I regret to say that a fair number of people I respect (and some not so much) have signed on to a statement about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that, evince as it may the best of intentions, is nonetheless, in truth, very considerable twaddle. I speak of the statement of principles of the Third Narrative Academic Advisory Council. The council, we are told,
[w]ill function as an advisory body to The Third Narrative (TTN), facilitated by Ameinu. The Council will seek to create a unique, middle ground, organizing space at TTN for progressive academics and will engage academics from across North America.
The statement goes on to list varied activities all of which relate to the promotion of academic freedom. This focus suggests that a pivotal organizing impetus for the formation of the council, perhaps even the conception of a “third narrative,” has been the recent and growing movement toward academic boycotts directed at Israel. That is a vital concern, and along with that concern the council promotes, essentially, empathetic evenhandedness (the “third” narrative) and the two-state solution. Plenty of people have made claims to the latter beliefs, so, again, it seems apparent that the particular motivation for the formation of this council of academics is the current growing threat to academic freedom by the BDS movement, which, not by the way, the council statement never mentions by name. Thus, since the statement of principles begins its introduction averring that
[s]cholars and academics should play a positive role in asking difficult questions, and promoting critical thinking, about the Israel-Palestinian conflict,
I am going to offer a little of that difficult question asking and critical thinking promotion.
The opening sentence of the introduction states,
We are progressive scholars and academics who reject the notion that one has to be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.
Well, no, one does not have to be either of these two given alternatives, but such a formulation suggests that in order to be pro one an individual must by logical entailment be anti the other, as ifpro-Palestinian were the conceptual complement of anti-Israel instead of a historically contingent pairing that is the consequence of political choices. To put a fine point on it, one may well be, as many people long have been, pro-Israel and still be a supporter of the two-state solution – and thus feel “empathy for the suffering and aspirations” of Palestinians and be not anti-Palestinian – as well as an opponent of academic boycotts, as most everyone also has long been. In other words, this is not a new position to take.
Still, the founders and members of this council felt prompted to form it and to frame what they chose to call a “third narrative.”
The listed principles (a-g) are seven. They are on their face unobjectionable to reasonable people, though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one, historically, that has seen, even until today, very large numbers of unreasonable people. The principles are almost all couched in the evenhanded vocabulary of “both sides.” Almost all.
Principle c) avows,
We believe the Israeli occupation of the West Bank not only deprives Palestinians of their fundamental rights, but is also corrosive to Israeli society and is incompatible with the democratic principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.
Now, certainly the framers of this principle know that elements of it are disputed. Some people – one will presume among them those signing onto the statement – might call any dispute over the wording of “occupation” to be disingenuous caviling. Others will call it the making of meaningful distinctions. But the council does here take a clear position that it is not. Okay. Fine. Being evenhanded and balanced and all that, with “empathy for the suffering and aspirations of both peoples” does not mean not having any point of view at all, and here, obviously, on this point, it goes against Israel. Being evenhanded and balanced and all that, one presumes that elsewhere among the principles or in the statement one will find articulated some expression of specifically blameworthy Palestinian behavior – not because one should make some up, so to speak, just to pretend to be fair, but because there is actually blameworthy specifically Palestinian behavior to perceive?
Principle f) asserts,
We reject the all-too-common binary approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict that seeks to justify one side or the other as all right or all wrong, and sets out to marshal supposed evidence to prove a case of complete guilt or total exoneration. Scholarship and fairness require a more difficult and thoughtful approach. As academics we recognize the subjective perspectives of individuals and peoples, but strive to apply rigorous standards to research and analysis rather than to subsume academic discipline to political expediency.
Yet, those rigorous standards of research and analysis, when applied in principle e), to “rhetoric used by both sides” [emphasis added] offer no specific acknowledgement, as with Israeli “occupation,” to the institutionalization of anti-Semitic rhetoric within organizations and concerns run or funded by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. In principle d), where the council “cannot condone the use of violence targeting civilians,” but names no national names, its rigorous standards fail to detect over the organizational, terrorist history of the PLO and its constituent members, and in the onslaught of the second Intifada, and in Hamas missile and rocket attacks on Israel a purposeful policy of violence targeting citizens of which there is not the remotest like on the part of Israel.
The call, in the interests of peace, is that one show to both peoples a balanced “respect for their national narratives.” This is not to say – it does not say – intellectual recognition of a narrative. It does not say, as part of the reality of negotiating some resolution to conflict with foes,accommodation in an acceptable way of a foe’s narrative. It says “respect” for it. The anti-Semitic narrative, the “settler-colonial” interloper with no ancient history on the land narrative. The rejectionist narrative. Respect for it. And this would be “to apply rigorous standards to research and analysis rather than to subsume academic discipline to political expediency”?
While I know specifically that it is not so for many of the individuals who have signed the Third Narrative Advisory Council Statement, the statement, as a joint product, does give off a whiff of something. It has the odor of sweaty discomfort to it. The rotten BDS movement has made unnerving advances into academic terrain, and these scholars recognize how awful and frightening that is. Yet, though BDS is clearly opposed elsewhere on the Third Narrative website, omission of any direct reference to it in the advisory council statement, and to BDS’s provenance, is glaring. The unwillingness, despite all the conspicuous rhetoric of balance, to specifically cite Palestinians for wrongful behavior in any instance, while showing no such reserve about Israel, feels telling.
The Third Narrative has the odor of offering people a way to take a stand, in the current moment, seemingly supportive of Israel, but while holding their noses. If you want to oppose academic boycotts, but you don’t want to call yourself pro-Israel or specifically criticize Palestinians for anything, you now have a statement you can endorse or even sign, and when you do sign it, you may notice something about all the other names of people supporting a “third” narrative and its “unique, middle ground”: they are almost all Jewish names, without a recognizably Arab name among them.
As a matter of international justice, however, conceptually distinguishing and crucial in consideration of what constitutes an indigenous people have been the following characteristics, developed for the Working Paper on the Concept of “Indigenous People” prepared for the U.N.’s Working Group on Indigenous Populations:
Priority in time, with respect to the occupation and use of a specific territory;
The voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness, which may include the aspects of language, social organization, religion and spiritual values, modes of production, laws and institutions;
An experience of subjugation, marginalization, dispossession, exclusion or discrimination, whether or not these conditions persist; and
Self-identification, as well as recognition by other groups, or by State authorities, as a distinct collectivity.
It is obvious that Jews wholly match the distinguishing characteristics. They do so no less or more so in any one respect than another, yet one may say that in the historically outstanding nature of Jewish survival during an unparalleled, near two-millennium Diaspora, “voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness” and “self-identification” have played especially important roles. I note this to emphasize the self-identification component offered by the international community in thoughtful respect to the self-determination of indigenous peoples.
