Last Saturday evening, the Jewish Museum in Berlin hosted a “debate” on a question that you could translate from German either as “Is Zionism part of Judaism?,” or, perhaps more sensibly, “Is Zionism part of Jewish identity/Jewishness?”
The answer of the museum’s guest of honor is well-known: the American academic Judith Butler – who, just a few days earlier, had received the Adorno Prize in Frankfurt in recognition of her work on gender, sexuality, critical theory and moral philosophy – has most recently published a book entitled “Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism.”
Butler is also a well-known supporter of the BDS-movement that targets Israel with campaigns calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions with the ultimate goal to delegitimize the Jewish state and pave the way for Israel’s dissolution in a bi-national “Isratine.”
As I have pointed out previously, Butler’s support for the BDS movement means in practice that her political statements can be found on a website frequently criticized for antisemitic content and that she would refuse to lecture at Tel Aviv University, but be perfectly happy to visit Birzeit University, which has a well-earned reputation for fostering extremism and glorifying terrorism. Indeed, in the acknowledgements for her recent book, Butler mentions Birzeit University as one of the places where she “learned from students and faculty.” Hopefully, these students didn’t include those that attended a festive event on the university campus to honour the terrorists released last year in exchange for Gilad Shalit.
While Butler thus helps to make the case that BDS really stands for “Bigoted Double Standards,” there is no question that “anti-Zionists” everywhere appreciate her academic celebrity status as the “reigning queen” of Queer Studies – which was only reinforced by the Adorno Prize – as a great asset.
There is also no question that the Jewish Museum in Berlin was fully aware of the problematic political implications of Butler’s views. Yet, the organizers of the event apparently preferred a “debate” that excluded questions to which Butler obviously has no good answers.
According to a report in the Jerusalem Post – which noted straightforwardly that this seems to have been “the first anti-Israel event held in the Jewish museum since its opening in 2001” – the organizers allowed only “written audience questions” and made clear that any questions on Butler’s widely criticized views about Hamas and Hezbollah would be ignored.
But judging from media reports about the event, the audience had anyway come to cheer Butler – as one German newspaper put it: “The audience was dominated by the typical ‘Butler-Groupies’: people with an academic education between 20 and 30.”
Butler’s debating partner, the liberal German Jewish professor Micha Brumlik, found apparently little favor with this audience, and his attempts to argue that Butler’s professed enthusiasm for a merely “cultural” Zionism were neither grounded in Jewish tradition nor realistic clearly made much less of an impression than Butler’s response that somebody had to stand up for utopian ideals. Indeed, several of the German language reports end by quoting Butler’s relevant remarks, and the Berliner Zeitung concludes by asserting that a utopian quality was after all an essential characteristic of philosophy.
If we “translate” what Butler is saying here (noting that her new book includes reflections on “Ethics, Politics, and the Task of Translation”), it turns out that she simply wants to have her cake and eat it, too. On the one hand, we are supposed to appreciate that it is the core business of a philosopher to come up with noble utopian ideals that are above mundane criticisms questioning how realistic they are; on the other hand, Butler clearly wants her political views to be taken serious and lends her prestige as a philosopher to one of the most controversial causes of our time.
The bottom line of Butler’s argument is that the most ethical resolution of the Arab conflict with Israel requires Jews to realize that Arabs and Muslims were right all along when they insisted that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state. Butler is obviously aware that with this view, she has a lot of really bad company, and she has taken to emphasizing her opposition to all forms of racism, including antisemitism.
In the controversy about her nomination for the Adorno Prize, she also tried hard to market herself as a fearless fighter against the popular straw-man argument that anyone who dares to criticize Israeli policies risks being denounced as an antisemite.
But the “debate” hosted by Berlin’s Jewish Museum illustrated once again that in a climate where it is regarded as legitimate to assert that it would only be ethical to do away with the Jewish state, antisemitism is never far away.
Reporting on the event for the Jüdische Allgemeine, Fabian Wolff notes that the debate moderator Andreas Öhler limited himself mostly to telling a few stories about his Jewish and Israeli friends. At one point Öhler mentioned how amazed he was to realize that despite Israel’s policies, there were so many nice Israelis who were interested in culture and music…
Sounds somehow familiar? Well, it should: whether Öhler was aware of it or not, the staff of Berlin’s Jewish Museum can certainly be expected to realize that this remark unmistakably echoed the popular stories about Nazi or SS officers as lovers of classical music, which have become part of movies like Schindler’s List and The Pianist.
Without this background, it is hard to explain why Öhler should have been so amazed to discover that there are many really nice Israelis who love culture and music.
It is noteworthy in this context that studies show that some “40% of Germans are critical of Israel in ways […] deemed anti-Semitic. The commission regarded anti-Israel critics as having crossed a line, for example, when they compared Israeli treatment of Palestinians with the Nazi extermination of Jews in death camps. Among the […] findings cited in the report: More than 41% of Germans believe Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians.”
In view of these findings, it is all the more dismaying that moderator Öhler reportedly opened the event with Judith Butler by declaring everyone’s resolve not to be frightened – meaning, presumably, not to be frightened of accusations of antisemitism in a “debate” intended to establish that Israel’s existence as a Jewish state violates crucial ethical norms. But in a country where some 40 percent of the population believes that, when it comes to the Palestinians, Israel’s Jews are the Nazis of our time, there is actually plenty of reason to be frightened when the Jewish Museum decides to give out the message that, done properly, it is intellectually and ethically noble to “criticize” Israel for the evil of existing as a Jewish state.
* * *