.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

The fundamental dishonesty of Judith Butler

Judith Butler, who has been in the news recently because of the controversy over her receiving the Adorno Prize, has also just released a book called "Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism." The blurb describes it in dense Butlerian prose:
Judith Butler follows Edward Said's late suggestion that through a consideration of Palestinian dispossession in relation to Jewish diasporic traditions a new ethos can be forged for a one-state solution. Butler engages Jewish philosophical positions to articulate a critique of political Zionism and its practices of illegitimate state violence, nationalism, and state-sponsored racism. At the same time, she moves beyond communitarian frameworks, including Jewish ones, that fail to arrive at a radical democratic notion of political cohabitation. Butler engages thinkers such as Edward Said, Emmanuel Levinas, Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi, Martin Buber, Walter Benjamin, and Mahmoud Darwish as she articulates a new political ethic. In her view, it is as important to dispute Israel's claim to represent the Jewish people as it is to show that a narrowly Jewish framework cannot suffice as a basis for an ultimate critique of Zionism. ...

Butler considers the rights of the dispossessed, the necessity of plural cohabitation, and the dangers of arbitrary state violence, showing how they can be extended to a critique of Zionism, even when that is not their explicit aim. She revisits and affirms Edward Said's late proposals for a one-state solution within the ethos of binationalism. Butler's startling suggestion: Jewish ethics not only demand a critique of Zionism, but must transcend its exclusive Jewishness in order to realize the ethical and political ideals of living together in radical democracy.
In her book she seems to be trying to use "Jewish ethics" to prove that Zionism is illegitimate. The blurb indicates that she falls short in her quest, so she must recruit Arab thinkers like Said and Darwish to round out her philosophical basis.

And yet she is telling the media that her critiques of Zionism are based on Jewish tradition. As she wrote in her response to the Adorno critics:
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 – they represent diasporic values, struggles for social justice, and the exceedingly important Jewish value of “repairing the world” (Tikkun).

...[I seek] 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, 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. 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. 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.
She is saying that her adamant rejection of Israel is solidly based on Jewish sources and the Jewish ethical tradition.

This is an absurd theory.

What Butler is really doing is trying to find a Jewish philosophical framework on which to hang her own hate. And she will twist facts, history, Jewish law, and anything else that gets in the way of her ultimately untenable beliefs.

The first indication that Butler is Jewishly ignorant comes from the quote above, where she talks about "the exceedingly important Jewish value of 'repairing the world' (Tikkun)." The modern concept of "Tikkun Olam" is a purely liberal invention; the words come from Jewish tradition but not how Butler understands it. The phrase is not mentioned once in the Tanach. Its Talmudic formulation has nothing to do with social justice. Perhaps its best definition comes from its most popular usage, in the thrice-daily Aleinu prayer, where it says:
We put our hope in You, the Lord our God, that we may see Your mighty splendor, to remove detestable idolatry from the earth, and false gods will be utterly cut off, to perfect the world through the Almighty's sovereignty; then all humanity will call upon Your name...
Is removing idolatry and seeking a world that accepts the God of Israel something Butler seeks? Of course not. Her concept of "Jewish values" has nothing to do with Judaism and everything to do with shoe-horning today's progressive politics into a Jewish-sounding mold.

Butler's concept of Judaism is not only naive. It is knowingly deceptive.

The first chapter of Butler's book opens with a bizarre theory about Moses that is emblematic of her dishonesty about Judaism:
It came as a surprise to me, and also a gift, to read one of Edward Said’s last books, Freud and the Non-European, not only because of the lively reengagement with the figure of Moses it contains, but because Moses becomes for him an opportunity to articulate two theses that are, in my view, worth considering. The first is that Moses, an Egyptian, is the founder of the Jewish people, which means that Judaism is not possible without this defining implication in what is Arab.’ Such a formulation challenges hegemonic Ashkenazi definitions of Jewishness. But it also implies a more diasporic origin for Judaism, which suggests that a fundamental status is accorded the condition by which theJew can not be defined without a relation to the non-Jew. It is not only that, in diaspora, Jews must and do live with non—Jews,and must reflect on how precisely to conduct a life in the midst of religious and cultural heterogeneity, but also that the Jew can never be fully separated from the question of how to live among those who are not Jewish. The figure of Moses, however, makes an even more emphatic point, namely, that, for some, Jew and Arab are not finally separable categories, since they are lived and embodied together in the life of the Arab Jew....One key foundational moment for Judaism, the one in which the law is delivered to the people, centers upon a figure for whom there is no lived distinction between Arab and Jew.
The first problem is that Butler (and, apparently, Said) don't even seem to be aware that ancient Egyptians were not Arab.