It is the case, given the politics of indigeneity among host nations, that nations will often challenge the indigenous claims of their internal populations. Most notable in recent times, four nations – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States – did not originally vote in favor of adopting the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The reasons for this reluctance were not difficult to fathom. All four nations had profound histories of conquest and significant indigenous populations whose claims – original, political, and economic – are supported by the Declaration. Ratification might also entail a difficult social and political coming-to-terms with disturbing historical truths, a process still not advanced in the United States. (Australia, by contrast, in 2008 issued a public apology to its indigenous population, delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in a nationally televised address before the Australian parliament, with all but one living former prime minister present.) In the United States, Native American claims of territorial and sovereign rights are regularly resisted. The Pamunkey Tribe of Virginia, for instance, of such history as to be famed for Pocahantas and its contact with John Smith and the Jamestown colony, and occupying, still, the oldest reservation in the country, predating the country, does not enjoy the benefits of federally recognized status. The Lakota actually won a 1980, 8-1 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court over the theft, in violation of two Fort Laramie treaties, of the Black Hills of South Dakota. Still, while the Court offered the Lakota financial compensation – which the tribe did not want and has refused – it did not offer the Lakota what it is they do want and still demand, the return of their sacred Hills.
In contrast to these national challenges to indigenous claims, what one will not find is the international community – that is to say, the international legal regime and the left social justice movements that are so much that regime’s support – challenging those indigenous claims by aboriginal populations.
One will not find challenges to these claims, that is, except in the case of Jews.
Anti-Semitism and the Denial of Jewish Indigeneity
Fundamental now to the radical left assault on Israel’s legitimacy are fierce anti-historical falsehoods denying the indigeneity of Jews to the ancient land of Israel. Palestinians and their left Western supporters, as part of the campaign to delegitimize Israel, regularly challenge and even deny the historical origin of Jews in Israel. This is their challenge to the distinguishing criterion of “priority in time.”
The variations on these delegitimizing tactics are many, from genetic denial (Ashkenazi Jews are really converted Khazars) and misidentification (Jews are Europeans), to differing counterfactual claims: ignoring the unbroken presence of Jews in Palestine (the Old Yeshuv) and ignoring in the European claim that the majority of current Israeli Jews are actually Mizrahi and Sepharidic Jews.
Only for Jews, then, is the sensitive and respectful “fundamental criterion” of self-identification attacked by every kind of scientific, historical, and rhetorical fraudulence. With respect to Jews only does the ideological left challenge the integral identity in difference of an indigenous people. Whereas, according to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, “in almost all indigenous languages, the name of a group simply refers to ‘people,’ ‘man’ or ‘us,’” often with some indicator of place, such as “here” – thus distinguishing “the people” from those who are outsiders, those who are not “the people” – only with respect to Jews is the otherwise respected self-separation in “cultural distinctiveness” and difference misrepresented and traduced by some who would call themselves “progressive” as an ideology of racist superiority. In this gesture of disdain and, indeed, cultural superiority, does a so-called progressive dominant world view mimic the condescension with which European peoples conducted a genocidal assault on the resistant cultural and religious otherness of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere and Oceania.
Only now it is against Jews that such a campaign of cultural genocide is waged, not this time on the basis of a Christian slander of deicide or of Nazi physical extermination, but of a selectively post-nationalist secular religion and by a blind progressivism that begins to mirror its opposite.
It is now “theory,” the most highfalutin conceptualizing and rhetoricizing of the intellectual left, that moves this third great movement of Western anti-Semitism. It is NAISA’s own purported professionalism in indigenous studies that constructs the irony of this campaign against the Jewish state, and, as an exploitative by-product, the re-colonization by theory of other indigenous peoples.
Re-Colonization by Theory
The ILO’s and U.N. Working Group’s criteria include as one of those distinguishing characteristics of indigeneity the “experience of subjugation, marginalization, dispossession, exclusion or discrimination, whether or not these conditions persist.” Of course, now, for Jews, in the establishment of, and in a Jewish state, those conditions do not primarily any longer persist. Yet in this qualifier – offered, clearly, against any distinction – postcolonial and culture theorists working from counter-constructs of power and the ethical standing of powerlessness nonetheless find excuse to recast Jews as oppressors based on their recovery from powerlessness.
Still, we might pause to wonder, as any clear thinker would be driven by obvious questioning to wonder – but why, for NAISA, Israel and Jews?
Where are the NAISA resolutions in support of boycotting Brazilian universities, in protest of the destruction of the Amazon homelands of the smallest and most powerless of all indigenous tribes? Where is the resolution against Indonesia for the 1963 conquest and subjugation of the 250 indigenous tribes of West Papua, New Guinea, which those people still resist today? Where was the resolution, closer to home, to boycott Yale University prior to 2010, during the near century that it reneged on the deal with Peru to return the Quechua artifacts of Machu Picchu? Closer still, where were the resolutions against American universities in protest of the fourteen-year Individual Indian Trust Fund lawsuit, and of the Tribal Trust Fund suit, litigations against the U.S. Department of the Interior over the misappropriation of hundreds of billions of dollars held in trust for scores of tribes and hundreds of thousands of individual American Indians since 1887? Where are the resolutions in protest of the inadequacies of the Indian Health Service, of state and local violations of the tribal sovereignty offered by the federal government? Where is the resolution to boycott any law school that does not call for the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn Johnson v. M’Intosh, the 1823 decision by which the Court legally enshrined the conquest of Native America by right of European discovery?
We will not find them.
What we find instead, driven by the fashions of academia, the prevailing winds of cultural theory, and the shape shifting of anti-Semitism is the exploitation of the indigenous cause, and one more time, of indigenous peoples, only for the purpose of expropriating the terms of those peoples’ histories to be used not in the interests of the indigenous, but as rhetorical weapons against Jews. The political fashionistas of the Middle East and Orientalist theorizing – in support of Palestinian rejectionism, which is in order to oppose Jewish empowerment in Israel – do not care about indigenous peoples. They merely use them, adopting the modern history of indigenous victimization as a banner to fly in the campaign against Israel. Worse, in this abuse, they attempt, in ideological solidarity, to draw in to a conflict not their own the very indigenous peoples these progressives pretend to champion as allies. Think of the French and Indian War in North America. How the British made promises to the Iroquois to protect the Ohio River Valley from European settlement. How the French must have whispered the music of mutual alliance into Algonquian ears. How Omar Barghouti and some Americanist from a state university protesting settler-colonialism in Palestine play, by the mere utterance of a verbal truth-to-power badge, as if they stand in solidarity with West Papuans.
