Judith Butler, a noted literary theorist who is the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Visiting Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, has called off a talk she was supposed to give at the Jewish Museum in New York City, amid criticism of her support for the boycott of Israel. Butler's talk was not to have been about her views on the Middle East, but on Franz Kafka, who died well before the State of Israel was created. A statement from the museum said: "She was chosen on the basis of her expertise on the subject matter to be discussed. While her political views were not a factor in her participation, the debates about her politics have become a distraction making it impossible to present the conversation about Kafka as intended."
In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Butler said: "I did decide to withdraw when it became clear to me that the uproar over my political views (actually, a serious distortion of my political views) would overtake the days ahead and the event itself. As I understand it, the Jewish Museum also felt that it could not handle the political storm, and we were in complete agreement that the event should be canceled as a result."
She continued: "What is most important now, in my view, is for both educational and cultural institutions such as these to recommit themselves to open debate, not to become vehicles for censorship and slander, and not to become party to forms of blacklisting. It certainly should not be the case that any of us are forced to give up speaking in public on scholarly topics that have no bearing on the political issues that are so controversial. It constitutes discrimination against a person on the basis of political viewpoint, implying that the speaker ought not to be allowed to speak on any topic given the political viewpoint in question. It is one thing to disagree, say, with my political viewpoint and to give reasons why one disagrees, even to call for an open debate on that disagreement, and to ask the Jewish Museum to exercise its authority and commit its resources to such an open debate. It is quite another to say that anyone with my political viewpoint (itself badly distorted in this case) should not be able to speak at a Jewish cultural organization.... Whether one is for or against [the boycott movement], it seems important to recognize that boycotts are constitutionally recognized forms of political expression, affirmed by international law as well. That means that one cannot exactly outlaw a boycott, even if one opposes it with great vehemence, without trampling on a constitutionally protected right. We are seeing several efforts now to curtail speech, to exercise censorship, and so cultural institutions like the Jewish Museum will now have to decide whether they will allow their choices of speakers and artworks to be coerced, whether they will have the courage and the principle to stand for freedom of expression, refusing to impose a political litmus speakers on speakers and artists who have every reason to be part of the broader community they serve and have ideas on many other topics to share."
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading