Judith Butler: Clear thinker

Despite a campaign to silence her. philosopher Judith Butler spoke at Brooklyn College in February 2013. This is an edited version of some of her remarks

Why would a non-violent movement to achieve basic political rights for Palestinians be understood as anti-Semitic? Surely, there is nothing about the basic rights themselves that constitute a problem. They include equal rights of citizenship for current inhabitants; the end to the occupation, and the rights of unlawfully displaced persons to return to their lands and gain restitution for their losses., I want to ask, why would a collective struggle to use economic and cultural forms of power to compel the enforcement of international laws be considered anti-Semitic? It would be odd to say that they are anti-Semitic to honor internationally recognized rights to equality, to be free of occupation and to have unlawfully appropriated land and property restored. I know that this last principle makes many people uneasy, but there are several ways of conceptualizing how the right of return might be exercised lawfully such that it does not entail further dispossession.

For those who say that exercising internationally recognized rights is anti-Semitic, or becomes anti-Semitic in this context, they must mean either that a) its motivation is anti-Semitic or b) its effects are anti-Semitic. I take it that no one is actually saying that the rights themselves are anti-Semitic, since they have been invoked by many populations in the last decades, including Jewish people dispossessed and displaced in the aftermath of the second world war. Is there really any reason we should not assume that Jews, just like any other people, would prefer to live in a world where such internationally recognized rights are honored? It will not do to say that international law is the enemy of the Jewish people, since the Jewish people surely did not as a whole oppose the Nuremburg trials, or the development of human rights law. In fact, there have always been Jews working alongside non-Jews—not only to establish the courts and codes of international law, but in the struggle to dismantle colonial regimes, opposing any and all legal and military powers that seek systematically to undermine the conditions of political self-determination for any population.

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.

So the first critical and normative claim that follows is that the state of Israel should be representing the diversity of its own population. Indeed, nearly 25 percent of Israel’s population is not Jewish, and most of those are Palestinian, although some of them are Bedouins and Druze. If Israel is to be considered a democracy, the non-Jewish population deserves equal rights under the law, as do the Mizrachim (Arab Jews) who represent over 30 percent of the population. Presently, there are at least twenty laws that privilege Jews over Arabs within the Israeli legal system. The 1950 Law of Return grants automatic citizenship rights to Jews from anywhere in the world upon request, while denying that same right to Palestinians who were forcibly dispossessed of their homes in 1948 or subsequently as the result of illegal settlements and redrawn borders.

Human Rights Watch has compiled an extensive study of Israel’s policy of “separate, not equal” schools for Palestinian children. Moreover, as many as 100 Palestinian villages in Israel are still not recognized by the Israeli government, lacking basic services (water, electricity, sanitation, roads, etc.) from the government. Palestinians are barred from military service, and yet access to housing and education still largely depends on military status. Families are divided by the separation wall between the West Bank and Israel, with few forms of legal recourse to rights of visitation and reunification. The Knesset debates the “transfer” of the Palestinian population to the West Bank, and the new loyalty oath requires that anyone who wishes to become a citizen pledge allegiance to Israel as Jewish and democratic, thus eliding once again the non-Jewish population and binding the full population to a specific and controversial, if not contradictory, version of democracy.

No law of Return without the right of return

Let us consider, then, go back to the right of return, which constitutes the controversial third prong of the BDS platform. The law of return is extended to all of us who are Jewish who live in the diaspora, which means that were it not for my politics, I too would be eligible to become a citizen of that state. At the same time, Palestinians in need of the right of return are denied the same rights? If someone answers that “Jewish demographic advantage” must be maintained, one can query whether Jewish demographic advantage is policy that can ever be reconciled with democratic principles. If one responds to that with “the Jews will only be safe if they retain their majority status,” the response has to be that any state will surely engender an opposition movement when it seeks to maintain a permanent and disenfranchised minority within its borders, fails to offer reparation or return to a population driven from their lands and homes, keeps over four million people under occupation without rights of mobility, due process and political self-determination, and another 1.6 million under siege in Gaza, rationing of food, administering unemployment, blocking building materials to restore bombed homes and institutions, intensifying vulnerability to military bombardment resulting in widespread injury and death.

If we conclude that those who participate in such an opposition movement do so because they hate the Jews, we have surely failed to recognize that this is an opposition to oppression, to the multi-faceted dimensions of a militarized form of settler colonialism that has entailed subordination, occupation and dispossession. Any group would oppose that condition, and the state that maintains it, regardless of whether that state is identified as a Jewish state or any other kind. Resistance movements do not discriminate against oppressors, though sometimes the language of the movement can use discriminatory language, and that has to be opposed. However, it is surely cynical to claim that the only reason a group organizes to oppose its own oppression is that it bears an inexplicable prejudice or racist hatred against those who oppress them. We can see the torque of this argument and the absurd conclusions to which it leads: if the Palestinians did not hate the Jews, they would accept their oppression by the state of Israel! If they resist, it is a sign of anti-Semitism!