In 1988, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak published a landmark essay in postcolonial studies entitled “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Its status was established by the nature of its insights, variously welcome and unwelcome by its intended audience, and by the extent of its influence on the field. That influence has been, all depending on one’s perspective, both profoundly positive and negative. Among Spivak’s important insights and warnings (Spivak’s Marxist and deconstructionist theorizing is the kind that seeks to problematize a field, to interrupt a discourse) was the caution against first-world political radicals producing “essentialist” conceptions of the third-world subaltern powerless, i.e. conceiving of them as if they are all, from their varied cultures and histories, the same in their difference – representing them as possessing an essential, common otherness from those Western Subjects who make objects of them through study. This might mean, very simply, constructing homogenous postcolonial others out of Cherokees and Palestinians.
Another of Spivak’s warnings, significantly unheeded in practice, was against perpetuating in the radical postcolonial critique of imperialism the same Western power structures – the hegemony of Western modes of knowledge and discourse – that upheld imperialism. That is to say that Western theorists and radicals speaking on behalf of the subaltern is not the subaltern speaking. Rather it is a substitution of the same dominating institutional and historical discourse for – and here Spivak quotes Foucault – “a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated: naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity.”
What is the history of Western colonialism for indigenous peoples, beyond the physical onslaught, if not a history of the West’s disqualifying as inadequate “naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity”? How do we not see, even more than in the theory and its jargon, in the postcolonial activism itself – by exploiting the jargon in an effort to refashion reality from it, through vague verbal posturings in boycott resolutions by professional intellectuals – Western radicals this time, imposing, again, their own, alien historical discourse and conceptions, their own positive and negative self-regard, their own agenda on indigenous peoples?
(An earlier version of this essay first appeared in the Algemeiner on December 30, 2013.)
Now that the American Studies Association has passed its resolution calling for an academic boycott of Israel, universities and fellow academics all over the country are denouncing it. These and other critics of an academic boycott of Israel generally resort fully only to one of the two arguments that can and should be made in response to these calls. The first argument is principled, the second substantive, and one argument offered in the absence of the other deprives Israel of the ethical force of the full condemnation that those who traduce Israel in this way deserve.
There are those who restrict the anti academic boycott argument to addressing, in Stanley Fish’s words, “a limited, guild notion of academic freedom … the freedom to pursue scholarly inquiry, not the freedom to advance justice and equality on university time.” Fish begins in the right place, in citing “the freedom to pursue scholarly inquiry.” That freedom, like so many in so free a nation as the United States, is often taken for granted, its significance and origins lost, in this case, to the non-scholarly, the unscientific, or the anti-intellectual. Yet history’s most famous attack on intellectual freedom – the conviction by the Roman Catholic Church of Galileo Galilei for heresy, for propounding heliocentrism – should serve for all time as the sole necessary reminder of the importance of the principal. The freedom of scholarly and all intellectual inquiry is instrumental to the advance of civilization and was critical to the advent of the Enlightenment. It is basic to the intellectual activity that developed into academic guild work, into that merely, it might seem, professional work of the academic.
But Fish’s “limited guild notion” is just the workaday action of a more profound and, indeed, political idea.
Fish observed that his own critics, often in defense of academic boycott, were emphasizing the element of “freedom” over that of the “academic.” The latter does name the professional parameter, and that is where Fish wants to contain the argument. “Freedom” accentuated, on the other hand, is the leverage boycotters and activists use to bring the weight of their academic work to bear, as through a boycott, on political matters external to their actual scholarly fields. However, it is academicfreedom, the two words emphasized equally together, that names neither the professional nor a possibly shifting political interest, but the greater political ideal instead, of individual freedom exemplified by mental freedom, of freedom of speech at the intellectual apex of thought and speech, and of independence from authority and authoritarianism.
To claim, then, that academic freedom is best conceived as a non-political freedom is fundamentally wrong. No advocacy of freedom can be non-political. To advocate freedom, as liberty, is to promote a political idea. The question is what are those politics? What do they fully stand for? What ends do they pursue? What methods do they use? With whom are they aligned, against whom opposed?
Conceiving academic freedom in this way, it will be difficult ever to defend an academic boycott. In the most closed and repressive conditions, the free mind, in sight of an opening, will seek its freedom. As no body is freed by imprisonment, no mind can be opened separated from other minds. Yet the American Studies Association has argued in its statement proclaiming the boycott that it “represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.” That is to say, as a political tactic to achieve a social end, the ASA advocates the restriction of a right (now, among some people) in advancement of the ideal goal of its greater enlargement (among others in the future). Restricting the academic freedom of some will expand the academic freedom of others.
This represents, of course, as a belief and a methodology, the purifying utopianism of twentieth century totalitarianism, in which dictatorships of the proletariat now would lead to human liberation later, terror in the present would found the stateless, classless society of the future. Such a concordance of practice is not surprising, as many of those driving the ASA’s activism, both from without and within the association, do think out of just that tradition of theoretical critique elevated above actuality, and of restrictive tactics in the name of a liberating ideal. Advocates of boycotts and the more general BDS effort have consistently manipulated the process and limited access during organizational efforts to pass anti-Israeli resolutions, they limit the notice of and the time for debate and voting, and they make available to potential voters information promoting only anti-Israel, pro-boycott arguments. These practices were pursued in the ASA effort, too. They are practices themselves that violate the spirit of intellectual freedom inherent in the idea of academic freedom.
Academic freedom thus understood, like all intellectual freedom, is not narrowly apolitical – it is the essence of the political. It is not a mere procedural norm, stripped of the history of intellectual striving that produced it; it is the representation in practice of that striving and of the history and values that gave rise to the principle.
The question, thus, as always, is not whether those values are political in nature, but whether they are the right politics – free thinking, egalitarian, just, and socially progressive politics. It was, indeed, the desire to promote just such values that directed the one boycott now raised regularly as our ethical exemplar, that against apartheid South Africa.
In truth, however, the boycott of South Africa, both economic and academic, was always controversial, if not, among most people and nations, regarding the justness of its intent, then for its effectiveness and potential for greater harm. We have the example of Cuba for how futile even the longest-term economic sanctions can be in opening a society to the free intercourse of people and ideas. We have the example of North Korea for how a nation may turn itself into a virtual prison for its own population and survive for decades as a closed society.
Still, not every act, we may sometimes feel, need be productive of an end. Some acts are properly symbolic. We stand for and against some things, and we will be known to do so, even if we see no reason to hope we can soon change them. So many people came to feel this way about South Africa.
We may usefully ask, though, why – why South Africa and not, for instance, the Soviet Union or China?
