This commentary first appeared in the Algemeiner on February 15.
The ironic and the disingenuous are kin. Their commonality resides in a gap, which is the distance between what is said and something else. With the ironic, the distance is between what one says and what one means. With the disingenuous, the distance is between what one says and what one has reason to recognize as true.
Judith Butler is not an ironist – not intentionally so, or perhaps only once, when she opened her remarks at Brooklyn College by referring to the controversy surrounding her appearance with Omar Barghouti at the Students for Justice in Palestine BDS event as a Megillah: “What a Megillah!” By these words Butler sought to wrap her appearance and the destructive impetus of BDS in the comfort of traditional Jewish experience – a tedium, like the tedium of all that Jewish disputation over the millennia, but by that fact merely a part of Jewish experience, just oystaynenzikh over coffee and some rugelach, and not thereby an outlier, something to fear or be rejected. No more than a variation on the time-honored tendency to hakn a tshaynik among the mishpucha.
Butler knew, however,that what she is about is not a comfort, that it would unravel the wrap, and that the arguments against her are so far from a tedium that she would spend all her words to misrepresent and seek to counter them.
Butler closed her remarks – it is the next to last sentence – so:
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.
She had opened her remarks by saying,
I would like personally to thank all those who took this opportunity to reaffirm the fundamental principles of academic freedom.
This of an event that was closed to the general public, to which the press was barred, and from which voices presumed to be dissenting were ejected.
What an ironist. How disingenuous.
Academic Freedom: What We’re Talking About
The Brooklyn College political science department claimed that to sponsor the event was not necessarily to endorse it. Much of the controversy surrounding the event has hung on this point even while missing it. It is a fine point still lacking – from the Brooklyn College political science department and anyone else who has written on the matter – an effective distinction.
To sponsor is to take responsibility for or to financially underwrite. To endorse is to express support or approval. To take responsibility for is one form of support. To financially underwrite is also a form of support. When the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine sought co “sponsorship”of the event by the political science department, SJP did not, according to department chair Paisley Currah, seek and receive financial support for the event. Financial support raises other issues, but since there was none, they need not in this instance be addressed. Without funding from the department, what could the meaning of “sponsorship” be? Other than the college’s stating what it claims sponsorship is not – endorsement – what is it?
With no other practical purpose, sponsorship can only signal some form of endorsement.
But endorsement of what?
A university can stand in three relations to an idea. One is to agree with and promote it. Most people would argue that this is not the role of a university, but obviously, when one considers it, universities do agree with and promote the idea of free inquiry – academic freedom – and, arguably, a liberal education.
A university may represent ideas as worthy of intellectual regard. This is its primary role. In political philosophy, students learn of utilitarianism, Marxism, liberal democracy, anarcho-syndicalism, Plato’s enlightened autocracy. The university will serve as advocate for none of them, but moderate, instead, students’ encounter and engagement with these ideas.
A university will not represent all ideas as worthy of intellectual regard. It will not so represent Nazism or racism (not just the behavior, but a belief in racial superiority) or pederasty as an acceptable model of adolescent development. It is the precise role of the university, however, to acknowledge, in the appropriate context, all ideas and clarify them for educational purposes. In the appropriate classes, students will and should learn about Nazism, what it advocated and what it was. One can imagine the wavering commitment of many, though, were a branch of the Ku Klux Klan to establish a student group on the Brooklyn College Campus and invite David Duke (both a racist and anti-Semite) to speak, while also seeking the “sponsorship” of the political science department.
If Brooklyn College’s sponsorship was not fully of BDS as a position, an advocacy of it, the sponsorship was at least, then, of BDS as a morally respectable idea, so that a university would be fulfilling its proper role not only in acknowledging the idea’s existence and clarifying it for educational purposes, but actually in promoting the idea as worthy of our consideration and our moral intellectual regard and not beyond the pale.
