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Naïve and instrumentalized? Judith Butler on the Mayor of Paris's Cancellation of the Meeting Against Antisemitism and Its Instrumentalization

Judith Butler was planning to speak at a Palestine solidarity event in Paris in December until the city's mayor unilaterally cancelled it. Here, Butler describes the chain of events leading up to the cancellation and affirms the necessity of resisting political censorship around Palestine.

Judith Butler 1 February 2024

Naïve and instrumentalized? Judith Butler on the Mayor of Paris's Cancellation of the Meeting Against Antisemitism and Its Instrumentalization

This statement was originally published in French by Médiapart on January 19, 2024.


I have been asked by several people to clarify what precisely happened when I was contacted by the Mayor’s Office in Paris. It is true that I was taken aback by the events, that these conflicts have a history and meaning in France that I could not fully understand. But I have had time to reflect and would like to clarify the chain of events. I was first contacted by a representative of the Mayor’s office in early December to inform me that the event on December 6 concerning the theme of « Contre l’antisémitisme, son instrumentalisation, et pour la paix révolutionnaire en Palestine » would be cancelled. I was to have spoken there along with Angela Davis, who was to send a video expressing her point of view in response to Françoise Vergès, who asked if Angela Davis would agree to record a message of solidarity for the event.

The city’s funds support the Cirque Electrique, they explained, and the event presented a threat to “public order” and that they could not support an event sponsored by a group which includes Houria Bouteldja on its organizing committee. In fact, the event was co-organized by that group, Paroles d’honneur, along with Union Juive Française pour la Paix and Tsedek!, l’Action antifasciste Paris-banlieue, Révolution permanente, and le Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (NPA).

They said they did not want to be “associated” with Bouteldja whose views they considered to be anti-feminist, homophobic, and antisemitic. I explained that Houria was not speaking at the event, but that hardly mattered, since being associated with her, or supporting her group was, for them, out of the question.

I asked them whether they only fund events that replicate the point of view of the Mayor’s office – they said no, but that there are limits to free speech. I acknowledged that there are limits to free speech, but pointed out again that Bouteldja was not speaking. I suggested that it is generally a good idea to hear from a variety of viewpoints on matters of public concern, and they insisted again that her viewpoint was not admissible. I explained again that she was not speaking, but that I was, that we doubtless have different views, and that it might be important to hear my point of view.

They suggested that I could ask for Paroles d’honneur to be removed as a sponsoring group, and I refused. I said that I was clearly “naïve” by which I meant that I did not anticipate that an event on such a topic would produce such a conflict and lead to a cancellation. I did not mean that I was “instrumentalized” by any of the sponsoring groups. I was not of any of these groups.

None of them asked that I replicate their point of view, and each of them gave me full freedom to speak as I wish. I consented to speak at an event with their sponsorship, and I would do it again, without hesitation. I do not have to agree with every viewpoint that sponsoring organizations maintain in order to articulate my own positions with their support and at their invitation.

This statement that I am making now is also fully my own. It is offensive to me even to suggest that I have been naively instrumentalized by anyone. I was naïve only to the extent that I could not imagine the mayor of Paris cancelling an event of this kind. But now, I know better.

Several days after the cancellation, I received a second phone call from a representative at the Mayor’s office who wished to communicate and clarify a few points to me. The first was that they had not cancelled me personally, that I was not the one “targeted,” and that I would not be cancelled again by the mayor’s office. They said I was welcome in Paris and that I should, if I wish, visit their historic offices. They also said it was a mistake to have mentioned the name of the person they were actually targeting.

This struck me as odd, since I was already cancelled, my individual freedom to express my viewpoint was restricted, and, of course, they had already issued a statement naming Bouteldja. I started to wonder then whether the Paris offices had regretted their earlier statement singling out and stigmatizing a citizen for what they imagined her point of view to have been had she been speaking at all.

Their cancellation of Judith Butler was a strange speech act, one in which they were effectively saying “If Houria Bouteldja were speaking, we would cancel her” – a proleptic form of censorship. In a way, they were cancelling speech before it happened even though it was not going to happen. Were they imagining that I would speak Houria’s words? No. They were, in fact, instrumentalizing me in order to target Houria, so I was just the means to achieve another end.

At the same time, they were silencing me since, for over 20 years, I have defended an anti-Zionist position within Jewish politics and thought, including publishing a book, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the critique of Zionism. Indeed, I was hoping to explain that point of view in a patient and thoughtful way, but clearly my point of view – however different from Houria Bouteldja’s ­– was a problem as well.

Indeed, it would be “naïve” of me to think that they were only targeting Houria through me. They also clearly did not want someone like me, relatively well-known, to be espousing a position that is clearly in opposition to the Mayor’s unconditional support of Israel. Indeed, Hidalgo was willing to march openly with Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen in the march against antisemitism. As much as I abhor antisemitism and would eagerly join a march to combat it, I would not march with the far right, which “instrumentalizes” the movement against antisemitism to intensify and “justify” anti-migrant, anti-Muslim sentiment and policy.

I asked the second representative from the Mayor’s office in what way the event would have threatened public order. I noted that, despite the cancellation, the Cirque Electrique had been plastered with graphic images of victims from the Hamas attacks of October 7. I asked whether the groups that had defaced this cultural institution had threatened to demonstrate against the planned December 6 event. Was the threat to public order coming not from the speaker, certainly not me, but from the extreme Zionist protestors willing to damage property and threaten the conditions of free and open discourse.

My interlocutor remained silent in response to my very non-naïve question. My speculation is that right-wing Zionist protesters threatened public order, threatened to expose the Mayor’s office as supporting with its funds an event that was critical of Zionism and committed to Palestinian emancipation. It was in response to that threat that the Mayor’s office became willing to curtail public debate on one of the most pressing issues of our times. They should be careful about allowing themselves to be instrumentalized by such groups for, as we saw, they threatened to damage the Cirque Electrique if the event took place, but even in the aftermath of its cancellation, they did it anyway. Be careful about with whom you make such deals, for some of the fundamental commitments of democracy hang in the balance.

Lastly, let me say that I stand in solidarity with Tsedek! And l’Union Juive Française pour la Paix, both of which represent principles that resonate with Jewish Voice for Peace, the organization to which I have belonged for many years in the US. They did not instrumentalize me at all, and I was, and remain, proud, to share their values.

If I had had the chance to speak, I would have explained that the Jewish tradition has always included socialists and union activists who were not committed to the Zionist project, that earlier Zionists affirmed a binational state and refused principles of Jewish sovereignty that are now enshrined in Israeli law, that the State of Israel does not represent all Jewish people, and that the critique of, and opposition to, the State of Israel in its genocidal actions is actually, for me, a Jewish ethical obligation as is the commitment to co-habitation with the non-Jew.

The opposition to antisemitism must be linked with the opposition to all racism. On this point, all these organizations agree. To find out how we might disagree, well, we would have to be allowed to speak.

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