Beyond that, outside of Cecil B. DeMille, what evidence is there that in Jewish tradition Moses accepts himself as an Egyptian at all?

The answer is, of course, none.

Butler might regard actually looking at Biblical sources to be beneath her in her quest to find reasons for her hate, but I'm not quite so conceited. Here is the description of Moses' upbringing in Pharaoh's palace in Exodus:
And the daughter of Pharaoh ... saw the ark among the flags, and sent her handmaid to fetch it. And she opened it, and saw it, even the child; and behold a boy that wept. And she had compassion on him, and said: 'This is one of the Hebrews' children.' Then said his sister to Pharaoh's daughter: 'Shall I go and call thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?' And Pharaoh's daughter said to her: 'Go.' And the maiden went and called the child's mother. And Pharaoh's daughter said unto her: 'Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages.' And the woman took the child, and nursed it. And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said: 'Because I drew him out of the water.' And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand. ... Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian...
According to the Biblical story, Moses never once identified as an Egyptian. He nursed as a Jew and he identified as a Jew when he grew up. (Notably, his step-grandfather Pharaoh also didn't identify him as one of the family, seeking to kill him for murdering a regular Egyptian, rather than covering it up as he would have for his own relative!)

It is telling that Butler uses an Arab to interpret the story in a way that she can twist to fit her pre-existing bias. For Butler, the ideal Jew lives in the Diaspora, without a home; this is what she calls "diasporic values." Yet even the straight Biblical text contradicts her thesis; Moses was always a Jew who was forced to live outside his Land, the one unfulfilled wish of his life. Moses, as a Jew during the first Disapora, sought exactly what real Jews have sought in successive disaporas - to return to Israel, the land of their forefathers.

This is not only a theme of Moses' life, but also of other Biblical figures - there are lengthy narratives of Jacob and Joseph's lives outside Israel and how they tried to maintain their ties to the land, even to the point of making their descendants promise to bury them in Israel.

You would know none of this from reading Butler. She can't be bothered to base her ideals of Judaism in something as prosaic as the Bible, preferring instead Said and Hannah Arendt, (Similarly, Butler cannot be bothered to base her definition of gender on something as distasteful as biology.)

Butler is so conceited (her writing style is meant to show off her supposed brilliance at the expense of clarity) that she cannot be bothered with reality, preferring to reside in the ivory tower of her mind. She as much as admits this in her book:
It may be that binationalism is an impossibility, but that mere fact does not suffice as a reason to be against it.
There is one simple reason why binationalism is an impossibility - it is because the Jews would be slaughtered. But that isn't enough of a reason to be against it! 

Don't call her anti-semitic, though. The Jews would only be slaughtered in reality, which is a world Butler seems to find distasteful. In her mind, they would live together with Arabs in wonderful harmony. It's worth the risk, when you are Judith Butler.

Finally, it is notable that Butler's entire book about how Jewish ethics cannot abide war does not mention the actual Biblical conquerors of the Land of Israel once. I imagine that Butler would argue that King David, composer of the Psalms, does not adhere to Jewish values.

If one wants to argue a point on the basis of Jewish ethics or history or religion, then one must at least make an attempt to explain the many counterexamples that prove the opposite. Butler, however, relies on New-Agey concepts far removed from Judaism like "tikkun olam" instead of tackling real Jewish concepts, ethics and history. Again, reality is not her friend.

If the goal of a philosopher is to reveal the truth, then Butler is more like an anti-philosopher - someone who obscures the truth in order to force reality into her bizarre mindset, much of which is filled with irrational hate towards the only Jewish-majority state.

This is why she does not deserve awards or accolades, but rather derision.