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ISGAP Flashpoint

How Not to Grieve for Victims of Terrorism: Judith Butler’s Hypocritical Response to the Paris Attacks

By Gabriel Noah Brahm | December 2, 2015 | Flashpoint 4

Three days after the obscene terror attacks of November 13, 2015, in Paris, Judith Butler—a leading BDS philosopher, who has called for an end to Jewish sovereignty and self-determination in Israel[1]—had this to say. Quit whining, Paris. It’s not all just about you. Consider the Palestinians. I am paraphrasing, of course. Here are Butler’s original remarks: 

About the Author
Gabriel Noah Brahm

Gabriel Noah Brahm is an ISGAP Senior Research Fellow, Visiting Researcher at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Associate Professor of English at Northern Michigan University. His current book project is a study of contemporary anti-Zionism, Israel in Theory: The Jewish State and the Cultural Left. He tweets at @Brahmski.

Mourning seems fully restricted within the national frame. The nearly 50 dead in Beirut from the day before are barely mentioned, and neither are the 111 in Palestine killed in the last weeks alone, or the scores in Ankara… One way to think about it may be to come up with a concept of transversal grief, to consider how the metrics of grievability work, why the cafe as target pulls at my heart in ways that other targets cannot.[2]

Our task in these dark times, Butler argues, in her opaque manner, is to take the opportunity to stop being Eurocentric and avoid the error of selective outrage (the fallacy of caring more for one’s own than for Others), by instead making sure to engage only in “transversal grief.” 

Or, in plain terms, we should ideally practice an all-inclusive mourning that takes equal account of every victim of terror (violence in general? misfortune at large?), and not just some, or some more than others. By analogy, should a friend die in a car crash, then grief ought to embrace all the unlucky drivers on the road that day, week, month or year (I suppose?). Well, in any case, it’s the freeway system as a whole that needs to be thought about. Universalism über alles, particularism be damned. Love they neighbor’s neighbor’s neighbor as thy neighbor.

The Metrics of Politically Correct Grief

Butler, in short, sees 11/13 as a teaching moment. Despite what many feel at times like these (revulsion at mass murder committed in the name of a totalitarian political project), the real problem revealed by such attacks is that some deaths pull at a normal person’s heartstrings more than others. Cafe goers are more likely to lament the fate of fellow cafe goers, even as the French are prone to care too much about the French.[3] Moreover, it is unacceptable that the victims of Daesh (aka ISIS, IS) in Paris garner more attention than the victims of Daesh in Beirut or Ankara. Or the “111 in Palestine killed in recent weeks alone,” according to Butler’s dismaying statistic (we will come back to this unlikely estimate).

That all sounds very “transversal,” doesn’t it?

But wait. One-hundred and eleven (ostensible) victims of whom? Although she doesn’t name the culprits, this is because nobody reading a Judith Butler blog-post on the Verso website needs to be reminded who the villains are in her scenario. So, it’s the politics of character assassination by means of insinuation, at a time like this? For shame.

Moreover, it seems that incredulous readers are expected to feel the same about those terrorists stopped by police from committing terrorism—slain perpetrators of the Knife Intifada included—as seated cafe goers in Paris, gunned down over their croissants and cafe au lait. Alright. Very transversal, indeed! Can’t get much more transversal than that. Yet, in that case, what of the actual victims of that same ongoing wave of knife (and car) attacks? Sixteen Israeli Jews had been murdered on the streets already, since September, by the time Butler wrote her article, including two on November 13, the same day as the Paris attacks (seven more have been slain since).[4] Curiously, these deaths are not mentioned anywhere in Butler’s plea for inclusive grief. Are these deaths not grievable? No—not so very transversal, after all.

Apparently, the philosopher of mourning, who theoretically admonishes readers to empathetically grieve outside all national, cultural and identitarian borders, herself, in practice, confines mourning within tightly policed ethno-national boundaries. Moreover, why no mention of any Jewish victims of terror at all, anywhere in the world—Israel or anyplace else? In Paris itself, just last winter, shoppers were murdered at the Hyper Cacher market by Islamist terrorists, for example—while we’re on the subject of Islamist terror attacks on the streets of Paris lately. A conspicuous omission—given the molten core of antisemitic ideology that bubbles and burbles at the heart of organizations like Daesh, but also Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda. All have murdered Jews because they were Jews.

Butler fails to so much as allude to any of these acts of antisemitic violence—not the ongoing spate of stabbings and car-rammings across Israel and the West Bank, contemporaneous with the Paris attacks; not the West Bank kidnap-murders of the summer of 2014; not the shootings at the Jewish Museum in Belgium earlier that same year; not Toulouse in 2012. Butler laments unduly restricted mourning for some, but noticeably restricts mourning for others, in keeping with politically correct “metrics.”

