Judith Butler’s Remarks to Brooklyn College on BDS
Editors Note: Despite a campaign to silence them, philsophers Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti spoke at Brooklyn College on Thursday night. In an exclusive, The Nation presents the text of Butler’s remarks.
Usually one starts by saying that one is glad to be here, but I cannot say that it has been a pleasure anticipating this event. What a Megillah! I am, of course, glad that the event was not cancelled, and I understand that it took a great deal of courage and a steadfast embrace of principle for this event to happen at all. I would like personally to thank all those who took this opportunity to reaffirm the fundamental principles of academic freedom, including the following organizations: the Modern Language Association, the National Lawyers Guild, the New York ACLU, the American Association of University Professors, the Professional Staff Congress (the union for faculty and staff in the CUNY system), the New York Times editorial team, the offices of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Brooklyn College President Karen Gould whose principled stand on academic freedom has been exemplary.
The principle of academic freedom is designed to make sure that powers outside the university, including government and corporations, are not able to control the curriculum or intervene in extra-mural speech. It not only bars such interventions, but it also protects those platforms in which we might be able to reflect together on the most difficult problems. You can judge for yourself whether or not my reasons for lending my support to this movement are good ones. That is, after all, what academic debate is about. It is also what democratic debate is about, which suggests that open debate about difficult topics functions as a meeting point between democracy and the academy. Instead of asking right away whether we are for or against this movement, perhaps we can pause just long enough to find out what exactly this is, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and why it is so difficult to speak about this.
I am not asking anyone to join a movement this evening. I am not even a leader of this movement or part of any of its governing committee, even though the New York Times tried to anoint me the other day—I appreciated their subsequent retraction, and I apologize to my Palestinian colleagues for their error. The movement, in fact, has been organized and led by Palestinians seeking rights of political self-determination, including Omar Barghouti, who was invited first by the Students for Justice in Palestine, after which I was invited to join him. At the time I thought it would be very much like other events I have attended, a conversation with a few dozen student activists in the basement of a student center. So, as you can see, I am surprised and ill-prepared for what has happened.
Omar will speak in a moment about what the BDS movement is, its successes and its aspirations. But I would like briefly to continue with the question, what precisely are we doing here this evening? I presume that you came to hear what there is to be said, and so to test your preconceptions against what some people have to say, to see whether your objections can be met and your questions answered. In other words, you come here to exercise critical judgment, and if the arguments you hear are not convincing, you will be able to cite them, to develop your opposing view and to communicate that as you wish. In this way, your being here this evening confirms your right to form and communicate an autonomous judgment, to demonstrate why you think something is true or not, and you should be free to do this without coercion and fear. These are your rights of free expression, but they are, perhaps even more importantly, your rights to education, which involves the freedom to hear, to read and to consider any number of viewpoints as part of an ongoing public deliberation on this issue. Your presence here, even your support for the event, does not assume agreement among us. There is no unanimity of opinion here; indeed, achieving unanimity is not the goal.
The arguments made against this very meeting took several forms, and they were not always easy for me to parse. One argument was that BDS is a form of hate speech, and it spawned a set of variations: it is hate speech directed against either the State of Israel or Israeli Jews, or all Jewish people. If BDS is hate speech, then it is surely not protected speech, and it would surely not be appropriate for any institution of higher learning to sponsor or make room for such speech. Yet another objection, sometimes uttered by the same people who made the first, is that BDS does qualify as a viewpoint, but as such, ought to be presented only in a context in which the opposing viewpoint can be heard as well. There was yet a qualification to this last position, namely, that no one can have a conversation on this issue in the US that does not include a certain Harvard professor, but that spectacular argument was so self-inflationary and self-indicting, that I could only respond with astonishment.
