Judith Butler was born in February 1956 in Cleveland, Ohio, to parents of Hungarian and Russian ancestry. Her mother was raised in Orthodox Judaism but later embraced Conservative Judaism and, after that, Reform Judaism. Butler’s father was a lifelong member of a Reformed Synagogue.
During her childhood and teenage years, Judith Butler attended both Hebrew school and special classes on Jewish ethics. In these classes, she was introduced to the writings of Martin Buber, Emanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Baruch Spinoza. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1978, and a Ph.D. in philosophy (also from Yale) in 1984. Her doctoral dissertation was subsequently published under the title: “Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France.”
In the late 1980s, Butler was appointed to several teaching / research posts at Wesleyan University, George Washington University, and Johns Hopkins University. In 1993 she joined the faculty at UC Berkeley, where she is currently the Maxine Elliott Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature. Her specialties include the fields of feminism, queer theory, political philosophy, and ethics.
Butler has devoted much of her academic career to the struggle to eliminate the state of Israel. Wrote Butler: “A challenge to the right of Israel to exist can be construed as a challenge to the existence of the Jewish people only if one believes that Israel alone keeps the Jewish people alive, or that all Jews invest their sense of perpetuity in the state of Israel in its current or traditional forms.”
Expanding on this theme, Butler says: “Identifying Israel with Jewry obscures the existence of the small but important post-Zionist movement in Israel, including the philosophers Adi Ophir and Anat Biletzki, the sociologist Uri Ram, the professor of theatre Avraham Oz and the poet Yitzhak Laor. Are we to say that Israelis who are critical of Israeli policy are self-hating Jews, or insensitive to the ways in which criticism may fan the flames of anti-Semitism?”
Butler denounces Israel’s “arbitrary state violence” and “state racism.” She has been a leader in the campaign to impose a worldwide boycott against Israeli universities.
When then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers lamented in September 2002 that “profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities,” Butler denounced Summers for having “struck a blow against academic freedom, in effect, if not in intent.”
In February 2010, Butler went to the West Bank to demonstrate against the alleged mistreatment of women by Zionist “occupiers.” She denounced Israel at length for its “mistreatment” of Arab women.
While in the West Bank, Butler explained to her terrorist hosts that she opposed the existence of a Jewish state even alongside some future Palestinian Arab state. Butler writes: “And if we have a bi-national state, it’s expressing two nations. Only when bi-nationalism deconstructs the idea of a nation can we hope to think about what a state, what a polity might look like that would actually extend equality.”
In addition to the creation of a new and sovereign Palestinian state, Butler favors the “right” of current Palestinian refugees to “return” to Israel and take up residence there. The concept of a Right of Return maintains that Arabs (and their families) should be permitted to return to the Israeli homes that they (for the most part) voluntarily vacated in 1948. Butler, like Palestinian authorities who share her view, places the number of Arabs who ought to be granted a “right of return” to Israel at 5 million. This is more than _ten _times the number of Arabs who actually left the Jewish portions of the British Mandate in 1948, most of whom are now deceased. The incorporation of five million Arabs into Israel would render the Jews a permanent minority in their own country, and would thus spell the end of Israel.
Butler proudly describes herself a “Post-Zionist,” by which she means she is anti-Zionist. She also describes herself as a “poststructuralist,” and sometimes also as a “post-Marxist.” The Marxist publication New Left Review is one of Butler’s favorite venues. She claims to reject “dialectics” as her political theology because it is too “phallogocentric.”
Butler’s writings are steeped in the philosophy of “deconstruction,” which contends that words have no meaning, that there is no objective truth, and that there are no false narratives, just different subjectivities.
Butler’s theories about feminism include her argument that sexual relations are “performative” and are based on “regulatory discourse.” The “system,” she says, attempts to impose “constructions of binary asymmetric gender.” She has also devoted time to celebrating drag queens: “There is no original or primary gender a drag imitates, but gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original.” She insists, “Masculine and feminine roles are not biologically fixed but socially constructed.”
Butler has earned a reputation for her dense writing style. In 1998 she won first-prize in the Bad Writing Contest sponsored by the academic journal Philosophy and Literature. To view the sentence for which she won the award, click here.
In Butler’s view, “the violent acts of 9/11 is (sic) exacerbated by the inability of Americans to recognize the precariousness of non-American (particularly Muslim) lives. They [Muslims] are always already dead, and therefore cannot be killed.” Butler contends that the War on Terror has provided a climate where the sexual freedoms she and others fought for “are now misused to symbolize (sic) the shining, gleaming modernity of the West.” “The backwardness and inferiority of ‘others’ is counterposed (sic) and underscored against this,” she says.
Explaining how her feminism differs from that of some of the others, like Catharine MacKinnon or Andrea Dworkin, Butler says: “I’m not always calling into question who’s a man and who’s not, and am I a man? Maybe I’m a man [laughs].”
Butler is fundamentally opposed to the institution of marriage: “It’s very hard to speak freely right now, but many gay people are uncomfortable with all this, because they feel their sense of an alternative movement is dying. Sexual politics was supposed to be about finding alternatives to marriage.”