Rubber Bullets and Bogus Statistics

To bolster her case for transversal grief (and against Eurocentrism), Butler counts “111 in Palestine killed in the last weeks alone.” Her figure (absurdly high even by comparison with a high estimate) is not sourced and appears to have been culled from an activist website—one that, in actual fact, reports 111 “injured” rather than “killed.” A minor difference! (The number includes those said to have been shot with rubber bullets.)[5]

The headline states it plainly: “111 Palestinians shot, injured during West Bank, Gaza demonstrations.”

That Butler’s piece was quickly taken down within days after it was posted suggests she may well have caught her own error. All to the good. But gauge the impact of this symptomatic slip in her discourse. Assess its meaning. Butler’s sloppy insinuation that victims and perpetrators of terror belong on the same plane of moral equivalence; coupled with her elision of any and all Jewish victims of Jihadi terror (when Jews are in fact a major target): all this goes together to blatantly contradict her own call to transversality. In effect if not in intent, this contradiction also happens to violate the spirit of international legal definitions of antisemitism, proscribing the application of double standards. So—not at all transversal, it turns out.

We Are All the Eagles of Death Metal

Perhaps, then, this is a teaching moment, indeed. For Butler’s falsehoods surely prompt us to reflect on broader questions. Such as: Why is it that not only her own failed attempt at an off-the-cuff “critical” response to the Paris attacks falls into this kind of “error,” but so many others’ responses to terrorism do likewise? In short, how is it that politically correct pleas to “not forget any of the victims” so frequently leave out Jews in general, Jewish Israelis in particular, and antisemitism altogether as a prime mover of terrorism? As Liel Leibovitz also notes, attacks on Jews are essential to the phenomenon of mass casualty terror.[6]

Indeed, where is the mention of Hyper Cacher, not just in Butler’s article, but whenever Charlie Hebdo is invoked, the majority of the time? Who recalls that, for Al Qaeda, New York was a “Jewish city”? Or that Osama Bin Laden retrospectively claimed he was helping out the Palestinians on 9/11? Why has the media consistently failed to discuss the series of threats made against the Bataclan theater for years, because of its Jewish ownership and the Zionist orientation of many of its events? Who bothers to recall that the band playing there the night of the attacks, The Eagles of Death Metal, are well-known for being outspoken critics of BDS, and openly fond of performing in Israel? Why is it that the specifically Jewish and/or Zionist targets of terror so frequently cannot be acknowledged as such? Can any of this be mourned today—transversally or otherwise—when Israel is so demonized by the likes of Butler and BDS?

Progressive Naivety

The answer to the riddle of Butler’s representative sins of omission and commission, I submit, is twofold. Antisemitism, as mentioned, appears to be an important part of the equation. So does what I call progressive naivety.[7]

For the naive-progressive mentality, every explicit act of terror is an implicit cry for help, a coded signal that the murderer has been provoked by injustice, helplessly driven to his or her desperate act of mayhem out of (what else?) despair in the face of oppression. For the antisemite, the Jews deserve what they get—certainly the Jewish state deserves what it gets, for perpetuating the “root causes” of terrorism. Didn’t a prominent diplomat once say, “All the current troubles in the world are because of that shitty little country Israel”?[8] And don’t most Jews support the Jewish state? In fact, most do. Are the Jews therefore not, themselves, “the root cause” of their own murder—and, in a way, everyone else’s too?

This perverse attitude toward Jews and Israelis is an example of what’s been called “the new antisemitism”—in which traditional Jew-hatred morphs from an obsession with Jews into an obsession with the Jewish state plus those diaspora Jews associated with it. And what better way to perpetuate this “new” kind of Jew-hatred than to contrive a method of ignoring the central role of antisemitism in Islamist ideology? Crediting Islamists with rational grievances “underneath it all” means discounting the fact of their manifestly irrational, genocidal animus toward Jews right there on the surface. “Progressive naivety” and “new antisemitism” thus go together, combining to produce confusion about what Islamist terror is and thereby sowing doubt about how to combat it.

Politically Correct Antisemitism

Both of these essentially metaphysical assumptions—the naive progressive’s faith in universal reasonableness and antisemitism’s faith in cosmic Jewish perfidy—are false, of course. More than that, though, they are also dangerous. Now more than ever, we must be able to conceptualize the possibility and recognize the reality of what Paul Berman calls “pathological mass movements”—totalitarian political movements that fall in love with violent death as their preferred medium of self-expression—if we are to estimate rightly both for whom to mourn and how to organize.[9] With apologies to Joe Hill, the old slogan, “Don’t mourn, organize,” is nowadays as badly out of place as its opposite—which Butler seems to pathetically enjoin throughout the rest of her article, deriding France’s officials for cracking down. We need not choose between the two necessary activities, however—so long as we face up to what we have lost so far in the War on Terror, and recognize what we have now to defend with all our strength and intelligence.

