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Judith Butler Unpacks the Bejeezus Out of Zionism at Memorial Chapel

“You’ve all been very good. I’m sorry, I’m a bit traumatized.”

Neither snow nor ice nor free speech restrictions could stop her: as planned, Judith Butler, famed Professor of Rhetoric and Literature at University of California Berkeley, spoke in Memorial Chapel yesterday to a full-capacity crowd about the writings of philosopher Martin Buber and the promise they may hold for reinstating open dialogue about peace in the Middle East.

Butler was introduced by President Roth, who pointed out that she embodied the Wesleyan mission statement to a tee as a practitioner of  “courageous responsibility, which is difficult to carry out to the street and back to the academy.” Professor of Anthropology and American Studies Margot Weiss, who provided background on her for a few minutes afterward, was greeted by a enthusiastic wave of applause when she rose to the stage. Realizing what had happened due to her faintly resembling Butler, she shouted, “I am not Judith Butler, but thank you!” She went on to draw connections between Butler’s current work and the work on gender that she is best known for, saying that her most recent book, Parting Ways, sees Judaism as a kind of “anti-identitarian project.”

Butler’s approach to critiquing Israeli policies was so carefully measured and focused on separating the Jewish people from the idea of the Jewish state that she paused halfway through to assure people she wasn’t a robot. She also thanked the audience for their patient listening and respect for her views, saying, “You’ve all been very good. I’m sorry, I’m a bit traumatized.” Laughter ensued.

Judith Butler, Judaism and Israel, and Free Speech

In case you haven’t heard from your critical theory-lovin’ friends, noted post-structuralist Judith Butler is coming to campus this Wednesday (4:00pm in Memorial Chapel), speaking in a pumped-up, academic-celebrity installment of the Center for the Humanities’ Monday Night lecture series. There was widespread excitement about her visit long before the topic of her speech was announced. But Butler, who once taught at Wesleyan, now has a new and quite different project underfoot, one that deals with an aspect of her own identity apart from gender: the difficult questions of Jewish identity and the Israeli state.

When she arrives here, she’ll still be hot off the heels of a controversy at CUNY-funded Brooklyn College, where prominent pro-Israel Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and a “battalion of New York lawmakers” threatened to cut the campus’s funding if the president refused to capitulate on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions panel at which she was speaking, according to Salon.

Fortunately, with the blessing of many significant political figures, including Mayor Bloomberg, Butler ended up being allowed to speak after all on February 8th, but she modified her words to address the controversy. Butler is a professor of rhetoric as well as comparative literature, and she added to her speech remarks addressing the not-already-converted: