On Judith Butler & BDS (After Brooklyn College)


After all the brooha at Brooklyn about BoycottDivestmentSanctions, The Nation published Judith Butler’s address. It’s a cool, reasoned contribution, presenting BDS in a better possible light than the one which “the movement” sometimes casts itself –the boycott of individual persons, the disruption of cultural events and other people’s right to free speech, and a certain lack of candor about its own agenda. The irony is that BDS and the the most rightwing supporters of Israel mirror image each other in ways that persons at each extreme would be unwilling to entertain. As I understand them, they both shut down discourse and make enemies (are invested in enemies). In this they do nothing to contribute to values of cooperation, co-existence, self-determination, and mutual recognition. Picking up on a point made by Butler in her piece, I don’t think you can be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestine. But it might be harder to understand that you also cannot be pro-Palestine without being pro-Israel. What precisely these two terms mean, “Israel” and “Palestine,” how they compete with and complement each other, how they overlap with each other, all of this, I think, is completely up for grabs, subject to the kind of open discussion that Butler promotes in her published remarks, but in ways that I am sure she cannot possibly mean herself.

The open discussion that Butler wants to promote and that the most vociferous rightwing critics of the BDS event at Brooklyn College wanted to close off would have been facilitated without the number of red herrings that appear throughout Butler’s remarks –like the unsupported claim that academic freedom is under threat by the critics of BDS; like the peculiar and fallacious statement that Butler’s political beliefs render her “ineligible” for Israeli citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return; that liberal Zionists don’t recognize the problem of equal rights for Arab and Druze citizens of the State of Israel; the misinformed view that Israel passed as law a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish state (the proposed law never passed its third reading in the Knesset); that Zionism stands opposed to international law; that support for Israel and Zionism straightjacket Jewish political opinion; that this support seeks to “equate” Jewishness and Judaism with Zionism; that Zionism, represents in the eyes of those who support it the sole and exclusive representative of “the Jewish people” (as was, in fact, claimed in the 1970s and 1980s by the PLO in relation to “the Palestinian people.”). These are claims that most serious people have never claimed for either Israel or Zionism, but the imagination of which seems important to Butler’s framing of the arguments posed by the critics of BDS.

The biggest red herring in Butler’s essay is the sheer amount of space devoted to the anti-Semitism bugaboo. The constant raising of this specter by both extreme sides of the political divide does nothing to encourage the clear consideration of things encouraged by Butler in her remarks. Most reasonable and the most serious critics of BDS and Butler’s own most recent writing about Zionism do not claim that the majority of BDS supporters are Jew-hating anti-Semites, or that anti-Zionism constitutes, necessarily, a form of anti-Semitism. By keeping her focus on this most specious of arguments against BDS, Butler presents her opponents and the opponents of BDS in their worst and most crude light –to set off in stark juxtaposition the best and most genuine arguments for BDS as represented by her. It’s a disingenuous form of open conversation when you start off pillorying an opposing view.

Boycotts, divesting, and sanctions are legitimate, non-violent political tools, even if one does not support the ends to which these means are put. It is not even ironic that the most vociferous critics of BDS-Israel are the very same people who support BDS-Iran as a prelude to a military attack on that country’s nuclear program. BDS is a legitimate political tool one has every right to prefer over war or “armed resistance,” and people have the democratic right to organize under its banner. But BDS-Israel cannot represent “a universal” interest and maybe not even “a pan Arab” political interest, because in that case BDS-Israel would have to take a back seat to BDS-China, BDS-Syria, and BDS-Iran, where the abuse of human rights is even more grave than in Israel/Palestine. BDS-Israel is, first and foremost, a narrow Palestinian political interest, and then, secondly, a universal one involving abstract concepts of rights, justice, and international law. A case in point: it is either naive or dishonest to say that the right of return of all Palestinian refugees and their descendants and their descendants’ descendants to all of historical Palestine, from the river to the sea, would not turn the country into a single, Arab majority Palestinian State, and thus entail the “destruction of the Jewish State.” About this, no less a critic of Israel than Norman Finkelstein has been far more forthright when he asserted that this is the agenda basic to BDS. A one-state solution may or may not be in the Palestinian national interest, but certainly there are many who claim it to be so.

