This week the City of Frankfurt chose to award American Jewish philosopher and Berkeley Professor Judith Butler with the 2012 Theodor Adorno Prize, an award that acknowledges superb contributions to philosophy, theatre, music and film. To her supporters she is a thought leader in political theory, moral philosophy and gender studies, and a stern critic of injustice. The latter includes some aspects of Israeli policy which has led to her opponents claiming that she is “anti-Semitic”. Sadly, it is this divide between truth and falsehood that has characterised much of this week’s debate about Judith Butler.
The Adorno award was established in 1977 and honours sociologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903 – 1969), a German Jewish philosopher who lived in New York during the Nazi period in Germany and taught at Frankfurt University for twenty years. He was a strong opponent of anti-Semitism and according to the Jerusalem Post he resisted left-wing German movements which sought to withdraw authority from Israel; this is one explanation for why many are outraged at the decision to give this award to Judith Butler. He wouldn’t have supported her views, some argue.
The full list of allegations made against her are detailed in a controversial article in the Jerusalem Post; she supports Hamas and Hezbollah, the article claims, and also the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, including a “sweeping” boycott of Israeli cultural and academic organisations. Through an email specifically for the Jerusalem Post Professor Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University, said of the boycott campaign that it is the “modern embodiment of anti-Semitism”.
But what did she really say? In a response in Mondoweiss, a news website which covers American foreign policy in the Middle East, Judith Butler made it very clear that she does not endorse prejudice based on nationality, nor would she support a version of BDS that encouraged this.
She explained that in reality she would not give a speech at an Israeli institution unless it was strongly anti the occupation (contrary to the “sweeping boycott of ties with Israel’s cultural and academic establishments” suggested by the Post) and that she continues to enjoy cooperative relationships with Israeli scholars. She does not endorse investments in companies that create equipment used by the military to destroy homes but instead supports aspects of the BDS movement because it is non-violent and strives to create equality for all.
In fact it is her support of non-violent movements that questions the second of the Post’s accusations, that she “has defended Hezbollah and Hamas as progressive organisations” and that she supports or backs them. “I do not endorse practices of violent resistance and neither do I endorse state violence, cannot, and never have,” she responded.
A central theme for Judith Butler is the idea of equal opportunity and justice and you can be any nationality to seek this. In fact there are people fighting for freedom all over the world, why is it just people who are against Israeli policy who are labelled as anti-Semitic? As she says in Mondoweiss: “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… it is a silencing tactic… my scholarly and public efforts have been directed toward getting out of this bind.”
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