dogmatic point, anyone who disagrees with her is scurrilously hurling unfounded charges at her.

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.

Okay. It’s a rather derivative genealogy. Neither of these figures, especially not Arendt, were particularly well versed in Jewish thought. Rather they were Jews involved in thinking (deep thoughts). That she traces her roots back to these figures does not really alleviate the charges leveled against her, just as the fact that the Nazi-seduced Heidigger really liked Hannah Arendt, presumably for more than her body, doesn’t vouch for the validity of her thought.

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.

I’m for that too.

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.

Agreed. Of course, there are all kinds of consequences for speaking out bravely (“truth to power” as the saying goes). What Butler’s critiques point out, is that she parades her courage in provoking the anger of her fellow Jews (especially those who defend Israel), but is craven before the far more iniquitous homophobia, misogyny, and anti-Semitism of Jihadi organizations like Hamas and Hixbullah.

I was taught at every step in my Jewish education that it is not acceptable to stay silent in the face of injustice.

Sooo, is that why you refused an award from a gay group on Berlin because you felt that in denouncing Islamist gay-bashing, they were unacceptably “Islamophobic?” Just how do you decide what deserves silence and what deserves denunciation?

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.

That’s good…

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.

I’d say you’re trying hard to make sure your readers don’t hear your critics.

I studied philosophy at Yale University and continued to consider the questions of Jewish ethics throughout my education. I remain grateful for those ethical resources, for the formation that I had, and that animates me still. It is untrue, absurd, and painful for anyone to argue that those who formulate a criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitic or, if Jewish, self-hating.

Note again, we were told above that her “detractors” do not hear her “actual position” (on which, see more below). But here, I can assure you, she has not heard her detractor’s “actual position.” I challenger Butler to show me one critic who holds “that those who formulate a criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic or, if Jewish, of self-hating.” On the contrary, the question is, what kind of criticism? If it involves essentializing excess, like “Israel behaves like the Nazis” or “Israel was born in unacceptable sin and should not exist,” if criticism involves encouraging and validating organizations steeped in Nazti-like anti-Semitic discourse, calling for genocide and the destruction of Israel, then something weird is going on. Anti-semitic? maybe, maybe anti-Judaic, Judeophobic, remorselessly hostile to Jews. If it’s just criticism of Israel, as in, for example, I think the settlements are an impediment to peace, one can legitimately disagree.

Is Butler being deliberately dishonest here? Or does she just not have the ability to hear criticism without short-circuiting and, placing her hands over her ears like Miracle Max, shout, “I’m not listening. I can’t hear you!”

Such charges seek to demonize the person who is articulating a critical point of view and so disqualify the viewpoint in advance.

Agreed. But since they’re not the charges, who is trying to disqualify which viewpoint in advance?

It is a silencing tactic: this person is unspeakable, and whatever they speak is to be dismissed in advance or twisted in such a way that it negates the validity of the act of speech.

Getting repetitious here. Again, how much of this is self-description, projected onto critics whose substantive critique she cannot/will not address?

The charge refuses to consider the view, debate its validity, consider its forms of evidence, and derive a sound conclusion on the basis of listening to reason.


The charge is not only an attack on persons who hold views that some find objectionable, but it is an attack on reasonable exchange, on the very possibility of listening and speaking in a context where one might actually consider what another has to say.


Actually, wait a minute. This is the work of a great mind? Where does this earnest, sophomoric, pre-post-modern rap come from? Judith, your critics are only too happy to discuss all these matters. You don’t want them to be heard.

When one set of Jews labels another set of Jews “anti-Semitic”, they are trying to monopolize the right to speak in the name of the Jews. So the allegation of anti-Semitism is actually a cover for an intra-Jewish quarrel.

Okay. If you want to play it that way, we need to get some vocabulary straight. Do you agree that there is such a thing as anti-Semitism and that there are anti-Semites? And if so, how do your define them? And what do we call people who encourage them and, while toning down the viruleance of their rhetoric, appropriate, reformulate, and recirculate their discourse? And, if they’re Jews, what should we call them?

