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German Jews Protest Top Philosophy Award For (Jewish)"Self-Confessed Israel Hater"

Judith Butler
Judith Butler
Jan Küveler


FRANKFURT - Are Hamas and Hezbollah part of "the global left?" A few years ago, during the discussion following a lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, American philosopher Judith Butler claimed they were.

And now the remark is coming back to haunt her. The Central Council of Jews in Germany has strongly criticized the decision of Frankfurt’s Adorno Prize jury to award the 50,000 euro triennial prize to Butler – herself a Jew – because, they say, she is acting against Israel by supporting the BDS ("Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions") campaign and furthermore legitimizes the Hamas and Hezbollah terror organizations.

For its part, in grounding its choice, the jury called Butler – who made her name primarily from her writings on the body, gender roles and identity – "one of the definitive thinkers of our time."

The award ceremony is to take place on September 11 at St. Paul’s Church (formerly a church, now an events venue) in Frankfurt. The location is doubly symbolic: on the one hand, it is where the first German National Assembly met in May 1848; on the other, in recent years it has been the place where most of the debates in Germany about the nature of anti-Semitism have taken place.

Anti-Semitism is the fundamental issue behind the criticism surrounding Butler’s award. Last week, Stephan Kramer, the Central Council’s Secretary General, called Butler a "self-confessed Israel hater."

"Only a board of trustees lacking the necessary moral fortitude for its duties could separate Butler's contribution to philosophy from her moral depravity," he said.

Members of the Adorno Prize jury include writer Marlene Streeruwitz and philosopher Axel Honneth, who since 2001 has headed the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research where philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) was one of the thinkers of what was known as the Frankfurt School.

“How can hatred of Israel be prize-worthy?”

A few days after Stephan Kramer’s pronouncements, Dieter Graumann, President of the Central Council, stated that he could not comprehend how hatred of Israel could be prize-worthy, and that the Central Council and Frankfurt’s Jewish community would boycott the award ceremony.

In the meantime, Butler has reacted to the criticism by saying: “The accusations against me are that I support Hamas and Hezbollah (which is not true), that I support BDS (partially true), and that I am anti-Semitic (patently false).” She supports neither Hamas nor Hezbollah, she writes, and her remark about their being part of the global left was made in the context that “those political organizations define themselves as anti-imperialist, and anti-imperialism is one characteristic of the global left, so on that basis one could describe them as part of the global left.”

About her partial support for the BDS movement, started in 2005 by 170 Palestinian NGOs and on-going until such time as Israel (according to the campaign’s website) “complies with international law and Palestinian rights,” Butler writes: “One reason I can endorse BDS and not endorse Hamas and Hezbollah is that BDS is the largest non-violent civic political movement seeking to establish equality and the rights of self-determination for Palestinians.”

Butler continues: “Like so many others, I long for a truly democratic policy on those lands and I affirm the principles of self-determination and co-habitation for both peoples.”

Is it anti-Semitic to criticize Israel?

BDS critics claim that its real bone of contention is not political but the very existence of the Israeli state.

The crux of the anti-Semitism debate is summed up in Butler’s assertion that: “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 the same issue that came up a few years ago when Jewish publicist Alfred Grosser spoke at St. Paul’s about the 1938 Nazi pogroms against Jews. Then too the Central Council and Frankfurt’s Jewish community accused Grosser of delegitimizing the state of Israel through his criticism of its policies towards the Palestinians.

Then as now, it’s a conflict of two perspectives: that of the Central Council, who refuses any criticism of the state of Israel because it suspects that such criticism contains an inherent challenge of Israel’s right to exist, and the perspective held by Grosser and Butler which takes into account the suffering of the Palestinians. Surely trying to figure out how these two approaches can be reconciled is a more productive response than accusations of anti-Semitism or moral depravity?

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