Certainly both nations oppressed and destroyed the lives of many more people. In sheer numbers of deaths and the magnitude of the inhumanity, those two nations far exceeded South Africa. Why were they not the objects of a now historic organized and global demonstration of worldwide opprobrium? The explanation is clear. Whatever their true tyrannical and totalitarian natures, both the Soviet Union and China professed principles of social equality and justness. They claimed to seek a new, greater human freedom of mind and body. They lied, of course, (as do lie all the decades-long Arab foes of Israel, including the Palestinian Authority, in invoking the vocabulary of human and civil rights in their political campaigning against Israel) but in the manner observed by Oscar Wilde, their hypocrisy was the homage vice paid to virtue. The difference in South Africa’s was that its white, Afrikaner regime was avowedly racist. Institutionalized apartheid professed and enacted a belief and a policy of dehumanization against a discrete group within its population. By doing so, it openly declared South Africa a moral outlier among nations, fit thereby to be outcast.
For this reason, South Africa became the target of the contemporary world’s one great global boycott. While the USSR and China long had their allies, and defenders of their communist vision, no one defended South African apartheid.
In all these considerations we find the grounds for opposition in principle – with one clear and circumscribed exception – to academic boycotts. If one has no great interest in Israel, is even highly critical of Israel as a political actor, but retains a clear understanding of what academic freedom most profoundly means, then the argument in principle will serve and satisfy. But from the perspective of all who recognize the historicity of the Jewish people in Israel, who know the full history of Jewish willingness to compromise and accommodate competing claims to the land, and who know, too, the contrary history of Arab rejectionism and rank anti-Semitism, who are not blinded by animus to Israel’s vibrant democracy, in contrast to the utter illiberalism surrounding it – for all such people, an argument in principle cannot be sufficient, and is even a dereliction.
A boycott against Israeli academics and institutions is wrong not just because academic boycotts are very nearly always wrong, but because the argument for such a boycott applied to Israel is a moral outrage. While none actually argued in defense of South African apartheid – supported the philosophy or policy and upheld the moral character of the regime – free, good, and honest peoples all over the world recognize the free and democratic nature of the Israeli state. The know the historical background of its creation, and they offer moral support against its foes.
It is in the nature now of those swept along by the kinds of political currents that so often rush over the intellectually fashionable not to recognize what it must mean that Israel, even beleaguered, and so far from a South Africa or any of the true repressive states of the world, has its true defenders among the democratic and free.
It is no matter of happenstance that Israel’s traducers have adopted, among a variety of slanderously false epithets, that of “apartheid state.” They seek with characteristic dishonesty to tie Israel linguistically to that sole justifying historical precedent. Among the many deceptions embedded in the lie is the analogously false suggestion of any institutional nature to the separate treatment of Palestinians that boycott advocates claim. It is, to the contrary, otherwise well known that the twenty percent minority Arab population of Israel is the freest Arab population in the Middle East, as free as any people in the world – free, too, to emigrate were it truly so that they find themselves persecuted. In contrast, in the years after Israel’s recreation, nearly eight hundred thousand Jews fled Arab lands, leaving them now nearly absent of Jews; on the other hand, it is the expressed intention of Palestinian Authority leadership – in contradistinction to another great lie, demographically refutable, of ethnic cleansing by Israel – that a Palestinian state would be, as the Nazi’s called it, Judenfrei.
The boldness of these lies, the magnitude of their deception, stuns the imagination not only of Israelis and Jews, but of all honest and informed people, and what follows are only more lies and deceptions, without limit. The deception, for instance, that where Palestinians do confront impediments to full autonomy, it is not within Israel, as an institutionally separated and oppressed population as was present in South Africa, but on disputed territories captured in war, as a belligerent foreign population that has refused, amid a near century of massacres, wars, and campaigns of terror, ever to make peace. The deception aht the organized campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, with whose U.S. arm the ASA now allies in mutual support, has as its most well known founder Omar Barghouti, who is equally well known, in full academic freedom, to have earned a masters degree in philosophy from Tel Aviv University.
The campaign of lies to which the American Studies Association has now allied itself only begins with these examples. As the world’s current prevailing example of the infamous “big lie,” this iteration’s provenance is the same, and now three American academic associations, of which the ASA is the largest, serve as purveyors of it. Influenced, in part, by theoretical constructs that have become, in application, completely untethered from reality, these academics add now not their scholarly contributions, but their measure of ill to the world. To counter this foolish contribution, this signal misguidance, it is no longer adequate to argue only from principle, however great we think that principle to be, that academic boycotts are wrong. It is necessary to argue firmly and clearly that an academic boycott of Israel is wrong. It is important to know and to state, without faltering, why it is wrong.
This commentary originally appeared in the Algemeiner on February 22, 2013.
Reader and correspondent David Lurie has directed me to some not well-publicized revelations about the Brooklyn College BDS event. To begin, the campus BDS chapter defended itselfagainst various accusations of selective and prejudicial admission to the event and other claims, including the discriminatory eviction of four Jewish students. On the face of it, the account of circumstances surrounding admission is conceivable. One can easily imagine the organizers having become overwhelmed by the notoriety and numbers drawn by the event. One can imagine, but since there is no video record of events, we have only the current claims and counter claims.
Why is there no video record of events, which would help clarify the circumstances of the eviction of the four students, confirming or disconfirming different accounts?
Initially, BC-SJP decided not to allow the event to be videotaped by media, at the request of one of the speakers whose remarks were to be published online in The Nation magazine the same day.
While Brooklyn BDS curiously declines to name the speaker who requested the videotape ban, we know that this was Judith Butler, since they were her remarks that were published in The Nation. This is the Butler who opened her remarks by praising the idea of academic freedom and its preservation (!) in the successful holding of the BDS event.
It is not difficult to see why Butler sought the ban on videotaping. It was just last summer, during the controversy over her award of the Adorno Prize, whenvideotape of a 2006 UC Berkeley event revealed her praise of Hamas and Hezbollah as progressive organizations and her advocacy of engagement with them. During the summer controversy, she sought to misrepresent by the written word only what she had actually said, but the videotape exposed the truth. This time, Butler ensured there would be only her official statement. Without a videotape of her delivered remarks, we cannot even know for sure that what The Nation printed is even a completely accurate account of what Butler actually said.
Next, in a telephone interview with The Jewish Week, Carlos Guzman, one of the BDS event organizers, provided an account of the student evictions that contradicts public statements even by Brooklyn College.
The organizer of this month’s controversial forum at Brooklyn College who ordered four pro-Israel students ousted from the event said he acted because the students “didn’t belong” in the room, despite having been escorted there by a vice president of the school.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Carlos Guzman said he also acted because it seemed to him that the students “were preparing” to circulate flyers to others in the room — not because they were doing so, as a college spokesman previously alleged.