The problem has always been that the two very narrow political interests of two small peoples are at stake here, one Palestinian and one Jewish. Butler must obviously understand that the State of Israel represents to many Jews what is just as narrow a political interest as Palestine is to most Palestinians. In seeking to split the difference, Butler wants very much to separate Jewishness and Judaism from Zionism. I get the sense that when she writes about Jewishness and Judaism, she means religion, not the more material datum constituted by peoplehood. But is such an extreme separation, between “religion” and “peoplehood,” between the Diaspora and Israel really possible? I do not understand on what historical or theoretical basis Butler is able to say to-what-degree and to-what-degree-not Zionism sunk very deep, even if not universal roots in eastern Europe and among American immigrant Jews at the turn of the century. The fact that her Jewish philosophical lodestars are overwhelming German might not be incidental. But the more important point is that today 5 or 6 million Jews live in Israel as a sovereign majority people means that Israel cannot but be a Jewish political interest, no matter what you think of Israel one way or the other. That Butler herself cannot these days separate herself from the intertwined questions of Zionism and Palestine would only underscore this reality.

As for the interest of academic freedom and inquiry, I don’t understand how academic supporters of BDS-Israel support a discourse whose purpose is to shut off discourse. As a general rule I cannot help but think that most university academics think it is a bad idea to silence a contrary position, the same offence which the defenders of BDS-Israel claim to suffer at the hand of “the Israel Lobby.” BDS is the gander to the goose of rightwing Zionism. If it’s acceptable to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel then it’s hard not to see how one can complain when the other side tries to do the same to you. It’s a rough and tumble game, and I think it’s silly to complain about the way “The Israel Lobby” threatens academic freedom or free inquiry, when the truth tends to be that external pressure from rightwing segments of the Jewish community to squelch free speech always falls flat on its face. So maybe “The Lobby” is not so all-powerful. That’s clearly what happened at Brooklyn College and there was no way that that it was ever going to be the outcome that the event was going to be cancelled. In this, again, BDS and its most staunch and obnoxious opponents reflect and feed off each other.

As for anti-Semitism, let’s take seriously, for only a moment, one paragraph to be exact, the claim that BDS-Israel constitutes some kind of anti-Semitism. One question that raises itself is what it is  about BDS-Israel that lends it to this kind of spurious claim? Let’s assume that the rightwing hysteria is not just ideological overkill, but reflects a combination of empirical observation and social psychology. We can see strains, sometimes faint, sometimes not so faint, of anti-Semitism in the notion that an all-powerful Jewish cabal has a stranglehold on government, media, and academia, in singling out and isolating a Jewish body politic, and the attempt to dismantle that body politic on the basis of a superior force or right. The fears that animate this kind of analysis tend to be more common among an older generation whose historical memory of the Holocaust is fresh. In contrast, more fair minded people, even supporters of Israel, already in their 50s are more inclined to see the difference between 2013 and 1933. The obsessive drumming of the anti-Semitism beat by the Jewish rightwing obscures the fundamental difference between then and now. As Butler’s essay indeed shows, it’s a bogus claim against BDS-Israel that takes up too much attention, distracting from more genuine lines of argument.

Truth be told, liberal Jews are already “boycotting” Israel. There is a lot of fatigue about Israel among liberal American Jews, and there are very firm lines of cultural and social separation that preclude serious contact between liberal Jews and the most avid rightwing supporters of the occupation. In Israel, most mainstream Israelis don’t cross the Green Line, effectively maintaining the border between sovereign Israel and the West Bank that the settlements were supposed to dissolve. As for full-blown boycotts, divesting, and sanctions, I could well imagine circumstances that would one day warrant such acts. To say that there could never be any such circumstances would be unreasonable and dogmatic, suggesting a lack of imagination, a lack of critical insight about current trends in the country’s political culture, as well as an uncritical refusal to admit that one’s own politics might be falsifiable under certain conditions.

It might very well be that BDS-Israel does Israel a lot of good, reminding Israeli and Jewish body politics as to the kind of isolation into which they should have every reason to expect the occupation to lead them. Anyone has the right to BDS and to organize BDS collectively against anything they want, be it South Africa, Israel, or Iran. But for now, I am not ready to join or support a movement whose overarching agenda  I do not share, whose propensity to shut off discourse I oppose, and which contributes to a gnawing animus almost as much as does the occupation. What doesn’t ring right to me is the detached, analytic coldness to Butler’s approach to Israel, Zionism, and BDS-Israel. My own position is less dispassionate. Theoretically, my own conception of Jewishness and Judaism is materialist, which leads me to assume that Israel has to constitute a Jewish political interest on the basis of sheer demographics. On a more personal note: setting aside the vexed question of “Jewish peoplehood,” on principle, I won’t stop reading Israeli books and newspapers, going to films and concerts, attending conferences in Israel. On a more personal note, I won’t divest, or sanction family, friends, and colleagues; and would see in this a disgrace.

