At the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) conference at Brooklyn College, which turned out to be a non-event after an acrimonious media storm, Judith Butler’s speech was riddled with inaccuracies and generalizations. Gershom Gorenberg, in this article at the Daily Beast, chronicled a few of her errors: her definition of all Druze and Bedouin as Palestinian, her assertion that there exists codified discrimination against mizrahim, and her claim that Palestinian citizens of Israel are barred from serving in the IDF. But more than mischaracterizing and misrepresenting important details of the conflict, Butler demonstrated that she is not truly part of the discourse of Israel/Palestine. She exhibited neither familiarity with the debates that have been raging within the Jewish community nor awareness of the discussions within Palestinian civil society. In her speech, her language is that of an outsider looking in. Gorenberg, a writer living in Israel characterizes Butler’s position well when he writes, “but when a prominent critic offers such a distorted picture, she only make it easier for Israeli supporters of the status quo to dismiss foreign criticisms.” Despite her occasional usage of the word “we” when referring to Jews, Butler’s connection to the Israel-Palestinian conflict is that of a foreign critic. And while she recently published a book on the Jewish critique of Zionism, Butler does not cite a single Jewish critic of Israel or opponent of the occupation and barely mentions ethical concepts from within the Jewish tradition in her speech. While causation is always hard to prove, it’s reasonable to argue that her ignorance and lack of nuance stems from her distance from the issue, and not the other way around.
According to her remarks, Butler’s opposition to Zionism ostensibly stems from her belief that “the state of Israel does not represent all Jews, and not all Jews understand themselves as represented by the state of Israel.” It is her desire, and mine too, to divorce herself from a militant and oppressive state. But to assert that it is possible to do so now is to ignore reality. If Butler were to enter into the synagogue to which she claims proud membership, she would surely be confronted with an uncomfortable realization that the same emblems that adorn the sanctuary adorn the sides of Israeli fighter jets, tanks, municipal buildings, and flags.
The state of Israel has taken the role as the representative of Jewish people on the world stage, whether we like it or not. When Israel takes military action against the Palestinians, oftentimes it isn’t just the Israeli and Palestinian populations that get drawn into the conflict; Jews around the world get drawn in, too. In America and Europe, particularly on the left, the line between criticism of Israel and denunciation of Jews often blurs, not due to anti-Semitism but due to the impossibility of divorcing Jewishness from the existing state of Israel. A state that uses Jewish iconography as decorations for its war machines naturally draws Jews from outside of Israel into the political and ethical equation.
However, the way Butler expresses her criticism of the state Israel reveals her orientation with regards to the political and ethical debate – she is outside of it. Butler argues for BDS as a Jew, but she does not make a Jewish argument. The difference between the two arguments is the difference between an outsider’s criticism of a foreign culture or society and a self-criticism of a member of a specific culture or society. Since Butler’s argument is of the former, rather than the latter, her inclusion of herself within the Jewish “we” feels inauthentic. When she speaks about Jewish Israelis, she speaks of a “they” and not a “we.” Her opposition to Zionism is not one that comes from a place of identification with a side in the conflict; it comes from a rejection of the call to identify with a side in the conflict. And in doing so, she renders her argument far less compelling. She has nothing to gain or lose from the resolution of the conflict.
In her distanced position from the conflict, Butler mistakes BDS for an end in and of itself rather than a means to ending the occupation. The goal of BDS is to end the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, not just to send a message. She argues “the point of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is to withdraw funds and support from major financial and cultural institutions that support the operations of the state and its military” to send “a message that a growing number of people in the international community will not be a complicit with the occupation.” Butler makes the mistake of many other international activists who, in their efforts to make the world a better place, end up focusing more on clearing their consciences than on tangibly improving the lives of the people they claim to care about. More than cleansing the ethical palates of international activists, BDS is about altering an unacceptable status quo in Israel and the Occupied Territories – to end a conflict that has gone on for far too long and claimed too many innocent lives.
The value of BDS is as a tactic, not a goal. It is a way of making an Israeli public, which has grown complacent and comfortable with the occupation, feel the pressure from the international community to end it. I remember, several months ago, sitting on the roof of a friend’s house in a south Jerusalem neighborhood, looking over the parts of the city, which were once Palestinian homes that have now been settled by Jews. Her response, when I asked her if she thought BDS was an effective way of fighting the occupation, was that Elvis Costello’s refusal to play a concert in Tel Aviv is not going to turn Israelis against the occupation. But rising food prices, growing international isolation, and increasing disruptions in the daily routine can instill in the Israeli population the sense of urgency required to change government policy. The existing reality cannot be sustained, and the complicit population must pay a heavier and heavier price until action is taken to change it.