So in the first case, it is not a viewpoint (and so not protected as extra-mural speech), but in the second instance, it is a viewpoint, presumably singular, but cannot be allowed to be heard without an immediate refutation. The contradiction is clear, but when people engage in a quick succession of contradictory claims such as these, it is usually because they are looking for whatever artillery they have at their disposal to stop something from happening. They don’t much care about consistency or plausibility. They fear that if the speech is sponsored by an institution such as Brooklyn College, it will not only be heard, but become hearable, admitted into the audible world. The fear is that viewpoint will become legitimate, which means only that someone can publicly hold such a view and that it becomes eligible for contestation. A legitimate view is not necessarily right, but it is not ruled out in advance as hate speech or injurious conduct. Those who did not want any of these words to become sayable and audible imagined that the world they know and value will come to an end if such words are uttered, as if the words themselves will rise off the page or fly out of the mouth as weapons that will injure, maim or even kill, leading to irreversibly catastrophic consequences. This is why some people claimed that if this event were held, the two-state solution would be imperiled—they attributed great efficacy to these words. And yet others said it would lead to the coming of a second Holocaust—an unimaginable remark to which I will nevettheless return. One might say that all of these claims were obvious hyperbole and should be dismissed as such. But it is important to understand that they are wielded for the purpose of intimidation, animating the spectre of traumatic identification with the Nazi oppressor: if you let these people speak, you yourself will be responsible for heinous crimes or for the destruction of a state, or the Jewish people. If you listen to the words, you will become complicit in war crimes.
And yet all of us here have to distinguish between the right to listen to a point of view and the right to concur or dissent from that point of view; otherwise, public discourse is destroyed by censorship. I wonder, what is the fantasy of speech nursed by the censor? There must be enormous fear behind the drive to censorship, but also enormous aggression, as if we were all in a war where speech has suddenly become artillery. Is there another way to approach language and speech as we think about this issue? Is it possible that some other use of words might forestall violence, bring about a general ethos of non-violence, and so enact, and open onto, the conditions for a public discourse that welcomes and shelters disagreement, even disarray?
The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement is, in fact, a non-violent movement; it seeks to use established legal means to achieve its goals; and it is, interestingly enough, the largest Palestinian civic movement at this time. That means that the largest Palestinian civic movement is a non-violent one that justifies its actions through recourse to international law. Further, I want to underscore that this is also a movement whose stated core principles include the opposition to every form of racism, including both state-sponsored racism and anti-Semitism. Of course, we can debate what anti-Semitism is, in what social and political forms it is found. I myself am sure that the election of self-identified national socialists to the Greek parliament is a clear sign of anti-Semitism; I am sure that the recirculation of Nazi insignia and rhetoric by the National Party of Germany is a clear sign of anti-Semitism. I am also sure that the rhetoric and actions of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are often explicitly anti-Semitic, and that some forms of Palestinian opposition to Israel do rely on anti-Semitic slogans, falsehoods and threats. All of these forms of anti-Semitism are to be unconditionally opposed. And I would add, they have to be opposed in the same way and with the same tenacity that any form of racism has to be opposed, including state racism.
But still, it is left to us to ask, why would a non-violent movement to achieve basic political rights for Palestinians be understood as anti-Semitic? Surely, there is nothing about the basic rights themselves that constitute a problem. They include equal rights of citizenship for current inhabitants; the end to the occupation, and the rights of unlawfully displaced persons to return to their lands and gain restitution for their losses. We will surely speak about each of these three principles this evening. But for now, I want to ask, why would a collective struggle to use economic and cultural forms of power to compel the enforcement of international laws be considered anti-Semitic? It would be odd to say that they are anti-Semitic to honor internationally recognized rights to equality, to be free of occupation and to have unlawfully appropriated land and property restored. I know that this last principle makes many people uneasy, but there are several ways of conceptualizing how the right of return might be exercised lawfully such that it does not entail further dispossession (and we will return to this issue).
