Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Judith Butler and 9/11 and How We Grieve

It is paradoxical that on 9/11, when we grieve for the victims of an atrocious act of terrorism, Judith Butler, who has written about the paradoxes of grieving for 9/11 victims, is receiving the prestigious Adorno Prize conferring a moral stamp of approval for her philosophical output. There have been some excellent disputations against the bestowal of this prize upon her and I provide links to them at the end. But what I wanted to get at with this post is Butler's very insufficient theory of how we grieve.

On the face of it her descriptionfrom a 2010 interview in Haaretz, of who grieved for whom after 9/11 isn't all that controversial:

"After 9/11, I was shocked by the fact that there was public mourning for many of the people who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center, less public mourning for those who died in the attack on the Pentagon, no public mourning for the illegal workers of the WTC, and, for a very long time, no public acknowledgment of the gay and lesbian families and relationships that had been destroyed by the loss of one of the partners in the bombings. Then we went to war very quickly...At which point we started killing populations abroad with no clear rationale. And the populations we targeted for violence were ones that never appeared to us in pictures. We never got little obituaries for them. We never heard anything about what lives had been destroyed. And we still don't."

True enough, although I would argue with the hierarchy she draws of how the 9/11 victims were mourned. Suffice it say, Americans mourned their own, and the Western world followed

However, her indictment is strictly one sided. While she sets as her target for outrage the US and the West she remains willfully blind to the very same hierarchies of grieving that take place on the other’s side of the world. We mourn those closest to us first. And we tend not to mourn our enemies. Plus she ignores the many conspiracy theories, particularly the Antisemitic ones, that emerged from the Middle East to 'explain' what happened on 9/11.

For Butler, the West is always the agent of harm. It and the 'other' have static positions that cannot be exchanged. Because the of West's global hegemony – and by extension Israel’s in the ME – the 'other' is always the innocent party regardless of how destructive its behavior may be. She states that the globe is divided, "into grievable and ungrievable lives from the perspective of those who wage war," but the mirror is never turned towards Muslims bombing mosques where other Muslims are praying, or markets in which they congregate. As far as I know she has neither said nor written anything on the thousands of Syrian lives that were murdered but not mourned by Assad's regime.

And she has turned a blind eye to the joyous reception that greeted the 9/11 tragedy in the Palestinian territories. 

In fact, she is absolutely incapable of mourning the lives of Israelis lost during the Gaza War nor is she willing to admit to the Hamas tactic of putting Gaza's civilians in harm’s way. 

Her theory of grieving has turned into an important lynchpin of her anti-Zionist discourse. Reading further into the exchange between Butler and filmmaker Udi Aloni, it is clear that just as she accuses Americans for mourning only her 9/11 victims, Israel is guilty of dehumanizing Palestinians such that they are ungrievable. The mendacity is entirely on the Israeli side with not one word of disapproval of Palestinians' dehumanization of their Israeli, usually civilian, targets.

“Aloni:  It's interesting because when the war on Gaza started, I couldn't stay in Tel Aviv anymore. I visited the Galilee a lot. And suddenly I realized that many of the Palestinians who died in Gaza have families there, relatives who are citizens of Israel. What people didn't know is that there was a massed grief in Israel. Grief for families who died in Gaza, a grief within Israel, of citizens of Israel. And nobody in the country spoke about it, about the grief within Israel. It was shocking.

“Butler:  The Israeli government and the media started to say that everyone who was killed or injured in Gaza was a member of Hamas; or that they were all being used as part of the war effort; that even the children were instruments of the war effort; that the Palestinians put them out there, in the targets, to show that Israelis would kill children, and this was actually part of a war effort. At this point, every single living being who is Palestinian becomes a war instrument. They are all, in their being, or by virtue of being Palestinian, declaring war on Israel or seeking the destruction of the Israel.
"...The bodies themselves are artillery. And of course, the extreme instance of that is the suicide bomber, who has become unpopular in recent years. That is the instance in which a body becomes artillery, or becomes part of a violent act. If that figure gets extended to the entire Palestinian population, then there is no living human population anymore, and no one who is killed there can be grieved...They have been transformed, in the Israeli war imaginary, into pure war instruments.But not vice-versa, of course. 
Butler has a particular discomfort with the idea of Jews looking after and grieving their own. It seems to have started when she was growing up middle class and gay within what she describes as a comformist Jewish community. Later this got conflated with her criticism of heterosexist conformity on top of which she added a layer of post-colonialist theory. It's a kind of a radical 'personal is political.' This is how she explains her evolving philosophy

“I grew very skeptical of a certain kind of Jewish separatism in my youth. I mean, I saw the Jewish community was always with each other; they didn’t trust anybody outside. You’d bring someone home, and the first question was “Are they Jewish, are they not Jewish?” Then I entered into a lesbian community in college—late college, graduate school—and the first thing they asked was, “Are you a feminist, are you not a feminist?” “Are you a lesbian, are you not a lesbian?” and I thought, “Enough with the separatism!”

“It felt like the same kind of policing of the community. You only trust those who are absolutely like yourself, those who have signed a pledge of allegiance to this particular identity...Is that person lesbian? I think maybe they had a relationship with a man. What does that say about how true their identity was? I thought, I can’t live in a world in which identity is being policed in this way.”

