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.
About the Author: Edward Alexander is professor emeritus in the English department at the University of Washington and the author of a number of books including “The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal” (Transaction, 2012).
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