However, when one rejects bias and discrimination and corrupt historical revisionism, such as Holocaust denial, one does not only reject them as supportable practices, but as ideas worthy of our serious engagement. The role of the university is to permit students who are led to engage an objectionable idea to so engage it, even, where appropriate, to educate them in its nature. In that is the academic freedom. Academic freedom does not require that the institution place an imprimatur of sponsorship upon an extra-mural event, an imprimatur that has no other, practical meaning but the symbolism of the sponsorship. The choice to provide such an imprimatur can only reasonably be interpreted as a signal that the ideas to be presented at the event are worthy of consideration. This Brooklyn College, in mischaracterizing the nature and responsibilities of academic freedom, disingenuously fails to acknowledge, as does Judith Butler, who actually does endorse BDS.
An Unreliable Narrator
“That there is no final or adequate narrative reconstruction of the prehistory of the speaking ‘I’ does not mean we cannot narrate it; it only means that at the moment when we narrate we become speculative philosophers or fiction writers.”
Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself
Still prefatory to her actual attention to Israel, Butler felt compelled to acknowledge the Brooklyn College event’s most vocal and high profile critic, stating that it had been asserted 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.
No doubt, the audience was amused by this deflationary poke. Of course the gibe was at Alan Dershowitz, who it is my understanding is capable of offering his own defenses, but we learn something from the specific claim of the criticism. Here is what Dershowitiz actually said to this point:
The event shouldn’t be cancelled, but the political science department should withdraw it’s [sic] support, or alternatively the political science department should invite me or someone else that represents an opposing point of view and give equal endorsement.
Dershowitz’s focus, we see, was on the political science department’s sponsorship of the event, and he considered it sufficient merely for the sponsorship to be withdrawn. Alternatively, he offered himself or anyone else who could represent the opposing view to participate in the sponsored event.
If Butler cannot accurately represent in a single sentence the content and the rather simple alternative proposal of one single other sentence, how may she be trusted to offer an account of matters so complex and profound as the history and nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
In the same paragraph, Butler had asserted,
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.
She attempts to refute the two proposed claims – Dershowitiz must speak and BDS is hate speech – by presenting them as contradictory.
So in the [case of hate speech], it is not a viewpoint (and so not protected as extra-mural speech), but in the [other] 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.
In the two quotations above, Butler makes three additional misstatements. First, it may be that in the rhetoric department at U.C. Berkeley hate speech is not protected speech, but in the United States of America, it is protected. It is also, wherever it may direct its hate, a viewpoint. It may be an ugly, emotion laden viewpoint, but it takes a view, and it has a point, and not infrequently in our contentious activist world, movements are constructed around those points.
A ” quick succession of contradictory claims” is surely inimical to informed discussion and debate. So, too, is the inability to accurately describe reality in even a single sentence.
Butler sets next on refuting claims that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic. She asks,
[W]hy would a non-violent movement to achieve basic political rights for Palestinians be understood as anti-Semitic?… [W]hy would a collective struggle to use economic and cultural forms of power to compel the enforcement of international laws be considered anti-Semitic?
She introduces her summation of this rhetorical display, with
For those who say that exercising internationally recognized rights is anti-Semitic….
The level of disingenuousness in these loaded questions and distorted characterization is truly remarkable. It is the first demonstration of a fair and critical mind, capable of stepping outside the frame of its own narrative, to be able to represent its interlocutor’s argument in the opponent’s own terms. The challenge then is to refute the terms of the opponent’s argument and offer one’s one own terms in rebuttal. Yet when Butler, a believer in narratives, calls in her closing for us all to “dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together,” she is so opaque to herself that even when she assumes the rhetorical stance of stating her opponent’s position, she cannot, even to the level of a lone introductory phrase, represent it honestly, so as to attempt the refutation honestly.
All the preceding is sufficient to demonstrate Butler’s level of reliability as an interlocutor in debate. (There is far more of this kind of inaccuracy and mischaracterization in her five thousand words than is accounted for here.) At Brooklyn College she had two major points to make about Jews, and the first continued this pattern of misrepresentation, but at this stage, in the critical matter of Butler’s own special concerns, more subtly.
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.
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
This argument is both obtuse and a straw man. No significant party, if any, claims that Israel is “the exclusive and legitimate representative of the Jewish people” that Israel is “co-extensive with the Jewish people,” or rejects the manifest reality that the “Jewish people extend beyond the state of Israel and … Zionism.” No more than is France the exclusive representative of the French people or Russia of the Russian people. People of French ethnic origin, like any other, may, and do, live in other nations, may engage French cultural practice, may feel a sense of French identification even while preferring to live elsewhere, may criticize French society or government, may even give up their citizenship for another, while remaining ethnically and even recognizably “French.”
