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We Can Have a Debate About Whether Hamas Did the Right Thing’: Judith Butler’s Moral Relativism

Cary Nelson
Fathom Journal, March 2024

“… for Butler, there is but one overriding context for Hamas’s violence: Israel’s long presumed history of unrelenting violence against Palestinians. And citing it is no neutral historical exercise; it is a moral imperative.”

When Judith Butler expressed something approximating grudging horror–if one may characterise her ambivalence that way–at Hamas’s 7 October murder rampage in Israel, in her London Review of Books essay ‘The Compass of Mourning’, dated 13 October and published 19 October, I must confess I had my doubts about whether to take it as unqualified condemnation of Hamas’s violence. She had of course years earlier notoriously insisted that Hamas must be considered part of the international left, exclusively a political movement. But now, in almost the immediate aftermath of the attack, she was explicit in characterising her own response: ‘I do condemn without qualification the violence committed by Hamas. This was a terrifying and revolting massacre.

That was my primary reaction, and it endures. But there are other reactions as well.’ She prefaces her personal admission by insisting that in supplying historical context for Hamas’s violence she will assuredly not be indulging vulgar ‘relativising’ or ‘contextualisation,’ though I will argue that is precisely her agenda. In October, however, I thought I should give her the benefit of doubt. At least she was not joining the ecstatic academic celebrations of Hamas’s barbarism. But Butler has more recently complicated her supposed condemnation with additional comments. That clarifies where she stands.

Butler engaged in a delicate and rather contradictory dance in ‘The Compass of Mourning,’ repeatedly disavowing the very argumentative strategies the essay adopts. Despite those inner contradictions, Butler’s status means that her essay may prove influential, with antizionists picking and choosing among her arguments to support their views. That justifies commenting on the essay in detail. While brief rejoinders have appeared in a number of venues, I have not yet seen her essay receive a full analysis.

… [To read the full article, click here]

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