Judith Butler has been awarded the highly prestigious tri-annual Theodor W. Adorno-Preis in Frankfurt – former winners have included Jürgen Habermas, Pierre Boulez, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Derrida, György Ligeti and Alexander Kluge. Butler is a partial supporter of the Boycott, Disvestment, Sanctions Campaign called for by Palestinian groups against Israel (which I personally support), as well as having made some statements locating Hamas and Hezbollah as part of the global left (without endorsing their violent actions). This has led to furious responses from Frankfurt’s Jewish community and a scathing piece in the Jerusalem Post . Whilst it is impossible to be sure of what the view would have been now from Adorno about the Israel-Palestine situation, his responses to events in the region during his lifetime can give some clue. In 1956, following the Anglo-French-Israeli military attack on Egypt as a result of Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, the United Nations, with much pressure from the US and USSR, condemned the invasion and brokered a ceasefire. The UN response was condemned in Der Spiegel, and Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote the following letter to the writer Julius Ebbinghaus soon afterwards:
‘The fact that people have discovered humanity when faced by a fascist chieftain like Nasser who conspires with Moscow; that, as in Hitler’s time, they show greater concern about breaking treaties than about the treaties themselves and their sanctity; and that no one even ventures to point out that these Arab robber states have been on the lookout for years for an opportunity to fall upon Israel and to slaughter the Jews who have found refuge there – all this is a symptom of public consciousness that has to be taken very seriously indeed. The hypocrisy . . . in almost every camp is proof of a confusion of thought that bodes ill for the future.’ (Max Horkheimer, Briefwechsel 1949-1973, Gesammelte Schriften 18, edited Alfred Schmidt and Gunzelin Schmid Noerr (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1996), p. 377, cited in Stefan Müller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography, translated Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005), p. 413)
The rhetoric and view of the Arabs is uncannily similar to that of right-wing defenders of any of Israel’s actions today. Furthermore, following the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria in June 1967, Adorno conflated the fatal shooting of student Benno Ohnesorg in Berlin, when protesting a visit of the Shah of Iran, and the war in the Middle East at the beginning of one of his lectures, saying:
‘It is impossible for me to begin my lecture today without saying a word about the situation in Berlin, no matter how much it is overshadowed by the terrible threat to Israel, the home of so many Jews who fled the terror.’ (Cited in Wolfgang Kraushaar (ed), Frankfurter Schule und Studentebewegung: von der Haschenpost zum Molotwocoktail 1946-1995, vol. 2 (Frankfurt: Rogner & Bernhard bei Zweitausendeins, 1998), p. 324, cited in Espen Hammer, Adorno and the Political (London & New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 20).
Much historical scholarship since has shown that the Six-Day War was an imperialist war of expansion carefully contrived by Israel to appear as if consisting of an unprovoked attack upon them.
So it is unlikely Adorno would have approved of BDS, nor of many later critiques of Israel; his post-war work shows something of a move away from the internationalism of his earlier work towards an ontological view of anti-semitism and an a priori view of Jewish people as foremost amongst the oppressed. This view is understandable considering the unprecedented and unique genocide during the war, but can have the result of trivialising other third world struggles, especially one involving the ‘victims of victims’, the Palestinians.
Anyhow, Judith Butler has written an inspiring response to her critics in the Jerusalem Post and elsewhere, worth reading by anyone concerned about the appropriation of Jewish identity to serve the interests of the government and military of the state of Israel.