Of course, Jewishness, serving as both ethnicity and religious faith offers conceptual complications for nationality. So does all of human history. The French pied-noir of colonial North Africa found themselves after Algerian independence no longer acceptably Algerian and not comfortably French. Unlike most other nations, nationality in the United States has nothing to do with ethnicity. In contrast, no one expatriating to Russia and gaining Russian citizenship would ever, nonetheless, be considered “Russian.” Those of Irish descent in the U.S. frequently feel very strong identification with Ireland, as during the long conflict in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, they remained American in citizenship and in equally strong identification. They criticized one side or another in Ireland, yet if a grandparent was born in Ireland, are automatically eligible for Irish citizenship. These complexities of social organization are the rule. The question is whether we generously accommodate them – in honor of the impulse toward affective association that leads all peoples, Palestinians, too, to wish to dwell together in commonality – or we choose one anomaly among others as the reason for prejudicial exception against Israel and Jews, under the pretense that there is any kind of categorical consistency to nationality.
One atypical feature that Butler exploits regarding Israel is the apparent lexical distinction, in English, between the words “Israel” and “Jew.” This is unlike the obvious relation of “France” to “French” and “Russia” to ”Russian.” The apparent verbal separation seems to provide an opening for making just that argument of separation between Israel and Jews. On the contrary of course, etymologically, Israel, or Yisrael in Hebrew are the descendents of Jacob, who have struggled with God, the Hebrew people – Jews.
Why are not citizens of the United States called United Statesians? What crisis of authority in representation– if voluntarily accepted – does this present? Would the likeness to other national identifications be easier to recognize if Israel changed its name, to suit the modern lingua franca, to Jewland?
Or would such an alteration only highlight all the more the true issue at the core – the objection by Butler that there be a land for the Jews?
Before Butler got to that central conviction, however – her objection to the existence of a land for the Jews – there was one more logical stumble to make on the way to her lurching conclusion. It is easier to dispense with Israel if one can argue that Israel deserves to be dispensed with.
If Israel is to be considered a democracy, the non-Jewish population deserves equal rights under the law.
Now certainly all true democrats will acknowledge that every proclaimed democracy faces the moral compulsion to pursue complete and perfect democracy. The United States pursues that so far elusive goal too. But the “if/(then)” conditional Butler puts forward commits the “all or nothing” variation on the fallacy of false dilemma. In full context, she is claiming that Israel is discriminatory toward its non-Jewish citizens. (Butler chooses to say “population” rather than citizens, perhaps because that in itself would speak well of Israel and would raise the inevitable contrast with Lebanon and Jordan, where Palestinians citizenship and rights have been dramatically and increasingly problematic.) Her all or nothing claim is that if Israel has deficiencies in its equal extension of rights to all of its citizens, then, by dint of that imperfection, it is not a democracy at all, and is clearly a deserving target of its critics. We would find by this fallacious logic that probably nary a democracy in the world is actually a democracy, including certainly the United States during the long period of African slavery, the longer period of female and Indian disenfranchisement, and even until today, when LGBT Americans do not enjoy fully equal rights.
Butler’s continuous forays into illogic are not ultimately a difficulty in her arguments against Israel, though, since Israel should not exist to begin.
The Exile of the Jews
The essential argument against BDS that Butler sought to refute is that it is discriminatory, hateful, anti-Semitic, even destructive.
I am only seeking to make the case that BDS is not a destructive or hateful movement.
Butler claimed that she does not agree with all expressions of the BDS movement, yet she chose to appear with Omar Barghouti. Omar Barghouti expressly seeks the end – the destruction – of Israel and of a Jewish state.
While I ﬁrmly advocate nonviolent forms of struggle such as boycott, divestment, and sanctions to attain Palestinian goals, I just as decisively, though on a separate track, support a unitary state based on freedom, justice, and comprehensive equality as the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli colonial conﬂict.
