Over the course of the past two decades, Judith Butler has become one of the world’s most important intellectual figures, inspiring controversy, not with the flamboyant generalizations of European counterparts like Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, but with patient rhetorical analyses of both philosophical classics and contemporary political discourse.
Butler’s remarkable work, which ranges from exploration of the ways in which our bodily deeds are shaped by the words that define us – Gender Trouble, Excitable Speech – to reflections on the legal status of Guantanamo Bay and the prisoners confined there – Precarious Life, Frames of War – testifies to her ability to make whatever topic she chooses light up with fresh insights. But not everyone is willing or able to see what the philosopher’s painstakingly constructed sentences reveal.
Although Butler never drops names for the sake of making an argument seem more impressive and carefully grounds her claims in what English teachers call “textual evidence,” her clarity of purpose inspires baseless and bizarre allegations from those who feel threatened by her work. Frequently, it is the conservative intelligentsia that has her in its sights. But even thinkers who profess to be of a more liberal mind, like philosopher Martha Nussbaum, have accused her of promoting an ideological agenda inconsistent with traditional conceptions of scholarly inquiry. The sad irony in such attacks is that Butler has devoted much of her time in the post-9/11 era to defending intellectual freedom, a passion that dates back to her childhood experiences with rabbinical culture.
In this fascinating interview, Mark LeVine gets Butler to talk with unusual candor about both her upbringing and her current battle to articulate a position that for Jewish thinkers that evades the dangerous binary opposition between “Pro-Israel” and “Anti-Zionist” camps. Refusing to be intimidated by those who have sought to silence her with charges of playing into the hands of Anti-Semites, Butler makes it clear that fidelity to one’s heritage can also mean questioning its use as a weapon for controlling dissent.
This interview was first published in the Fall 2009 edition of Zeek, edited by Souciant‘s Joel Schalit. As the events of this last summer, in Gaza, surely attest, none of what is discussed in the following interview is the least bit dated. Look out for the second part of the conversation next week.
– Introduction by Charlie Bertsch
ML: Let’s start with something that we have both experienced as admittedly progressive Jewish professors. Why is that so many Jewish professors, who would never allow ideology to trump science or scholarship, are so willing to do so when it comes to the historical-political narratives they hold of the Israel-Palestinian conflict?
JB: Obviously there are very specific issues of academic freedom that have come up in relation to Palestinian politics in particular. Academics have had to become mobilized on these issues. If we hadn’t had, for instance, very controversial tenure reviews of Joseph Massad or Nadia Abu El Haj, we probably wouldn’t be as engaged as we are. I think that’s one issue.
The other issue has to do with how histories are told and how arguments are made. Many of us spend our lives figuring out whether histories are told for particular reasons, with certain kids of ommissions, and at what cost, and also what kinds of arguments are made to justify certain forms of political life, and whether they are actually legitimate.
I come from both of those perspectives, in the sense that I have a particular history which involves being formed within in a Zionist community, whose historical narrative I had to assess having broken with that community. But also I had to come to terms with my own personal history in terms of that rupture, and how it has shaped my politics.
At that same time I’m a philosopher. Originally I got into philosophy from Jewish philosophy. Many of my core values probably come out of that back- ground, including certain kinds of commitments to open, critical inquiry. I enter into these debates mainly at the level of argument, trying to figure out what makes people think certain things; why do people think that criticisms of Israel imply anti-Semitism, for instance; or why is it that arguments for Zionism sometimes claim that they are also democratic arguments when it seems they cannot possibly be. There are ultimately philosophical, as well as political and moral questions, which motivated me to become involved in these issues.
ML: You’re best known for your work on gender and identity. How, for those people not immediately familiar with your work, did you come to take an interest in the subjects of Israel? The theoretical relationship is definitely clear. You mentioned that you had an early interest in Jewish philosophy.
JB: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. The synagogue I went to turned out to be very influential, prior to my birth, in the founding of Israel and developing an American Zionist perspective on Israel. The founding rabbi at the temple was Abba Hillel Silver, who was very important in founding many American Zionist organizations.
His son was my rabbi. We studied a great deal together. We didn’t talk about contemporary politics at that time. I started studing philosophy with him at the age of 14 or 15. I was interested in Jewish philosophy. I was also interested in German idealism, and questions of fascism. But I did move to studying philosophy as a career by virtue of that formation. When I was also young, in high school, or earlier, I also was sent to Israel twice, to learn about what it was. I was of course given quite an education about how the Jews were victims of centuries-long persecution and had somehow triumphed over this persecution through the establishment of the state of Israel.
