Eva Illouz : How the Left Became a Politics of Hatred Against Jews

The famous philosopher Judith Butler, invited by a collective of decolonial and anti-Zionist associations, declared – once again – during a round table in Pantin on Sunday 3 March that the 7 October attack was “an act of resistance” and not “terrorist”, and that it should not be described as “anti-Semitic”[1]. That day, she further suspected the reality of sexual assaults committed by Hamas[2]. By focusing on the case of Judith Butler, Eva Illouz criticises the positions of a certain Left which, she believes, undermines the egalitarian and universalist ideals of the Left and paves the way for hatred of Jews.


Judith Butler, on Sunday 3 March 2024 in Pantin, YouTube, Parole d’honneur website.

Once upon a time, we could hold onto the belief in many different values simultaneously: equality and freedom; anti-racism and freedom of expression; diversity and tolerance. In the current political climate, this has drastically shifted – especially on the left. We are now summoned to choose our camp – to decide between the fight against Islamophobia and the fight against antisemitism, between virtue-signaling censorship and freedom of expression, between the Gazan people and the right of Israel to exist, between the IHRA definition of antisemitism or the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (which I helped draft). It’s as if we’ve all been put against an ideological wall and forced to prioritise our victims. Worse still, in this competition for victims, each side is macabrely asserting that its own victims are the only ones that count.

Faced with such a deficit of compassion and generosity, one is tempted to refuse to choose between sides, and to declare all struggles against the indignities of the world equally valid. This should be, indeed, the only sane response to an insane ideological battlefield. And yet, however tempting, it is not a path I can take. I want to explain why with the help of a few examples.

A feminism that wants to put Islamists and anti-Zionists at ease…

In 2014, Brandeis University decided to bestow an honorary doctorate to Somali-born feminist activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Hirsi Ali had defended the rights of women and girls in Muslim countries and had herself run away from a forced marriage and genital mutilation. Her experience had made her an outspoken critic of Islam, leading her to go as far as claiming that the West was at war with Islam. She also requested and received asylum in the Netherlands, before eventually settling in the United States. On receiving news of the planned doctorate, faculty and students signed a petition demanding that the university rescind the offer, declaring that the presentation to Hirsi Ali would cause Muslim students to feel unwelcome at the school.

The university gave in to the protests. The cancellation of the doctorate – a very serious step for a liberal-arts institution dedicated to freedom of inquiry and expression – may have respected the feelings of the Muslim students on campus, but in fact ended up privileging one set of concerns (religious sensitivity, ethnic membership) over another (support for the women who are brutalized by men in many countries). The core issue of feminism – recognizing that women everywhere are structurally dominated and are still subjected to violence on a daily basis – was set aside in favor of the feelings of member of a particular religious group, which, like Judaism and Christianity, is profoundly patriarchal.

My second example is the 2017 Chicago Dyke March, a lesbian-pride event held regularly in many American cities. Two people carrying rainbow flags with the Star of David were excluded from the march that year. As sociology professor Karin Stӧgner has written: The star “was deemed a symbol of Zionism that made other participants feel uncomfortable […] Jews were welcome on the march as long as they espoused anti-Zionism, according to the organizers. No other form of nationalism suffered such a ban.” Here also, one set of sensitivities was privileged over another: The anti-Zionism of many participants took precedence over the Zionism of others and even over the value of freedom of expression itself.

The Judith Butler case

You might imagine these were isolated incidents. But this is far from being the case. They are, in fact, derived from a carefully formulated ideology, and part of a far broader alliance between religious Islam and the “post-colonial” left. Radical feminist and philosophy professor Judith Butler in particular has played a significant role in giving these forms of exclusionary tactics their intellectual cachet. She did this in numerous writings and by way of her prominent role in the BDS movement. In “Is Critique Secular?: Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech,” a book she co-authored in 2009 with Saudi-born Talal Asad, the late, Pakistani-born Saba Mahmood, and U.S. scholar Wendy Brown, Butler challenged the values of separation of state and religion and of freedom of expression, both of which she and her colleagues condemned for being unquestioned Western norms. For these scholars, secularism and freedom of expression are nothing more than tools for Western people to support an identity that helps them mark others (in this case Muslims) as fundamentalists, a term viewed as insulting in the West.