To take up an oppositional point of view always has what to recommend itself, but on what basis, according to what principles and prospects, and with what political heat? For Butler and BDS-Israel, the problem is not the occupation; it’s Zionism and Israel defined as a democratic state with a Jewish majority. These are what Butler writes against, and in this, I think there is something unreasoning and dogmatic. I see no recognition in her remarks or her writings about Israel and Zionism of any sort of the circumstances short of the country dismantling its basic laws that would satisfy this kind of critique and these kinds of critics of Zionism and Israel. There is in this a strangely, almost messianic politics of the impossible with little to recommend itself.

BDS-Israel makes enemies on the basis of a spurious friendship, a spurious universalism. As  oppositionists, neither BDS-Israel nor Butler contribute much to pragmatic principles of cooperation, co-existence, self-determination, and mutual recognition upon which alone, I believe, the possibility of justice, peace, and security depend in Israel/Palestine.  For all its commitment to  solidarity with a  suffering people, the Palestinian people under occupation and in exile, rooted in the realities and narratives of Nakba and the romance of resistance, BDS-Israel constitutes a catastrophic form of political thinking, a hardened and manichean worldview in whose imaginary the enemy is  constructed as inherently and “essentially” fixed and fascist in character.

I can readily imagine conditions in which I would support BDS. In the meantime, it is my own belief that the situation in Israel-Palestine is not given to essentialism of any kind, that it is too plastic to warrant this conclusion or to justify a full-blown program of BDS. To establish and to secure itself politically and culturally, Israel has always relied on international alliances, arrangements, and trade; and as such, always susceptible to international pressure, especially American and European. I do not think that, in the long run that the country’s political, military, and economic class will abandon those larger interests and commitments for the sake of the most diehard settlers in the occupied West Bank. And if it takes the threat of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions to secure those interests, then so be it. In the long term, I’m open to the possibility of being wrong about conditions in Israel/Palestine, more open, I am sure, to the possibility of being wrong than are Butler and BDS, who seem never to doubt or to waver. But to me, it still seems that the  political space of appearance in Israel/Palestine remains virtually open and volatile, if only for a little while, plastic in ways that still have the potential to surprise, for bad and for good.  To think otherwise, now, is to jump the gun.

One final thought: about the Jewish writings of Hannah Arendt, a figure important to Butler, I once wrote the following: While it might be true that Arendt was wrong about many things (and for all her antipathy to mainstream Zionism), it is too simple to say that she was an anti-Zionist. In their distress, Arendt never opposed mass immigration of Jews to Palestine, and she always feared the worst for them (and very little, it seems, for the Arabs). For all its collaboration with the British, she rejected the contention that the Zionist settlement itself was a colonialist enterprise. Despite her critique of Labor Zionism, she believed in its human potential. In letters to Carl Jaspers and Mary McCarthy, Arendt was practically ga-ga about Israel’s victory in 1967 and expressed profound concern about the future of the State during the Yom Kippur War. On top of that, she despised the “spurious selflessness” of “Jewish radicals” who “furiously deny the existence of the Jewish people.” Like the poet Heinrich Heine, she was “not deceived by this nonsense of ‘world citizenship,’” which she called “an academic pipedream.” What Arendt understood perhaps better than her critics was that the Jewish people, in the Diaspora or in Israel/Palestine, cannot exist in isolation from each other and from non-Jews. In my estimation, BDS and Butler’s support of BDS do nothing to contribute to any such understanding of this kind of non-isolation.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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3 Responses to On Judith Butler & BDS (After Brooklyn College)

  1. evanstonjew says:

    I congratulate you on this excellent essay. I agree with your thinking.
    Supporting a movement with leaders like Judith Butler, Philip Weiss and Jacqueline Rose is something I would like to avoid. I see them as gilgulim of Rabbi Elmer Berger and the assimilationist wing of the Reform movement.
    I just read a defense of BDS by Jerry Haber, and am not quite sure what to make of his argument. Any thoughts?

    • zjb says:

      I like Jerry Haber a lot. He has genuinely warm feelings for and connections to Israel (unlike Butler, et.al). He’s also a bi-nationalist Zionist ala Buber and Magnes, the namesake of his blog. It’s why he doesn’t oppose out of hand the Palestinian right of return and a one-state solution to the conflict. It’s not a position I share, but it’s one that I recognize.

  2. D says:

    Hi, thanks for this well-reasoned article. Thinking about BDS re: anti-semitism, I try to do the thought experiment of what would I think about a similar movement applied to another country. For example, what if hundreds of American activists and academics began a similar strategy against Mexico, concerning racism and mistreatment of indigenous people there? I think if such a movement talked about Mexico/Mexicans (and the Mexican diaspora) in the same way that BDS-Israel talks about Israel/Israelis (and the Jewish diaspora), they would be immediately considered or suspected of racism.

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