But even then, as a young person, I did see intense social stratification within what is called Israel. I asked about the Palestinians early on and most people refused to give me much of an answer. I did, however, meet some people who were leftists, and who were really reluctant Zionists, who were willing to talk to me. Later, in college, I met Jews who were anti-Zionists. That was a big struggle for me. But I did read a lot and I did come to my own break with Zionism. I also studied in Germany, so I became also pretty well-read in the history of Europe and European fascism.
So, in fact, my earliest work was not on gender, but rather on German philosophy. It’s kind of odd, because people think, “Oh, she did gender, now she’s doing Jewish.” But actually I come from Jewish, and I come from some of these issues maybe even more fundamentally than gender. Yet I would also say that it was easier for me to come out as a sexual radical than it was for me to come out as an anti-Zionist. But I am not sure whether I would say that the struggle to extricate myself from certain kinds of Zionist histories and arguments has been one of the most important struggles of my intellectual and political career.
ML: Reading in Haaretz about the attacks on Rahm Emanuel for being a self-hating Jew, which in some respects are extremely tactical since he is so clearly not (his father was a member of the extremist Zionist group Etzel), how does that impact where we are as scholars trying to educate the public
JB: I do think that’s true. I think there’s a part of Levinas that – although it’s worth pointing out that his own politics on Palestine were hideous – did clearly think that ethics didn’t have to do with recognizing some other as the same as oneself, but with acknowledging a kind of difference. In fact, we could say that that happens among Jews, it happens between Jews and non-Jews. You know, there are differences among Jews.
But it’s true that – like Arendt, who was accused of failing to love her people – Primo Levi, when he criticized the bombings in southern Lebanon, was accused of cold-bloodedness, or of not caring about the blood of Jews. There was all of this ‘blood’ talk, that came his way, and he found himself so profoundly criticized by some Israelis, who claimed that his criticism of Israeli state violence could only foster anti-Semitism, that he actually fell silent. And of course it didn’t help any that some of the criticisms of Israel did take anti-Semitic form, particularly in Italy, at which point he really did fall silent.
These accusations are ways of regulating speech and quelling criticism, they are forms of emotional terrorism, and they are obviously being circu- lated today in all kinds of obvious ways. For instance, at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival recently (Summer 2009) there was a showing of the film on Rachel Corrie, and one of the major Jewish foundations attacked Jewish Voice for Peace, which is a decent left organization of which I am a part, claiming that Jewish Voice for Peace was anti-Semitic. I said “Oh my God, you’ve got to be kidding!”
ML: It seems ludicrous that an organization with a name such as “Jewish Voice for Peace”, which is not anti-Zionist in any meaningful way – certainly no Neturei Karta – has this same old charge levelled at it, and that it still works. Maybe a little less effectively than in the past, but people in the organized community still use it, and still place stock in it. What role do you think the so-called Israel lobby, and its intellectual corollaries – think tanks and campus organizations – play in supporting such discourses? They seem to dominate the public sphere to such an extent that whatever “counterpublic” or “plebian” sphere may be out there struggles for visibility in the Jewish community and the US media more broadly. Even if there has been a shift in recent years, things are still very lopsided.
JB: I think we have to consider the form and effect of these attacks. For instance, the one you mentioned, the charge of being a self-hating Jew, that is an extremely painful charge. Anybody who is charged with that is exposed to something very very powerful, because historically the self-hating Jew is the one who either tries to pass, or who collaborates with the Nazis, or hands over their relatives to them, or internalizes Nazi hatred.
These are very available tropes, they are historically charged, they’re emotionally charged. What happens when they get circulated in a certain way is that panic takes hold and people cannot think. It’s also a way of stopping a conversation. In effect, if you say ‘because somebody holds a particular position they must be a self-hating Jew,’ they’re not a Zionist. You actually attack the person, you attack something unconscious and complicitous about the person, and you also implicitly associate that person with Nazi collaboration.
I think its the emotional impact of Nazi collaboration that continues to circulate in these debates, which actually undermines the very capacity for debate, or any kind of open consideration of what’s going on.
Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit and Andrew Rusk. Published under a Creative Commons License.