To bolster their argument, the authors cite the example of the cartoon controversy that shook Denmark, and really the entire world, in 2005. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten had published graphic images of the Prophet Mohammed, some of them satirical, precisely, it explained, in order to provoke a discussion about censorship and self-censorship. Instead, numerous embassies of Muslim-majority states petitioned the Danish government in protest, and mass demonstrations, some of them violent, in countries worldwide, followed.

Butler and her colleagues view the Western defense of the cartoons in the name of “freedom of expression” as a sham: In their opinion, invocation of that principle was only a pretext for expressing the Western disrespect for Islam in order to claim moral superiority over it. More than that: “Freedom of expression” and “separation of state and religion” are little more than a means for imposing the West’s odious claim to power.

« The only analytical and moral consistency to be found in this incoherent play of exclusions is that whatever the dilemma, it is never the Jews who are privileged. »

I refer to the book, which is already more than a dozen years old, because its writers and their positions, which they continue to hold, are well known and influential. In fact, they have become emblematic of a large portion of the global left, and its key claims crisply exemplify the deep divisions within it. Until recently, I thought the incoherence of these positions made them harmless. I am now forced to conclude that I was wrong and that the positions defended by these scholars have become dangerously potent, principally for two reasons: They form the template of a politics of Jew hatred, and they have transformed the left into something I can no longer recognize or identify with. A vocally intimidating part of the camp has betrayed its key values, making a doctrinal split within the left unavoidable and necessary.

Let me explain why by referring back to their text. Judith Butler and her colleagues endorse the mass demonstrations that erupted in the Arab world after the Jyllands-Postends publication, and denounce the hypocrisy of a Western world that does not object to the mockery of the Prophet Mohammed in political cartoons, and yet is scandalized by the artist Andre Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (a 1987 photograph depicting a plastic model of Christ on the Cross submersed in urine) or by an arguably antisemitic caricature, drawn by Gerald Scarfe (published in the London Sunday Times in 2013, and mentioned in the preface to an updated edition of the book, published that same year}. In it, we see an ogre-like Benjamin Netanyahu building a separation wall with the bloody bodies of Palestinians. Such double standards, according to the scholars, are proof that Islam is the victim of symbolic exclusion and that the West hypocritically privileges Christianity and Jews.

That argument is stupefying in so many ways that one hardly knows how to begin to respond to it. It ignores the fact that since the 18th century, Christianity has been the relentless object of mockery and satire in most of the West, contributing in part to the decline in the tremendous power of the Church. It ignores entirely the fact that the “Piss Christ” was vehemently defended by intellectuals and artists, leading precisely to an enormous controversy. Some of the noisiest critics were Catholic politicians in the United States, who were outraged that Serrano had received support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Moreover, antisemitic caricatures have historically been part and parcel of the demonization of Jews, who are not unfamiliar with being the victims of massacres, pogroms and genocide.

Demonization, as in the case of the image of a bloodthirsty Netanyahu, is a very far cry from mockery and blasphemy, however offensive the latter may be. To accuse the West of privileging Jews in what was, at face value, a case of antisemitic stereotype is an astonishing claim coming from scholars who purport to uphold moral values in their scrutiny of the intellectual arena.

Some of the chaos that ensued in the capitals of Muslim states in 2005 is even known to have been instigated by a handful of imams from Denmark, who later admitted that they had fabricated evidence so as to further stir up the Muslim masses. The scholars are silent about a fact they could not have possibly overlooked, but this omission enables them a crucial operation: They can pretend that regular Muslims are oblivious to politics. In this way, it is easier indeed to construct the Muslim subject as a priori innocent.

Even more recently, during a round table discussion in Pantin, France, on Sunday 3 March, she went back on these remarks and clarified, in case it was not clear, that the October 7 massacres were neither terrorist nor anti-Semitic.

I am not saying the United States and its various antecedents and later allies have not been guilty of Orientalism, colonialism and prosecuting senseless wars in the Muslim world. Since the start of the colonial era, they have been guilty of unfathomable destruction in the Middle East. I am only saying that if one is to hold the West to account for its violent politics vis-à-vis the Muslim world, one must also, at a minimum, acknowledge that Muslims too have political interests and strategies.