And again, the formulation is dishonest. Jews who try and draw a line beyond which criticism becomes hatred (of fellow Jews/Israelis) – I’ll be in that group – don’t claim to monop0lize the right to speak in the name of Jews. Most self-respecting Jews have enormous tolerance for dissidence, difference. No Jew I know would claim a monopoly on “speaking for the Jews.” In your formulation, your detractors want to shut everyone up but themselves, whereas your detractors just want to draw a line between decent, honest, well intentioned criticism, and indecent, dishonest, malevolent criticism. No self-respecting consciousness, individual or collective, can or should be expected not to draw such a line.

In the United States, I have been alarmed by the number of Jews who, dismayed by Israeli politics, including the occupation, the practices of indefinite detention, the bombing of civilian populations in Gaza, seek to disavow their Jewishness. They make the mistake of thinking that the State of Israel represents Jewishness for our times, and that if one identifies as a Jew, one supports Israel and its actions.

Maybe they also make the mistake of embracing their enemy’s narratives (which include both lethal narratives about Israel, many dishonest, and insistence on their own innocence.

And yet, there have always been Jewish traditions that oppose state violence,

Really? What are you thinking of here? Are you perhaps mistaking Jews for (radical and very rare) Christians?

that affirm multi-cultural co-habitation, and defend principles of equality, and this vital ethical tradition is forgotten or sidelined when any of us accept Israel as the basis of Jewish identification or values.

There are indeed such traditions. They have not been forgotten, nor sidelined. They don’t apply in situations where you are dealing with an enemy, especially one inspired by genocidal hate. The idea that you should apply your most vulnerable and generous traditions in relations with enemies is either the height of diasporic self-abasement (Lamentations, 3:3), or Christian apocalyptic perfectionism (Matthew 5:39). But such a notion applied to the state is nothing short of suicidal.

So, on the one hand, Jews who are critical of Israel think perhaps they cannot be Jewish anymore of [if?] Israel represents Jewishness; and on the other hand, those who seek to vanquish anyone who criticizes Israel equate Jewishness with Israel as well, leading to the conclusion that the critic must be anti-Semitic or, if Jewish, self-hating.

Tone deaf? Not listening?

My scholarly and public efforts have been directed toward getting out of this bind.

What does it say about a scholar that their scholarly and public efforts have been directed to getting out of a bind that is itself a false construct based on a tone deaf formulation of a dilemma that systematically misrepresents the problem? False consciousness?

In my view, there are strong Jewish traditions, even early Zionist traditions, that value co-habitation and that offer ways to oppose violence of all kinds, including state violence.


It is most important that these traditions be valued and animated for our time

Our time, as in the time when global Islamism has hit a high note of genocidal anti-semitism, led by the Palestinian brand?

– they represent diasporic values, struggles for social justice, and the exceedingly important Jewish value of “repairing the world” (Tikkun).

Oh good grief. Diasporic? Is this Butler’s fantasy of what diaspora is about? Her as a world-wide icon of courage? What about the diaspora of massacres and daily humiliation? How narcissistic can one get. And tikkun olam?

It is clear to me that the passions that run so high on these issues are those that make speaking and hearing very difficult. A few words are taken out of context, their meaning distorted, and they then come to label or, indeed, brand an individual. This happens to many people when they offer a critical view of Israel – they are branded as anti-Semites or even as Nazi collaborators; these forms of accusation are meant to establish the most enduring and toxic forms of stigmatization and demonization.

As so often with repetition (now about six iterations with no substance added), one gets the distinct sense that a false formulation lies behind the noise. Indeed, “a critical view of Israel” is her formulation for a demonizing view of Israel. Butler is far more sensitive to others’ misstating her position.

They target the person by taking the words out of context, inverting their meanings and having them stand for the person; indeed, they nullify the views of that person without regard to the content of those views.

Wow. Let me offer a working hypothesis here. These are the tropes with which the “progressive left” (see below) wrap themselves in the blanket of victimhood. So repetition of these memes over and over again serves a purpose, namely to arouse the proper sympathy. Little does it matter that this describes precisely what Butler is doing to her opponents.

For those of us who are descendants of European Jews who were destroyed in the Nazi genocide (my grandmother’s family was destroyed in a small village south of Budapest), it is the most painful insult and injury to be called complicitous with the hatred of Jews or to be called self-hating.

More victim posturing. Apparently it’s more painful to be accused of complicity than to be complicit. And I say this, not because she is complicit (I think she is), but because she won’t even consider that possibility. If complicity were indeed an awful thing to do, one might expect her to consider the criticisms leveled against her rather than flatten them into two-dimensional caricatures she can then wave away as “oh you people, any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism for you.”