Butler also offered a risible protest against the abuse of Holocaust and Nazi analogies by defenders of Israel, when anyone conversant with the contemporary contours of this debate knows that such comparisons, of Israel to Nazi Germany, in word and in image, have become a nearly daily commonplace from foes of Israel – even from Omar Barghouti.
Avishai D. Don, writing for the Harvard Crimson almost exactly a year ago on the subject of BDS and Barghouti’s book Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, said,
But the BDS movement hides its ultimate goal of dismantling the Jewish state behind its public rhetoric.
Utilizing the vocabulary of international norms, the movement actually systematically attempts to undermine the international consensus that recognizes Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
This is what Butler did disingenuously at Brooklyn College, first, by appearing with Bhargouti, and second, by failing to acknowledge at that college, that educational setting, that she, too, does not merely seek to correct Israeli policy, but actively opposes the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. She did hint at her position, though.
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.
Butler does not explain why the Frenchness of France or the Japaneseness of Japan are not so “pitted against the diversity that defines democracy” that the existence of their states, too, need be opposed. However, she does manage to misrepresent the truth in yet another sentence. Butler refers to one of the “ethical dimensions of the diasporic Jewish tradition, namely, the obligation of co-habitation with those different from ourselves.” What shall we say of thinking that characterizes as an ethical obligation what was actually an existential necessity, a necessity that met its ultimate failure in the Holocaust – a failure that should have served irrefutably for all as the irresistible historical peroration of the necessity of the Jewish state? But Butler has stated on more than one occasion that she does not, in her public utterance and advocacy, feel compelled to seek accordance with reality.
It may be that binationalism is an impossibility, but that mere fact does not suffice as a reason to be against it.
Butler wrote those words in Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, and it is in that work that she fully makes the case for the “ethical dimensions of the diasporic Jewish tradition.” Alan Johnson sums the argument in his Fathom review of the book.
Dispersion, for Butler, must be thought ‘not only as a geographical situation but also as an ethical modality.’ By returning to the diasporic experience we find a ‘Jewish route to the insight that equality must be secured for a population regardless of religious affiliation’ and a means to effect ‘a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.’
Words on a page, their reception by the eyes, the scanned processing in rapid succession, for immediate comprehension, of the ideas of a text may not always deliver their full effect. Sometimes what has been said needs to settle, to descend deeper into comprehension with the full weight of meaning and implication, and in some cases, the effrontery of its claim upon the world. Butler argues not only that Jews drew from the Diaspora, their long exile in often and ultimately almost always hostile foreign lands, the experience and insights of an expanded and deeper moral nature. Butler is arguing, too, that this exilic nature has finally actually become the Jews: consigned to exile, Jews should now be condemned to it, for clearly there are millions of Jews who do not wish it. This is of no concern to Butler, for whom impossibility is no bar to reason, like labeling as a “solution” the kind of proposal that millions would fight and even die to prevent.
Jews, for Judith Butler, are to become the symbolic sacrifice on the ideational alter of post-nationalism, for their renewed exile will represent “a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.” The God of Abraham and of Moses would let his people go. Cyrus the Great would release the Jews from captivity in Babylon. But Judith Butler will exile them forever.
Who today would theorize that the African Diaspora, having been stolen from their homes and submerged in the depths of servitude had actually – look at the riches of culture they have produced out of their pain and endurance in so many nations – found their true and greater natures in an ethic of selfless service, to which perhaps they should return? Who would philosophize that the indigenous populations of the world – those whom Butler and her allies continue to abuse by co-opting the vocabulary of their cause as a weapon against not Israel, but Jews – who would argue that in their centuries of conquest, abuse, and loss, their alienation from spiritual relation to their lands, indigenous peoples have been transformed by history into a moral exemplar, and that only through their continued disconnection and their yearning for reconnection can they serve to lead us away from materialism and back to a purer relation to the earth?
But Jews should be returned to exile from the land that was, and is again, their own in order to model “a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.”
Butler finds difficulty with the term ant-Semitic. She argued repeatedly at Brooklyn College against its use and applicability to the selective and discriminatory policies she promotes. It has become, to her mind, a term subject to “radical misuse.” Here is another term, then, to describe her convolution of Jewishness, perhaps fresher and more forceful to her mind. It is an obscenity.