Judith Butler, BDS, and Threats to Academic Freedom

Judith Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of ZionismJudith Butler’s appearance last week at an event at Brooklyn College with Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement campaigner Omar Barghouti elicited controversy regarding both Israeli policies and the limits or threats to academic freedom.

In her recently published book Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, Butler engages a Jewish philosophical positions to articulate a critique of political Zionism. Butler has also been a supporter of the BDS movement and the event drew protestations from Alan Dershowitz, several New York City Council members, the New York Daily News , and a variety of Pro-Israel groups, who called for the event to be cancelled. Going further, several Council members threatened funding to Brooklyn College if the event was held.

This in turn led a diverse group of people and institutions, ranging from Mayor Bloomberg to the MLA, who supported Brooklyn College’s right to hold the event. To not hold it, they argued, would be a threat to academic freedom.

The Nation has published Butler’s remarks at Brooklyn College in full. In the following excerpt, Butler comments on the controversy:

The arguments made against this very meeting took several forms, and they were not always easy for me to parse. One argument was that BDS is a form of hate speech, and it spawned a set of variations: it is hate speech directed against either the State of Israel or Israeli Jews, or all Jewish people. If BDS is hate speech, then it is surely not protected speech, and it would surely not be appropriate for any institution of higher learning to sponsor or make room for such speech. Yet another objection, sometimes uttered by the same people who made the first, is that BDS does qualify as a viewpoint, but as such, ought to be presented only in a context in which the opposing viewpoint can be heard as well. There was yet a qualification to this last position, namely, that no one can have a conversation on this issue in the US that does not include a certain Harvard professor, but that spectacular argument was so self-inflationary and self-indicting, that I could only respond with astonishment.

So in the first case, it is not a viewpoint (and so not protected as extra-mural speech), but in the second instance, it is a viewpoint, presumably singular, but cannot be allowed to be heard without an immediate refutation. The contradiction is clear, but when people engage in a quick succession of contradictory claims such as these, it is usually because they are looking for whatever artillery they have at their disposal to stop something from happening. They don’t much care about consistency or plausibility.

Many critics of BDS have called the organization anti-Semitic and in the following excerpt, Butler addresses that argument in the following:

Only if we accept the proposition that the state of Israel is the exclusive and legitimate representative of the Jewish people would a movement calling for divestment, sanctions and boycott against that state be understood as directed against the Jewish people as a whole. Israel would then be understood as co-extensive with the Jewish people. There are two major problems with this view. First, the state of Israel does not represent all Jews, and not all Jews understand themselves as represented by the state of Israel. Secondly, the state of Israel should be representing all of its population equally, regardless of whether or not they are Jewish, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.

[T]he Jewish people extend beyond the state of Israel and the ideology of political Zionism. The two cannot be equated. Honestly, what can really be said about “the Jewish people” as a whole? Is it not a lamentable stereotype to make large generalizations about all Jews, and to presume they all share the same political commitments? They—or, rather, we—occupy a vast spectrum of political views, some of which are unconditionally supportive of the state of Israel, some of which are conditionally supportive, some are skeptical, some are exceedingly critical, and an increasing number, if we are to believe the polls in this country, are indifferent. In my view, we have to remain critical of anyone who posits a single norm that decides rights of entry into the social or cultural category determining as well who will be excluded.

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