And it is all the more difficult to endure the pain of such an allegation when one seeks to affirm what is most valuable in Judaism for thinking about contemporary ethics, including the ethical relation to those who are dispossessed of land and rights of self-determination,

So that’s what you think the Palestinians want? So not only don’t you listen to your critics, but you don’t listen to those who hate your people. They are innocent victims of your own people’s inability to live up to [what in your opinion are] their highest values.

to those who seek to keep the memory of their oppression alive, to those who seek to live a life that will be, and must be, worthy of being grieved.

Wow. I won’t even begin to psycho-analyze that last remark… just note that if your behavior has its desired outcome – the dismantling of the State of Israel – then the only people who will grieve your passing will be the anti-Semites you empower.

I contend that these values all derive from important Jewish sources, which is not to say that they are only derived from those sources. But for me, given the history from which I emerge, it is most important as a Jew to speak out against injustice and to struggle against all forms of racism.

So what have you said against the vicious – delirious – racism of the Palestinians and other Muslims?

This does not make me into a self-hating Jew. It makes me into someone who wishes to affirm a Judaism that is not identified with state violence, and that is identified with a broad-based struggle for social justice.

What is the border between high moral values and moral narcissism? (See below.)

My remarks on Hamas and Hezbollah have been taken out of context and badly distort my established and continuing views.

Note the “badly distorted.” Now we finally get past all the throat-clearing and posturing, and into some textual substance. Butler’s on record.

I have always been in favor of non-violent political action, and this principle has consistently characterized my views.

Presumably, for consistency’s sake, this means distancing oneself from organizations and movements that explicitly embrace violence as an essential element of their identity.

What follows is Butler’s attempt, now that she’s in the public spotlight, and not sitting with radical colleagues speaking to an audience of students and colleagues who consider themselves the revolutionary vanguard. It’s a little like watching a kid caught with his hand in the cookie-jar.

I was asked by a member of an academic audience a few years ago whether I thought Hamas and Hezbollah belonged to “the global left” and I replied with two points. My first point was merely descriptive: those political organizations 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.

Elsewhere Butler is less circumspect: it’s not that Hamas and Hizbullah define themselves as anti-imperialist, they are anti-imperialist:


Even as a defensive statement, this is pretty amazing. They don’t define themselves as “anti-imperialist.” On the contrary they are among the most virulently imperialist ideologies on the planet, openly embracing a goal of global dominance for Islam.

This Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement (HAMAS), clarifies its picture, reveals its identity, outlines its stand, explains its aims, speaks about its hopes, and calls for its support, adoption and joining its ranks. Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious. It needs all sincere efforts. It is a step that inevitably should be followed by other steps. The Movement is but one squadron that should be supported by more and more squadrons from this vast Arab and Islamic world, until the enemy is vanquished and Allah’s victory is realised.

Apparently, Butler thinks Hamas’ “enemy” is only her enemy, namely a violent state of Israel, and an imperialist US. She doesn’t seem to understand that all independent infidels and infidel states are the target. Here’s a fundamental category error: anti-Western imperialism does not mean anti-imperialism. It can, and in this (and how many other cases) can be a competitive imperialism. Here’s Butler at her deafest prime: I don’t hear what you say, I hear what I want to hear. You are against Western imperialism, like me! Then you’re anti-imperialist like me.” This liberal cognitive egocentrism comes from someone utterly uninterested in the “other” as anything other than a pawn in an internal struggle for moral redemption.

Okay, let’s get the precise quote.

Understanding Hamas/Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important. That does not stop us from being critical of certain dimensions of both movements. It doesn’t stop those of us who are interested in non-violent politics from raising the question of whether there are other options besides violence.

Elsewhere, Butler is less circumspect. It’s not that

My second point was then critical: as with any group on the left, one has to decide whether one is for that group or against that group, and one needs to critically evaluate their stand. I do not accept or endorse all groups on the global left. Indeed, these very remarks followed a talk that I gave that evening which emphasized the importance of public mourning and the political practices of non-violence, a principle that I elaborate and defend in three of my recent books: Precarious LifeFrames of War, and Parting Ways. I have been interviewed on my non-violent views by Guernica and other on-line journals, and those views are easy to find, if one wanted to know where I stand on such issues. I am in fact sometimes mocked by members of the left who support forms of violent resistance who think I fail to understand those practices. It is true: 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.