Guzman later told The Jewish Week that college administrators “broke the rules. … They basically snuck them in without our knowledge, into the room.”
Amid the declarations of commitment to academic freedom and free inquiry, we see a contradictory pattern. Butler closed her remarks with a moral imperative.
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.
This is a characteristic, though unusually lucid example of the mystico-poetic theory-talk that emerged from the influence of Martin Heidegger. The notion of “dwelling” is particularly Heideggerian. Heidegger, in his profound considerations of the nature and function of language, distinguished between the practical use of language, in order to do things, and language that seeks deeper meaning, which gives rise to the poetic. Heidegger, we came to learn, failed drastically himself at managing the intersection of these two roles. Many of his linguistic children actually use a version of the poetic – specialized language like “dwell” – united with more generally impenetrable prose to obscure what they advocate doing (what they might call praxis) in the high fashion garb of intellectual mere rumination: I come to consider, not to act. Or in the reverse rhetorical ploy, seeking the same obscurity of action behind the act of speech, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”
Butler could more simply have said, in order to promote model democratic behavior, “We need to listen and speak freely and openly with each other, even when we disagree.” Instead, promoting a kind of realm of transformed being, she declares we must “dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together.” In such a formulation strong disagreement is not merely a democratic difficulty we need to accommodate; it is fractiousness itself that is as much a feature as a bug of this elevated state of dwelling in free inquiry.
That’s the talk. What’s the praxis?
Butler bans cameras and publishes an official statement, which may or may not represent what she actually said, in a house organ – just as would any common polwho has placed into the Congressional “Record” remarks he later amends, or never actually delivered on a congressional floor. Or some Commissar erecting a verbal Potemkin Village of an occurrence. She does not, by any account, speak up to protest when the Brooklyn BDS modus operandi, according to one of the event’s own organizers was clearly not to “dwellcritically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together.”
It is a phenomenon always to be observed how a certain kind of missionary critic will become, by backward projection, that which she, or he, critiques. Witness Julian Assange’s efforts to protect his own secrets.
A truth about BDS that it seeks to obscure, and about many fervid opponents of Israel, is that much like the verbal show of intellectual liberty belied by performance above, they mask their fuller intentions under a cloak of civil rights or, here, academic freedom. In the West today, there are many Islamic fundamentalists who will decry any apparent violation of their rights – which in a democracy they should indeed be entitled to do – while, as advocates of Sharia, they do actually believe in those rights at all. During the McCarthy era, those who appeared resistantly before congressional committees commonly stood on either their Fifth or First Amendment rights. They did have rights to do either, but which choice they made – to refuse to disclose their beliefs in self-protection or to assert freely their right to those beliefs – could reveal much about the integrity of the person’s acts and position.
Fundamental to Brooklyn College and its political science department’s defense in sponsoring the BDS event was the claim that sponsorship did not signal endorsement of BDS as a policy. I have already discussed the greater complexity of implication in the sponsorship than such simple disclaimers acknowledge. It appears that every other academic department on the Brooklyn College campus recognized this complexity, too, when all 33 that political science chair Paisley Currah contacted amid the controversy, that they might ratify the political science department in co-sponsorship, declined to do so. Brooklyn College English professor and well-known progressive voice Eric Altermanexplained this refusal.
No doubt many if not most of the supporters of BDS are the naïve, idealistic types of people who were attracted to Communism in the thirties, the Black Panthers in the sixtiess, the Nader campaign in 2000 and who knows what will comes next. In certain respects, once upon a time, I was this kind of person myself. But their innocence—and the abuse that results from opposing them—does not excuse our responsibility to condemn the intellectual masquerade in which BDS engages and the destructive consequences it supports.
BDS leader Omar Barghouti has openly, yet disingenuously stated,
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.
This is an intellectually preposterous notion, tapping into both the deceitful and self-deceptive etymology of the fallacious. BDS promotes the most aggressively delegitimizing view of Israel’s position, policies, and practices in response to over sixty years of rejection and aggression against it from the Arab world. To advocate for the moral imperative of BDS is to reject Israel’s claims to its history, both ancient and modern, and the legitimacy of its efforts to survive as a Jewish state. Barghouti, in fact, advocates the demise of Israel as a Jewish state. These are not different tracks: the perspective on Israel and the effective goal are the same. The claim of a “separate track” is a declarative shell game so poor and detectable that one can see the ball rolling on the table as it shifts from shell to shell.
More openly, Judith Butler, without the aid of rhetorical railroad switches, openly opposes the existence of Israel.
Despite its claims, what the Brooklyn College political science department sponsored was more than an educational exercise in academic freedom, a demonstration of the free inquiry that is the defining activity of a university. If what the department did was no more than place its imprimatur on the BDS event as one presenting an idea worthy of intellectual consideration and debate, then what the department so offered moral standing to is the idea that Israel, in its historic self-defense, is an outlaw state, an idea promoted by two people who believe that Israel should cease to exist and who are committed to promoting that end. The wild and ludicrous arrogance of all those involved in fulfilling this role lies in the smug sense of entitlement to so threaten the legitimacy and future of a whole nation, the fulfillment of a people’s millennial dream of deliverance, and receive no strong and assertive reaction in response. The burlesque of this academic variety review is to pretend that BDS is mere formulas on a chalkboard, the oscillating multi-verse versus a terminal Big Bang, a symposium on Adam Smith and Karl Marx – when instead it is an activist political campaign against one party to an intractable and existential conflict. And supporters of that party, Israel, are supposed to light their pipes and polish their elbow patches and admire the scholarship.
One truth may be that some academics are so accustomed to the flatulent stink of their own quickly dissipating rhetoric – like Butler’s commitment to dwelling in something or other – that they believe they can engage in political activism in the guise of academic inquiry and receive a free pass from those they act against. They think they get to play pied piper, then claim that all they are doing is putting on a concert. A marked case in point is CUNY doctoral student Kristofer Petersen-Overton, the focus of controversy at Brooklyn College himself two years ago, when he was hired, then unhired, then rehired to teach a grad course on the Middle East.
Writing in the Huffington Post to criticize those who opposed the Brooklyn College BDS event, Petersen-Overton offered the standard disingenuous deceptions, claiming of opponents that they had
managed to transform a standard panel discussion on a controversial issue into a cause for pious outrage.
A standard panel discussion of two, not discussants, but advocates. But why quibble over nomenclature. It’s just talk, right?
Petersen-Overton also took issue with Alan Dershowitz, whom he termed a
longtime scourge and chief prosecutor of insufficiently pro-Israel academics everywhere.
Yes, that is it, isn’t it – one draws interest from Dershowitz by being “insufficiently pro.”