Muslims are not the blameless political actors posited by Judith Butler and her colleagues. In fact, if you look at Judith Butler’s writings, you will find that she hardly uses such words as “terrorism,” “ISIS” or “political Islam.” These omissions are the best strategy for making Muslims appear to lack any political agency, to show that in their relations with the West, they have been only victims. Yet when they oppose Israel, they are clad with the full, glorious attire of politics. After the October 7 massacres, Butler claimed, in an interview with Democracy Now, that Hamas is not a terror organization but an “armed resistance struggle.”

More generally, these views undermine what have been the key social and intellectual ideals of the West – freedom of expression, emancipation, separation of state and religion – as mere ruses employed by the West in its effort to dominate others. They leave the left without any normative anchor and make it impossible for the left to fight inequality, oppression or exploitation, in the name of the irreducible equality of all human beings, since those values are Western-centric and imperialist, and serve as a mere russ to dominate the oppressed.

What remains of the left is endless self-critique and paranoid reflexivity. If the affirmative values of the Enlightenment are nothing but an exercise of power, the intellectual arena becomes a battlefield, since no normative hierarchy of values allows one point of view to prevail over another. Individuals and groups are defined by their identities and since identities are non-negotiable, it is the group that gets offended the most that wins. The intellectual arena is now a battlefield of the offended.

The three examples I discussed here – the rescinding of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s honorary doctorate, the exclusion of Zionists from a Dyke March, and Judith Butler’s strange endorsement of Islam and denunciation of the West – show that this left operates not by inclusion but by exclusion, that it entertains disturbing affinities with reactionary religious conservatism – as long as it is Islamic, and that it always ends up privileging one group over many excluded others: Muslim sensitivities over feminism; anti-Zionist queers over Zionist ones; Muslim sensitivity to blasphemy over Jewish sensitivity to antisemitic imagery; states governed by sharia law over Western separation of state and religion. The only analytical and moral consistency to be found in this incoherent play of exclusions is that whatever the dilemma, it is never the Jews who are privileged.

This would not be the first time academics who live in the pampered settings of Western academia produce eccentric or abhorrent theories, including theories that (pretend to) hate the cushy moral and legal conditions that enabled them to produce those theories in the first place. But the point is that these theories, whose inner contradictions no longer guarantee their harmlessness, constitute the basis for a form of collective suicide for the left. I would not mind the incoherence and the bad faith if I was not convinced that this path will disempower the left’s ability to fight effectively the extreme right, which is threatening to destroy democracy in so many countries around the world. Its double standards, lack of common sense, denial of the basic values for which European people have fought for the past 300 years, and the endlessly paranoid, self-critical loops of this left – all of this makes it look, in the eyes of many, grotesque and unreliable. If it is to renew itself and counter the fascist mindset of Israeli society, the Israeli left must draw from the values of the Enlightenment and socialism and not from this ideological nihilism.

When it comes to addressing the seemingly endless Israel-Palestinian conflict, the only path forward is for Jews and Arabs living together in Israel and Palestine, and in Western democracies, to forge alliances on their own, without the assistance of the left-wingers who now excel in the nihilist art of paranoia and exclusion. (The Jewish-Arab organization Standing Together  Omdim Beyahad – is a wonderful example of just such an alliance.) Such a coalition of Jews and Arabs would address the burning issues of the day facing their peoples: helping Palestinians attain political sovereignty and live in dignity; the rebuilding of Gaza; fighting antisemitism and racial hatred; challenging and weakening the religious fundamentalism that deprives women of basic rights in Judaism and Islam; denouncing relentlessly the morally bankrupt Arab autocracies and the no less-bankrupt Jewish messianism and Bibi-ism, which together have taken Israel hostage to their supremacist, anti-democratic agenda. Against the collective suicide of much of the left throughout the world, Jews and Arabs are in a privileged position of having a critical opportunity to reconstruct together what the left was historically best at: offering hope in darkness; promising human fraternity through fair institutions; and demonstrating the still-revolutionary power of universalism.

Eva Illouz

The original version of this text, reworked following Judith Butler’s recent comments in France last week, appeared in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.




1 ”I think it is more honest, and more historically correct, to say that the 7 October uprising was an act of armed resistance. It was not a terrorist attack, it was not an anti-Semitic attack.” Judith Butler, 3 March 2024.
2 ”Whether or not there are documents to support the allegations of rape of Israeli women… okay… if there are documents, we deplore that, but we want to see those documents.” Judith Butler, 3 March 2024.

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