“I then moved toward a different kind of theory, asking under what conditions certain lives are grievable and certain lives not grievable or ungrievable. It’s clear to me that in Israel-Palestine, and in the violent conflicts that have taken place over the years, there is differential grieving...The question of grievability has linked my work on queer politics—especially the AIDS crisis—with my more contemporary work on war and violence, including the work on Israel-Palestine.”

Butler's solipsism extends to a misreading of Hillel's famous teaching, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" (Hillel, Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14) Clearly, she privileges the fulfillment of looking beyond ourselves to the 'other', while finding "If I am not for myself," loathsome. Hence, for her, the whole Zionist enterprise is irredeemable because it is based on Jewish solidarity.

From Parting Ways, Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, her latest book we get: "If Jews only mourn the loss of Jews in the conflicts of the Middle East, then they affirm that only those who belong to one's own religion or nation are worthy of grief...One hears, time and and again in Israeli public discourse, that a single Israeli life is worth more than countless Palestinian lives. Yet only when such obscene calculations definitively fail, and all populations are deemed grievable, will the principle of social and political equality start to govern."

So, the movement towards guaranteeing full equality in a binational Palestine-of-the-imagination must start with Jews abandoning the injunction to look after themselves and, as we shall see, de-Judaize their ethical tradition.

They must de-privilege their concerns for the safety of their own: "One claim is that a state was needed on those lands or that rights must be secured in other lands for refugees from the Nazi camps; another claim is that a state was needed on those lands where Jews might be safe (which is still not necessarily a politically Zionist argument, however it is a view that prizes the safety of Jews over all other possible refugees.)..."

Then: "...some aspects of Jewish ethics require us to depart from a concern only with vulnerability and fate of the Jewish people."

Then: "...the relation with non-Jew is at the core of Jewish ethics, which means that it is not possible to be Jewish without the non-Jew and that, to be ethical, one must depart from Jewishness as an exclusive frame of ethics."

And finally to: "If the principles of equality and justice that drive the movement against political Zionism were elusively derived from such (Jewish) sources, they would immediately prove to be insufficient, even contradictory. Indeed, even the critique of Zionism, if exclusively Jewish, extends Jewish hegemony for thinking about the region and becomes, in spite of itself, part of what we might call the Zionist effect. Surely any effort that extends Jewish hegemony in the region is part of the Zionist effect, whether or not it understands itself as Zionist or anti-Zionist. Is there a way around this conundrum if one still wants to contest the Israeli claim to represent Jews and Jewishness and to sever the connection so many now make between the State of Israel and the Jewish people and, indeed, Jewish values?" No, honey, there isn't.

How paradoxical that she who claims as her moral underpinning the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam should preach a kind of ethical deracination so that Jews may live in harmony with their neighbors. And again, not a word about the 'other's responsibility to accept a Jewish presence in its midst.

Some of the better and more comprehensive analyses that have come out in response to Butler's Adorno Prize include those by Petra Marquardt-BigmanRichard Landesand 
A. Jay Adler. You should read them.


  1. How completely crazy is she to quantify public mourning over the murder of over 3,000 innocent human beings of all persuasions?
    Her point is that the largest public outpouring of sympathy was directed at NY (you know, where the Jews live) and that focus eclipsed all other public support for those she feels a personal affinity towards and therefore privileges over the other victims. Incredibly, she has completely forgotten and fails to even mention the very public mourning for those who heroically took down United Airlines flight 93 over Shanksville PA so that it did not crash into a civilian population.

    Her hierarchy of loss is too tightly woven and dyed with outright hatred of Jews, Jewishness, Israel and Zionism for her to be able to articulate a rational account of the most horrendous and irrational act of hatred ever perpetrated against the West. So, in effect, she suffers from her own "Jew hater" effect rendering her discourse (whether she understands it or not) completely useless, null and bigoted.

    Shana tova, BC.

  2. I also remember quite a lot of discussion of the undocumented workers who were killed at the World Trade Center, as well as other immigrants who died there (some of the workers at Windows on the World, as I recall). And the New York Times series "Portraits of Grief" included everyone who was known to have died in the 9/11 attacks. I think she's letting her ideology overwhelm the complex reality of the reactions to the attacks.

    Good critique of her loathsome lack of compassion with Jews. The quotes you've given from her work really feel antisemitic to me.

  3. George W. Bush's speech to the UN on 10th November 2001 included the following statement:

    'A few miles from here, many thousands still lie in a tomb of
    rubble. Tomorrow, the Secretary General, the President of the
    General Assembly, and I will visit that site, where the names of
    every nation and region that lost citizens will be read aloud. If we
    were to read the names of every person who died, it would take
    more than three hours.

    Those names include a citizen of Gambia, whose wife spent their
    fourth wedding anniversary, September the 12th, searching in vain
    for her husband. Those names include a man who supported his
    wife in Mexico, sending home money every week. Those names
    include a young Pakistani who prayed toward Mecca fi ve times a
    day, and died that day trying to save others.

    The suffering of September the 11th was inflicted on people
    of many faiths and many nations. All of the victims, including
    Muslims, were killed with equal indifference and equal satisfaction
    by the terrorist leaders'.

    Butler is a liar.

  4. Even the first paragraph shows a complete lack of intellectual ability and morality. No one picked out a certain group after 911 and said we mourn them. We mourned everyone. She seems to have conjured up this fantasy in her own deluded mind that certain groups were not mourned.

    "less public mourning for those who died in the attack on the Pentagon"

    So is she arguing that the American people do not care enough about the Military?


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