Curiously, Paisley Currah, in his defense of his political science department – the department that did, ultimately, by unanimous vote rehire Petersen-Overton to teach – a defense that offered that familiar refrain about the non-meaning of the BDS event sponsorship (also conveyed unanimously – not veryfractious that Poly Sci department, are they), not only vigorously contested Dershowitz’s arguments, but characterized him, in his objections, to start, as one of “the usual suspects.”
Interesting phrase. Usual suspects? In what?
Currah specializes in queer and transgender issues, but Dershowitz is a full-throated advocate of gay rights, so he can’t be suspect in that area. Dershowitz is also a noted advocate of civil liberties, so in that cannot reside the suspicion.
Is it Israel? Is Dershowitz a “usual suspect” in regard to Israel? In what? In his ardent defense of the nation? Suspect?
What leanings does this glib phrase betray? Oh, and Petersen-Overton, about whom the issue of contention two years ago was his capacity for academic objectivity, against his record of Palestinianadvocacy, and a similar body of published work? Writing about BDS just this past October, he said,
In this essay, I take it for granted that Israel’s behavior in the occupied Palestinian territories is characterized by extreme violence and racism, defining qualities of all military occupations. We may or not agree as to the particular details of a desirable settlement, but for those of us uninfluenced by either dogmatic messianism or unrepentant sadism, the occupation must come to an end sooner or later. As activists and scholars who take an interest in human rights, we should be willing to consider the ethical and strategic desirability of all forms of resistance. No discussion should be off-limits.
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.
(Update) Tomorrow, September 11, 2012, the birthday of Theodor Adorno, and only chronologically coincident with the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attack, Judith Butler is set to receive the triennial Adorno Prize, awarded by the city of Frankfurt. Resonant with the themes addressed in the commentary below, originally posted last week at the Algemeiner, is this reporting, yesterday, from Deutsche Welle’s DW website. The now long-noted rise in anti-Jewish sentiment and ideas, on the left, in Europe, and recently, most disturbingly, in Germany is subtly reflected in the DW report.
What is the headline of the report? “Adorno Prize for Judith Butler irks Jewish groups.”
Irk. To annoy. To irritate. That is all this gross insult and dangerous intellectual manifestation is said to amount to: an annoyance. Get over it.
Throughout the report, Butler is referred to as an “Israel critic.” Consider how this innocuous terminology – it’s all healthy intellectual exchange, right? – dangerously misrepresents the truth. “Critic” suggests analysis and fault finding: the evaluation of weakness within and against an integral whole. The book, film, music, art critic finds flaw – as well as source for praise – in an artistic endeavor, an endeavor honored in principle. Rarely does the book critic state that the book never should have been written, and not just because the book is so bad, but because the very idea of the book was illegitimate.
Do critics of the United States, of England, of Russia, of China, argue that those nations should not, should never have existed?
When did “foe,” when did “enemy” become critic? The leadership of Iran uses destructive tropes, intellectuals like Butler use ideologized tropes, but the challenge to Israel’s legitimacy is the same, the goal of its elimination as a Jewish state and homeland identical. This single term fully represents the fundamental dishonesty at the core of the campaign against Israel.
Throughout the report by Helen Whittle, the “criticism” of Israel by Butler is never adjectivally characterized; her defense of herself is called “spirited.” Once again, as frequently since its publication on August 26, a newspaper report in the Jerusalem Post on the Jewish reaction to the award is itself characterized, as if it were an editorial, as “scathing.” While Butler’s anti-Israeli activities are not placed in the context of repeated acts and attacks of their kind, the objection to her award is specifically identified with the reaction to Günter Grass’s abominable attack on Israel in faux poetic form, “What Must Be Said.” And the reaction to Grass is described as “vicious.”
“Amid the uproar,” we are told, “Grass expressed his frustration that criticism of Israel is often equated with anti-Semitism.”
Impenetrable: The Hollow Rhetoric of Judith Butler
That title appears a contradiction. We think of the impenetrable as dense, so thick and compacted it cannot be pierced. But what is hollow is also impenetrable, differently, for there is nothing to pierce. The projectile, the probing argument, successful, smashes into density and destroys some part of it, alters the rest. In a hollow space, the molecules part like an undulation in air and reform themselves, after the traceless passage, around the same space. Nothing is changed.
Such is the rhetoric of Judith Butler, and are the ethics that are the product of that rhetoric, that are – in the language of that rhetoric – essentiallyrhetoricized. Butlers’s enmity toward Israel, and the argument she makes to justify that enmity, must be understood as another empty wind in the greater hollow space in which it blows. Butler writes in defense, in fact, not of her argument, but of herself – a telling distinction – that while many criticize her, with her impending Adorno Prize, for support of BDS, she is criticized from the left, on the contrary, for rejecting violence.
It is true: I do not endorse practices of violent resistance and neither do I endorse state violence, cannot, and never have. This view makes me perhaps more naïve than dangerous, but it is my view. [Emphasis in the original]
This is not merely a pathetic defense, but a contemptible one. A grown woman, an internationally honored scholar who thrusts her ideas challengingly into world political debate, defends herself on the basis of not just naiveté, contritely, but of self-conscious naiveté, willingly. Of innocence, naiveté’s younger sibling, Graham Greene once wrote, in an ironically, historically counter political context, in The Quiet American:
Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.
As naiveté claimed by one so well-schooled, it is more the leper having thrown the bell away.
So distinguished a mind cannot, apparently, conceive herself naïve and dangerous, dangerous because naïve, even as she resists the obvious recognition that someone such as she has no right to be naïve. So distinguished a mind retreats to naiveté, makes manifestly no argument, and declares, like one entirely unschooled, simply: “it is my view.”
It may be that binationalism is an impossibility, but that mere fact does not suffice as a reason to be against it.
So Butler recognizes in her thought and in the political programs she advocates none of the compulsion of the possible, of reality. One may simply advocate ideas without the obligation to contemplate their effect on reality, for if they are, indeed, impossible, they are impossible for reasons: reality rejects them, and if reality rejects them, there are consequences to the rejection. Many people, living in the world beyond the hermeneutical and hermetic enclosure of rhetoricized reality recognize what those consequences might be. But as Richard Landes notes,
Butler and her post-modern, non-violent performers, however, cannot [commit the violence]. They can only empower the forces that seek, openly, to do so violently. They can only identify with aggressors. Would she intentionally stir up genocidal forces against her people? God Forbid! Would she do so in practice by signing petitions and writing denunciations of that allude to a comparison between Israel and the Nazis, and by hanging with people like the gang at Mondoweiss, who have no problem making the analogy? Yes. But as long as it’s not an intentional murder, her hands are clean.