Two further points. 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. Like so many others, I long for a truly democratic polity on those lands and I affirm the principles of self-determination and co-habitation for both peoples, indeed, for all peoples. And my wish, as is the wish of an increasing number of Jews and non-Jews, is that the occupation come to an end, that violence of all kinds cease, and that the substantial political rights of all people in that land be secured through a new political structure.

Two last notes: The group that is sponsoring this call is the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East , a misnomer at best, that claims on its website that “Islam” is an “inherently anti-semetic (sic) religion.” It is not, as The Jerusalem Post has reported, a large group of Jewish scholars in Germany, but an international organization with a base in Australia and California. They are a right-wing organization and so part of an intra-Jewish war. Ex-board member Gerald Steinberg is known for attacking human rights organizations in Israel as well as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Their willingness to include Israeli infractions of human rights apparently makes them also eligible for the label, “anti-Semitic.”

Finally, I am not an instrument of any “NGO”: I am on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, a member of Kehillah Synagogue in Oakland, California, and an executive member of Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace in the US and The Jenin Theatre in Palestine. My political views have ranged over a large number of topics, and have not been restricted to the Middle East or the State of Israel. Indeed, I have written about violence and injustice in other parts of the world, focusing mainly in wars waged by the United States. I have also written on violence against transgendered people in Turkey, psychiatric violence, torture in Guantanamo, and about police violence against peaceful protestors in the U.S, to name a few. I have also written against anti-Semitism in Germany and against racial discrimination in the United States.

4 Responses to Judith Butler, Poster Girl for Moral Narcissism to be Honored by Germans with Adorno Prize

  1. harris says:

    “‘I affirm a Judaism that is not associated with state violence’”

    That is the most crucial point. Nation states do apply force and are violent in certain cases to enforce law or to fight their enemies. It’s in their nature. As every anti-semite she is singling out Israel, the jewish state for being, what every other nation state is: Violent in certain cases.

  2. Cynic says:

    My scholarly and public efforts have been directed toward getting out of this bind.

    In other words I apply the “collective guilt” to all Jews for the actions of some exactly like the anti-semite does.

  3. Cynic says:

    Would Butler care to comment on the following article?
    “Pro-Palestinians” don’t seem to be “pro-anyone”

    This is the crux of the Palestinian support worldwide – it simply doesn’t care about Palestinians. These people are in it to bash Israel, pure and simple, and their “love” of Palestinians is merely the hammer they use to do the bashing with.

    They use incendiary words like “apartheid Israel”; they accuse Israel of “buzzword” crimes that do not occur here, but that are common (and ignored) across the Arab world; and they proudly espouse a “one state solution” theory knowing full well that it would spell the end of Israel.


    We see the bizarre spectacle of liberal feminists supporting Hamas, who stand against everything a liberal of any nature believes in, except dislike of Israel; we see even gay rights movements joining the anti-Israel brigade, standing with countries and societies that imprison homosexuals or worse, against Israel, the only Middle Eastern country where gay rights are an accepted part of the legal and cultural system. It beggars belief.


    Instead of boycotting Jewish business worldwide, why is there no incentive to encourage Jews in the so called “West Bank” to employee more Palestinians, perhaps even grants to make them business partners?

  4. Harvey says:

    If you are still around . You just hit nail on head with that last comment .
    What’s to stop the Palestinians declaring their nation state encompassing the settlements .
    Settlers have duel nationality but their taxes go to the nascent state whether they are working back across the Green Line or in Palestine . Arab Israelis in Israel will be joined by Jewish Palestinians in Palestine .
    A few generations down the line with the cooperation working seamlessly and without the violence and hatred , Palestine / Israel becomes an economic powerhouse of Hi Tec , tourism , agriculture , etc .
    It doesn’t take much . Just a little imagination and a lot of willingness . Oh and the end to Arab determination to wipe Israel off the map
    The irony is that Israel is labeled apartheid while Abbas demands a Jew free future state of Palestine .
    Nothing new there . The rest of the Arab Middle East has already achieved that and close to achieving it with the Christian minorities .

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