For those who say that exercising internationally recognized rights is anti-Semitic, or becomes anti-Semitic in this context, they must mean either that a) its motivation is anti-Semitic or b) its effects are anti-Semitic. I take it that no one is actually saying that the rights themselves are anti-Semitic, since they have been invoked by many populations in the last decades, including Jewish people dispossessed and displaced in the aftermath of the second world war. Is there really any reason we should not assume that Jews, just like any other people, would prefer to live in a world where such internationally recognized rights are honored? It will not do to say that international law is the enemy of the Jewish people, since the Jewish people surely did not as a whole oppose the Nuremburg trials, or the development of human rights law. In fact, there have always been Jews working alongside non-Jews—not only to establish the courts and codes of international law, but in the struggle to dismantle colonial regimes, opposing any and all legal and military powers that seek systematically to undermine the conditions of political self-determination for any population.
Only if we accept the proposition that the state of Israel is the exclusive and legitimate representative of the Jewish people would a movement calling for divestment, sanctions and boycott against that state be understood as directed against the Jewish people as a whole. Israel would then be understood as co-extensive with the Jewish people. There are two major problems with this view. First, the state of Israel does not represent all Jews, and not all Jews understand themselves as represented by the state of Israel. Secondly, the state of Israel should be representing allof its population equally, regardless of whether or not they are Jewish, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.
So the first critical and normative claim that follows is that the state of Israel should be representing the diversity of its own population. Indeed, nearly 25 percent of Israel’s population is not Jewish, and most of those are Palestinian, although some of them are Bedouins and Druze. If Israel is to be considered a democracy, the non-Jewish population deserves equal rights under the law, as do the Mizrachim (Arab Jews) who represent over 30 percent of the population. Presently, there are at least twenty laws that privilege Jews over Arabs within the Israeli legal system. The 1950 Law of Return grants automatic citizenship rights to Jews from anywhere in the world upon request, while denying that same right to Palestinians who were forcibly dispossessed of their homes in 1948 or subsequently as the result of illegal settlements and redrawn borders. Human Rights Watch has compiled an extensive study of Israel’s policy of “separate, not equal” schools for Palestinian children. Moreover, as many as 100 Palestinian villages in Israel are still not recognized by the Israeli government, lacking basic services (water, electricity, sanitation, roads, etc.) from the government. Palestinians are barred from military service, and yet access to housing and education still largely depends on military status. Families are divided by the separation wall between the West Bank and Israel, with few forms of legal recourse to rights of visitation and reunification. The Knesset debates the “transfer” of the Palestinian population to the West Bank, and the new loyalty oath requires that anyone who wishes to become a citizen pledge allegiance to Israel as Jewish and democratic, thus eliding once again the non-Jewish population and binding the full population to a specific and controversial, if not contradictory, version of democracy.
The second point, to repeat, is that the Jewish people extend beyond the state of Israel and the ideology of political Zionism. The two cannot be equated. Honestly, what can really be said about “the Jewish people” as a whole? Is it not a lamentable sterotype to make large generalizations about all Jews, and to presume they all share the same political commitments? They—or, rather, we—occupy a vast spectrum of political views, some of which are unconditionally supportive of the state of Israel, some of which are conditionally supportive, some are skeptical, some are exceedingly critical, and an increasing number, if we are to believe the polls in this country, are indifferent. In my view, we have to remain critical of anyone who posits a single norm that decides rights of entry into the social or cultural category determining as well who will be excluded. Most categories of identity are fraught with conflicts and ambiguities; the effort to suppress the complexity of the category of “Jewish” is thus a political move that seeks to yoke a cultural identity to a specific Zionist position. If the Jew who struggles for justice for Palestine is considered to be anti-Semitic, if any number of internationals who have joined thus struggle from various parts of the world are also considered anti-Semitic and if Palestinians seeking rights of political self-determination are so accused as well, then it would appear that no oppositional move that can take place without risking the accusation of anti-Semitism. That accusation becomes a way of discrediting a bid for self-determination, at which point we have to ask what political purpose the radical mis-use of that accusation has assumed in the stifling of a movement for political self-determination.
