In the Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Yitzhak Laor
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Yitzhak Laor

Today, the birthday of the sociologist Theodor Adorno, philosopher Judith Butler will be in Frankfurt to receive a prize named after him. The prize has been given every three years since 1977 to an outstanding intellectual or artist. Its winners include sociologists Norbert Elias and Zygmunt Bauman, philosophers Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, composers Gyorgy Ligeti and Pierre Boulez, and film directors Alexander Kluge and Jean-Luc Godard.

The prize committee noted, inter alia, that Butler's writings on questions of identity and the body are read worldwide, and that her thinking is leading us toward a new understanding of the categories of gender and subject, as well as of critical thinking.

Is it important to note that Butler is the first woman to receive the prize? Possibly. But it's more important to recall that the feminist Butler has always been careful not to cooperate with the hegemony by conceptualizing identity in terms of "men" and "women."

"The very subject of women is no longer understood in stable or abiding terms," she wrote. The social institution is not just the state, and not just the family; the very distinction between "men" and "women" is an establishment built on a preconception, and it, too, is liable to conceal various forms of oppression, such as class, ethnic or gender discrimination.

The prize has already caused a scandal. Butler is accused of "anti-Semitism" because she supports a (selective ) boycott of Israel. And because at one conference, after the Second Lebanon War, she responded affirmatively to a question asked by someone in the audience as to whether it's possible to include Hamas and Hezbollah in the "global left," this answer has also been added to the charges against her (of course, the people bandying it about aren't part of any "global left," but why not be insulted in its name in order to wring a little more guilt out of the German prize committee? ).

This witch hunt originates in a dangerous strand of American Jewry that has been assaulting freedom of expression even in American universities. An article in The Jerusalem Post by one such person opened with the idiotic sentence, "Judith Butler ... came to prominence as an anti-Israel agitator almost a decade ago."

One could retort to the writer that "People mention you from time to time by virtue of your assaults on great men and women such as Noam Chomsky or Butler." One could also reply by citing figures: In 1990, Butler's book "Gender Trouble" sold some 100,000 copies, becoming a worldwide best-seller despite not containing a single word about Palestine.

Nevertheless, the question of Palestine is indeed central to the intellectual criticism of the professor from Berkeley, as it is to others interested in the exclusion of certain populations. The way the Western discourse of rights is conducted is based on erasing those whose rights don't count. Take the debate over whether to upgrade the college in Ariel to a university. Have any of the participants in this debate even mentioned the tribulations of Palestinian students and lecturers at universities in the occupied territories?

Citing the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, Butler noted that "we increasingly live in a time in which populations without full citizenship exist within states; their ontological status as legal subjects is suspended."

It's no accident that this criticism has its origins in Hannah Arendt. Butler is coming to Frankfurt in Arendt's footsteps. As she wrote in another work, "Hannah Arendt was hardly brandishing weapons when she argued in the late 1940s and early 1950s against Israel as a state based on notions of Jewish sovereignty. She becomes now a resource for post-Zionism ... Arendt was perhaps in the 20th century the most avid secular Jewish critic of Zionism, and she was able to articulate reasons why she found the establishment of the state of Israel to be illegitimate without thereby calling for a war against that polity."

Is it important to note that Butler is Jewish? Yes, precisely because her criticism of the oppression of the other is drawn not just from her Jewish and Zionist home, but also from Jewish philosophy.

U.S. philosopher Judith Butler smiles before she received the Theodor W. Adorno award of the city of Frankfurt, central Germany, Sept. 11, 2012.Credit: AP