Not surprisingly, so solipsistic a moral approach to the real world of people, expresses itself with striking self-absorption. In her essay of 2000 words, “I” appears 50 times, often followed by irrelevant (but apparently not to her) personal information. The consequences of her deeds, what Summers referred to as the effects of her performance on her own people, apparently carry no weight in her moral calculus. Her good intentions absolve all accidental sins, defend from all criticism.
To the point, an earlier book of Butler’s, of moral philosophy, is entitled Giving an Account of Oneself. Not an account of one’s ideas, of the occurrences in the world that one enables, but of oneself. Of course, the title emerges from Butler’s whole project of accounting for the nature of subjectivity, of the “I” that stands in relation to itself and in moral relation to others, but it would hardly become the critical theorist who is Butler, ever examining the self that is constructed of – and imposed upon one – by language to dismiss the implications of the language she uses.
The opening sentence of Giving an Account of Oneself is
I would like to begin by considering how it might be possible to pose the question of moral philosophy, a question that has to do with conduct and, hence, with doing….
There is thus an apparent recognition of the obvious purpose of ethical consideration, to enable real, right action and not merely produce ideologically whole but detached theorizing (the fact of impossibility does not suffice…). Pages later, much to the fundamental point of Butler’s general post-structural theorizing, she writes,
When a universal precept cannot, for social reasons, be appropriated or when – indeed, for social reasons – it must be refused, the universal precept itself becomes a site of contest, a theme and an object of democratic debate. That is to say, it loses its status as precondition of democratic debate; if it did operate there as a precondition, as a sine qua non of participation, it would impose its violence as a form of exclusionary violence.
That is to say, when a universal value is judged inappropriate to a local, i.e. not a universal, social context, and is thus rejected, it is no longer a universal value.
That is to say, with application to Israel-Palestine, that the liberal democratic values by which some might wish to judge the historical and contemporary records of the parties to the conflict are invalidated because others, Butler among them, have constructed an inverted ideology of power that renders the universal short-circuited. You are on 120 volts, as it were; they are on 240. Butler is limning Theodor Adorno in these lines, but the foundation for argument is hers.
Do not trouble yourself about the logical coherence of this assertion. As Butler’s prose goes, the excerpt is actually rather lucid, and already we see that when one is able to pierce the smokescreen of impenetrable jargon, one finds nothing there. Confronted by real world application the critical theorizing explodes in contradiction and self-negation – on the very basic level of upholding real justice and not merely advancing ideologized constructs of it.
Butler’s notoriously obscure and awful writing is only among the worst examples of a common malady – theory-talk that when it descends in hawk-like gyres to the ground of reality reveals its predatory nature: Jean Baudrillard, after 9/11, writing of the “twin-suicide” of the towers of which everyone had dreamed; Slavoj Zizek, welcoming the United States to the “Desert of the Real.” When Butler similarly descends to political defense and apologetics, and attempts actually clearly to communicate, a different kind of empty cant reveals the hollow vessel that delivers it.
Butler is at pains to do three things in her Mondoweiss defense: argue against charges of anti-Semitism, defend herself against accusations of praise for Hezbollah and Hamas, and reassert her social justice bona fides. She fails on all three counts.
I do not mean on the first count that Butler is manifestly anti-Semitic. She is not, and the question is never one of knowing another’s heart. However, to the degree that Butler makes any genuine argument at all in her defense, and it is a low degree, her attempt, as is now customary for her, is to coopt the history and nature of Judaism, and its meaning – limiting it, for instance, to Disaporic rather than national Judaism – so that she may embrace the Judaism she prefers, reject the other, and excuse herself, she thinks, of the anti-Semitic charge.
Such is Butler’s presiding strategy throughout her theorizing. She rhetorically disappears difference by analyzing it as a product of language and performance. The social problems engaged by political feminism are for Butler the product not of any actual human difference, but of the social constructs of the feminine and masculine. Queer is not a challenge to the oppressive power of the normative – as the original politicized embrace of the term declared; for Butler, it is a subversion of the very idea of normativity. Normal and queer are constructs too. Similarly, the problem with Israel is not that it is Jewish; the problem is that – by method of Judith Butler’s critique and theoretical disappearing act – it is, voila, not Jewish. So saith Judith Butler.
Then there is the fact that Butler chose to publish her defense at Mondoweiss, a blog that, in the psychodrama of its originating authorship, and in much of its commenting community, is deeply, personally and politically anti-Semitic. Does Butler think that because she steers clear of Stormfront she is all right, or is it that Stormfront is on the right, and Butler, from Mondoweiss to Hamas, cannot perceive anti-Semitism on what she conceives to be the left?
Writes Butler of the anti-Semitic charge,
The charge refuses to consider the view, debate its validity, consider its forms of evidence, and derive a sound conclusion on the basis of listening to reason. The charge is not only an attack on persons who hold views that some find objectionable, but it is an attack on reasonable exchange, on the very possibility of listening and speaking in a context where one might actually consider what another has to say.
We see here and throughout that when Butler permits herself to be readily understood, she is preposterous and dishonest. Refusal to consider and debate? An attack on reasonable exchange – on listening and speaking? Butler knows full well that there are almost countless numbers of people – intellectual and scholarly peers and others – who consider and debate hers and like ideas regularly, who listen and speak in response, and refute, and who would argue with and debate her and the ideas she promotes without hesitation. Her accusation of silencing dissent is a completely insupportable, cant response, because she has no better. The charge of anti-Semitism is both separate and the same, and it is made, when it is made, for preceding cause, not in order to preclude debate.
Butler’s defense against the accusation of praise for Hamas and Hezbollah is the usual weasely evasion, most reminiscent, currently, of her political opposite, Todd Akin’s “I used the wrong words in the wrong way” when referring to “legitimate rape.”
I think: Yes, understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important. That does not stop us from being critical of certain dimensions of both movements. … So again, a critical, important engagement. I mean, I certainly think it should be entered into the conversation on the Left. I similarly think boycotts and divestment procedures are, again, an essential component of any resistance movement.
What she says now:
My remarks on Hamas and Hezbollah have been taken out of context …. I was asked by a member of an academic audience … whether I thought Hamas and Hezbollah belonged to “the global left” and I replied with two points. My first point was merely descriptive: those political organizations define themselves as anti-imperialist, and anti-imperialism is one characteristic of the global left, so on that basis one could describe them as part of the global left. My second point was then critical: as with any group on the left, one has to decide whether one is for that group or against that group, and one needs to critically evaluate their stand. I do not accept or endorse all groups on the global left.