When Zionism becomes co-extensive with Jewishness, Jewishness is pitted against the diversity that defines democracy, and if I may say so, betrays one of the most important ethical dimensions of the diasporic Jewish tradition, namely, the obligation of co-habitation with those different from ourselves. Indeed, such a conflation denies the Jewish role in broad alliances in the historical struggle for social and political justice in unions, political demands for free speech, in socialist communities, in the resistance movement in World War II, in peace activism, the Civil Rights movement and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It also demeans the important struggles in which Jews and Palestinians work together to stop the wall, to rebuild homes, to document indefinite detention, to oppose military harassment at the borders and to oppose the occupation and to imagine the plausible scenarios for the Palestinian right to return.
The point of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is to withdraw funds and support from major financial and cultural institutions that support the operations of the Israeli state and its military. The withdrawal of investments from companies that actively support the military or that build on occupied lands, the refusal to buy products that are made by companies on occupied lands, the withdrawal of funds from investment accounts that support any of these activities, a message that a growing number of people in the international community will not be complicit with the occupation. For this goal to be realized, it matters that there is a difference between those who carry Israeli passports and the state of Israel, since the boycott is directed only toward the latter. BDS focuses on state agencies and corporations that build machinery designed to destroy homes, that build military materiel that targets populations, that profit from the occupation, that are situated illegally on Palestinian lands, to name a few.
BDS does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of their national citizenship. I concede that not all versions of BDS have been consistent on this point in the past, but the present policy confirms this principle. I myself oppose any form of BDS that discriminates against individuals on the basis of their citizenship. Others may interpret the boycott differently, but I have no problem collaborating with Israeli scholars and artists as long as we do not participate in any Israeli institution or have Israeli state monies support our collaborative work. The reason, of course, is that the academic and cultural boycott seeks to put pressure on all those cultural institutions that have failed to oppose the occupation and struggle for equal rights and the rights of the dispossessed, all those cultural institutions that think it is not their place to criticize their government for these practices, all of them that understand themselves to be above or beyond this intractable political condition. In this sense, they do contribute to an unacceptable status quo. And those institutions should know why international artists and scholars refuse to come when they do, just as they also need to know the conditions under which people will come. When those cultural institutions (universities, art centers, festivals) were to take such a stand, that would be the beginning of the end of the boycott (let’s remember that the goal of any boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is to become obsolete and unnecessary; once conditions of equality and justice are achieved, the rationale for BDS falls away, and in this sense achieving the just conditions for the dissolution of the movement is its very aim).
In some ways, the argument between BDS and its opponents centers on the status of international law. Which international laws are to be honored, and how can they be enforced. International law cannot solve every political conflict, but political conflicts that fully disregard international law usually only get worse as a result. We know that the government of the state of Israel has voiced its skepticism about international law, repeatedly criticizing the United Nations as a biased institution, even bombing its offices in Gaza. Israel also became the first country to withhold cooperation from a UN review of its human rights practices scheduled last week in Geneva (New York Times, 1/29/13). I think it is fair to call this a boycott of the UN on the part of the state of Israel. Indeed, one hears criticism of the ineffectiveness of the UN on both sides, but is that a reason to give up on the global human rights process altogether? There are good reasons to criticize the human rights paradigm, to be sure, but for now, I am only seeking to make the case that BDS is not a destructive or hateful movement. It appeals to international law precisely under conditions in which the international community, the United Nations included, neighboring Arab states, human rights courts, the European Union, The United States and the UK, have all failed effectively to rectify the manifest injustices in Palestine. Boycott, divestment and the call for sanctions are popular demands that emerge precisely when the international community has failed to compel a state to abide by its own norms.
Let us consider, then, go back to the right of return, which constitutes the controversial third prong of the BDS platform. The law of return is extended to all of us who are Jewish who live in the diaspora, which means that were it not for my politics, I too would be eligible to become a citizen of that state. At the same time, Palestinians in need of the right of return are denied the same rights? If someone answers that “Jewish demographic advantage” must be maintained, one can query whether Jewish demographic advantage is policy that can ever be reconciled with democratic principles. If one responds to that with “the Jews will only be safe if they retain their majority status,” the response has to be that any state will surely engender an opposition movement when it seeks to maintain a permanent and disenfranchised minority within its borders, fails to offer reparation or return to a population driven from their lands and homes, keeps over four million people under occupation without rights of mobility, due process and political self-determination, and another 1.6 million under siege in Gaza, rationing of food, administering unemployment, blocking building materials to restore bombed homes and institutions, intensifying vulnerability to military bombardment resulting in widespread injury and death.