Or are we rather to assume, as Butler has said before, that “understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important”?[10] If so: why not Daesh too? Merely seeing such movements as “on the Left,” Butler avers, doesn’t put them beyond criticism, after all. Thus, progressive naivety (of which “transversal grief” proves to be the latest variant) sees a kernel of rationality in even the most insane, most heinous acts of barbarism.

Are We Being Transversal Yet?

Delusional, uncomprehending sympathy for intolerant reactionary extremism is a pathology that we as a society ought not to foster, if we are to preserve and protect the liberal norms of tolerance that define us as a civilization. When it comes to fighting terror—and to fight back as needed is surely one of the best ways to mourn for the dead, wounded, and traumatized—anti-Israel, anti-Western, antinomian academics like Butler are worse than useless. Their infantile anarchism is part of the problem. Indeed, committed anti-Zionists like Butler—who is after all a scholar of queer theory and cultural studies, not political science or Middle East studies—can only distract our attention and dilute our resolve if we let them.

In their zeal to press on at all costs with their perverse agenda to boycott the one island of democracy and stability in an unstable, undemocratic region, illiberal ideologues will always find a way—explicitly or implicitly—to condemn Israel. Apologists for “leftwing” “progressive” Islamism will forever find a way to blame the victims of terror. We bring it on ourselves. We grieve improperly. By means of omission and commission, both—Butler’s twisted response to the Paris attacks is the latest proof.[11]

[1] See Judith Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

[2] Judith Butler, “Mourning Becomes the Law,” Verso Blogs, November 16, 2015, http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2337-mourning-becomes-the-law-judith-butler-from-paris; accessed November 19, 2015. As of November 24, the post seems to have been removed.

[3] Gregory Lobo addresses this broader issue in an insightful column in Spanish, “Sobre la jerarquía de la muerte”, El Espectador, November 20, 2015, http://www.elespectador.com/opinion/sobre-jerarquia-de-muerte; accessed November 30, 2015.

[4] Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “In Memory of the Victims of Palestinian Violence and Terrorism in Israel,” http://mfa.gov.il/MFA/ForeignPolicy/Terrorism/Victims/Pages/In%20Memory%20of%20the%20Victims%20of%20Palestinian%20Violence%20a.aspx; accessed November 30, 2015. On the Palestinian side, reliable numbers are more difficult to come by, but various sources suggest that about 105 have died over the last three months, in violent clashes with Israelis—including 124 terror attacks by Palestinians since October, with 79 stabbing attacks and 18 car attacks that month alone.

[5] “111 Palestinians shot, injured during West Bank, Gaza demonstrations,” Maan News Agency, November 13, 2015 (updated November 14, 2015), https://www.maannews.com/Content.aspx?id=768807; accessed November 30, 2015. Published just days before Butler’s own piece, it stands to reason that this was her source: both the figure of “111” and the timespan of “weeks” is the same in both cases.

[6] Liel Liebovitz, “How to Stop Mass Casualty Terror Attacks: Take Violence Against Jews Seriously,” Tablet, December 1, 2015, http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/195425/stop-mass-casualty-attacks; accessed December 1, 2015.

[7] I draw here on Paul Berman’s notion of “rationalist naivety” (a phrase which I modify slightly to suit my own taste), which he formulated to make sense of the sympathy garnered by the 9/11 attackers and even more so the Second Intifada suicide bombers. See his Terror and Liberalism (New York: Norton, 2003).

[8] Wikipedia records the infamous remark of the French Ambassador to Great Britain, Daniel Bernard, speaking before an audience in 2001. “Daniel Bernard,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Bernard_(diplomat); accessed November 30, 2015.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Petra Marquardt-Bigman “Judith Butler and the Politics of Hypocrisy,” The Jerusalem Post, August 30, 2012, http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/The-Warped-Mirror/Judith-Butler-and-the-politics-of-hypocrisy-365385; accessed November 30, 2015.

[11] I wish to thank Paul Berman, Russell Berman, Simone Hartmann, Gregory Lobo, and Scott Polisky for their perceptive comments on previous drafts of this essay. Einav Yogev also helped. Any infelicities in the final iteration are my own doing.


Gabriel Noah Brahm is an ISGAP Senior Research Fellow, Visiting Researcher at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Associate Professor of English at Northern Michigan University.

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