Since the enemies of Israel neither slumber nor sleep, it should come as no surprise that at the center of the current storm over the acquiescence of Brooklyn College in an academically sponsored campus event designed to expel Israel from the family of nations stands Professor Judith Butler of the University of California.
Butler is to be one of the featured speakers at the February 7 rally, sponsored by Brooklyn’s Department of Political Science and other “activist” groups, on behalf of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) campaign, an offshoot of the longstanding Arab boycott of Israel (which was declared illegal by Congress in 1977).
Although she had gained considerable attention in academia for promoting the notion that masculinity and femininity are merely social “constructions” and for winning, in 1998, first prize in the annual Bad Writing contest of the journal Philosophy and Literature, it was not until a decade ago that Butler achieved national prominence as an anti-Israel agitator.
In September 2002 Harvard president Lawrence Summers had charged that “at Harvard and …universities across the country” faculty-initiated petitions were calling “for the university to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the university’s endowment to be invested.”
In August 2003 Butler, already a signatory of nearly every major anti-Israel petition, including the “divestment” one, circulating on American campuses, published a rebuttal of Summers called “No, It’s Not Antisemitic” in the London Review of Books. Summers had chivalrously gone out of his way to say that “Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent”; to annihilate this distinction was a primary aim of Butler’s counter-attack. Using the tu quoque (you too) strategy, she called Summers’s accusations “a blow against academic freedom, in effect, if not intent.” His words have had “a chilling effect on political discourse.”
Apparently the chill had not taken hold at Harvard itself, which that November would confer honors on Oxford’s Tom Paulin, famous for urging that Jews in Judea/Samaria “should be shot dead.”
Butler perfunctorily assented to Summers’s recommendation that anti-Semitism be condemned, but she seemed incapable either of recognizing it in such (to her) mild “public criticisms” as economic warfare against Israel or calls for its dismantling or assaults on Zionism itself or interfering with suicide bombers. Indeed, she saw no difference between Jews intentionally murdered by terrorists and Arabs accidentally killed by Israeli efforts to repel the murderers.
Butler asserted that nobody examining the divestment petitions could take them as condoning anti-Semitism. “We are asked to conjure a listener who attributes an intention to the speaker: so-and-so has made a public statement against the Israeli occupation, and this must mean that so-and-so hates Jews.”
But Summers was perfectly correct in stating that one need not “hate Jews” in order to perform actions or utter words that are “anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.”
Take a well-known case: when Dickens wrote Oliver Twist he harbored no hatred of Jews or intention to harm them. He said of Fagin: “He’s such an out and outer I don’t know what to make of him.” The reason for Dickens’s puzzlement was that he did not indeed “make” Fagin, and therefore didn’t know what to make of him. Fagin was ready-made for Dickens by the folklore of Christendom, which had fixed the Jew in the role of Christ-killer, agent of Satan, inheritor of Judas, thief, fence, corrupter of the young; to which list of attributes Butler and her comrades now add “Zionist imperialist and occupier.”
Has Oliver Twist often been “anti-Semitic in effect”? Of course – or does Butler think it is for their concern over the homeless in Victorian England that Arab publishers keep cheap translations of the novel in print?
Butler’s ultimate use of the tu quoque strategy was to make Summers himself guilty of what he attacked. Why? Because he assumed that Jews can only be victims. Apparently the hundreds murdered and the thousands mutilated by Arab terrorists between September 27, 2000 and the time Butler published her essay were not sufficient to meet her stringent requirements for (Jewish) victim status.
But if Israelis were not the victims of Palestinian aggression, why did Jewish schools in Jerusalem require protection by armed guards while Arab schools in Nazareth did not? Why was getting on a bus in Jerusalem or going to a cafe in Haifa a form of Russian roulette, far more dangerous than prancing about as a “human shield” for Yasir Arafat?
What Butler’s polemic left out was even more blatant than what it included. It omitted history altogether, torturing a text and omitting context. Did it never occur to Butler that the divestment effort is the latest installment of the decades-old Arab economic boycott of Israel?
Equally egregious was the omission of context that is compulsory for those who have made the “Palestinian cause” the cornerstone of campus liberalism. The “occupation” they bemoan did not precede and cause Arab hatred and violence; it was Arab hatred and violence that led to “occupation.”
But the crucial omission from this essay by somebody who had built a career by insisting on the political implications of language was precisely the political implications of the language of advocates of divestment. The Harvard/MIT divestment petition that Butler championed was promoted at MIT by Noam Chomsky, a person who would be rendered almost speechless on the subject of Israel if deprived of the epithet “Nazi”; it was promoted at Harvard by professors calling Israel a “pariah” state.
Butler was herself among the “First Signatories” of a July 28, 2003 “Stop the Wall” petition that uses the Israeli-Nazi equation beloved of nearly all denigrators of the Zionist enterprise (going back to British official circles in Cairo in 1941) in asserting that “concrete, barbed wire and electronic fortifications whose precedents…belong to the totalitarian tradition” were transforming the Israel “‘defense forces'” and indeed “Israeli citizens themselves into a people of camp wardens.”
So it would seem that, to quote Butler herself, “Language plays an important role in shaping and attuning our…understanding of social and political realities” – except when it happens to be the anti-Semitic language that demonizes Israel as the devil’s experiment station, black as gehenom and the pit of hell.Edward Alexander
About the Author: Edward Alexander is professor emeritus of English at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of a number of books including the just-released “Jews Against Themselves”; “The Jewish Idea and Its Enemies”; “The Jewish Wars”; “The State of the Jews”; and “The Holocaust and the War of Ideas.”
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