If we conclude that those who participate in such an opposition movement do so because they hate the Jews, we have surely failed to recognize that this is an opposition to oppression, to the multi-faceted dimensions of a militarized form of settler colonialism that has entailed subordination, occupation and dispossession. Any group would oppose that condition, and the state that maintains it, regardless of whether that state is identified as a Jewish state or any other kind. Resistance movements do not discriminate against oppressors, though sometimes the language of the movement can use discriminatory language, and that has to be opposed. However, it is surely cynical to claim that the only reason a group organizes to oppose its own oppression is that it bears an inexplicable prejudice or racist hatred against those who oppress them. We can see the torque of this argument and the absurd conclusions to which it leads: if the Palestinians did not hate the Jews, they would accept their oppression by the state of Israel! If they resist, it is a sign of anti-Semitism!
This kind of logic takes us to one of the traumatic and affective regions of this conflict. There are reasons why much of the global media and prevailing political discourses cannot accept that a legitimate opposition to inequality, occupation, and dispossession is very different from anti-Semitism. After all, we cannot rightly argue that if a state claiming to represent the Jewish people engages in these manifestly illegal activities, it is therefore justified on the grounds that the Jews have suffered atrociously and therefore have special needs to be exempt from international norms. Such illegal acts are never justified, no matter who is practicing them.
At the same time, one must object to some of the language used by Hamas to refer to the state of Israel, where very often the state of Israel is itself conflated with the Jews, and where the actions of the state reflect on the nature of the Jews. This is clearly anti-Semitism and must be opposed. But BDS is not the same as Hamas, and it is simply ignorant to argue that all Palestinian organizations are the same. In the same vein, those who wrote to me recently to say that BDS is the same as Hamas is the same as the Nazis are involved in fearful and aggressive forms of association that assume that any effort to make distinctions is naïve and foolish. And so we see how the conflations such as these lead to bitter and destructive consequences. What if we slowed down enough to think and to distinguish—what political possibilities might then open?
And it brings us to yet another outcry that we heard in advance of our discussion here this evening. That was BDS is the coming of a second holocaust. I believe we have to be very careful when anyone makes use of the Holocaust in this way and for this purpose, since if the term becomes a weapon by which we seek to stigmatize those with opposing political viewpoints, then we have first of all dishonored the slaughter of over 6 million Jewish people, and another 4 million gypsies, gay people, disabled, the communists and the physically and mentally ill. All of us, Jewish or not Jewish, must keep that historical memory intact and alive, and refuse forms of revisionism and political exploitation of that history. We may not exploit and re-ignite the traumatic dimension of Hitler’s atrocities for the purposes of accusing and silencing those with opposing political viewpoints, including legitimate criticisms of the state of Israel. Such a tactic not only demeans and instrumentalizes the memory of the Nazi genocide, but produces a general cynicism about both accusations of anti-Semitism and predictions of new genocidal possibilities. After all, if those terms are bandied about as so much artillery in a war, then they are used as blunt instruments for the purposes of censorship and self-legitimation, and they no longer name and describe the very hideous political realities to which they belong. The more such accusations and invocations are tactically deployed, the more skeptical and cynical the public becomes about their actual meaning and use. This is a violation of that history, an insult to the surviving generation, and a cynical and excited recirculation of traumatic material—a kind of sadistic spree, to put it bluntly—that seeks to defend and legitimate a very highly militarized and repressive state regime. Of the use of the Holocaust to legitimate Israeli military destructiveness, Primo Levi wrote in 1982, “I deny any validity to [the use of the Holocaust for] this defence.”
