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Some Remarks on Judith Butler and Emmanuel Levinas

The following article was originally published in French as “Petite note sur Judith Butler et Emmanuel Levinas,” in Cités, no. 63 (2015/3), pp. 217–20. Translated by Alan Astro.

The reader may recall observations made in 2013 by Professor Bruno Chaouat of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities regarding the strange quotation, or misquotation, of Emmanuel Levinas by Judith Butler.[1] In one of her recent books, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, Butler quotes Levinas as having said that Palestinians are “faceless.”[2] Such a statement was obviously pure invention on her part and in no way figures in the text she claims it comes from: “Israël, éthique et politique.”[3] Many of her epigones jumped to her defense, hardly allowing a serious debate on methods and ethics of scholarship.

A certain propensity for lying is no doubt one of the most fascinating things about intellectuals. In fact, this case may not be an intentional lie, insofar as such practices are widespread among a certain intelligentsia and seem to be engaged in quite ingenuously. Still, Judith Butler’s comments on Levinas himself do not cease to amaze. For example, in a 2005 book, Giving an Account of Oneself, Butler had already denounced the “blatant racism” of Levinas, based on a truncated quotation, wherein he supposedly “warns against the ‘rise of the countless masses of Asiatic [des masses innombrables des peuples asiatiques] and undeveloped peoples [who] threaten the new-found authenticity’ [DF 165] of Jewish universalism.”[4]

How could Butler imagine that readers, faced with the extravagant accusation underpinned with brackets and ellipses, would not check for themselves the passage in Levinas’s Difficult Freedom to which she refers? Only willful naïveté could explain such assurance that one could lie with impunity. What a thrill it must be to indulge one’s own disingenuousness and self-confidence in like manner.

Butler’s first falsification consists in having transformed a question by Levinas into an assertion. In no sense is he “warning” us. He is wondering whether a threat actually exists. Levinas’s exact words read, “La montée des masses innombrables de peuples asiatiques et sous-développés ne menace-t-elle pas cette authenticité retrouvée?” (“Does not the rise of countless masses of Asiatic and underdeveloped peoples threaten this new-found authenticity?”).[5]

Butler’s second misrepresentation is to have failed to mention the actual object of this purely hypothetical fear. Levinas’s question in no sense presupposes dread of a different ethnicity or the threat of a physical invasion, as may be suggested by the expressions reproduced (“countless masses,” “Asiatic and underdeveloped peoples”). This passage in “Jewish Thought Today,” originally appearing in 1961, bears essentially on Maoist China, and on Maoism itself, defined as “materialism.”[6] Levinas’s question is thus purely ideological, cultural, and political, and concerns the entirely new force deployed by Marxism due to the rise of China. His question is a simple one, about the risk that monotheistic spirituality (Jewish as well as Christian, as he writes) be marginalized in the face of the profound imbalance that the emergence of China as a materialist power could create.

Butler’s third falsification is the most troubling, as it concerns the answer Levinas gives to what is (I repeat) no more than a question, and not an assertion, regarding a spiritual threat. Contrarily to what one might expect, Levinas’s answer is negative. No, we need not at all fear “the rise of countless masses of Asiatic and underdeveloped peoples.” And we should not fear it because “Marxism perhaps still links us in an immediate and unique way to this enormous world now rising up before us: Marxism in which we can glimpse elements of the Judeo-Christian legacy.”[7] Moreover, Levinas makes clear that should the Judeo-Christian legacy of Marxism be dissolved in the Chinese cultural context, the unity of monotheism would consequently be reinforced and ecumenism—the dialogue between Jews and Christians—would have even more reason to exist. One thus sees the absolute absence of any racialism not only with respect to “Asiatic peoples,” but also concerning the Jews.

“Blatant racism” is thus completely lacking in Levinas’s text. Butler’s invention is all the more comical as Levinas adds a few lines later, “For Judaism, the great migrations of peoples, migration among peoples and the upheavals of history have never presented a deadly threat.”[8]

Obviously, I shall not comment on what may be behind such falsification on the part of the 2012 Adorno Prize laureate. To do so would make her once again into “the new target of the Zionist inquisition,”[9] as one of her defenders put it in the hot debate regarding the choice of Butler for that award. Thus the reader may wish simply to ponder what is either a riddle or at least a question: how is it possible to do such a bad job of lying?

Éric Marty, author of Radical French Thought and the Return of the Jewish Question (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2015), is a literary critic, Professor at the Institut Universitaire de France and at University of Paris.


1. Bruno Chaouat, “Judith Butler and the Critique of Zionist Reason,” Le Monde Blogs, March 13, 2013, The text will figure in Chaouat’s Is Theory Good for the Jews: Response to the New Antisemitism, to be published by Liverpool University Press.

2. Judith Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (New York: Columbia UP, 2012), p. 227n24, p. 3.

3. Emmanuel Levinas, “Israël, éthique et politique,” Les Nouveaux Cahiers 71 (1982–83), pp. 1–8. An English translation appeared as “Ethics and Politics,” trans. Jonathan Romney, in The Levinas Reader, ed. Seán Hand (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), pp. 288–97.

4. Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham UP, 2005), p. 94 (DF refers to Levinas, Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Seán Hand [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990]), p. 165). Note that Levinas did not write, as Butler quotes him, “masses innombrables des peuples asiatiques et sous-développés,” but rather “masses innombrables de peuples asiatiques et sous-développés” (Levinas, Difficile liberté, 3rd rev. and corr. ed. (Paris: Albin Michel-Livre de Poche, 1976). The fact that the French translators reproduce her quotation as such shows that they did not bother checking the original text.

5. Levinas, Difficult Freedom, p. 165 (trans. modified as per the original, Difficile liberté, p. 231).

6. Levinas, Difficult Freedom, p. 165.

7. Levinas, Difficult Freedom, p. 165 (my italics [trans. modified as per the original, Difficile liberté, p. 231]).

8. Levinas, Difficult Freedom, p. 166 (trans. modified as per the original, Difficile liberté, p. 232).

9. Jacques Richaud, “Judith Butler: nouvelle cible de ‘l’inquisition sioniste,'” Le Grand Soir, September 10, 2012,

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