Little of what Butler now claims is true. Her remarks were not “merely descriptive.” The two organizations she described not just as left, but as, actually, “progressive,” and Butler called it “important” to so understand them. (And why, anyway, would she cede public and valued political designation of two violent terrorist organizations to the organizations themselves?) She did not offer the choice of support for the groups – and why endorse even the choice? – but called understanding Hamas and Hezbollah as progressive, left social movements to be a “critical, important engagement.”
A fascinating feature of the moral imagination is that even the brilliant manufacturer of abstruse ethical theory will, when cornered by natural and acculturated conscience, seek to escape the mirror she finds there. The extended “as-a-Jew” recitative that opens her defense, and that culminates with that term, is followed by the announced imperative, for Butler, “to speak out against injustice and to struggle against all forms of racism,” as “someone who wishes to affirm a Judaism that is not identified with state violence, and that is identified with a broad-based struggle for social justice.”
“All forms of racism,” “state violence,” broad-based “struggle for social justice.” All meaningful terms representing real ideals, except for when they are reduced to cant – to trite formulations that drop from the tongue, as they do among her fellows, like ritualized epithets. Butler ends her account of herself by attempting to substantiate the “all forms” of racism and the “broad base” of the struggle for social justice, but the effort is a fraud, a gross misapplication of terms. Demonstrably, she does no such thing – for where are her critiques of broad-based Arab anti-Semitism, her supportive attendance at conferences opposing misogyny and homophobia in the Muslim world?
State violence? Where in the world is there not state violence? Where is Judith Butler vocalizing in support of the self-determination of the Kurdish people against their violent suppression by Iran, Syria, and Turkey? On what basis does one choose one’s commitments, and how will one verbally scurry to mask that basis?
When Butler was ridiculed in 1998, chosen by the journal Philosophy and Literature to receive First Prize in its Bad Writing Competition, she wrote what was an earlier defense of herself in a New York Times Op-Ed. In it, she commits a telling confusion of terms. She argues that “ordinary language” is expressive of “common sense,” common sense itself too often (always?) representative of hegemonic and oppressive power structures. So, conveniently, a theory is defended by which impenetrable language is the marker of radical critique. Intelligible language is confused with ordinary language, the complex with the obscure, clarity of expression with common sense. By just such a rhetorical strategy is the reality of who one is, and what one really stands for, disguised.
But there is no hiding in plain sight. In plain sight, when Judith Butler comes into it, we see right through her.
I wrote the other day how most physicists who speak of it are uncomfortable with the label “God” particle for the Higgs boson particle, the existence of which scientists at CERN confirmed on Wednesday. The rather casual, sensationalistic origin of the label clarifies that discomfort, as does, I suspect, unsurprising scientific worry that too conventional religious thinking might make of the word a matter light years from what even a sympathetic eye should see in it. In my post, I offer a more serious argument for the neutral B-meson as something like a “God” particle. But none of this is the point today beyond the discomfort so many scientists have with language that suggests anything about the world beyond the interactive relationships of its particle matter.
So much of life is in the immaterial interstices, and the God fearing scientist, so brilliant in the calculation, within the laboratory, is just another fearful and arrogant human being on a country road or a city street. Maybe more arrogant, for there is that tendency to think the calculation the sum of life, the laboratory the center of the universe.
So it is that fellow blogger Bella Center informed me yesterday that British mathematician Peter Higgs, suddenly now quite famous, after experimental confirmation of his theorized particle, is a supporter of the BDS campaign against Israel. Word first broke widely, though not blaringly, on the Daily Beast’s Open Zion page. There isn’t a great deal to be found on the internet, not even a link to Open Zion’s source, but, of course, the BDS’ers think it confirmation of some truth.
Among the momentous immaterial elements of life with which physics is powerless to aid us is in understanding the distinction between facts and the truth, and how we may gain any grasp of the latter. To quote my friend Bella, it’s complicated. For instance, if you happen to read the Raw Story two days ago about the “Shy physicist whose name lives on in Higgs boson,” you would have learned of Higgs and his collaborators that
[t]he trio had shared the 2004 Wolf Prize, one of the top awards in physics.
Now there is an apparent truth, encoded in publicly disseminated news media. If it were the sum of your reading on the subject, it would constitute an alternative, because incomplete, universe, as we learn from PhyicaPlus, the online journal of the Israel Physical Society (emphasis added) that
[a]lthough the British scientist Peter Higgs gave his name to the Higgs field and Higgs particle, at least two other physicists, François Englert and Robert Brout, had a part in the discovery. All three were awarded the prestigious Wolf Prize by Israel’s Knesset in 2004. Higgs boycotted the ceremony for political reasons.
Of course, we do not learn even in that Israeli journal what the “political reasons” were, perhaps because the writer here was more fully inhabiting his physics than his Israeli universe.
We can learn only a little more from consulting Wikipedia, where the extent of Higgs’s political activities, is thus reported:
Higgs was an activist in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) while in London and later in Edinburgh, but resigned his membership when the group extended its remit from campaigning against nuclear weapons to campaigning against nuclear power too. He was a Greenpeace member until the group opposed genetically modified organisms.
Higgs was awarded the 2004 Wolf Prize in Physics (sharing it with Brout and Englert), but he refused to fly to Jerusalem to receive the award because it was a state occasion attended by the then president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, and Higgs is opposed to Israel’s actions in Palestine.
No indication – as is so with many other British adversaries of Israel and BDS proponents these days – that the political situation in any other nation in the world has ever gained Higg’s interest or provoked him to discriminatory and exclusionary action. Nonetheless, it is reported in the Jerusalem Post that “Israelis rejoice over discovery of ‘God particle.’”
Knesset Science and Technology Committee chairman Ronit Tirosh said Wednesday that she was “very proud of the contribution of Israeli scientists [to] the discovery.”
Astrophysicists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Tel Aviv University, the Technion-Institute of Technology in Haifa and the Hebrew University of Jerusalemhave been active in the massive effort, which involved CERN’s particle accelerator – the largest machine in the world, costing over $10 billion.
Prof. Yaron Oz, dean of TAU’s faculty for exact sciences, who worked on CERN’s multinational team at Geneva for four years and has made numerous visits since, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview that the huge facility “is like the UN should be. Everybody is devoted to making the discovery as a team, without any politics or vested interests. I worked even with Iranians there, and there was never a harsh word between us. We all just wanted to understand. It has already proven that the nations of the world can function harmoniously for joint targets.”
Ah, well, you know what Bella says, and the particular electron-volt weight for what all this represents and how it gets calculated has not yet materialized at CERN. I must close, though – really, I must – by faithfully reporting what else I came across, just by the way, from following seemingly relevant links, while digging into the cyberspace of this material. It, too, is part of the universe, part of the truth, however, in the end, it will all completely add up: Elie Wiesel Cons the World, by Carolyn Yeager.