We have heard in recent days as well that BDS threatens the attempt to establish a two-state solution. Although many people who support BDS are in favor of a one-state solution, the BDS movement has not taken a stand on this explicitly, and includes signatories who differ from one another on this issue. In fact, the BDS committee, formed in 2005 with the support of over 170 organizations in Palestine, does not take any stand on the one state or two state solution. It describes itself as an “anti-normalization” politics that seeks to force a wide range of political institutions and states to stop compliance with the occupation, unequal treatment and dispossession. For the BDS National Committee, it is not the fundamental structure of the state of Israel that is called into question, but the occupation, its denial of basic human rights, its abrogation of international law (including its failure to honor the rights of refugees), and the brutality of its continuing conditions—harassment, humiliation, destruction and confiscation of property, bombardment, and killing. Indeed, one finds an array of opinions on one-state and two-state, especially now that one-state can turn into Greater Israel with separated Bantustans of Palestinian life. The two-state solution brings its own problems, given that the recent proposals tend to suspend the rights of refugees, accept curtailed borders and fail to show whether the establishment of an independent state will bring to an end the ongoing practices and institutions of occupation, or simply incorporate them into its structure. How can a state be built with so many settlements, all illegal, which are expected to bring the Israeli population in Palestine to nearly one million of its four million inhabitants. Many have argued that it is the rapidly increasing settler population in the West Bank, not BDS, that is forcing the one-state solution.
Some people accept divestment without sanctions, or divestment and sanctions without the boycott. There are an array of views. In my view, the reason to hold together all three terms is simply that it is not possible to restrict the problem of Palestinian subjugation to the occupation alone. It is significant in itself, since four million people are living without rights of mobility, sovereignty, control over their borders, trade and political self-determination, subjected to military raids, indefinite detention, extended imprisonment and harassment. However, if we fail to make the link between occupation, inequality and dispossession, we agree to forget the claims of 1948, bury the right to return. We overlook the structural link between the Israeli demand for demographic advantage and the multivalent forms of dispossession that affect Palestinians who have been forced to become diasporic, those who live with partial rights within the borders, and those who live under occupation in the West Bank or in the open air prison of Gaza (with high unemployment and rationed foods) or other refugee camps in the region.
Some people have said that they value co-existence over boycott, and wish to engage in smaller forms of binational cultural communities in which Israeli Jews and Palestinians live and work together. This is a view that holds to the promise that small organic communities have a way of expanding into ever widening circles of solidarity, modeling the conditions for peaceable co-existence. The only question is whether those small communities continue to accept the oppressive structure of the state, or whether in their small and effective way oppose the various dimensions of continuing subjugation and disenfranchisement. If they do the latter, they become solidarity struggles. So co-existence becomes solidarity when it joins the movement that seeks to undo the structural conditions of inequality, containment and dispossession. So perhaps the conditions of BDS solidarity are precisely what prefigure that form of living and working together that might one day become a just and peaceable form of co-existence.
One could be for the BDS movement as the only credible non-violent mode of resisting the injustices committed by the state of Israel without falling into the football lingo of being “pro” Palestine and “anti” Israel. This language is reductive, if not embarrassing. One might reasonably and passionately be concerned for all the inhabitants of that land, and simply maintain that the future for any peaceful, democratic solution for that region will become thinkable through the dismantling of the occupation, through enacting the equal rights of Palestinian minorities and finding just and plausible ways for the rights of refugees to be honored. If one holds out for these three aims in political life, then one is not simply living within the logic of the “pro” and the “anti”, but trying to fathom the conditions for a “we”, a plural existence grounded in equality. What does one do with one’s words but reach for a place beyond war, ask for a new constellation of political life in which the relations of colonial subjugation are brought to a halt. My wager, my hope, is that everyone’s chance to live with greater freedom from fear and aggression will be increased as those conditions of justice, freedom, and equality are realized. We can or, rather, must start with how we speak, and how we listen, with the right to education, and to dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together. Perhaps the word “justice” will assume new meanings as we speak it, such that we can venture that what will be just for the Jews will also be just for the Palestinians, and for all the other people living there, since justice, when just, fails to discriminate, and we savor that failure.
Check out Katha Pollitt’s take on the political firestorm around the BDS panel.